Attendance targets, reward systems, and discrimination

March 13, 2017

It would seem bad enough that today’s children have to suffer from the results of an increasingly narrow curriculum and pressure to perform due to government targets and testing. But it also seems that this doesn’t stop at performance targets. Attendance is apparently also under scrutiny, with ridiculous advice published in my child’s school newsletter this month.

‘The school’s average attendance rates have recently slipped from 97% to 96.9%’, we are told. ‘We need to do better.’ Suggestions for how this may be achieved include;

‘If your child is feeling a bit under the weather, send them in and let us know. In our experience, they can often get a second wind and, if they can’t manage the day, we will call you and let you pick them up.’

Erm, no thanks. 

If my child is feeling a bit under the weather, he’s not likely to learn much, is he? And I’m not going to send him to school just so he can contribute to the school statistics and targets. Sorry. I send him to school to learn.

In my experience, as his mother, I think I am best placed to judge whether or not it is best for him to attend school on a given day. Why would we want kids that are possibly unwell going into school and potentially spreading their illness to other kids anyway? How will that increase attendance? This advice makes no sense to me at all.

Just as testing contributes only to the school’s performance targets, and are of no benefit to the children, this approach is not in any way beneficial to my child. It’s all about targets. As usual.

‘Organise holidays and trips during school holidays (there are 175 non-teaching days a year to pick from)’

Please don’t patronise me. I am well aware of how many non-teaching days there are, and I’m sure the school is equally aware of the price difference of holidays during these 175 days compared to other days in the year, although they conveniently omit to acknowledge this here. For many, there’s also the small matter of when they are able to get time off from their work.

Finally (and this is the best bit) we are told, ‘We will be introducing new special recognition certificates this term for children who have 100% attendance this year.’

Now, if you’ve read some of my other blogs posts, you will already know how I feel about reward systems. So I’ll try not to say too much on this particular subject. But just to point out the basics; any reward system has a flip side. It’s all very nice for the children who receive the reward, but it effectively punishes those children who do not. That may not be the intended outcome, but it is the outcome nonetheless. It’s that simple. And how is it OK to punish a child for having been ill, for coming from a disadvantaged or complex background, for taking days off for religious observance, or for the decision of their parents to take them on a term-time holiday? (I don’t know many children who get to decide on the dates of family holidays).

What exactly is such a reward system supposed to achieve? Is it supposed to encourage children to come to school when they’re ill? To stop having a disability? To cease to observe religious events? To nag their parents not to book a term-time holiday? To help resolve any number of social, domestic or other issues that may account for their lack of 100% attendance over a year? I’m really struggling with this.

A few statistics (since we’re so hung up on these):

A Department of Education report on pupil absence from schools in England found that illness was by far the most common reason for pupil absence. (around 59% compared to less than 10% for term time holidays).

Statistics have also shown that children on free school meals, or those with special educational needs, are around three times more likely to be persistently absent.

“There exists a growing number of parents with complex problems, often related to poverty and mental health. Their children are often those with poor attendance records.” says one headteacher in a Guardian article on ways to tackle poor attendance. A school Home Support Worker in the same article points out that, “Most of the mums I see whose children are persistent absentees are struggling with domestic violence, disability problems or debt.”

Furthermore, Department for Education guidance regarding The Equality Act 2010 states,

“Indirect discrimination occurs when a “provision, criterion or practice” is applied generally but has the effect of putting people with a particular characteristic at a disadvantage when compared to people without that characteristic.”

Given that children with disabilities or long term health problems, or children from a particular religious group will be at a clear disadvantage when it comes to the school’s reward system, I would suggest it could well be argued that said system is discriminatory and in breach of said Equality Act.

I get that schools are under pressure to achieve certain targets. I do. And I get that they need to encourage good attendance, and tackle poor attendance. But this fails to really tackle any underlying issues, and is surely not the way.

Oh, and by the way, a slip from 97% to 96.9% does not a data trend make.


Yes, children do need a six week break. At least.

August 2, 2016

I haven’t blogged for a while, so I must start by congratulating the Telegraph’s Angela Epstein on writing an article last week that is so ridiculous, irritating and poorly researched that I am quite certain a response to it, pointing out these deficiencies, should be a fairly straight forward task.

