Excuses, Excuses

As a teacher, one of my absolute pet peeves and daily frustrations is the way in which school administrators, along with parents, are creating an ‘excuse culture’ amongst the young people who attend Queensland schools in which students are not expected to take any responsibility for their obligations as a student or member of the broader school community. Students are expected to be at school every day of every school term and it is the responsibility of school administrators and parents to make sure this happens. However, as it stands, too many students treat school as an optional activity because administrators and parents are failing in their responsibilities. They are willing to accept any excuse proffered as a valid reason for non-attendance with no consequences or repercussions for such absences.

The reality is, other than an illness that would physically prevent a student from attending school or would put other students at risk, there is no acceptable excuse for not being at school. Illness doesn’t include the parent-diagnosed ‘flu’ or ‘virus’ or other such homespun assessment of medical symptoms. It should only apply to those injuries/illnesses diagnosed by a qualified medical practitioner in which clear evidence is provided that outlines why the student cannot attend school. It should never be the case that a student can simply decide whether they are going to go to school or not. In my time as a teacher, I have heard a range of excuses for non-attendance, including:

“the car broke down”
“family holiday/long weekend away”
“had to look after brother/sister”
“relatives visiting from interstate/overseas”
“mum and dad were at work and we had a property inspection, so I had to be at the house”
“extra shifts at work”
“hangover”
“release of a new video game”
“went to a music festival”
“friend/relative died”
“parent/sibling is in hospital”
“had a doctors/dentists appointment”
“was getting a tattoo”
“went shopping”
“broke up with my boyfriend/girlfriend and couldn’t face them”
“slept in and didn’t see the point in coming late”
“mum/dad lost their licence and couldn’t drive me”
“trains/buses weren’t running”
“my bike had a flat tyre”

These are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the ‘reasons’ given by students for not being at school and, believe me, I have encountered many more equally ludicrous excuses. Of course, every time a student is away from school, the onus is then on teachers to make time to ensure that the student is afforded the opportunity to catch up on any work missed. If parents actually took their responsibilities seriously and school administrators weren’t so weak willed when it comes to expectations and consequences around attendance, students might develop a much more realistic understanding of the demands and expectations of the world beyond school. Given that students are only expected to be at school for around 6 hours a day, it is hardly an unreasonable expectation that they can meet such a time commitment, particularly given the excessive amount of holidays, public holidays and pupil free days that they get every year. The problem is that enrolment numbers determine funding and staffing, so schools don’t care if students attend or not as long as they stay enrolled, which is a really sad indictment of how public schooling is administered in Queensland.

Allowing students to turn up at school only if, and when, they feel like it is an abdication of responsibility with regard to helping young people develop resilience and understand concepts such as responsibility, commitment and mutual obligation. Student absenteeism has reached such epidemic proportions that many schools now reward students who attend every day of the year. Why? Students are expected to attend every day, so what are they being rewarded for exactly? If a student attends every day, they are simply doing no more, or less, than what is expected of them when they enrol, so why is that meritorious? Because so many students are away for so many days every year, somebody who actually attends school each day as expected somehow comes across as a hero figure. The number of students who attend school every day of the school year should be the overwhelming majority, not a miniscule minority as is now so often the case. Whist it might be easy to blame the students, it is the parents and the school administrators who need to take responsibility for allowing this culture and attitude to become accepted practice.

It is not just issues around attendance that have seen the development of an excuse culture within Queensland schools, such attitudes pervade every aspect of school life, from arriving late at school, to not wearing the correct uniform, to behaviour, to not completing work or submitting assessment on time. For whatever reason, there seems to be a real fear in schools about enforcing established policies/expectations in these areas. As with failing to attend, there are no valid reasons for students not to be meeting all of their obligations in these areas every day, yet schools make no effort to enforce such expectations. A recent example of the utter disregard of policies and expectations regarding attendance and assessment submission occurred last year with a Year 11 student I was teaching. This individual submitted four of six assessment pieces late; that is they submitted them after the due date for submission. On each occasion, the assessment was late because the student did not attend school on the due date, effectively giving tham additional time to complete the work. No valid reason for their absence was provided and no penalty was applied for either the absences from school or the late submissions, even though school policy clearly outlines that students cannot be absent from school without a valid reason and that all assessment MUST be submitted on or before the due date. Despite her persistent and consistent breach of school policy regarding both attendance and assessment submission, the following year the student was awarded the school captaincy. What a woeful example to set to the rest of the school population and what an appalling message it sends to the school community about the standards and expectations of the school. This is a disgraceful, but sadly far from isolated, example of how schools are failing to make students accountable for their actions, or lack thereof, across all aspects of their schooling.

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