"Don’t offer rewards for attendance, not everyone has an equal opportunity to win the prize."
So said the tweet from a local education group made up largely of parents. It stopped me in my tracks and I wondered about our department’s policy where we have sent postcards home for 100 per cent attendance, have occasional weekly class attendance prizes and such like. Should we still be doing this?
Certainly, there are two sides to the debate and I don’t want to get sucked into the "no excuses" debate and the subsequent naming and shaming of such schools in the press. I merely want to offer a defence of why it may be reasonable for a college to reward attendance.
Background: Schools' role revealed in fight against absence
First, I’d like you to meet three hypothetical students:
- Amina has 100 per cent attendance. She quietly gets on with her work and is achieving solid but not outstanding grades. She is so unassuming that her name was one of the last that her teacher learned in September.
- Rob has 85 per cent attendance. A number of the lessons missed are first thing in the morning. He gives reasons each time he is absent but it is only halfway through the year that he discloses he is a carer for his mother and is looking after younger siblings when his mum is bedridden.
- Zoe also has 85 per cent attendance. There are various coughs, colds and dental appointments. When staff ring home, dad corroborates these absences. She talks enthusiastically about her part-time job as a waitress. During her latest absence, you overheard a friend say that Zoe had posted that she "couldn’t be arsed with college" in a group chat.
Attendance is not just luck
While there is an element of luck involved in attendance – if you have flu you won’t be in – I don’t believe that good attendance is entirely a matter of luck.
Both Amina and Zoe are faced with rainy November mornings; Amina will have also had coughs and colds during the year. There are those who show up anyway and there are those who do not.
It is for most students a measure of character and resilience. When students have good attendance it is often the result of such decisions repeated throughout the year. Where college students have poor attendance, often there are some genuine absences and other instances where they are just not in.
Challenging attendance – can’t or won’t?
Part of our role as teachers and part of my role as a middle leader is to challenge attendance. It is a false kindness not to. Data suggests that students below 90 per cent attendance in the year are likely to drop at least a grade in their final exams.
Knowing this, it is then our job to ask questions. Sometimes those questions, as in Rob’s case, do reveal genuine and significant difficulties. On other occasions, reasons given for absence are less convincing. As a department and as a college we are very supportive.
The assumption is that students are telling us the truth but the fourth stomach bug or the fifth dead grandparent (yes, we actually had this situation!) may lead to a more rigorous conversation. In short, there is a difference between Rob’s "can’t attend" and Zoe’s "won’t attend" and we have to try our best to work out the difference.
Rewarding those who can and will
Hence excellent attendance is a skill and we do reward it. I think there are three main reasons for this:
Those who genuinely can’t attend regularly are a relatively small group. We know that the vast majority of our students are the “wills" or "won’ts". Hence the initial argument in the parents' tweet loses its force. Where there are genuine difficulties, we can make different awards eg. resilience awards, achievement in adversity.
We are preparing our students for the high level of attendance that they would be expected to display in a workplace. A couple of days off here and there ultimately may lead to disciplinary action. Often our poor attendees such as Zoe have good attendance in their part-time work.
In establishing a praise culture where those quiet students who day in day out do the right things such as maintaining attendance and submitting work, we recognise students like Amina. It is not her fault that Rob cannot and Zoe won’t attend regularly.
We also in doing this are sending a clear signal to the Zoe’s of this world and in doing so hopefully inspire them to move from 85 per cent to 90 per cent or from 90 per cent to 95 per cent in the knowledge that this could ultimately increase their chances of a higher grade.
If we don’t celebrate students' achievements on attendance we run the risk of inadvertently lowering the expectation of the vast majority who are able to attend fully and this would be a false kindness to those students.
Chris Eyre is a curriculum manager for humanities at a sixth-form college