How to reduce absenteeism at the end of term

Too many days of our children’s education are being allowed to be wasted, writes Peter Hellyer

Many children go on vacation before the end of term. Delores Johnson / The National
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Last Thursday, the school year ended, with hundreds of thousands of children, and their parents, free to get on with whatever they have planned for what’s going to be a very long summer holiday.

It’s been a tiring third term, especially for those who have been fasting during Ramadan. Both teachers and students have been exhausted over the last few weeks. They deserve a good, long rest.

As usual, a considerable number of students, presumably with their parents’ approval, opted to start their holidays long before the end of term. Once examinations finished, many simply stopped going to school, though there were still three weeks to go. What an unproductive waste of a good part of the academic year!

A dramatic decline in attendance towards the end of the summer term is nothing new. Because of Ramadan, the drop-out rate seems to have been even higher this year. This is, I suggest, an issue which needs to be seriously addressed before next summer.

I can understand why students who have completed examinations set by external institutions and who are heading off to university in the autumn may decide there’s no point in attending right up to the end of term. For others, though, it’s less justifiable – such as those whose parents have simply decided to fly off on holiday a week or two earlier, as soon as internal exams end, because of the cheaper airline tickets.

I know from my own experience that the more students who fail to come to school, the harder it is to persuade others to attend. When only six of a class of 23 are turning up to school with over a week to go, it’s not easy to convince those remaining that they must still get up in the morning. There have been, I am sure, many cases of early morning stomach aches and headaches, given as an excuse not to go to school, that miraculously vanish by mid-morning.

A couple of weeks ago, I discussed this end-of-term absenteeism with some parents and teachers to try to identify ways in which it could be reduced in future. One idea I put forward was that teachers should try to give their classes an early, but gentle, start on next year’s curriculum. There would still be the need, it was pointed out, to repeat the teaching in September, for the whole class, when all students were present.

Another idea was that the last few weeks could include some all-class activities which would enthuse students, whether at school or outside, through visiting museums, sports facilities and the like. For older students, subject, of course, to the approval of the educational authorities, this could be an ideal time to plan group trips abroad; a way to celebrate the approach of the end of the year which all would enjoy.

Such ideas – if feasible – might help. One underlying cause of the problem, however, would still remain: that once examinations end, with a long holiday ahead, it can be very difficult to motivate students to come to school, whether or not they and their families are planning to head off abroad.

Perhaps one answer, then, is to change the timing of the examinations, even if that can’t be done for students in private schools taking examinations set and marked abroad. That schedule is fixed – and for students who have to adhere to it, some other ideas need to be developed.

For internal exams, guided by a UAE-set schedule, however, surely something can be done, even if it means that the final results cannot always be delivered to parents before the end of the school year. I hope that the various government bodies supervising education will look seriously at suggestions put forward by the schools, whose teachers are often very frustrated by the current situation.

As things stand, too many days of our children’s education are being allowed to be thrown away.

Peter Hellyer is a consultant specialising in the UAE’s history and culture