Why Attendance Awards Are A Bad Idea (And May Be Harmful, Ineffective, And Illegal)

A blue and gold attendance award certificate. States 100% attendance - ideal student - signed a non-inclusive school.


You may have gathered from the title that I am not a fan of attendance awards. As attendance figures remain low, schools are using attendance awards as an incentive to improve attendance.

However, these awards are unfair, penalise students who have been ill, unfairly impact students with SEND. Research shows that attendance awards can be counter-productive, and may be illegal, encouraging discrimination against protective groups. School attendance awards need to stop.

Attendance Awards Are Unfair

I’ve always found awards that reward children for their parent’s behaviour unfair.

A few years ago, I observed a class of reception children. The children who had read a book at home that week got a biscuit, those whose parents hadn’t signed the log didn’t. I remember thinking at the time that those children whose parents who were too busy to sign the log, who forgot because they were worried about bills or were sick, or those who didn’t care were already disadvantage. Did they really need to miss out on a biscuit for something that wasn’t their fault?

The same is true of attendance awards. Students who are fortunate enough not to get sick get rewarded. As do those who enjoy school, or who don’t have any special educational needs or disabilities which may make 100% attendance more challenging.

Unlike the reception class I observed, the reward for attendance isn’t just a biscuit. Many schools are going far beyond a certificate and are giving out ice-creams, cinema tickets, trips and even bikes to those with 100% attendance.

As blogger and author Rachel Wright says: If ‘attendance awards’ are being handed out then, like fines, they ought to be targeted at the parents’.

Attendance Awards Penalise Students

This point is the opposite of the above. Students who find school challenging, or who are dealing chronic conditions, or who are simply unlucky enough to catch an illness, miss out. As do students who are dealing with a family bereavement, or whose parents are struggling with issues that make it hard to get their children to school every day.

Attendance Awards Spread Illness

By encouraging 100% attendance, schools are encouraging the most conscientious (or desperate) pupils to come into school even if they are ill. Even if they have Covid or have vomited a few hours before. This obviously puts staff and students are risk of contracting the illness, making it likely to spread. There is little point in having a sickness policy stating that children should be off school for 48 hours after sickness or diarrhea if you are giving out bikes and trips for 100% attendance!

Attendance Awards Encourage Masking

Many Autistic students ‘mask’ at school. Masking is when people hide parts of themselves to try and ‘fit in’ or appear ‘normal’. It involves children suppressing their anxiety, stims, and how they are really feeling, so they appear fine.

They mask their emotions, appearing fine when distressed, or stressed. They mask their preferred Autistic ways of being and communicating, forcing themselves to adopt neurotypical ways of being like making eye contact, or small talk to try and fit in. An Autistic child who has a high regard for rules and a desire for approval may go to school even when they are too physically or mentally unwell to go. Autistic adults are now speaking out about the long term damaging effects that masking does to their mental health and sense of self.

Damaging to Relationships

Some schools give attendance awards to the class with the highest attendance. The thinking behind this is that peer pressure and wanting to help the class win will result in better attendance.

There are two problems with this. Pressure is put on children who bring the class average down. Their classmates may get frustrated with the child who is absent for preventing them from achieving an award, and this may affect the way they treat the child.

The second problem is the rest of the class are unfairly affected. My son’s class won an attendance award before Christmas. He is still on roll but doesn’t attend. Does that mean his class never has a hope of winning? How do they feel about that?

Attendance Awards Aren’t Effective

Conversely, attendance awards aren’t going to work for students who really hate school. My son has experienced emotionally based school avoidance. School was so challenging for him, that he was too anxious to attend. No reward or certificate was going to motivate him to go in.

Interestingly, a study by Harvard Kennedy School demonstrated that the promise of a reward had no impact on the attendance of students. Researchers measured the impact of attendance awards on over 15 000 high school students.

A Counter-productive Measure?

The same study by Harvard Kennedy School found that students who received a certificate for 100% attendance resulted in more absence the following month! Absence increased by 8% in students who had been rewarded for their attendance.  

There seem to be several reasons for this

  • Rewards communicated to students that 100% attendance was something special and rare, rather than the norm. This gave the message that students had earned taking some days off
  • Attendance awards rely on extrinsic motivation which can then reduce students internal motivation to attend
  • Older students might feel that 100% attendance awards mark them as different from their peers. They may miss some days of school to fit in again with their peers and achieve a ‘cool’ social status again

Attendance Awards May Be Illegal

Disabled students are protected by law from discrimination under the Equality Act. Schools should ensure that children with disabilities are not disadvantaged and that reasonable adjustments are made.

However, the Department for Education has not issued any guidance to schools on how this relates to attendance awards. This means that each school decides itself how to implement such schemes. Attendance awards given for 100% that don’t account for absence due to disability are discriminatory and likely illegal.

Attendance Awards Need to Stop

Some alternatives to attendance awards are

  • Building relationships of trust with students. Ensure that students are warmly welcomed to school. Instead of being met with criticisms about uniform or lateness, focus on the positive that the child is present. There are too many stories of children who struggle to attend school due to their mental health being put in detention on their first day back for a minor infringement – being 5 minutes late or wearing the wrong shoes.
  • Building relationships with parents, and working together to understand and overcome barriers to inclusion.
  • Understand the underlying reasons for absence – do you need to make school more inclusive? Invest in mental health? Reduce the sensory demands so children don’t experience overwhelm and need a day off to recover.


Attendance awards have no place in an inclusive school. They are discriminatory, unfair, harmful and promote a culture of exclusion.

Does your school give out awards attendance? Can you advocate for this to stop?

If you found this article helpful please share on social media.

This blog post is from a series of posts about school policies. You may also be interested in:

Withholding Playtime – A Sanction That Works?

School Toilet Policies – Why Some Students Can’t Just Go At Breaktimes

How Rigid Uniform Policies Discriminate Against SEND Students


  1. This is spot on, thank you for writing it. Yes, my son’s school does this & we are at the start of form filling for referral for autism assessment/ SEND. I will most definitely share!! 😊

    1. Thanks Claire. Good luck with the assessment process. It’s a long journey, but it pays to be the persistent parent who keeps chasing! I’d also encourage you to write you your Headteacher / Chair of governors about the attendance awards. If enough people do things will change.

  2. I feel like this needs to be explored by higher authorities. I grew up with several undiagnosed disabilities that affected my health and meant that I couldn’t always be present in school and I always felt like I was doing something wrong by being absent whenever I saw my friends winning awards for 100% attendance.

    1. I’m sorry you had this experience Lillie. You’re right, I think we need to try and change it at a school level, and higher up. As someone else commented on Twitter, the push for attendance by Ofsted is driving a lot of this. Ofsted puts pressure on schools, and this gets transferred to parents and kids.

  3. Great article. Thank you for putting this together so concisely. Would be great to have more research to back it up too.

    1. Thanks! Yes, there isn’t tons of research out there at the moment. I will keep my eyes open!

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