What value “100% attendance”?

The middle of the front of a Victorian school building, with an arched front door and a tall arched loft window.Last Sunday I saw a Facebook and blog post by a mother who said her son would not be accepting his award for 100% from his school, which would have meant a trip to a soft-play centre with classmates who had achieved the same. She spelled out her reasons, namely that it rewards luck, which she disagrees with, as those who never missed a day did so partly because of good health which was beyond their control, because it was she who took him to school every morning, and because staying off when you are ill is actually a good thing as it means you do not spread germs around the school. I questioned whether the boy had decided himself not to accept the award or whether she had made that decision for him, but it did provoke a debate both on her blog and on Twitter and Facebook. It has since made it into at least two national news outlets, Metro and the Daily Mirror, so I decided to write my own thoughts on this.

I was at a secondary school (Thomas Moore, a Catholic high school in Purley) for a year (1988-89) which had “excellent attendance” and “100% attendance” certificates each term, as well as whole-year and whole-career 100% attendance certificates. I remember a teacher lecturing us on how the forthcoming term had to be one of “excellent health” as if that was something we had any control over. Our form tutor once told us of an incident whereby a fifth-form (year 11) girl had resisted being sent home when she was sick and the staff wanted her to go home, because she was afraid of losing that all-important award. I don’t know what the illness was or whether everyone involved knew it was neither infectious nor life-threatening; if it had been the Ebola virus, I suspect the incident would have brought infamy to the school that lasted decades. These awards encourage similar attitudes to sickness absence in the world of work; workers are afraid to lose pay or promotion by taking time off, while short-sighted managers might be inclined to punish the sick worker for causing a temporary slowdown when they may have prevented a much bigger problem by staying home with their germs. In addition, British school customs tend to be copied in parts of the world that were formerly British colonies, which is why children in Kenya miss out on school because their parents cannot afford uniforms; we would not want a major epidemic to be the result of a child attending school when infectious to make sure they kept their attendance up.

Some might say that such awards should make allowances for those who miss school for legitimate health reasons, but this would only leave other valid reasons, such as a wedding or funeral in the family, and things like truancy, and the first would be just as cruel to the child to force them to miss (particularly a wedding) and coming to school rather than playing truant is just what is expected; it does not merit a certificate. And there are some health concerns that might seem trivial at the time but are later discovered to be more serious; some teenagers struggle with undiagnosed health problems (e.g. ‘period pains’ that turn out to be the result of endometriosis) into adulthood. The bottom line is that rewarding 100% attendance in schools where it is known that some cannot achieve this for health reasons is cruel to those who can’t, particularly if they make a huge effort to keep up with their schoolwork. Worse, some parents reported in the comments to that entry that their children’s whole classes had missed out on rewards for attendance because of their health-related absences, and the others were told, which resulted in their being bullied. That’s simply beyond the pale.

Finally, there are some children whose attendance is excellent but whose behaviour is dreadful and of whom the teachers and other pupils might wish to see less. A bully who bunks off school really does everyone a favour, even if he causes a nuisance (or worse) elsewhere. I got one excellent and one 100% attendance certificate for the year I was there, but was expelled at the end of the year. (Oddly, despite the story of the fifth-form girl mentioned earlier, my regular trips to see a therapist at King’s College Hospital, which required me to leave school early once a week, did not affect my attendance record.)

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