Basically, she’s moaning about the length of the school summer holidays, a shocking 6 weeks here in the UK. Personally, I’m more shocked about how short they are. But every year we have to listen to this ‘it’s so inconvenient for working parents’ type of whinging, and Ms Epstein seems to have taken this to a new level.

Her attitude towards the teaching profession shines through beautifully – from begrudging teachers a family holiday over the summer (they should be marking and lesson planning apparently), to throwing in a little snipe about teacher’s strike action – it’s clear how supportive and understanding she is of all the challenges teachers currently face.

children-playing-outdoorsThen there’s her attitude towards how children might spend their time out of school. She seems to think that learning can only take place either in school or during organised activities, otherwise kids are simply ‘stupefying and incubating’ in front of screens. Well yours might be. But here’s an idea; How about you step up and try actually being a parent? How about you limit screen time? Force the kids to find something else to do. (You’d be amazed how imaginative they can be, even if you can’t be). Take them out to the park or the woods.

“Long gone are the days when children just played out” she observes. Sadly, this is true for many. But why? How about trying to buck this trend? Two major contributors to this decline are paranoid parents, and screen technology. Both of these factors are within Ms Epstein’s control.

She claims that “children thrive when engaged in organised activities”. I wonder where her evidence for this claim comes from. I’m sure there are indeed plenty of excellent, very stimulating organised activities that we can pay for our kids to participate in, if we have the money. However, these are not essential. Child-led free play, however, is. Failing to recognise this shows a sorry lack of understanding as to the many different ways in which children learn and develop.

But no, Ms Epstein goes on to state that “School is a place where our children’s minds are stretched and their imaginations are given flight.” I laughed out loud at this one. Did she make this up herself or copy and paste it from some school website? If only it were true, and if you really believe this then I can see why a 6 week break might not be seen as a good thing. But me, I’m glad to see my child have a break from an education system that is so preoccupied with standards and testing that it leaves no room for any imaginations to breath, let alone take flight. Hasn’t Ms E been aware of all the furore surrounding SATs and new national standards, and the serious concerns about these raised by the teaching profession?

She does, however, rightly point out that our literacy and numeracy standards are shockingly low compared to the rest of the developed world. But then her answer to this, like that of many misguided education secretaries, is to shorten the school holidays. The system is failing, so let’s get kids to spend more time in said system. Hmm. Let’s have another look at the rest of the developed world, with which we compare so unfavourably. I wonder how long school holidays are in the countries with the most successful education systems. That’s right, you’ve guessed it – they’re longer.

Finally, if we’re going to talk about how the reasons for the length of the UK’s school summer holidays are historical and out of date, let’s look at the reason for the early school starting age in the UK, also out of kilter with other, more successful countries. The sooner kids started school, the sooner they finished, making them available to enter the workforce as cheap labourers. This, too, is no longer relevant. But I doubt Ms E would have wanted to wait another year or two for school to provide her children with a reason to put down their mobile devices.

So, if you must whine about the length of the school summer holidays, at least be honest about it. It’s inconvenient for working parents, and can be a challenge when you’re not used to having so much time in which to find things to keep the children occupied. Fine. Don’t try to make out that a shorter break would be better for the kids. All the evidence suggests otherwise. If your children’s minds can’t be stretched and their imaginations allowed to take flight during the summer break, then something is indeed seriously wrong. But it’s not with the length of the holidays.


Is common courtesy a thing of the past?

January 29, 2015

Much has been written about last week’s story of the parents who received a ‘no-show’ invoice after accepting a party invitation for their son and then failing to attend. This rather petty squabble between parents has managed to hit national news and capture the attention of many, with most reports, comments and articles I’ve read seeming very much to take the angle that sending such an invoice is really quite ridiculous.

