Our schools need to learn a lesson or two

Monday 8 December 2014

One of the reasons so many want Britain to quit the EU is all that infuriating Brussels bossiness.

But we should take a hard look at our own, home–grown bureaucratic bullying while we're at it.

Supercilious, officious Little Englanders are becoming increasingly accomplished at pushing us around and we are letting them get away with it.

Take school holidays. Or rather don't unless they're the officially approved ones, the Christmas, Easter and summer sojourns and sundry half terms. What I mean is when parents choose to take their children out of school in term–time whether it's for a couple of days or even a couple of weeks.

Schools are meant to be taking an easier line with families who do this following headline–provoking cases where parents have been fined or even summonsed when they flatly refuse to pay up.

But I doubt these draconian punishments will soften. Why? Partly because of Ofsted's league tables.

Schools are judged not only on academic achievement but also on attendance. Head teachers competing with each other for ratings know that they will lose points for agreeing to pupils taking time off during term. So they use the threat of local authority fines to back up a refusal.

But there's something more judgemental and puritanical going on here. There have been outrageous cases of children refused special leave to attend family funerals, memorial services, or weddings. It's almost Stalinist in its cold–hearted, statist denial of the personal.

But as for those who simply can't afford the premium rates charged by airlines and hotels during officially–sanctioned school breaks they haven't a snowflake's chance in a heatwave of getting permission to take a family holiday during term–time. So they either go without or they lie: Tommy has tonsillitis, Mary the measles.

It's all born of a very modern British, mean–minded rectitude. We didn't used to be so joyless and inflexible. Other countries aren't.

Recently in Disneyworld, Florida, I noticed countless American families with children of all ages enjoying themselves but it wasn't holiday time. Surely these children should be in class? I did some straw polling. Were rules being broken, educational conventions flouted? Nope.

"This is normal, man," one slightly incredulous Massachusetts father told me. "Everyone's allowed to take their kids out of school for family stuff, you know, holidays, special occasions. Just so long as you don't abuse it, it's cool.

"Do we have to ask permission? What? Are you kidding me? Family comes first. Family decides stuff like this not schools or government."

Time and time again I heard the same thing and when I explained that in the UK parents were specifically barred from taking their children on holiday during "semester" and punished if they do I was met with universal blank looks.

My sister Elizabeth recently retired after 40 years as a teacher working in the state sector. I asked her what she thought about our aggressive policy on pursuing parents who take their kids out of school.

"It's bonkers," she said flatly. "Obviously you don't want children missing class at important times, like the start of a new term or revision and exam periods but otherwise I can't see the slightest problem.

"Missing a few days or even a fortnight shouldn't cause any lasting harm. And a family holiday is hugely valuable in itself.

"Education and growth isn't just about sitting in a classroom."

But back to Disneyworld. A family with three children that I buttonholed turned out to be British.

"Shouldn't your kids be in school?" I gently asked. "Yes," said the mother, "but we could never afford to come here outside term time."

"So what have you told the school?" "Flu." QED.

Read Richard and Judy's Express column in full here.
Add a Comment

There are as yet no comments

Be the first to make a comment.