In any group of parents, no matter what age or experience, nothing seems to get the garbage fire rage burning quite as warmly as the subject of attendance awards. This is not, to be clear, about legal action taken by a local authority against a parent failing to get their child to school regularly. These are the certificates and treats and weekly newsletter trackers and termly celebrations insisted on by schools around the country to improve their attendance figures (regardless of whether they need improvement or not).
Everyone has a terrible story, or has heard a terrible story or has read a terrible story. From children with unavoidable medical appointments excluded from class treats to parents hauled in by the head, the anger proliferates in parks and coffee shops, soft play and living rooms, private comment threads and public forums (here’s a search for ‘attendance’ on Mumsnet, for starters).
Before I get into all the reasons why I personally loathe them, I should emphasise: no one who sends their child into formal schooling has any particular vested interest in stopping them from going there. Genuine, continuous truancy is a serious problem with multiple causes, and it might take state support to help solve it. The actual guidance on attendance for schools doesn’t, on the surface of it, sound remotely unreasonable. We all agree that, in an ideal world, children would not miss school, and disruption to their learning, to the teacher’s planning and schedule and to other kids in the class would be kept to a bare minimum. But to somehow translate all this goodwill into a near-religious fervour around rewards and punishments – generally enacted on the child and not the parents, to whom the statutory guidance applies – is a very good example of why that road paved with good intentions leads where it does.
Many parents who I’ve personally heard or seen talking about attendance also don’t blame the school(s); they blame a system that puts schools under pressure to report numbers that are listed, without nuance, on the government schools information service site. Since the government doesn’t care why students were absent, the cold, hard percentage has the capacity to make a school look like it’s failing its community without actually providing parents with any relevant context at all. It’s simply a number that can be pointed to as it goes up and down and used to cadge favour with voters. And, to use a grown up summary, it sucks hard.
Having acknowledged that, in a perfect world, children would show up every school day, ready to learn, let’s look at all the reasons why attendance reward schemes do precisely nothing to achieve this state of affairs (and can actually undermine it).
All the issues with illness
Here are just a handful of completely plausible health-related scenarios, just off the top of my head, that could unfairly exclude a child from attendance rewards:
- Any actual illness. From a nasty head cold to a sickness bug or full-blown knock-out virus. Kids get these. They really do. Often from other kids who have brought them to school.
- Regular hospital appointments for an ongoing medical condition, that cannot be scheduled by a parent or carer (e.g. hospital visits that are not like ringing the GP ad hoc, or limited availability clinics). But not necessarily such an disruptive long term condition that the family qualifies for any additional support.
- A parent with no network or back up who has a severe temporary physical or mental illness or ongoing disability and therefore is sometimes unable to get their child to school – or to school on time (given that attendance is marked by the register, so just being late can, in theory, get your child marked down as an unauthorised absence). This particularly marks out primary-aged children who generally have no capacity to get themselves to school.
Are we really rewarding children for having a perfect immune system? My daughter’s own school keeps reminding parents to send in children with coughs and colds, since we all have them at this time of year and they can totally cope – and then reminds us to remind them (aged 4-11) to wash their hands regularly because shared germs cause illness. Just like the unbearable martyred trooper who was patient zero in your office, sending sick kids to school is just creating a grim Petri dish of winter viruses, ready to infect and reinfect each other until someone has the sense to let their kid get better before sending them back into the fray.
I will note that I totally understand some parents have no choice is sending their kids in when they’d maybe rather not, given they’ll be penalised with reduced pay for missing work. And for others – like me – it is not as simple as being called to take them home halfway through the day, as we work at some distance from where our children attend school, so a call sometimes has to be made first thing in the morning. But this, for me, is yet more indication that parents are not willfully allowing their children to truant; if they’re off sick, it’s because they’re actually sick. By all means run a public health campaign to educate about serious vs trivial illnesses if you want, but no school should feel obliged to tell parents to ignore their instincts about whether their child is sick enough to attend school or not. We do tend to know our little darlings quite well, and have all pulled enough sickies in our lifetime to spot amateur theatrics.
There is also a wider issue with illness in schools that I think few consider: the other vulnerable populations children come into contact with. When we insist that lots of still-growing people – often with a naturally slapdash attitude towards hygiene – come in and share the love, we forget they (and their teachers) might have to go home to elderly relatives and other members of their family who are immunocompromised (my own mother, who has spent half of this year in hospital, among them).
All the issues with rewards
I am someone who likes a good celebration, certificate or acknowledgement. I believe in marking different kinds of achievement. I even think that sometimes it’s fine to give the ‘you tried’ reward, where it’s encouraging; I still remember with fondness that my school handed out 1st, 2nd, 3rd stickers at sports days, but also gave smiley face stickers to the kids who finished last (I had many). But what does an attendance award actually celebrate? It literally marks the act of showing up. It doesn’t say you showed up ready. It doesn’t say you wanted to be there, and behaved as such. It doesn’t say you gave it your best shot even though egg and spoon races are from the devil. It doesn’t say anything, really, other than you were there to hear the register being called.
