All over the country, school years have just ended. The morning roads are suddenly quieter and the 3pm traffic carnage has gone until September. The streets have emptied of school uniforms and the shops have filled up with them, every child’s delight at school closing instantly tempered by the flurry of signs announcing ‘Back to School’ that spring up as soon as July ends.


Along with the mysteriously missing PE kit that’s been replaced twice, stray socks, extra jumpers you didn’t know they had, children will have been arriving home laden down with craft projects, paintings and armfuls of prizes and certificates for all sorts of things they’ve earned over the past year. Many of them may have been for 100% attendance, something schools have been rewarding certainly since my grandparents’ days – I have a book with a commemorative plate in the front to prove it. But why do we do this, when it is something children have no control over, and the children who fail to achieve it do so through no fault of their own?


There have been recent stories about classes giving those children with full attendance treats in front of their classmates, classes competing against each other on a weekly basis to improve their attendance percentages, prizes of gift cards and trips to theme parks for pupils with 100% attendance, but its important to bear in mind what we’re actually looking at here – penalising children for being ill. Parents often end up in a Catch 22 situation; if they keep their child away from school they may well get a phone call about their child’s attendance falling below acceptable levels, if they send their child into school they may get a phone call at work demanding to know why they’ve sent a sick child into class.


The school are caught in a similar trap, of course. They are also being judged by their attendance figures. An absent child obviously counts against them, but an unwell child in school runs the risk of making other children ill and spreading sickness, creating more absences, and so any unwell child must stay away from school for the optimum time. Schools have no control over the health of their pupils, just as children have no control over their own health, so how are schools expected to tackle attendance when things like outbreaks of slapped cheek or chickenpox or simple sickness bugs can happen at any time?


Any schools greatest responsibility is to the health and wellbeing of its pupils, not its attendance percentages. A good school should be sending unwell pupils home and ensuring that they stay home rather than risk the health of other pupils, particularly if there are any pupils present with compromised immune systems or other health conditions. A school that has SEN pupils, for instance, or pupils with health needs or disabilities may well have higher percentages of absences than other schools for this reason. This should not count against it, and those absences are necessary absences, and do not affect the learning or teaching of other pupils in any negative way.


When pupils have medical or dental appointments, social care meetings or other pre-arranged reasons to be away from school, these are entered in the register as authorised absences. This is obvious, as these are necessary and unavoidable reasons for a child to miss a session of the school day. But surely so is a broken arm or a bout of vomiting? And surely so is a child going into hospital for an operation and their time away from school afterwards for recovery, or time spent in hospital for chemotherapy. If the school is happy that a child was genuinely ill, then the school already authorises those absences, so why do we let them count against the child or the school?


If a child is absent, and there is no reason given and no contact from the parent, then, yes that is an unauthorised absence and it should be followed up and flagged as an issue. But that is the ONLY kind of absence to be watched. I cannot believe that this is so obvious, and yet is not policy in every school. (Tho, goodness knows, if it’s Capita that still maintains the SIMS system, then god help us for any sweeping change with how the electronic registers store and list data.) Take all authorised absence data out of the percentages, and let the school have a true picture of the absences schools, parents and pupils have some control over, can improve and work towards raising. But don’t let it be a matter of judgement or pride, even when it comes to unauthorised absences. Don’t publish the percentages at all. Don’t find any reason to single out or other those children. Because whatever the reasons children are missing school, it should never be something to shame or judge them for to even the slightest extent, and doing so is never going to make them more willing to attend school.


There is also a greater, more insidious issue underlying this, however. When we reward children for not being ill all year, or for the last two years, or three or five, we associate good health with hard work. We then, in the process, associate ill health with laziness, with not really trying hard enough. We then carry that message through into adulthood, and a society that looks at those Daily Mail headlines about scroungers on disability allowances, and think, well, you know, they could get jobs if they really wanted to, couldn’t they? They’re just lazy, aren’t they? Or even, they become people who don’t claim because they don’t feel they’re entitled to, because this is the mindset we’ve created since they were five years old – sick people don’t win prizes.