Why Require Attendance?

This article is a response to the article “Compulsory Self-Directed Learning?” by unschooler Wendy Priesnitz, in which she criticizes Sudbury model schools, among others, for having compulsory attendance. Says Priesnitz: “What do you call it when students are allowed to self-direct their learning but their attendance at school is compulsory? I call it cognitive dissonance.” She goes on to call this “a violation of children’s rights” and claims that it “negates the principle of self-direction.”

This is an important article and I’m very glad she wrote it. It’s a good question and deserves a good answer. First I’ll say that the answer does not merely have to do with history; the original Sudbury Valley School had (and still has) compulsory attendance, but we at The Open School often have doubts about our attendance policy (students must attend at least 80 percent of school days each year). Every year we have conversations about this policy at our School Meeting — why do we need it? what would happen if we relaxed it? — and every year we reaffirm the wisdom of the original choice.

There are many schools in the United States that offer Self-Directed Education but do not require attendance. Americans are allowed to do this thanks to our country’s openness to homeschooling, which I think is a good thing. And homeschooling drop-in centers provide a valuable service to homeschoolers.

The Open School, on the other hand, provides a different kind of service for those who want it. That service is a stable, reliable, full-time community. If a young person signs up for The Open School, they are signing up for a place where they can find their friends five days a week, and where they have enough time to accomplish significant collaborative work. It is simply impossible to provide such a community without requiring attendance, in today’s highly mobile society. Naomi Fisher, a parent of children who attend a democratic school, described this well (also in response to the article by Wendy Priesnitz):

I’ve organised groups which have collapsed for lack of commitment, I’ve had to explain to my children that the friends who they have been desperate to see for weeks have changed their minds on the day, leaving us with no plans. I’ve been on home education trips where half the people have come an hour late or not turned up, meaning the rest of us were waiting outside because we all had to go in together. I’ve also seen my daughter howling as we cancelled our plans because her brother refused to go out, whilst my son sat on the sofa with his headphones on, exercising his right to say no, even though yesterday he had agreed to go.

This is not to say that it’s impossible to create a stable, vibrant community without requiring attendance — only that it’s harder to do so while telling people “come when you feel like it.” Students are more likely to treat drop-in centers as just that — drop-in centers — rather than families.

When students feel like their school is a kind of second family, they are more likely to care about what happens to the school and what happens to the other students. They are more likely to try to work out conflicts with others, rather than hiding away. They are more likely to oppose unfair policies using the school’s democratic process, rather than simply complaining about them. They will work harder to recruit new students to the school. In short, they will treat the school more like it’s serious business. And when everyone is treating the school like it’s serious business, everyone benefits. We end up with a stronger community when everyone is invested.

The Open School makes no pretense that we’re doing a student a favor by requiring them to come to school when there’s something else they’d rather be doing. That’s not the point of the attendance policy. The point is to protect the integrity of the community, to create a better environment for everyone. You could argue that this infringes on children’s rights. But you could also argue that children have a right to a stable community, and you can’t have your cake and eat it too.

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