There’s a telling word in the judgment handed down today by the UK Supreme Court about parents, children and term-time absences. The Court ruled in favour of education authorities in their appeal against a father who refused to pay a fine after taking his daughter on holiday during the term.
The ruling in effect upholds not just fines for parents who take their children out of school without permission (to be given only in “exceptional circumstances” according to the ban) but community sentences and jail if fines aren’t paid.
Is it all down to naughty parents?
In announcing the decision — which hinged on issues like the interpretation of “attend regularly” — the deputy president of the Court, Lady Hall, remarked on the disruptive influence of absent children. Going on to say:
‘If one pupil can be taken out whenever it suits the parent, then so can others … Any educational system expects people to keep the rules. Not to do so is unfair to those obedient parents who do keep the rules, whatever the costs or inconvenience to themselves.’ (Emphasis mine. Source: The Guardian)
That use of the word “obedient” says it all.
This isn’t about involving or acknowledging parents and their role in schools and educating their children. This isn’t about acknowledging that for many families because of work, farflung relatives or special educational/leisure opportunities outside of the classroom. This is about a change that was brought in Michael Gove in 2013 to crack down on term-time absences in state schools, taking the approvals process out of the hands of individuals and creating a blanket ban. This is “rules are rules” and the people who break them are naughty.
How to handle term-time absence requests is no longer at the discretion of parents, teachers and administrators (the schools have to abide by the rules of the ban and its definition of “exceptional”). The opinions of the very people who will know if a few days absence will adversely affect the child are out. A hard-and-fast rule is in.
The real motivations?
It’s hard not to be cynical about the motivations for councils and the Education Department. First, there has been a “surge in fines” according to the Guardian — 20,000 fines 2015 alone. One can appreciate how the revenue these fines generate might contribute to the pugnacious defense of them.
So far, 553 people have served community sentences and 8 have gone to jail. To jail! With this ruling, we could see that rise.
There’s little solace in the Court’s defense against this.
‘The answer in such cases is a sensible prosecution policy. In some cases, of which this is one, this can involve the use of fixed-penalty notices, which recognise that a person should not have behaved in this way but spare him a criminal conviction,’ Lady Hale said.
‘Don’t worry, you may not be prosecuted,’ seems to be the message. You just have to rely on whoever is in charge to be “sensible”.
But this bizarre punitive stance is less about ensuring children’s educations or even fines. It’s about the state grappling with its mission and the people it’s supposed to serve.
What schools really need
Every day we hear about the infrastructure of schools crumbling, about playing fields being sold off even a new anti-obesity campaign launches. Schools budgets are being cut, with some schools asking parents for donations or even hiring fundraisers to help fill shortfalls.
Every few years it seems there are new initiatives meant to sort out our schools problem, from trying to force all schools to become academies (whoops! No, we’re not doing that anymore) to revamping the types of tests kids take to debating the return of grammar schools.
Schools need money, resources and clear curriculums. They need to be able to train, remunerate and keep good teachers. They need to be able to officially recognise that children are at different levels and have different needs. Parents need schools that involve them and also acknowledge what modern life and modern families are like (and the fact that 3 months of summer childcare is challenging for anyone with a job).
It’s a lot easier for the government to focus its attention on something contained, like term-time holidays, instead of a system and problems that are crying out for real leadership.
What are kids really missing?
I’ll leave you with this final thought: The Department of Education insists that these missing days are absolutely vital to children, that every minute lost to the classroom sends a child down the wrong path. “The evidence shows every extra day of school missed can affect a pupil’s chances of achieving good GCSEs, which has a lasting effect on their life chances,” says a spokesperson in the Guardian article.
You have to be in school to learn the lessons, no doubt about it. But any parent whose child has spent the last few days before a school break watching movies in class or enjoying “free play” will be wondering to which GCSEs (with the newly introduced 1-9 I Level grading system!) these lessons apply.
What do you think? Do you think the term-time ban is a good idea or do you disagree with the ruling? Tell us in the comments!