Today, quite rightly, consistent attendance by pupils is seen as one of the key benchmarks of a school’s success. Thankfully, attendance at Mearns Academy remains very strong with some young people going through school for six years with a 100% attendance record.
The school is currently averaging an overall attendance figure of 95%. However, especially in the early years of secondary education in the Mearns, there was always likely to be disruption to pupils attending school. This was primarily due to four factors: bad weather, lack of transport, illness and involvement by pupils in the harvest.
Inspection reports about the school during most of the last century frequently lamented the poor levels of attendance. This, of course, affected pupils’ performance in exams and tests. In times when the school received grants according to the level of pupils’ competence, this was clearly a concern.
It would certainly appear to be the case that winters in the past were harsher.
Frequent references in the school log books are made to the effect of storms:
March 24, 1899: Great storm prevailing – school dismissed for the week and attendance cancelled;
January 22, 1945: Only one pupil present today as all roads are still snowbound;
January 30, 1946: There has been a recurrence of the storm. Attendance has suffered - very few pupils in this week.
February 15, 1963: Severe blizzards continue – only eight pupils attended this week.
Even in very recent times (for example the winters of 2010 and 2011) the school is still affected by bad weather but with better communication systems and transport the impact tends to be more short-lived.
With regard to transport, today buses are provided for pupils living outwith the Laurencekirk area. Previously, of course, many pupils either walked to school or came by bicycle. Indeed, if a pupil lived more than three miles from school the authorities would provide a bike free of charge for travel to school. Another historic figure on a bike was the janitor, otherwise known as ‘the whipper in.’ He would often be charged with riding to the homes of reluctant students to persuade them to follow him back to school!
However, the most single contributory factor that challenged attendance at school was, and still is, illness.
As late as 1953 the school record of infectious and contagious diseases encountered included scarlet fever, diphtheria, measles, whooping cough, mumps and chicken pox. Persistently as well, influenza visited the school. The school log books record, frequently, clear testimony to the impact this had:
November 18, 1912: school closed for two weeks owing to the prevalence of scarlet fever – this by order of the medical officers;
November 25, 1918: because of influenza, school will be closed until December 2.
June 15, 1920: the school will require careful disinfecting during the vacation after the measles epidemic this term.
Even after programmes of immunisation were introduced in the 1920s and 30s, epidemic diseases still took their toll. Tragically, in 1934 for example, three pupils died within a three-week period – two of them from the same class and all from influenza.
In 1940, it was chicken pox that was prevalent, in 1948 mumps was the main concern and in the 1950s polio was still a feared disease. Indeed, in 1954 the school was closed from September 28 until November 18 because of this. Furthermore, that year also saw the entire school close in December due to influenza.
It was, of course, the case that teachers as well as pupils suffered and school log books frequently refer to significant staff absences. Indeed, former rector Mr William Lang died from influenza while in service.
One other perennial irritant to headteachers trying to encourage attendance was the historic issue of pupils working on farms – especially at harvest time. As early as 1919 the rector commented: ‘The irregular attendance at this school is a serious matter – due to farm work quite a number of pupils have not attended school for two months.’’
Similarly, the log book entry for September 15, 1933, comments: ‘Farmers have commenced to lift the potato crop earlier than usual – attendance badly affected’.
The ‘tattie’ holidays remain a feature of the school calendar today. Last century, however, the dates of the holidays were not set in advance – they would be confirmed by local farmers according to the state of the crop. ‘Holidays begin today at 4pm’ would be an announcement of good news to pupils, but a more trying situation for the headteacher! Indeed, in 1897 it transpires that the whole school was dismissed without the headmaster’s knowledge. Similarly, the school log book entry for October 15, 1948, suggests the frustration of movable dates for holidays: ‘School should have returned today but holidays for potato lifting have been extended another week.’’
One development that increased attendance at school was the raising of the school-leaving age. In 1947 it was raised to 15 and in 1972 to 16. This was designed to ensure compulsory education was more complete – a sentiment not entirely shared by all pupils! For example, George Thomson 2C, aged 14 when writing to the editor of the school magazine, responded: ‘Like many boys of my age I am very much against having to attend school until I am 15. I feel it is a waste of time when I could be working myself and making my parents’ burden easier.’’
As ever, preparation for the world of work is today one of the school’s key duties and the adjustment of the curricular to meet this aspiration in a rapidly changing society remains a major challenge.