The drive to improve school attendance may have the consequence of making registers not wholly honest, writes Helen Bonnick.
In a league table of meaningless and misleading statistics, I would place school attendance tables near the top.
School registers, at their most basic, are a vital health and safety tool. They provide a record of who is on the premises in case of fire or other emergency and, if the school is able to operate a phone call home system for absent pupils, a vital alert for children who have gone missing between home and school. There may be an element of human error, which can be embarrassing for the school and stressful for the parents, but it is not insurmountable.
Next, registers are a legal document chronicling a student’s attendance through their school career. They alert staff to persistent lateness, to emerging patterns of truancy or to “out of character” absences that may be indicators of issues in a child’s life that need addressing such as their welfare.
So far, so good, except that local education authorities are under government pressure to improve attendance; and this pressure is passed on to schools in the form of, for instance, a complete ban on holidays in term time. Unfortunately, the issuing of such a decree doesn’t stop all the holidays – it simply increases the percentage of unauthorised absences. I am impressed by the imaginative and innovative ways that schools devise to get around this problem. Students shown as being “educated elsewhere” may well be at a special facility. Alternatively, they may be enjoying a family holiday or, during an Ofsted inspection, they may simply have been asked to stay away for a few days.
Finally, the funding a school receives is based on the number of pupils on roll. It may therefore be in a school’s interest to keep on roll, for a considerable time, pupils who have never turned up, who are on extended holiday, or have even disappeared.
So long as attendance registers are used for so many diverse purposes, I would argue that they become useless for any one of them. Once they become competitive they can no longer be trusted to provide an honest account. And if my child’s education or welfare depended on it, this is the account I would choose. Helen Bonnick is a supervisor of school-home support workers and a social worker.