Sick bugs and toxic policies

This week, I’ve been thinking about illness and absence. As someone who has entered the post-pandemic trend of working from home, I feel remarkably cushioned from the winter bugs currently circulating. By this time of the year, as a full-time teacher, I would have been hit by at least one virus, maybe two. I worked in a building filled with over a thousand teenagers and around one hundred adults. The results were inevitable.

The news is currently filled with the tangible threat of being in such close proximity with others. It seems unsurprising that cohorts of children, who have spent a significant part of their formative years in lockdown, are now experiencing a surge in both viral and bacterial infections, a spike in cases which might otherwise have been spread out over the last two years. I have around 30 online clients who are under 18 and every single one of them has been suffering with something over the last few weeks – even those who are home-schooled, since they live with siblings who attend school and bring the bugs home. It’s simply unavoidable.

One of the few positives that I hoped would arise out of the recent pandemic was a shift in attitude away from dogged presenteeism and towards a more pragmatic approach towards what it means to keep your colleagues and your schoolmates safe and healthy. The schools I have worked in were as guilty as most when it came to dolling out awards for 100% attendance, something which has always made me acutely uncomfortable.

My own attendance record as a colleague was excellent, but something which colleagues will not have known about me was that my school attendance as a child was absolutely dire. Percentages weren’t recorded in the 1980s with the same zeal as with which they are now, but I would guess that my attendance hovered at 70-80% – well into the “danger zone” by modern standards. I have no desire to bore you with the reasons in detail, but suffice to say I was in and out of hospitals a lot plus I was – to be frank – just a sickly child. If I got something, I got it with bells on, and I usually lost several kilos in weight during the process. All in all it was not a happy time – for me, or for my family.

Thankfully, in recent years there has been some pushback from professionals against the use of attendance awards, with several high-profile voices in education raising the obvious point that they are discriminatory. This is especially true of awards which pool the results of a group or a cohort, thereby harnessing the toxic influence of peer pressure. A student such as I was, with complex medical issues leading to unavoidable absences from school combined with what amounted to a string of bad luck, would have been hammered mercilessly by the modern system. Not only that, but the students who are the real targets – you know, the ones who could definitely do with getting their tails into school a little more often – remain markedly unmoved by the whole system.

It never ceases to amaze me just how much schools somehow convince themselves that their rhetoric and pressure-systems will have any effect whatsoever on the miscreants they are supposedly aimed at. As it happens, my oldest friend was one of those miscreants. She was perfectly fit and healthy but managed to attend school rather less frequently than I did. She just didn’t like school (or at least, she didn’t that particular school, a sentiment with which I have some sympathy). And yet, when our maths teacher lost her cool with my friend, and let it slip one day in front of the entire class that she was nicknamed “the part-timer” in the staff room, she embraced the title like a badge of honour. I still throw the so-called insult at her occasionally, and it still makes us both laugh nearly 40 years later. The very notion that she would buck her ideas up and attend school more often as a result of this gibe is utterly laughable to anyone who remembers what it was like to be a teenager. Why on earth would she have cared? Get real, Mrs Rutherford. Yes, I remember you.

Of course, attendance is important. But it is unrealistic to think that our pathetic attempts to maniupulate the teenage mind is having any effect on the Ferris Buellers of this world. More than this, our heavy-handed systems are indeed having an effect: they are pressurising the most anxious of students to attend school when they shouldn’t. I can name countless students over the years who dragged themselves into school when they should have been at home in bed. Not only was this detrimental to their own health, it was detrimental to the rest of us who were exposed to their viruses. Even worse than this, I have known students distressed that their attendance record might be affected by their presence at a family funeral or arising from otherwise distressing circumstances. This is madness. And it’s our fault. Presenteeism is a horrible curse upon the dutiful, the well-behaved, the sensitive and the anxious child – and that’s before we even return to the issue of students who suffer from underlying medical conditions or disabilities which require regular medical attention and/or intervention. By contrast, it has no impact whatsoever on young Ferris.

As if these systems being used on children were not bad enough, many of us on EduTwitter were made aware this week of a school which has been marking its staff’s identity badges according to whether that member of staff had achieved 100% attendance at work. The justification for this was that it would “raise a great opportunity for staff to start conversations with students about the importance of attendance.” Not only was I blown away by what a spectacularly toxic thing this is to do to your staff, I once again found myself thinking of the vanishingly small handful of staff that this policy is (presumably) aimed at.

Come on, admit it. We’ve all worked with at least one or two of them in our time; the one whose name appears on the cover sheet with such glorious regularity that it becomes a kind of performance art. But will they be shamed by a policy like this? I guarantee you that they will not – they certainly weren’t shamed by me covering their lesson for the umpteenth time in a term, so I fail to see why anything so prosaic would make a difference to their attitude. Once again, we have a system which punishes the dutiful and fails to address the actual problem. Poor attendance by individuals (a rarity in schools in my experience, but something which does occur on occasion) is something which needs tackling directly, frankly and robustly by SLT; manufacturing a shaming system for every staff member that falls foul of this year’s worst winter virus is heartless in the extreme.

When it comes to both staff and students in schools, we need to stop idolising the notion of “in at all costs” for the costs are too great – costs to the sick individual and costs to the community. If your child is ill, they should be at home. They should also make a conscious and proactive effort to catch up on their return. Schools should have an effective and workable cover policy, one which leans towards usage of set work and does not pressurise the sick individual to be sitting at their laptop at 4.30am writing cover sheets (which I have done in my time). Schools also need to face up to the fact that policies need to focus on making life less comfortable for the individuals that do make a habit of their absence – not introduce shaming systems which will harm members of the team who are trying their hardest.

Photo by Matthew Henry, via Unsplash

Author: Emma Williams

Latin tutor with 21 years' experience in the classroom. Outstanding track record with student attainment and progress.

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