The use of incentives to reward pupils who attend every day is common practice in many of our schools. However, what are the implications and is it really ethical? Sue Cowley outlines her concerns and some alternatives.
- The use of 100% attendance awards might be considered to be discriminatory.
- Children with medical conditions must be understood and supported.
- There are alternatives, such as the use of personalised targets.
In recent years, both the DfE and Ofsted have had an increased focus on data around pupil attendance. In the new education inspection framework (EIF), attendance is considered under the Behaviour and attitudes judgement. In order to gain ‘Outstanding’ in this area, the judgement asks that ‘Pupils have high attendance’. This suggests that Ofsted views attendance as part of a pattern of overall attitudes to school, rather than a factor often associated with medical needs, or with societal issues such as poverty and deprivation.
The use of awards for ‘100% attendance’ appears to be on the increase. Where these awards are in use, or where their introduction is being considered, it is important for school leaders and governors to ask themselves a series of questions. In particular, those relating to statutory guidance and to the provisions within the Equality Act 2010, but also around the ethics of different approaches and their impact on staff and pupil well-being.
The Equality Act 2010
Disability is a protected characteristic within the Equality Act 2010. Under the Act, a person is disabled if they have a ‘physical or mental impairment which has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on their ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities.’ Schools must not act unfavourably towards a child with a disability.
Medical conditions can be classed as ‘disabilities’ under the law. Where a benefit (such as a reward) is given that excludes children who have a disability, this may not comply with the provisions of the Act.
Steve Broach, a barrister specialising in public law and its impact on children with disabilities has said on Twitter that: ‘A general policy which makes it harder for a protected group to access a benefit than others is indirectly discriminatory unless it can be justified.’
As well as legal questions, it is important to consider the ethical implications of a 100% attendance rewards policy. Children cannot help having medical conditions, or becoming unwell, so school leaders should ask what form of ‘achievement’ they intend to celebrate by using attendance rewards.
Poor health is not the sign of a lack of commitment to a setting; it is a fact of life for some families. Where families are already going through the difficulties inherent in supporting a sick child, the message that they are not trying hard enough could lead to additional stress.
Schools should also consider the message being sent to children and staff where attendance is seen as something under their direct control. For instance, if whole class attendance awards are used, these have the potential to cause anxiety for children with medical needs. Children might feel that they are ‘letting down’ their classmates by causing the attendance rate of the class to drop. In turn, this could encourage a lack of empathy from children to their peers and potentially lead to bullying.
A question of health
The well-being of both children and staff should be a central concern for school leaders. Well-being includes both physical and mental health, and both may be negatively impacted by a 100% attendance awards policy.
Where a policy might encourage children and families to attend school even when they are unwell, this risks spreading germs and viruses which could negatively impact on all members of the school community. This is particularly so for any children or staff with compromised immune systems, for instance those undergoing medical treatments such as chemotherapy.
Similarly, the message being implied by these awards is that poor health is a choice rather than a matter of bad luck. The unwell child may be perceived as being weaker or less resilient than their peers, and again this could lead to bullying.
Complying with statutory guidance
The DfE has published statutory guidance on ‘Supporting pupils at school with medical conditions’. The guidance states that:
‘Governing bodies should ensure that school leaders consult health and social care professionals, pupils and parents to ensure that the needs of children with medical conditions are properly understood and effectively supported.’
The guidance makes it clear that children might feel self-conscious about their conditions or might develop emotional disorders, and that steps should be taken to prevent this. Additionally, the guidance notes that children with medical conditions should be able to ‘access and enjoy the same opportunities at school as any other child.’
A parent’s eye view
Many parents of children with medical conditions are speaking out about the issues with 100% attendance awards, and some are campaigning to stop them from being used. This blog from Helen Weston, the parent of a child affected by these rewards, highlights the many potential issues with the policy: https://bit.ly/2otoNCL
What are the alternatives?
Schools can consider the following range of alternatives to using 100% attendance rewards, particularly for children with medical conditions:
- Create personalised targets for children, based on their medical needs and on what is realistic and appropriate for each individual.
- Make decisions on targets in consultation with families, while understanding that a medical condition can worsen suddenly and taking account of this.
- Create opportunities for dialogue with families about attendance, ensuring that they work in partnership with parents.
- Use different methods to encourage attendance; for instance, explaining the links between attendance and outcomes.
- Raise the profile of attendance with families, particularly when children start at the setting.
- Teach and model a love of learning, helping families to see the value of the education that is offered.
- Develop attendance policies in conjunction with teachers, pupils, families, the education welfare service, governors and local services such as GPs.
- Look at the effect on attendance of decisions made at school level, for instance of ending terms on a Monday or Tuesday.
- Look at patterns of staff illness and how school policies might support better health for staff as well as for children.
- Be aware of the complexity of different contexts and the pressures that families might experience and which might contribute to poor attendance; for instance, in areas where many parents perform seasonal work and are unable to take holidays over the summer break.
- Produce an action plan for improving attendance, with a focus on emphasising its benefits rather than on sanctions and 100% attendance rewards.
- ‘Supporting pupils at school with medical conditions’, DfE, 2015: https://bit.ly/2Iyy57o
Use the following items in the Toolkit to help you put the ideas in this article into practice: