Reading the news today that the valiant Isle of Wight father, Jon Platt, lost his case in the UK Supreme Court comes as a sickening, if hardly surprising, blow to ordinary, law-abiding parents.
Mr Platt bravely fought the state on its insistence on fining him for removing his daughter for one week so they could go to Disney, because his daughter had been ‘regularly attending’ school having a 92% attendance rate. According to High Court rulings between 1969-2006, he said, this could be defined as ‘regular’. But no longer.
None of this is a surprise to those of us who’ve had children in State school for more than 5 years. In that time, we’ve felt the tightening of the strings on the strait-jacket that school has become. Firstly, the imposition of fines for parents who take their children out without permission in 2013, the connection of attendance rates with Ofsted ratings and the de facto removal of the Head’s authority to grant up to 10 days absence per child.
The Prime Minister, Theresa May, was quoted as saying in response to the ruling:
“It’s right that the individual head teacher has that flexibility to make that decision.”
Precisely, Mrs May! Isn’t this exactly the point? Government policy of late has removed heads’ discretion to allow parents to take their children out for a few days if most of the year the child has attended well. This is most likely why Mr Platt wasn’t given the authorisation to take his daughter out of school by her school’s head in the first place. The Heads of both my children’s schools tell us straight that they simply can’t authorise absence for anything unless its compassionate leave or attending entrance exams for another school. Anything else is simply not a ‘good reason’ no matter what the circumstances.
Whilst I appreciate that time out of school can set pupils back a little and also put more pressure on teachers who have to get the pupil up to speed, it is far too restrictive to stop pupils from enjoying a once-in-a-lifetime holiday that couldn’t have had if their parents respected term dates owing to financial or time constraints.
So when James Eadie QC argued in court today that it would be “absurd” if parents could go on holiday with children in a way that “undermined” Government policy on unauthorised absences, he’s right. But the issue is the fact that the absences can never be authorised for anything other than pretty dire situations.
Isn’t this issue what Lady Hale should have focused on? If the High Court is meant to be separate from, and not a puppet of, the State, then judges need to be challenging what are very clearly unreasonable policies by the State. By removing the traditional maximum of 10 days authorised leave that Heads can allow (which is, I agree, pretty generous), they are removing the personal touch from schooling. The touch that says “I know your child, your family, and your circumstances, and I believe it would overall benefit your child to be absent for this time?”
Surely these policies are designed to curb the bad behaviour of the few, not act as a bludgeoning tool for the entire nation? You know the kind I mean, the parents who have little or no respect for figures of authority and who couldn’t care less about school rules.
As Mr Platt said in his statement outside the court today, “This is not about term-time absences, it’s about the state taking away freedoms from parents to make their own decisions about their child.”
Lady Hale, in her summing up, said that allowing parents to decide when they took their children away would be a “slap in the face” to parents who kept the rules. I’m sorry to differ, Lady Hales, but it is government policy that is the slap in the face to us parents who stick to the rules. We do so under duress, and plenty of it, not wanting to be fined or to cause confusion to our kids by undermining teachers’ authority.
More seriously it is not just the parents who feel this duress, it is our children who also keenly feel it. My daughter, aged only 12, keenly feels the weight of achieving 100% attendance with form tutors lecturing them every week about it, and making comments like the need to come in “even if you’re feeling a bit ill.” Whilst I understand the importance of instilling a sense of responsibility for attending school, the way it is done feels like heavy pressure.
Add this to the constant pressure she feels from the regular half termly testing, constant homework and strict consequences system (again, designed for the worst offenders, not girls like her) and it is easy to see why kids are becoming increasingly stressed. The government cannot continue to keep pointing the finger at social media as the cause of this malaise only.
And how have the Department for Education responded to the ruling? Oh, only to entrench this in law. A spokesperson said “We are clear that children’s attendance at school is non-negotiable so we will now look to change the legislation. We also plan to strengthen statutory guidance to schools and local authorities.”
And so the jacket tightens.
Before long they’ll have stifled the fun, joy and creativity out of children and their education.