But whether or not that’s the case, doesn’t anyone else think Mrs Lawrence has a point? She may not have chosen the best way to make her point, but I think she has a very good one nonetheless.

rsvpNewsflash: Accepting an invitation to a party then not showing up is rude. Sorry, but there it is. Or perhaps the craziness of kid’s parties nowadays, that this little episode has set everyone squawking about, includes the decline of basic social norms, the loss of societal etiquettes that include consideration of other people. The excuse the parents gave for the no-show was, frankly, lame. And no apology or explanation to the host either. Not OK.

And yet these parents appear to be so totally unashamed of their behaviour that they are willing to talk to the national press, brazen-faced pictures of father and son with the offending invoice appearing everywhere, with a video to boot, as if they are entirely the victims here, the fault all on the side of the parent who had the nerve to remind us all of those seemingly long-lost laws of common courtesy.

The inclusion of the child in the photos and video I find particularly inappropriate. What kind of lesson does this teach a child?

Because when adults behave badly, they teach children to behave badly too. We can’t be perfect all the time, but really, let’s try to be a little more mindful of the kind of role models we’re all providing for the next generation. Let’s try to teach our children about being considerate and respectful towards other people, about resolving issues using a little emotional intelligence and maturity, and yes, a little basic common courtesy.

But coming back to the general squawking about kids parties, Zoe William’s article in The Guardian is a great example of this. She complains not just about the cost of hosting the party itself, including the venue, the entertainers and the party bags, but the cost of buying presents when you’re invited to one. Well boo hoo. Here’s an idea – how about you don’t spend £20 on a gift voucher from Next for Christ’s sake, and just get a book online for less than a fiver? When Ms William’s ready-made £3-a-piece party bags failed to arrive, she went shopping in John Lewis instead. “Don’t even ask how much that cost”. Really? John Lewis? Sorry, but I’m struggling to have much sympathy with such middle-class lack of resourcefulness and imagination. How about trying Poundland? Or better still, we all just stop doing party bags? Whose idea were these anyway and when did they start? A bag full of rubbish the kids will immediately break or lose in their quest to get to the only thing it contains that they really want – the slice of birthday cake.

People will just go along with these things whilst bleating about ‘pressure’ and ‘guilt’. The only thing forcing parents to spend so much time, effort and money on kids parties is the parents themselves.

And how does all this excuse Mr Nash’s behaviour?

When my child was in reception one of the parents invited the whole class to a party. She later told me that only half those people bothered to even reply to the invitation, which clearly stated RSVP. Call me old-fashioned if you like, but I think that’s just shocking. You may think the parent was mad to invite the whole class, but that’s not the point here, not an excuse for rudeness.

Similarly, the cost of the party Mrs Lawrence chose to host is not the point. Yes, in choosing to host a party you take the risk that you end up paying for more people than actually turn up. That’s always a risk with any party. But it’s a risk because people can simply be downright rude and inconsiderate, and for this there really is no excuse.


Not listening

April 14, 2014

not listening girlResearch presented at the Royal Economic Society’s annual conference last week has suggested that shouting at children and giving out punishments could make their behaviour worse rather than better.

No kidding. Many parents have known this for years. Unfortunately many have not though, so it’s nice to see this recent piece of research reported in the mainstream media.

Interestingly, however, all the articles I’ve found on the subject only mention shouting in the headline, even though the report from the London School of Economics also warns against punishing and ignoring children.

Certainly, shouting is the only part picked up on by Telegraph journalist Rowan Pelling in her article which she may as well have titled, “I was shouted at and I’m fine”. Dismissing the research, in favour of her own minimal anecdotal evidence, she paints a great picture of how said shouting and punishing really doesn’t help, and in doing so does a great job of defeating her own argument.

She and her husband shout all the time, she is happy to reveal. So guess what? Her kids shout too. Surprise, surprise. Furthermore, her attempts at punishment to control said kids leads to cheeky back-talk. There’s a lack of cooperation, a lack of respect.

And yet, instead of trying to address this, Ms Pelling seems to assume that this is simply the way family life is. It may have been the way her family life was – she’s also happy to reveal, again no surprises here, that she was shouted at regularly as a child.

Shouting is necessary? Kids won’t listen to reasoning? I wouldn’t listen to or respect someone who shouted at me, or tried to use their power to control and manipulate me. I’d push back against those attempts at control. I’d be very disinclined to cooperate with them or respect their wishes.

