Monday, 14 January 2013

Attendance is not the be-all and end-all

How exactly did we subscribe to the myth of attendance being more important than engagement? One of my biggest bugbears of the last few years has been the tedious puritan orthodoxy that missing a single day of school means doing badly. I am constantly bowled over by the incredible commitment of the people who so tirelessly chase the attendance agenda but in many cases something pretty unintellectual, and indeed intellectually dishonest, is happening - and, as so often in education, it's the abuse of statistics at the root of the nonsense. Yes, poor attendance is correlated with poor attainment. But (a) the correlation is much less notable below the highly problematic low levels - down at 80%, say - so you're not entitled to automatically extend the principle and argue that 98% is likely to mean higher attainment than 96%, (b) we teach KS3 students that "a correlation is NOT a cause" - why are we then so intellectually dishonest as to pretend it is in this case? and (c) we need to aim for people to internalise the value of education, not comply under threat and bribery with policing of trivia.

Each in turn. (a) is obvious. Don't generalise from statistical truths to untruths. This is clumsy maths. We know who the kids with attendance problems are and we should deal sensitively, and time-intensively, with that. But we don't need a chart in our classrooms, we don't need to read attendance percentages out monthly, and we can stop pretending that above 95% there are any meaningful distinctions. If I did the attendance figures for my KS4 classes in the last few years there are students that lost 15% of all lessons for self-important core catch-up tuition. They still went on to get better grades than in the core lesson they were topping up - which proves (besides the questionable delivery of some of that core programme) that you can miss swathes of lessons and still get A grades. How are the attendance junkies to explain that phenomenon, then? Stop pretending 96.9% indicates the imminent collapse of a student's educational future. And the public charts and lists displayed in tutor rooms can seem a little bit like medieval liturgy, the mindless congregation reciting by rote the expected response to the priesthood's formal lines - or perhaps like state-sanctioned public bullying. This is not developing a generation who are masters of independent thought. It is breeding compliant robots who think being physically present is more significant than being intellectually aboard. Computer says no.

(b) is infuritating. Level 4 Maths students get this. When two things are correlated, it does not mean one causes another. Usually it is due to a (less visible) root cause underpinning both. In this case the root cause is obvious - disaffection with school. And don't argue that can't be measured where attendance can - if you have any competent conception of student voice, or half decent pastoral leaders and / or support, and whom you trust - detection and even rough quantification of disaffection with school is simple to assess. Underlying the most serious non-attendance is problematic disaffection - but this does not underlie a 94/96% difference. Nor, by the way, is it conducive to long-term motivation of fairly able students to push them to attend when ill, leaving them switched off in lessons and lengthening sickness periods. Intellectual absenteeism and protracted low-level ill health are massively more serious problems in our schools than the odd day off.

I should be fair to the attendance enthusiasts. By accident, the system works. Tireless tutors, year leaders and assistant heads pursue attendance figures like the leprechaun's pot of gold, and in doing so tend to have endless persuasive discussions with students which end up on the magic question - why are you not attending? By accident, they strike oil. The correlation's root cause - disaffection - is discovered and addressed - but they themselves, as well as the students, remain trapped in the illusion of the correlation - that it is the attendance itself that matters. It is not. That's just a symptom. Go to the cause and bypass the surface feature. Meanwhile, it is becoming harder and harder to run meaningful school trips for the engaged as even students come to think they cannot afford a single lesson off.

Which leads us to the idea of internalised values. (c) is valid but I'm not going to dwell on it. I strongly believe that - and as a psychologist could write reams of evidence for why - token economies of bribery and threat are anathema to the long-term acquisition of internalised value-based independence in education. But I don't want this to be the thrust of my argument, because the other two claims - that there is an ignored root cause, and that attendance is only a real issue in a tiny proportion of cases - are more important. All this is without detailing much further the fact that an obsessive focus on attendance has massively increased the number of clearly sick children coming into my classroom, pale and sweaty, and sneezing all over other children just so they can get a Mars bar and a certificate at the end of term. It's like the Grand Old Duke of York in the nursery rhyme: treat the troops better and use some common sense.