Why rewarding 100% attendance can be damaging

We are telling our children that work comes before all else, even our own health and wellbeing, argues this teacher

Teachers need support to talk to pupils about mental health issues, argues one expert

It had taken a month but I was finally getting over a horrific event in my life.

It was meant to have been a dream holiday celebrating the birthday of my parents. It had been booked for a year and we were going as a family. The first three days were magical but on day three, the worst happened: my mum was taken to hospital with gallstones that had caused pancreatitis and for 48 hours things were touch and go with her life.

Long story short, our plans had to change and I and my children were a week late home and we had to leave my mother and father at the airport. It meant my eldest son and I missed one week of school.

School attendance

We both informed our school of the events and had medical papers to back it up, and both schools seemed extremely supportive.

That was until a month later. In my son's book bag came a brown envelope. Inside this was the notification that my eldest son was being put on intervention for attendance.

Now, what follows is not at attempt to dictate whether 100 per cent attendance awards at the end of the year are right or wrong (I teach religious studies, I spend most of my days playing devil’s advocate and being neutral on the fence) or if it is better to adapt for individual needs. I see the merit in both sides of the argument.

What I do want to discuss is what it tells us (and, in turn, our pupils) about what is important in life and the damage I feel it may (depending on how it’s managed) cause.

Mixed messages 

Rewards can work well for some students and good attendance has been proven to aid grades. In fact, the Department for Education published a report on the link between absence and attainment in key stage 2 and KS4 in March 2016 and found that “pupils with no absence are 1.3 times more likely to achieve level 4 or above, and 3.1 times more likely to achieve level 5 or above, than pupils that missed 10-15 per cent of all sessions”.

So pupil’s attendance seems to have some correlation with attainment, and wanting the best for our pupils means we need to monitor, act and react when pupils are missing a considerable amount of school.

Also, external motivation, though not as long-lasting as intrinsic motivation, can be a way of changing behaviour in a number of students who may not have reached a developed level to self-regulate unwanted behaviour.

Is work more important than wellbeing?

But I believe attendance is only really an issue at the extremes. I would prefer to see good interventions and aid for those who struggle rather than an iPhone given as a prize at the end for 100 per cent attendance for one pupil picked out of a hat (I worked in a school that did this).

My son had seen and experienced such a bad thing at his age, so to be responsible for a class not gaining a prize would have devastated him and aided nothing.

And my concern is that it teaches pupils that work is more important than wellbeing. When we only celebrate those at the top (and at times only one of those at the top whose name happened to be drawn from a hat), we are saying that if you took a day off because you were sick then you have done something negative.

That attitude continues in schools when it comes to the teachers. I find so often now that work gets prioritised over the important things in life. I just worry that we are keeping this unrealistic focus on work being more important than anything else, and I don’t think it’s healthy.

Get your priorities right

If you are ill and need to recover/be ill, then stay at home. If you are struggling mentally, seek help and take time off. If you have a sick child, look after them. If your child has a one-off important play at school and they will be looking out for you in the crowd, go.

I have worked in schools that also did the 100 per cent award for staff and it did not go down very well with those who had different, valid reasons for not having the 100 per cent. If we, as adults, can feel this, then imagine the pupils that might be in this case, too (especially if it were a parent/doctor who said they had to stay home).

So celebrate good attendance, even perfect attendance. But maybe also celebrate those who look after themselves and promote wellbeing, too. It is about the ability to strive for the best but to know when to quit and when that is better for mind and body.

Laura George is a teacher of 10 years who has worked in both the state comprehensive and grammar school sector and is now working at an independent prep school. She tweets @Mrs_Educate

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