Written by Dotty Winters

Lifestyle

Present and incorrect

The idea of school attendance rewards is leaving Dotty Winters less than 100 per cent enthralled.

child daydreaming at desk
I’ve had a brilliant idea. I’m going to give up swearing. I’d really like to make sure I can do this, so whenever I swear I’m going to punch you in the face. You in?

I imagine that the vast majority of you do not think this is a good plan (that excludes the vocal minority of people who actively seek out women who will hurt or humiliate them – I’ve received your Twitter DMs, but I’m a bit busy right now).

I’m guessing that among the main objections to the plan I’ve outlined would be the fact that the consequences (the punch) affect someone other than the person who is seeking to change their behaviour (me), all of which may leave you wondering whether this is likely to be a useful motivational tool, or any fun.

Obviously, I have no plan to give up fucking swearing, so the above example is merely designed to illustrate why I’m bamboozled by a move by some schools to reward pupils who have 100 per cent attendance with rewards, for example, a pizza party, book token or certificate.

Perhaps I am alone in this, but my experience of getting my primary-school aged children to school is that it requires a huge amount of repeatedly asking where shoes are, wiping toothpaste out of hair and retrieving pets from school bags. My children really like pizza, but I’m not sure that there is a volume of pizza that they could be offered which would turn my four-year-old into the sort of go-getting self-starter who could be considered fully accountable for his school attendance.

The reality is that parents, not children, are the main influence in how often children attend school and the reasons why attendance may slip below acceptable levels are varied, from getting distracted by Postman Pat through to mental health challenges, family disruption and transport issues; none of these things are within children’s control.

“I can’t see how forcing parents to scoop up their wailing pizza-less six-year-old and explaining that they weren’t invited to the party because Mummy had a flat tyre, an anxiety attack or a dead relative is a proportionate or effective system.”

One of the most infuriating things about these schemes is the level of attendance required for the reward – 100 per cent. This means that a child can miss out on the reward for, for example, attending a family funeral. I’m not sure I’m comfortable in teaching our children that pizza is more important than Grandma’s passing. In fact, I am wholly confused as to what we hope to teach children through this approach at all.

By far the most common reason for school absences is illness. If we were to entertain the notion that attendance was within kids’ control, we’d still be implying that illness was some sort of sign of lack of commitment to education. Quite sensibly, many schools insist that children with vomiting or diarrhoea are absent from school for a minimum period of 24 or 48 hours, to prevent spread of illness.

Clearly if you are off for one afternoon you can already wave goodbye to your pizza reward but if you vomit after school, you can turn up the next day, spread your germs and claim your meatfeast deep pan; while this might be effective preparation for a life in self-employment, it seems a hard lesson to learn at five.

I don’t disagree with the principle that children should be at school, but 100 per cent attendance is a very high bar and offers no support to those who struggle most to meet it. I can’t see how forcing parents to scoop up their wailing pizza-less six-year-old and explaining that they weren’t invited to the party because Mummy had a flat tyre, an anxiety attack or a dead relative is a proportionate or effective system.

Make no mistake, the reward is effective; children will notice and internalise the impact of a party they’re not invited to, but I’m buggered if I can work out what they are supposed to do to avoid this painful lesson.

The world has a range of systems and regimes designed to enforce the view that we are only of value when we are being productive. I’m not sure this is a lesson we need to instil in children.

@DottyWinters

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Written by Dotty Winters

Nascent stand-up, fan of fancy words, purveyor of occasional wrongness, haphazard but enthusiastic parent, science-fan, apprentice-feminist.