Voices: My child got an attendance award at school – and I’m furious about it

Last week, my son came home from school with a sparkling new pencil case he had won for his 100 per cent attendance. He was so excited about his accomplishment, beaming with pride. I told him what a lovely pencil case it was, but quickly delivered a monologue to him about how attendance does not make a child good or bad. It is lovely he has gone to school every day so far this term, but it isn’t something I could congratulate, because it wasn’t his accomplishment – just his luck of the draw.

“There are kids who haven’t been in school because they have been ill,” I told him, as he played with his prize, half paying attention to what I was telling him. “Maybe they have a special need that made it hard for them to make it in, or they feel sick to their stomachs with anxiety because of the work or the other children.”

We know from the latest government statistics that a large percentage of children who missed school in 2021 were absent due to illness of some sort, Covid reasons included. Chickenpox, sickness, Covid, scarlet fever, asthma, croup, and the list of possible illnesses that kids catch goes on and on. Sorry kids, no reward for you because you were ill.

Children with special educational needs (SEN) are less likely to attend school regularly, often with a persistent absence rate of 24.6 percent – more than twice the rate for pupils with no identified SEN. They may have ADHD, dyslexia, autism, or physical disabilities that create barriers to attendance. Are these children “naughty” because they don’t attend school every day? Are their parents irresponsible? Of course not, but these children have said they feel shame about missing school, and parents reported consistently feeling judged and blamed for their children’s attendance.

Perhaps a child is ridden with anxiety about attending school, and it often means they don’t get out the front door in the morning. They feel like throwing up when they think about the teacher that shouts, the child that bullies, or the work they just can’t manage to understand.

“And what about the children whose home lives are very chaotic?” I continued. “When I used to work with families who were really struggling, I often saw children didn’t go to school because of what was happening at home.”

One of my previous jobs was supporting people escaping domestic abuse and I remember how kids attendance in school was often quite low. Are the children to blame for something happening in their families beyond their control? Whether there is illness in the family, the loss of a family member, or a religious celebration, there are many reasons a child may not attend school – reasons that should not be reprimanded but understood.

The impact of rewarding the majority of children who attend school consistently is that the struggling few who don’t come to school every day feel shame. We are ostracising children for things they have absolutely no control of. We are teaching them that strong is good, and fragility is bad. That productivity is paramount and self-care is weakness and punishable.

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The thing is, the school my kids go to is a loving, nurturing school. I have no doubt that they are giving attendance awards in hopes of increasing attendance so that they can get desperately needed funding from the council. So really, it isn’t the school’s fault, but the model of funding. I get it.

I know how importance attendance in school is. The more kids are in school, the more formal education and social interaction they get. However, attendance awards are not the answer because all they do is make children and families feel a sense of shame. Instead, schools could look for ways to bridge the gap between home and school. What are the barriers to a child coming to school and how can schools look to reduce those barriers?

“But that is a really cool pencil case, and you are really lucky you have been well enough to go into school every day this week,” I concluded. “But if you don’t go in every day next week, you’re still a lovely, good boy and I’ll be proud of you even if your attendance record isn’t 100 percent.”