Shouting won’t do any harm? Unless, by harm done, you include teaching kids to shout at you, at others, and eventually at their own kids, and the daily harm that does to family life. The harm that this does to family relationships, to the connection our children need to feel with us in order to be inclined to cooperate in the first place. And actually there’s plenty of evidence of the emotional harm that regular, frequent shouting can do. It’s been placed in the same league as smacking.

Yes, we all lose it and shout at our kids sometimes. But this latest report isn’t talking about the occasional loss of control. It’s talking about parents, apparently like Ms Pelling, who think it’s OK to do this all the time, every day, and to be so unashamed about it they’re happy to write an article in a major national newspaper dismissing any evidence that it is in fact not OK, not helpful, and counterproductive to boot.

When are we going to learn to stop being so defensive about our parenting to the point that we can’t take on board new information or reflect on where our parenting assumptions are coming from? When are we going to learn to use our own childhood experiences to make changes for the better, instead of blindly carrying on with the worst? When are we going to start listening?


Reasons my son is crying: I was too busy taking a photo of him and publishing it on the internet to care.

October 29, 2013

An interesting article in The Guardian this weekend about Greg Pembroke’s massively popular blog in which he posts pictures of his own and other people’s children crying, with a caption giving the reason. It seems millions of people find this highly amusing. The reasons are always so ridiculous, you see.

Infant CryingThis isn’t the first time I’ve heard about this blog. Other parenting writers that I follow have already had some words to say about it. Janet Lansbury, for example, wrote an excellent article about it back in April. But the Guardian article caught my attention because many of the things Greg Pembroke is quoted as saying actually seemed quite reasonable. Perhaps he’s not all bad, I wondered.

He claims he is not making fun of the children, but simply posting pictures that give a more realistic representation of life with a toddler. True, it’s not always rosy. Also true that it can help us through what can be at times an extremely trying task of parenting small children, if we can lighten up, not be too serious all the time, and not be too hard on ourselves when things don’t go swimmingly. Toddlers cry a lot. They can throw a total fit about the craziest things. Parents enjoy some solidarity knowing it’s not due to their failings as a parent, but just that their child is, well, a child.

At the end of the article, Pembroke is quoted as saying, “I think that if you’re present, loving, and not a total push-over, your kids will turn out fine”. Some truth in that, although I’d suggest it’s not quite that simple. But the problem here is this: How does taking a photo of your child when they’re crying equate to being present and loving?

I’m really struggling with this one. I’ve looked at the blog. The pictures are mostly of very distressed looking kids, and they’re mostly staring right at the camera. So it’s not like the pictures were taken when they weren’t looking (not that I think this would make it OK anyway).

Now, even if Pembroke gets the whole notion of toddlers getting easily overwhelmed by feelings they don’t know how to deal with, about frustrations that have been building up all day, about needs they’re struggling to express, about the fact that it may not actually be just that little thing they’re crying over, it may be just the last straw, or a trigger for some bigger upset they’ve been storing. Even if he gets all this, and after taking his photo he validates, sympathises, comforts. Even if he does all this (and I think there’s reasonable grounds to suspect that he doesn’t), how must the child feel when, before being the present and loving parent Pembroke describes he says, “Oh, just hold on while I take a photo of you.”? Because in saying this he’s saying “This takes priority. This is more important than your feelings. I don’t care that you’re upset.”, and a whole host of other things, none of them good.

Why is it so often considered acceptable to treat children with less respect than we would adults? If you were crying over something, how would you feel if the person you count on most in the world to take care of you pointed a camera at you in the midst of your distress? And then posted the picture on the internet for all to see. It may not be Pembroke’s intention, as the article claims, to make fun of these children. But making fun is exactly what he’s doing, along with disrespecting them, disrespecting their feelings, and exploiting their powerlessness and vulnerability.

And don’t give me “They’re not really distressed”. They are. That’s why they’re crying. Tears or no tears, there are big feelings and emotions being dealt with here.