I’d much rather see schools rewarding kids for effort – a reward that might be far more valued by a kid from a chaotic background who cannot control when they show up to school or how often, but does their very best when they’re there. I have cherished every certificate that my daughter has brought home for exceptional work, or for developing a particular mindset or approach to school work and community life. I have given the attendance certificates a quick glance and binned them (she doesn’t care about them either; I’m not evil).
I want my kid, and every other kid, to be rewarded for progress they themselves have a role in – for enthusiasm they show and energy they spend. My hustling her out of the door at the right time every morning that she is well enough to show up, which is luckily most mornings, is not a cause for celebration. She had little to do with it, tbh, and I don’t need a pat on the back for doing something that I am fortunate to be able to do without significant obstacles.
The holiday red herring
Ah, the only contentious absence. The one which always seems to devolve into a conversation about whether it was ‘worthwhile’ travel (a nearby city or a sufficiently distant, ‘other’ land) or ‘just a cheaper holiday’ (anywhere with a beach or a theme park). There’s a lot of weird class nonsense bundled up in this one, and of course lots of moral and value judgements (“you don’t need a holiday; I myself haven’t taken time off since 1803, apart from that one weekend in Bognor!”) and complete ignorance of any home life that might not be exactly the same as one’s own – such as the military parent with restricted leave times, or divorced parents who live in different countries to different schedules.
I would agree that the onus here is not on encouraging schools to welcome holidays at random (though it would be great to see fairer pricing around the increased demand in school holidays). However, for those children who have pressing family needs to be away at a particular time, or for whom being absent from school at a particular time is ultimately more enriching than the last week of term’s seemingly endless DVD viewings, head teachers are actually already empowered to grant this on a case by case basis. So it really shouldn’t have any bearing on whether or not the whole attendance circus breaks out the clowns or not.
All the issues with exclusion
I am lucky that I have yet to directly experience the crushing disappointment of a child who has been left out of a trip or party or treat; she might not have received a few weekly certificates when she was off with nasty laryngitis, but we recycle enough paper already. But I’ve heard of kids crying at receiving a less-than-100% certificate at the end of the year, being scared to stay home when ill and we’ve all read the stories about kids who could not help being away not going on the class trip or being left to sit out of a celebration.
Explain to me exactly how this fosters any enthusiasm in trying? If you’re excluded from the party due to circumstances beyond your control, why on earth should you bother making an effort with the circumstances you can affect? I don’t have a teenager yet, but I’ve been a teenager, and I can imagine exactly how well such an sense of rejection would be received.
For the parents who are responsible for getting the kids in on time, this is just enraging. It’s so important for parents to be able to enter into a supportive alliance with their child’s school, and having their kids punished by the school for something they as parents could not do is, frankly, heartbreaking. There’s no trust fostered, no sense of encouragement or of the child actually being nurtured as an individual – even though schools are also assessed on pastoral care.
All the things we should be doing instead
It’s time to stop this obsession with simple tracking for complex issues. Of course schools must have absence policies and government should track trends. But it should never be publicly positioned as a way for parents to assess schools or used by the local authority to twist arms. The use of percentages is misleading for a start since it doesn’t take into account school size (a norovirus outbreak at a small school where kids are crammed in more could disproportionately affect attendance compared to the usual smattering of winter colds in a school four times the size spread over a large campus – and that’s before we account for quality and availability of facilities, number of children with SEN, age of children etc etc etc).
It also doesn’t provide any sense of the reasoning behind absence. We either have to start displaying properly segmented data or at the very least to have the aggregated data presented with clear disclaimers that it does not necessarily directly reflect the performance or actions of the school. I don’t and won’t believe that teachers – by and large incredibly dedicated and frequently overworked and underpaid as it is – will stop caring about whether kids show up. They will not give up making an effort to reward or engage pupils if they don’t have a target hanging round their necks. They already fully embrace the world of carrot; no stick is needed.
I’d also love to see a switch from often rewarding showing up to just rewarding taking part. It’s common sense to me that praising a behaviour that is specific (“you persevered at working through those maths problems”) and in the control of the child is most likely to see a repeat of that behaviour. I’d be very surprised if all schools didn’t already emphasise these achievements, but to do so alongside the festival of presenteeism is muddling and undermining.
So the question is, how do we stop it? Who do we campaign to, and how do we get heard? Surely the frustrated might of a tidal wave of angry parents can end this nonsense and let schools focus on the wonderful work they do rather than drafting admonishing letters to parents.
Where do we start?