Sunday, 8 May 2011

Kyriarchy for kids

Durham County Council has recently put out this press release, which was reprinted in the local free paper and probably elsewhere.

The search is on for young people in County Durham with an outstanding school attendance record.

Durham County Council is tracking down all final-year primary and secondary school pupils who have never taken a day off.

The council is planning a special celebration to reward young people with a 100 per cent attendance record at either primary or secondary school.

Maureen Clare, Durham County Council’s head of countywide services, said: “Never missing even half a day of primary or secondary school is a fantastic achievement and one we want to reward.”

Unauthorised absence from school is a problem, but there are serious problems with this plan.

[trigger warning]

Pupils spend six or seven years at primary school, and five (optionally seven) at secondary school. School is generally open 5 days a week, 39 weeks a year - so that's an unbroken absence record for over 900 days (primary) or over 750 days (secondary). This includes no absences for the various authorised reasons.

According to the Department for Education, there are just under 36,000 primary-age pupils in County Durham (so probably around 5,500 in their final year), and around 30,000 secondary age pupils (so probably around 6,000 in their final year). I suspect the odds of never missing a day are well over 1 in 12,000.

Managing this is a "fantastic achievement" only in the sense that winning the lottery is a "fantastic achievement". I very much doubt that they'll find anyone. I hope they don't find anyone. Rewarding someone for that combination of luck and privilege sends entirely the wrong message.

A partial list of children who - through no fault of their own - will not be getting the prize.

Health and disability

  • Those who were seriously ill for at least one day out of several hundred. Even with a great immune system and full vaccinations that's going to be tricky to achieve. I don't know anyone who didn't miss at least a couple of days of school for general illness - stomach bugs, severe colds, etc.
  • Similarly, anyone who's seriously injured. Break an arm? Tough. No prize for them unless they splint it with their school ruler and carry on. Break their arm while playing rugby for the school? Still tough.
  • Disability or other condition requiring medical treatment, or making continuous school attendance difficult? Nope. No prize for you.

Yet again we have "being ill is immoral". The same attitude permeates government at all levels, and society in general, with well-documented effects.

Family situations

  • Bereavement? Family member terminally ill? No taking time off to visit them in hospital or attend their funeral. They should have the decency to die at a weekend and so not harm productivity. Similarly for happier family occasions.
  • Family moves in or out of the county? I suppose the Council might try to chase up attendance records from other education authorities, but I doubt it. In or out of the country? No chance. Similarly for people who were home-educated at any time - it's legal, and rightly so, but that doesn't mean the government likes it.
  • Abusive family so they run away from home? Or get placed in care? Not conducive to a perfect attendance record. The Council is fully aware of this

Bullying and other peer abuse

  • Bullied to the extent of needing time off to recover from injuries (physical or mental)? See above.
  • So (justifiably) terrified of the bullying that they make up an illness to avoid going in, or are ill because they're so worried, or just don't go in without telling their parents1, or their parents rightly refuse to send them in? No prize for them.
  • Sexual violence? Still the victim's fault.

LGB kids, or fat kids, or neuroatypical kids, or really, any kid that doesn't conform to the exact social stereotype, tend to be even bigger targets for bullies, but it can and does happen to anyone and we somehow accept it as largely inevitable; there are no equivalents of Trades Unions to speak up for childrens' rights here, and children who go on strike in protest... well, that's an unauthorised absence.

Even worse, there's nothing in this section to stop the bullies themselves having a perfect attendance record and getting the prize. "Trample those beneath you to raise yourself up" is perhaps not the ethos schools should be trying to instil.

Miscellaneous bad luck

  • The last couple of winters have been extremely harsh, with schools closed several days for snow. There will have been days when the school wasn't closed but children living in more isolated parts of the county will have been snowed in anyway. Didn't walk three miles through over a foot of snow? Tough.
  • Foot and mouth outbreak causes your farm to be quarantined? As usual, that's no excuse - you should break the law and come in anyway.

The TUC were very critical of the employers who expected their staff to come in, at risk to their life, during the severe weather this winter. Again, apparently this is something that starts early.

Closing thoughts

There's nothing unusual about these proposals. The value of attendance - whether you should be there or not, whether you're productive there or not, whether your attendance causes more problems later or not - is insisted upon by many employers and starts off at school. The idea that people who are ill, or disabled, or victims of assault and bullying, are somehow morally and otherwise inferior, or brought it on themselves - it's an idea probably as old as humanity, but that doesn't make it right.

There's another bit of point-missing, too. The reason that Councils have a legal responsibility to provide education and to require attendance at some form of education, is for the benefit of the children, who will have better chances in life, on average, if they receive education.

The children who attended every day have already, by that logic, received their reward - an education - and don't need an extra reward. The children who were missing are surely the ones who need more attention and help. It's far easier to reward attendance - useful attendance or not - of course.

I've sent the following letter to the Council itself, and to my two local councillors.

I write regarding the scheme described in your April 28, 2011 press release "Search for 100 per cent school attendees".

I fully understand that unauthorised absences from school can be a serious problem, and one which the Council has a legal responsibility to deal with. However, I do not feel that this plan is an appropriate part of that strategy.

Not missing a single day - out of the several hundred that must be attended - is only a "fantastic achievement" in the same sense that a lottery win is a "fantastic achievement". Not only must the winning child - I will be very surprised if you find even one, given the odds - not have had any unauthorised absences, which is quite possible, but they must not also have had any authorised absences either.

Not needing any authorised absences is, however, largely a matter of luck. People get ill. Children, who generally have less well-developed immune systems than adults, get ill even more often. Getting through over 750 days of schooling without being ill even once requires a perfect immune system, which is largely a matter of genetic luck and other factors outside the child's control.

Children with disabilities, chronic health conditions, cancer, or other conditions requiring regular treatment would find it impossible - through no fault of their own - to win the prize being offered. Effectively the Council is declaring that the genetic luck of being in perfect health is "an achievement" - which implies that it is something that the children had a choice in and control over. That is not a pleasant implication.

While luck of birth is one factor the winner or winners of this prize will need, they also need other sorts of luck too. The County's schools all have anti-bullying strategies, but these strategies are not fully effective, and one reason for unauthorised absence can be an entirely justified fear of bullying. (Being bullied can also affect one's physical and mental health, causing authorised health-related absences)

LGBT children, children with disabilities - including learning difficulties or mental health conditions, and children who don't "fit in" for any other reason are more likely to be targets for bullies, again, through no fault of their own.

Not being bullied is not "an achievement" - rare as it is - and to treat it as such is to blame the victims of bullying for the bully's actions. Worse still, the bully could still attend every day and be eligible for the prize while their victims are not!

There are many other good reasons for absence too - a bereavement in the family, being snowed in during the winter's bad weather, road accidents, and many more - for which describing it as "an achievement" to have avoided them is wrong and extremely insensitive. Think of a pupil who had an otherwise "perfect" attendance record, but took a few days off when their father died to grieve and attend the funeral. How will they feel if they hear about this prize?

I understand why the Council wishes to encourage attendance at school, but this is very much the wrong way to go about it, and I urge you to withdraw the scheme.

Yours sincerely



1 The only item on this list that actually counts on school records as unauthorised absence, I believe.