Yes, we parents don’t need to get all upset and serious about each and every thing our toddlers have a meltdown over. Parenting small children can be exasperating. And it’s fine to allow our children space and time to have a good cry. But pointing a camera at them while they’re doing this is not. It’s not supportive, it’s not respectful, it’s not loving, and it’s not funny.


Children or dogs?

July 23, 2013

How often do you hear parents threatening to go without their children in an attempt to get them to come with them? I’m sure I hear it every day. “Bye then, I’m going”. Yeah, right.

So the other day, when I was walking along the street and heard someone call out “Come on. I’m going then. Come on….”, I assumed it was someone talking to a child. The next moment I saw a dog run in front of me and jump into the back of a car. I looked round to realise I’d actually overheard someone calling to their dog.

My mistake. But a mistake easily made I think in a society that still allows the smacking of children, talks about ‘training’ babies, dishes out rewards for “good behaviour” like doggy treats, and expects children to sit still and be quiet in impossible situations.

dogWe often see signs in public places saying things like, “Please keep dogs under control”. The other day I saw one saying, “Please keep children under control”. Whether or not it was necessary in this particular place for children’s activities to be restricted is not the point here. The choice of words conveys a certain attitude I think. How about, “Children must be kept on a lead” or better still, “No children allowed”?

The government’s proposed new Anti –Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill seems to go with this idea that children are merely a nuisance. Replacing the ASBO with an Injunction to Prevent Nuisance and Annoyance (IPNA), children can now be served with this injunction if they are deemed to be behaving in a way that can cause “nuisance and annoyance”. A rather wide definition of anti-social behaviour don’t you think? Can I serve my child with this injunction when he wakes me up in the night? Has a melt down? Leaves things all over the floor?

Ok, I’m being silly now, but this bill raises some real concerns. The Children’s Society and the Standing Committee for Youth Justice, along with 24 charities wrote a joint letter to the Times expressing their concern that these measures will “serve as another barrier stopping children playing outdoors with their friends in the street, the park or other public spaces, further jeopardising the physical and mental health of children”. They point out that the Association of Police Officers “has suggested that the new threshold is too subjective and could unnecessarily criminalise children for simply being children”.

Children can be noisy, they tend to want to run about a lot, they like climbing on things and, well, their agenda just isn’t the same as that of adults. Frankly, it’s time we just got over it and accepted that curtailing, and even punishing, their natural behaviour, really isn’t good for their long-term health and well-being. Children are not dogs, they are human beings, they are part of our society, they have needs, and they deserve a little more consideration and respect.


The latest brainwave from Liz Truss.

June 17, 2013

light bulbA nation of parents let out a collective cheer of relief last week at the welcome announcement that the government proposals to increase child to staff ratios in childcare settings had been scrapped. Liz Truss, the woman behind the deeply unpopular idea seemed to lie low for a while. But now she’s back with another so-poorly-thought-out-it’s-actually-quite-funny idea; this time for parents to run after school clubs to make life easier for, er, parents.

?!

“Many parents want to work longer than 9-3” she says. OK, so if all parents are working full time, a vision this government seems hell-bent on making a reality, who are these parents that are available to run after school clubs??

Oh, of course, that would be the part-time working or stay-at-home parents who no longer receive child benefit, and can’t claim help with childcare costs under the new scheme that discriminates against them. Sure, they’ll be willing to give up the time they want to spend with their own children in order to care for the children of full-time working parents. I don’t think so Liz.

And let me just clarify something; Liz Truss’ title is ‘Children’s Minister’ right? I’m not entirely sure, but I’m guessing that means her job is to represent the interests of children. So where do they figure in all this? Have their needs even been considered while the government all fall over themselves in an effort to accommodate full-time working parents and sideline the rest?

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again; schools are supposed to be about education, not childcare. They’re 9-3 because that’s long enough for the children. Anything longer is too long, especially with the ridiculously young age our children have to start school in the UK.

So how about  you do your job, Ms Truss, and start thinking about what’s best for children? Surely they’re the group of people here that are most in need of someone to look after their interests? They’re the ones whose own small voices are not heard and who need someone to speak and advocate for them and for their needs.

I await with interest Liz Truss’ next idea.