The notification pings up on the app and echoes in my email inbox. It is a message from my son’s school saying that children with an attendance above 95% will receive a reward at the end of the term. Now, I am not opposing positive reinforcement or incentives to encourage children to attend school – but as a parent of a child with Autism, I get a sinking feeling reading it. I feel sad because he doesn’t have high attendance grades and won’t receive that reward with the other children…and knows it. From an early age, he has had crippling school attendance anxiety, with the recent transition to secondary being a huge challenge for him.
Given his years of school refusal, I see his recent capacity to walk to school most mornings as an indescribable win for him. That familiar chest ache you get when you want to cry makes it hard to type. I don’t have the words to say how much of a win – given the effort, endeavour and determination that takes from him. We battle through sleepless nights, self-harm, iron vice routines just to get that uniform on, but some days if I find him hunched over his toilet being sick, I won’t send him. Of course, I won’t. He experiences a range of psychological and somatic physical symptoms such as head pain, high levels of distress, oppositional defiance, and sensory overload. Some days, I don’t feel as his parent that six hours of lessons is worth such trauma. Practically he is also almost bigger than me now, I can’t forcibly carry him anymore. I won’t. His fists are hard on me. We are glad of the sympathetic voices of his receptionist.
Statistically pupils with an SEN statement or education healthcare (EHC) plan have a persistent absence rate of 24.6% – more than twice the rate for pupils with no identified SEN (DfE). So, for him and children like him, on paper, attendance percentages speak of failure and give no recognition of their achievements, or their struggles. Don’t get me started on the negative ripples of academic pressure, testing and expectations. That is something for another day.
Additional needs aside, in an age of Covid, Strep and uber colds, I don’t know about anyone else’s children, but mine have been non-stop poorly through Winter, so have had quite a few medical absences. Oh, and Norovirus…don’t forget that. Shudder. They are worn down. It is hard then that these things are not considered in the Government’s drive to ‘raise educational standards and academic achievement’ – which has created greater pressure on schools to monitor and improve their attendance levels. Again, it seems like I am opposing bettering children’s academic performance. That is not the case. I know attendance is closely linked with outcomes, especially in key test years. Not only will children miss out on learning when not in school but social interaction. What I do oppose is that education stops becoming about your child and their welfare, but how a school looks in figures. Sometimes it can feel as though if a child can be marked as attending it does not seem to matter whether they are gaining any benefit from being in the school environment or not.
Absence deemed excessive can trigger the involvement of educational welfare officers and subsequently, you can receive threats of fines, prosecution, and school attendance orders. I wonder about other parents’ experiences of professional attitudes. There have been occasions where I have been challenged for supporting non-attendance (or projecting my own anxieties onto my child). That was a particularly hard pill to swallow as the effect of non-attendance can be very disruptive to family life, with at least one parent being unable to work. I was left facing intense daily struggles forcing a severely distressed child to school or provide medical evidence demanded to authorise absence. This was almost impossible to obtain because families become stuck in an endless cycle of waiting lists, rejections or inaction by professionals. Like many, he ‘functions’ in school – masking but not coping, the dysregulation explodes out at home. We didn’t receive a professional diagnosis for 5 ½ years so in that time I had no ‘acceptable evidence’ of his needs. Sometimes I wonder if the only reason why my concerns were listened to is that I have a degree in education and a MA in Social Work. But in my opinion, being a mother is enough of a qualification for understanding your child than letters behind a name.
Low attendance is a red flag to how hard a child is finding school, but the response is often to increase pressure to get them back in without considering that refusal occurs when stress exceeds support. Deficiencies within the education system such as squeezed budgets, endless targets and growing pressure from Ofsted scrutiny mean our teachers don’t have time to meet individual needs, are wrung out. The problem is systemic, provision varies at a local level and children and their families continue to be misunderstood. In an ideal world there would be no blame or shame for children, their parents or teachers. But children and families are in crisis. We have been for years. Just about functioning, certainly not thriving and I just can’t stop thinking about those damn attendance percentages when I lie in bed at night.