There's more to pupil registers than checking who has turned up for double maths. Neglect them and you could be out of a job, warns Richard Bird.
In the decades after the 1944 Education Act, teachers were trained to treat pupil registers with the care and respect typified by the instruction: "In case of fire, get your register, then get the children out. In that order."
This relic from the 19th century, when schools were paid for each child regularly attending, seemed anachronistic 20 or 30 years ago. Schools got the staff and resources anyway and as the 1960s gave way to the 1970s even the subsidiary need,(to provide adequate evidence for prosecution for truancy, seemed less important. As late as the 1980s, one principal education welfare officer was known to say that truancy was a political construct and prosecution next to unthinkable.
However, this changed when local management of schools (LMS) reinstated the need to have accurate school rolls to ensure funding. Today registers are back with a vengeance and, as some members are finding, they can become a career-ending threat.
Targets, codes and loopholes
One reason for an eager interest in 'register fraud' is the normal vigour and scope of the operation of the Law of Unintended Consequences in a target-driven environment.
Ministers decide to drive down truancy. Targets are set for unauthorised absence. Schools authorise more absences. Unauthorised absences are reduced - though no more children are in school on any given day.
Someone notices. The rules are tightened. Codes are introduced to label correct authorisation then elaborated as new loopholes are discovered. They become as complex as the rules for claiming benefits.
Schools do not always find it easy to ensure that all members of regular staff, let alone supply teachers, fully understand the codes. More pressure is put on. The confusion is further confounded.
As usual, most schools get more or less where they should be; but more or less may not be enough. An investigation into register fraud has been seen, in some quarters, the quick way to get rid of a deputy or to put pressure to resign on a head. The error may be innocent but how do you prove it?
Flexible teaching arrangements make senior leaders more vulnerable. The teacher may know that Monday is Harry's day at the college but doesn't know if he has shown up. The electronic registration system may or may not allow a doubt to be expressed.
She won't know for definite whether Harry made it there until Tuesday morning. If he doesn't get there she may be able to get reliable information from him on Tuesday. She may not. In that case she has to rely on the college.
A large school may have wellorganised support staff responsible for the administration of attendance who follow up all issues. It still depends on the college, the work placement or the other school in the consortium to make sure that things come together.
Even then, will the administrator understand the full implications of the changes to the register or will s/he say to the investigator: "The deputy told me to change the registers, so I did." And where is the evidence that backs up the changes? Is it a piece of paper? An email? A phone call that must have been made but of which there is no record?
Ultimately the responsibility for the register rests with the 'proprietor' of the school. However, the senior leadership has the practical responsibility and will take the consequences. This will particularly be the case where a school is under pressure and attendance is a key target.
The potential for difficulties increases with the new 14-19 regime. Registration is a long way down the list of issues to be tackled by local partnerships but it would be as well to make sure that it is flagged as an issue. Both the despatching institution and the receiving institution may be seen to be fraudulent if the presence of students becomes hazy.
The minimum is absolutely clear procedures, operating as far as possible in real time, meshing with the working practices of the institution where the student is primarily registered. Agreed and consolidated procedures for the authorisation of absences and the alteration of registers need to be established and it would not be a bad idea to have some form of regular audit, perhaps by a governor, to check that the procedures are being followed.
At present the college's role may appear to be only to assist. However, under the regime envisaged by the new Education and Skills Bill, principals, too, may find that audits of roll have a sharper personal edge.
A huge fuss about nothing? The 'disappeared' young women now in forced marriages and the young men in prison whose downward spiral began with truancy might indicate otherwise. And, as we see, registers can be the Achilles' heel which allows the Trojan horse of hostile authority to enter and lay waste your promised land - as it were.
© 2017 Association of School and College Leaders