Tracking and monitoring pupil attendance has become stricter in recent years and rewarding pupils for full attendance is sparking controversy amongst some parents who claim that absence is unavoidable.
In the UK, pupil attendance that falls below 95% (more than 10 days absence) is considered to be cause for concern. But is there substantial evidence that a rewards system boosts attendance and that full attendance boost attainment? Or can it do more harm than good?
Logically, pupils who attend all of their classes will have the best access to the curriculum and are therefore more likely to pass their exams. That said, there is no guarantee that a pupil with perfect attendance is going to have the highest attainment. Other intrinsic and extrinsic factors will also affect their attainment levels.
The Department for Education, however, published a report regarding the link between absence and attainment and found that “pupils in KS2 and KS4 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, over pupils who missed 10 – 15 per cent of all sessions.” Thus, there is some correlation between pupil attendance and attainment.
Pupils respond well to rewards, so it is no surprise that schools use them as a tool to encourage pupils to obtain full attendance.
These rewards include house points, certificates, electronic gadgets, school trips and so on. The year group or class with the best attendance is sometimes rewarded with a school trip, but what about those pupils who can’t help their attendance and therefore limit the chances of their class winning? Should they be blamed for circumstances they encounter out of their control, such as illness?
On the contrary, a study by the Harvard Kennedy School of Government found that giving pupils prizes and commendations for 100% attendance made “no significant difference” to pupil attendance. The study followed reward schemes in 14 schools and concluded that advanced knowledge of these prizes made little to no difference to pupils’ attendance levels.
In fact, these rewards were considered to have the reverse effect on their future attendance, as pupils did not feel the need to strive for them having already achieved 100% the previous term.
Parents have also criticised the reward scheme for stigmatising and shaming pupils for ill health or extenuating circumstances. Especially pupils with medical conditions who have to attend appointments during school hours, therefore missing out on attendance awards through no fault of their own.
Furthermore, a rewards system can urge pupils to attend school even when they are unwell, which can only worsen their illness or spread viruses across the school.
Is school more important than pupils’ mental health and wellbeing?
If a pupil is too afraid to take a sick day to maintain their 100% attendance, they are prioritising school over their physical and mental health. By celebrating those who come into school coughing and sneezing, we are sending out an unhealthy message – if you take a day off for being sick, then you have done something wrong.
The same applies to teachers, who face the burden of taking sick days and are encouraged to prioritise work over their health. In certain schools, teachers are named and shamed for taking too much time off when their children are unwell.
They are offered promotions and wage increases in return for full attendance – an unfair representation of their performance. If adults feel forced to come to school in poor health, pupils can only feel worse.
In some schools, a similar reward system is applied for teachers, who all have valid reasons for taking time off work.
The same study focused on the most widely used type of rewards, based on public praise, such as giving a certificate of merit, rather than one-off competitions or cash prizes. The researchers said these public commendations were similar to the “Employee of the Month” schemes widely used by employers – and the school study provided an insight into their impact.
They had superficially appeared to be making improvements, but the study found that some staff, rather than really improving on attendance, we’re focusing on gaming the system to be eligible for the chance of winning prizes.
But a greater issue was the negative impact on staff who had previously been self-motivated, conscientious, hard workers. They thought the system of praise for some individuals was unfair and if they were not part of the prize draw, they were demotivated, and their punctuality and attendance declined. The overall conclusion was that productivity had been lowered rather than increased.
There are many different ways of using incentives to influence behaviour – with some industries offering big cash bonuses attached to performance. But the academics say that despite the prevalence of rewards there is surprisingly little examination of the outcomes.
In the case of attendance rewards in Californian schools, it says that even among the staff using them “almost none” had expected them to have a negative effect. “These findings have implications for when and how awards should be used to motivate desirable behaviours – and when they may backfire,” the study concludes.
Does 100% attendance guarantee 100% attainment?
The simple answer is no. Pupils choose to learn. A pupil can attend every lesson and choose not to learn, and an absentee pupil can choose to catch up on the lessons they’ve missed. A pupil’s attainment is affected by various factors, not just their attendance, thus by simply being in class, they are not guaranteed an educational success.
That said, the Department for Education clearly states that “pupils need to attend school regularly to benefit from their education and missing out on lessons leaves children vulnerable to falling behind.” In fact, parents of pupils who miss a considerable amount of school can be fined up to £2,500 for truancy placing responsibility on the parents.
So, celebrate good attendance, but more so, celebrate the promotion of well-being and mental health. Teach your pupils the importance of attending school and striving to be the best, but also that it is perfectly normal to take a sick day. At the end of the day, we are all human!
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