Why we shouldn’t reward children for good attendance at school

This is a rant – prepare yourself!

If you have a child in school, you might understand the constant haranguing they give you about attendance. At the end of last term, I got a note saying that my son had a 97.13% attendance rate (or something like that – they definitely did it to two decimal points) . It said that they wanted to remind me about how important attendance is. I was annoyed by this. His slightly less than perfect attendance record was because of illness – one day for a tummy bug and another for an ongoing investigation for which I provided the school with a paediatrician’s note.

To my ongoing frustration, at every school assembly, they go through each class in the school and announce their attendance rates. Then, the class with the best attendance gets a trophy! At the end of term, pupils with perfect attendance get to stand up in front of the school to be applauded.

I’m aware that Ofsted sets a target of 95% attendance for schools, and schools who don’t work to improve attendance can be penalised. But surely the strategy of rewarding the children is not only completely useless, but also dreadfully unfair for the children?

First of all, many children have less than perfect attendance because of illness. Particularly in the infant school years, bugs are rife. So why should children miss out on a reward because they were forced to stay home puking or trying not to scratch their chicken pox?

Worse than that, what if a child has a chronic illness that causes them to miss large amounts of school? How is it fair to make them feel bad about that further by them never being rewarded for good attendance?

It’s not a child’s fault if they’re ill. Not getting sick does not deserve a reward.

Furthermore, surely the attendance targets are meant to mitigate truancy that is caused by parents. But condescending notes and passive aggressive reward schemes at assemblies are not going to fix the problems. If parents, rather than illness, are causing truancy, there are a few likely causes:

  • They’ve gone on a term-time holiday. I personally believe everyone should be allowed these or schools should have different term times to make holidays affordable. But that’s an argument for another post. Anyway, if a fine doesn’t deter parents from term-time holidays, an attendance trophy sure as heck won’t either.
  • Parents are unwell themselves or in some sort of dire straits with their relationships or finances. These parents probably won’t even come to the family assembly to receive their attendance-related browbeating. And they probably won’t read the condescending notes written on tiny slips of paper and stuffed into their child’s bookbag either.
  • Parents actually just don’t care. I think this is probably pretty rare, but it can happen. This sort of parent will not be motivated to change their behaviour by whether their child’s class gets an attendance trophy.

So, in essence, the notes and trophies are completely meaningless gestures meant to appease Ofsted and other onlookers that the school is acting to prevent truancy. They are going for the low-hanging fruit by guilting and worrying engaged and conscientious parents about their children’s rare days of missed school.

True action to prevent truancy that is actually preventable (i.e. not caused by genuine illness) would involve improving the link between school and parents. I think I’m a fairly engaged parent, and I’m extremely eager to support the school in educating my child. But I also often find the school run intimidating and isolating. Everyone’s rushing. Everyone talks to the people they already know and don’t always put on a friendly face.

I can’t imagine how difficult that might be for someone who was truly struggling with personal, health, social or financial issues.

I don’t have a solution for how things can be fixed. But I do think that schools should focus their efforts on working with social services to truly prevent truancy. I also think they should work harder to build a sense of community within the school and a sense of rapport between teachers and students. How about having the odd social occasion that doesn’t involve more bleeding fundraising? I would love to speak to my son’s teachers when we weren’t all busy and running off to the next thing. I don’t even know the teaching assistants’ names.

So, yes, this is a rant. But it’s also an appeal to stop using an ineffective and excluding method to improve attendance. In order to participate in any community, people need to feel like that community is ready to accept and support them. Building such a community is where the real work of improving attendance could be done.

Does your school reward attendance? Do you think it works?

Keep Calm and Carry On Linking Sunday
Two Tiny Hands