Recently, I have again found myself having conversations about how to monitor student attendance; specifically, in how to use technology as an aid to this task. Again and again, I reel off my reminders, along with warning stories of failed attempts, about how it is important to understand the problem fully before spending any money.

In the good old days, you sat in class, a teacher called your name, you answered, and they put a tick in a paper register. This took place first thing in the morning and again after lunch. The registers had a pretty, upside-down V next to each person: “/\”. Which, apparently, worked fine for a school where students stay in the same room all day and can only ‘escape’ at lunchtime.

When you hit a larger school, or even college, this all changes. You move rooms, and sometimes sites, all day long. If you’re lucky, you start the day with a form tutor and get an acknowledgement of managing to reach your first destination of the day. Beyond that, it is anyone’s guess as to how they know if you are missing a lesson or not.

These days, we have more reasons to record whether an individual has attended a lesson or not. Let’s take a look at some of these (in no particular order):

  • Funding: for Further Education (proof of attendance is linked to funding claims)
  • Skills: some qualifications require evidence of a minimum number of attendance hours
  • Well-being: we now know a student’s attendance pattern is an indicator of how a student is getting on at an institution

I’m quite sure you could easily add your own reasons to this list.

So, what’s the problem here? Why am I writing about this yet again?

Well, we still haven’t got to the bottom of how to establish the presence of an individual at a given time and place.  Some people tell me, as an institution, they “don’t record attendance”, only for me to prove they do; just not officially and it’s often sporadic. Others show me the latest technology that “does it all”, and yet I can see gaps.

The problem here, people? Attendance recording seems to be one of the most contentious issues facing staff in education. That may be a skewed view, given the conversations I have with people don’t include government policies and wages, but bear with me for a moment.

Why is it so hard to take a register to record attendance?

  • It takes too long
  • Disrupts the lesson
  • I have more important things to do, like teach!
  • If they turn up or not, that’s down to them
  • They are adults

And I’ve heard other reasons but, I can tell you now, very simply, it’s none of those things. It’s simply because nobody has taken the time to talk to the staff about why we all need this data, what the options are for collecting the data and, together, identifying where the gaps are and finding the solutions to fill them.

I’ve learnt, the hard way, to step back from mandating registers should be taken in every lesson to sitting down to discuss with the many people in the institution just what the problems are. I used to think, as we could provide several forms of electronic registers, ‘we have it all covered here. What’s the big problem? Why am I not getting the buy-in from the staff?’ Well, it turns out it was many things, such as:

  • ‘I don’t know who’s who’ / ‘I don’t like calling out names, it disrupts the lesson’
  • ‘I don’t have time, in a one-hour practical session, to do this’
  • ‘How can I take a register in a field with no mobile signal?’
  • ‘I use my own signing-in sheets’

And many more. To be honest this, all threw me a bit. I would have preferred a “we can’t be bothered” response, but that’s not the people you find working in education. They do care. A lot. Especially about their students.

Let take a moment to pick through some of the problems I listed above and look at some possible solutions:

  • Add photos to the registers, so staff can easily see who’s who
  • A faculty/department admin person to assist you
  • Create a printable register to take with you and upload the results later
  • Explain why those bespoke signing-in sheets are not sufficient for the task

It’s a long journey, but well worth it. We can end up introducing new technology over time, mobile readers to take attendance when away from the main sites, reporting solutions, experimenting with smart cards and phones, looking at hybrid approaches, and, during and after this journey, we keep talking to each other.

Do we get it perfect? No. But, as we hit new problems, if we stay open-minded and talk to the staff, we can make sure there are people to help when problems arise and we can keep an eye on new emerging technologies and explore their use together.

So, before you ask me the same question, or you start looking at complicated and expensive solutions, here’s a suggestion. Arrange a meeting with me and some of your staff, let’s talk to them about what’s going on, and, together, we can look at what’s available so that,  when you implement something new, everyone will be on board.