There’s a boy in my class who just about clings on to the description of being ‘in my class’. Not a week goes by without an absence; not a term goes by without a missing week.
All the other children notice when he’s not here. The silence at a certain point in the register – the momentary pause – fills the room. They roll their eyes, even giggle, and ask: ‘where is he?’, ‘don’t tell me he’s not here again’.
With one empty seat, another day begins…
Mondays are regularly missed. Fridays too. Sometimes – often – it’s both. The reason each time is endlessly different. Stomach upset, headache, bad knee. It’s hard to keep up. The common thread is that I don’t believe he’s been ill – I think he’s at home watching television.
He’s behind everyone else, but has the potential to do well, to progress and to meet – if not exceed – expectations. But his potential is withering, becoming lost as his days drift by.
What can we do? We make a big fuss about attendance and who has the best record. The competition keeps the children on their toes; they puff their chests out with pride when they are congratulated for attending every day of a term or, even better, every day in a year. Some children have even progressed through the whole school without missing a day.
And, as well as carrot, there is stick. Letters are sent to regular absentees; truancy patrols alerted; authorities informed. Parents are summoned for serious conversations. The simple, obvious correlation between being in school and progressing at school is explained, clearly and simply. The message, we hope, is compelling.
Yet, before the week ends: with one empty seat, another day begins.
Of course, illness happens, people get sick. Children, particularly younger ones, have an uncanny knack of spreading germs (anyone who has been on the soggy receiving end of a full-face sneeze knows as much!).
And, the starting point must be to trust and believe both child and parent; if they say they are ill, so be it. It’s difficult to challenge without evidence to the contrary (how do you prove someone doesn’t have a headache?). So, we err on the side of caution, offer sympathy rather than indignation.
Sometimes missing days can signify something darker, more serious. But not in this case, there’s nothing more mysterious than this: school doesn’t seem to matter to his parents, and therefore to him. Such a waste.
After all that’s been tried, what’s the solution? One thing – suggested in desperation – would be to keep him back a year. Make him repeat it all again. If he turns up and makes progress, then on he goes. It sends a message to his parents, and also to him; a painful and joyless lesson, perhaps, but necessary.
The alternative – to turn a blind eye, to send the message that success does not come from effort (and good fortune) – serves no-one, least of all a child who is missing out on one of life’s essentials.