We can’t tackle attendance if we don’t tackle poverty

A 100 per cent attendance target is a blunt tool for fixing systemic problems and will only make matters worse, says Nadeine Asbali

A 100 per cent attendance target is a blunt tool for fixing systemic problems and will only make matters worse, says Nadeine Asbali

9 Sep 2023, 5:00

I’m not a maths teacher, but it strikes me as somewhat of a statistical impossibility that 100 per cent of people can ever do something 100 per cent of the time. And yet, as the academic year begins, that is exactly the aim children’s commissioner Rachel de Souza has set for schools with regards to attendance.

Of course, the growing issue of school absence alarms me. Nick Gibb’s recent suggestion that parents send their children to school even while unwell was ill-informed and irresponsible, but he was right about one thing: absences have a real and measurable impact on student outcomes. More than one in five children are regularly missing school and as cold and flu season peaked last academic year, school absence was as high as 14.1 per cent.

In an ideal world, children would be in school. But we don’t live in an ideal world. We live in a world where people get poorly, where people die and unforeseen emergencies happen, where people are born with or develop complex and chronic illnesses that make 100 per cent attendance a physical impossibility.

Proponents of this target call it aspirational. Indeed, many schools already adopt 100 per cent attendance policies. They reward those who are in the classroom every day with prizes and vouchers and shields. 

But the truth is that a 100 per cent target is only aspirational if you conceptualise the problem of school absence as a comic-book stereotype of petulant teenagers hanging outside the corner shop because they can’t be bothered to go to English class – belligerent truants engaging in antisocial behaviour because school is too boring.

The reality is starkly different. For ministers and others with a mandated obligation to understand the problem in its depth, complexity and nuance to think of school absence in this way displays an alarming disregard for and flagrant ignorance of the real factors pushing students out of the classroom.

It is poverty ministers need to work to dismantle

In a protracted cost of living crisis where poverty is compounded by government cuts to public services, wage stagnation, inadequate housing and frozen benefits, children face significant barriers to getting to school in the first place. If they actually get there, it is only to be met by  a persistent and growing attainment gap that brands them as ‘underperforming’.

Any teacher in a deprived area will recount similar anecdotes: students who can’t afford the bus fare, who stay at home because their already overworked parent needs to work another shift and can’t afford the childcare for their baby sibling. Students who need to translate for important meetings that secure their entire household’s immigration status or a roof over their heads. Children quite literally hiding due to the social embarrassment of hygiene poverty and period poverty, of having no clean uniform or shoes with holes in during winter. Teenagers forced to take on paid work in order to support their families, and those moved to council housing too far away. 

It is these factors – manufactured and exacerbated by successive governments occupied by people too wealthy to feel the brunt of their force – that prevent our pupils from filling our corridors. Setting a 100 per cent attendance target for these children will do nothing other than further widen the gap between them and those who face no barriers to the classroom. 

To that, we can add a wider national picture of worsening mental health among young people amid NHS waiting lists growing longer by the day. The number of children waiting for urgent mental health support is at an all-time high. To nudge pupils who are battling depression and crippling anxiety back into class on their knees – and into schools that don’t have the funding or staff to support them – amounts to state neglect of the very young people who are most in need of proper, structural support.

If those in power are genuine about tackling soaring pupil absence, a headline-grabbing back-to-school campaign that adds pressure on schools is not the way to go about it. It is poverty they need to work to dismantle, and that starts with funding our starved public services.

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