The thorny issue of attendance awards and children with SEND

children in classroom: The thorny issue of attendance awards and children with SEND

If your child has a SEND or a medical condition, it's very likely they will need time out of school for appointments, illness, or just because some days, school isn't the best place to be for their mental health.

But that means they rarely have a chance to win class awards given out for 100% attendance by teachers wanting to emphasise the importance of being in school. It seems intrinsically unfair and discriminatory against children who already have a lot to deal with. It may be that getting into school for just a few days a week is a great achievement for them.

Charlotte Green (not her real name), a parent of three from London, has written for us after one of her children failed to get a school attendance reward because of his disability. Charlotte is rapidly learning about the world of hearing loss as both of her younger children are regulars at the local audiology department. She wants to emphasise that most of their experiences have been very positive, with great support from the teacher of the deaf, school and nursery. But attendance awards are definitely something that have given her pause for thought.

Why kids with disabilities shouldn't miss out on school attendance rewards

by Charlotte Green

When my son finished his first term of primary school he was glad to shrug off his uniform, put on a Christmas jumper and relax. But there was one part of school he wanted to continue playing at – the attendance awards ceremony. He wore his older brother’s attendance award badge at home, to the playground, to visit friends. He played at being the headteacher, handing out awards for the children to show their parents. But he didn’t get an award that term. And it turned out he probably wouldn’t get one in the future. 

Finn has regular audiology and speech therapy appointments as a result of his hearing loss, which bring his attendance below 100%. I asked the school whether Finn could get an award if his only absence was for essential medical appointments. I was told that it would not be possible: the attendance assembly is only about celebrating those children who have been at school for the entirety of each day, they did not have the manpower to review the reasons for absence of every child, plus they could recognise Finn’s efforts by giving him a special badge instead.

So, whereas most kids at the school could look forward to building up a proud collection of attendance badges on their book bags or jackets, my son could instead build up a collection of ‘special badges’ term after term. He would be the kid in the playground being asked not only “Why are you wearing those things in your ears?” but also, “Why do you have different badges to everyone else?” 

Attendance rewards are now very common and are seen as an effective way to increase attendance. With rewards ranging from the simple to the highly desirable, they are designed to motivate kids. It could be a certificate, playing on a bouncy castle, a trip to a theme park or even prize draws for cash.

Unfortunately, it seems that rewards are often implemented in a way which makes life harder for children with disabilities (including children with cancer). What does it feel like to be left out because of your disability while others go on the bouncy castle or win? What does it feel like when missing out happens again and again throughout your school career? What if your whole class misses out on a group reward because you brought the average down? 

I don't want my son to feel less worthy than his brother and friends just because he has to go to hospital regularly. Right now, my son takes these rewards very seriously and hopes that one term he’ll be lucky enough to get one. But sooner or later that will change. Maybe he’ll get angry with school if he’s left out of a treat. Maybe he’ll ask what the values that he tells me so much about (like respect and equality) really mean if even his school can’t put them into action. Maybe he’ll just shrug his shoulders and learn to put up with his first taste of discrimination. 

It’s very clear that schools shouldn’t be doing this. It is both unlawful under the Equality Act and it is harmful. If attendance rewards are given in an unfair way they can make kids more disengaged.

Research shows that the level of engagement pupils feel with their schools is strongly associated with their attainment. Connectedness to a school promotes wellbeing and a sense of belonging in school impacts on mental health. In other words, a system which excludes disabled children from getting rewards not only unfairly upsets a child each time it happens, but also risks demotivating them in the longer term, making them less interested in school, potentially with knock-on consequences for how well they do and how they feel about themselves. 

After reading up on the Equality Act, I challenged the school’s policy for a second time. This time the school agreed to change their approach. It may seem like a small thing: a badge, a certificate and a handshake from the headteacher. But I’m sure it will make a big impression on my son. 

I’m left with a few questions: Shouldn’t this be something that schools get right without parents having to complain? Why is this happening - is it because schools haven’t thought through how to apply the Equality Act or is it a conscious decision to prioritise increasing attendance? Are DfE doing enough to point schools in the right direction?

OFSTED are currently consulting on how they carry out inspections. Can they start to ask schools how they reward attendance without discriminating against disabled children? 

Useful points to make when challenging a school:

  • It’s unlawful - This is an example of indirect discrimination under the Equality Act and schools should make 'reasonable adjustments'- see the Government’s advice for schools on the Equality Act. 
  • It’s unfair – disabled children are likely to have more medical appointments throughout their school career and torepeatedly experience being excluded from rewards as a result of their disability. The statutory guidance says that it is not generally acceptable practice to, “penalise children for their attendance record if their absences are related to their medical condition, e.g. hospital appointments”.
  • It should be easy to solve - a school could check the records for those children with a known disability to see if their absences are for medical reasons. Schools are meant to keep electronic records of why the children are taking authorised absence.

*The Ofsted Inspection Framework consultation is open until April 5th 2019.

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Tania Tirraoro

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