With one empty seat, another day begins…

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.



Filed under Schools

8 responses to “With one empty seat, another day begins…

  1. A sad indictment as to where we are in education was that my first reaction to holding this lad back was “well he won’t count in the examination results”… I feel slightly ashamed that was my first thought…

  2. mittfh

    Surely with a persistent absentee, at some point in time the school should invite the absentee and parents to a meeting – not so much to focus on what he’s missing by being out of school, but to explore their attitudes towards schooling and education, as well as any issues in their lives. Find out if it’s laziness, frequent ill health, fear of bullying, dislike of the staff (particularly if the frequent absences are causing problems with achievement during the course of the lessons the child does attend) or syllabuses (syllabi?) or if there are any underlying issues. Are there any patterns to the absence, any circumstances that might contribute to the child being unwilling to turn up on certain days (other than finding TV more interesting than school)? Only if you have a clearer idea of why the child is frequently absent can you hope to devise a successful strategy for re-integrating the child with their peers and the school environment.

    • Thanks for your comment. We’ve done all the things you mention and more – of course we have. There aren’t any problems with bullying, staff, ill health or the curriculum: the problem is his parents don’t get him out of bed and they allow him to stay off school without good reason. Unsurprisingly, he has little motivation to attend.

  3. Ros Gowers

    Perhaps you teach in one of the areas where sadly education welfare services have been cut or even completely abandoned? Nonetheless there are a range of services out there where help can be sought. You say there is nothing ‘darker’ behind his absences – I assume therefore that a full assessment has been done? Perhaps he is a candidate for a different type of education – or have these options been cut too?

    • Thanks for your comment. Yes, I’m afraid there is nothing I know of in terms of welfare services that would fit the bill – as there isn’t a chronic need in this case (domestic violence in the home, say) then he doesn’t meet the criteria for intervention. Even if he did, Family Link Workers have just been cut to the bone on my patch – they don’t have the capacity.

  4. The Sewist

    School is not one of life’s essentials. He may be missing out on school but we don’t know what he may be gaining.

    Why do you think that school does not matter to his parents? Were tehy poorly served by school? Did they leave with few or no qualifications? Did they suffer at the hands of teachers?

    I ask these questions as a home educating parent and long time teacher of Adult Basic Skills. Schools do not realise the power they have over the lives of families. Every time I go to a school and hear teachers berating children for their lack of competence I want to shake them and ask them if they realise that the child who they are shouting at will recall their name for the rest of their lives.

    Every adult student I have had in my classes will, eventually, talk about their teachers and usually there will be one name that comes up and is labelled as the person who put the nail in the coffin of someone’s self esteem.

    That pain does not go away easily and is frequently passed on to the next generation which may be the case for this child in your class.

    Teachers, tread lightly on the hearts of the little people in your care. If you wouldn’t say what is on the tip of your tongue to the head of your school, don’t say it to a child.

    • Hi and thanks for your comment. You could take the view that school isn’t one of life’s essentials, but I am sure we can agree that an education is: in this child’s case, he isn’t being home educated – he is slipping behind as a result of his poor attendance at school. That said, I agree with you completely on the important role teachers have in providing a supportive environment to children – your advice to ‘tread lightly’ is exactly right.

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