An absence of meaning

28th February 1997 at 00:00
In the first of a series providing a platform for headteachers, Ian Valentine says it is time to recognise and reward good attendance. The recent appearance of the Scottish Office's tables for the destinations of school leavers marks the end of this year's league table season. While some journalists did their best to find a story in the destinations figures, most readers saw that their hearts were not really in it. In fact, public attention is still largely reserved for the league tables of exam performance. The conclusions drawn tend to be as simplistic as ever.

For those of us who work in city comprehensives, matters are not helped by the continuing failure of even the "quality" press to publish figures for the whole ability range.

For schools like ours, it is the Standard grade figures for awards at 1-6 that really matter - a high figure shows we are being successful in getting all, or nearly all, of our children to keep on coming, keep on working, finish all the internal components and turn up to sit their exams on the day. (Conversely, if these figures are low, no matter how impressive a schools Higher results and its Credit awards, a school is manifestly not reaching all the parts). In schools serving areas of deprivation, the crucial thing is to get the weans to keep on coming.

Many city schools have tried to improve attendance. But it can be hard to please - a colleague who introduced an effective incentive scheme for attendance recently found himself pilloried in the national press for "bribing children to come to school".

Like this beleaguered head (even the spokesperson for the main teachers' union criticised him on the grounds that "we should be taking sanctions against children who don't attend, not rewarding those that do"), we also find it effective to use carrots as well as sticks. On the stick side, probably the most important thing is to keep plugging away - constant, low-level effort is more effective than an occasional high-profile campaign.

Every day, a member of our non-teaching staff spends most of the morning phoning the home or workplace of each child who is absent without explanation. Children at particular risk are "buddied" with volunteer guidance staff. Parents of children considered "at risk of failure" are bluntly summoned to meetings with the headteacher.

We refer all children whose attendance causes concern to the attendance council and, if necessary, we refer straight to the Reporter to the children's panel. The fact that the head is known to scrutinise the absence sheet every day and ask questions about it, helps keep attendance at the top of the agenda.

In the long run, though, attendance will only be satisfactory if we create a climate where the child wants to come to school and the family considers school important. We try to give attendance a high profile - as a regular topic in the monthly newsletter, in school assemblies and in parents' meetings. We try to lay it on the line with parents - we strongly discourage families from taking holidays during term-time, and we are blunt about responsibilities going along with rights.

At the same time, we accept that teachers must be seen to be doing their bit - there's no excuse for giving parents or pupils cause to make such statements as: "But they're not getting any work so near the end of term anyway." The change of timetable in May has to be seen as a real opportunity for moving into four weeks of useful work before the summer.

A great deal depends on the way children see the place of the school in their lives. A rich provision of extra-curricular activities should encourage a sense of belonging and ownership, and the programme of activities should offer something for all. Events and activities can be scheduled to encourage attendance right up to the end of term, and, if regular attendance is a condition of participation in something particularly glossy, the children will certainly attend.

Incentives are important - yes, we do have a treat (a day trip to Millport) for the perfect attenders; yes, we do offer small rewards to selected pupils if we believe it will help.

Scottish education has a long tradition of showering rewards on children for be-ing brainy - maybe there's not much wrong with having the occasional reward for being reliable.

Ian Valentine is headteacher of Cleveden Secondary School, Glasgow.

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