Like the devoted parent that I am, I went to a parents’ evening at my kids’ school last week, to make sure I was up-to-speed with things.
Among the other messages, there was one that got a lot of air-time. We were told several times that even a short absence could have a detrimental effect on academic performance, so parents and children alike needed to do everything they could to get in.
Now, it might be helpful to note that one of my children missed about a third of last school year, due to illness, so I have skin in this game.
Plus, during those absences, the school didn’t make a big thing about that detrimental effect, so I went to do some checking.
This goes back to research done for the government in 2015, which was press-released as:
Even short breaks from school can reduce a pupil’s chances of succeeding at school by as much as a quarter, research reveals today (22 February 2015).
The research, based on extensive pupil absence figures and both GCSE and primary school test results, highlights the importance of clamping down on pupil absence to ensure more pupils regularly attend school, and ultimately leave with the qualifications needed to succeed in modern Britain.
It shows 44% of pupils with no absence in key stage 4 (normally aged 16) achieve the English Baccalaureate – the gold standard package of GCSE qualifications that includes English, maths, science, history or geography and a language – opening doors to their future. But this figure falls by a quarter to just 31.7% for pupils who miss just 14 days of lessons over the 2 years that pupils study for their GCSEs, which equates to around 1 week per year, and to 16.4% for those who miss up to 28 days.
Let’s leave aside the dubious stat in the opening paragraph and consider why a school head reading this might feel that this proved attendance was essential.
Then read this from an education studies Professor, who points out attendance and performance are correlated, but likely not causally, with other factors such as more generic life-chances.
Now, I’m clearly going to want to hear what the academic says, because it gives me more hope that my child’s education won’t suffer too much, but it does raise a bigger issue for us in higher education: do students need to come to class?
My usual response to this has been a utilitarian one: classes are the easiest way to access the material and reflective space needed to do well in assessment, so if you’re lacking motivation, this is the least-cost option.
That’s not really a rally cry though, is it?
Instead we need to think about how we can make contact time a positive and enthusiastic option. If we can get students to want to attend, rather than simply feel they have to, then we’re likely to get better engagement, and thus learning.
At the same time, we need to be making sure that we help with incentives.
So for my course on negotiation, the assessment is reflective writing about the experiences the student has had in class, as contextualised by wider reading: hard (i.e. impossible) to do if you’ve not been in class (although I have had a couple of students try (and fail)).
The challenge comes in having to acknowledge that students have individual ways of learning, which may or may not fit with others’: I’ve seen several excellent pieces of assessment over the years from students who have been very largely absent from class.
That’s fine, although it does raise a question of whether other students suffer from not having that person in the class to stretch or challenge them. But if that’s not a learning objective, then it’s not a learning objective.
At the end of the day, this comes down to making sure we are clear about what we, as educators, want to achieve with our students. Once we have that, then we can think more about structuring incentives to engage, which then in turn might produce environments conducive to attendance.
But to start at the other end of that chain isn’t going to solve things by itself.