Opinion: New policy on school attendance is illiberal

I owe Labour an apology for labelling the push a few years ago to reduce Heads’ discretion on family holidays as ”Nanny State”: no consultation with parents, just an assumption that only the state & education system could be trusted with a child’s best interests. There was a parent rebellion at our local primary school.

Nanny has now been replaced by the Patriarchal State  in an approach that implies “As some pupils have been skiving, the whole school will be kept in.”

As of this September, approval of all family holidays during term time is banned other than in “exceptional” circumstances.  In the Q&A from my daughters’ secondary school, where approval is given for say a wedding or bereavement, evidence will be required and the Head must indicate how many days are allowed. Bereavement leave to mourn any other than “immediate” family (eg an aunt) would not be included. Fixed penalty notices are waved.

This deeply illiberal measure goes to the heart of the relationship between the state, the individual and family life. As one parent said “It is time we re-established parents as the primary carers”. While schools are targeted on the exam results, my target is happy, well-balanced, well-rounded, open-minded, emotionally intelligent children equipped to deal with the fact of existence, life, death and a rapidly changing world. The state’s role is to facilitate that, not to take it over or inhibit it.

Charlie Taylor’s Review on which this policy is based is unreferenced. It appears to have missed significant research such as that by Glasgow University which indicates that whilst the educational establishment considers parents to be the key cause of absenteeism, parents & pupils cite school factors such as bullying, boredom and stress.  The Dept of Ed’s refusal to consult on the Review (I asked), particularly parents, makes it a one dimensional document. (And can I ask, is it usual for a Secretary of State to accept unevidenced documents as Mr Gove did here?)

For this and many other reasons I am actively supporting Emma Whiting’s campaign and e-petition on the 10 Downing St site to have this reversed.

On a practical basis, schools’ new ability to set their own term dates significantly increase the chance that parents with children in different schools will have to remove one to take a family holiday.

It does nothing to help those who are most vulnerable: single mothers who keep their children at home for company are often cited to me. Punishing young women whom the education system failed for the total natural human instinct of keeping their children close to them? Unacceptable. Good education welfare officers are the way to help.

There seems to be a clear need for a deeper level of understanding: for instance if anyone is aware of research which considers the link between diagnosed and undiagnosed dyslexia, absenteeism and attainment, please let me know. It is ridiculous that even motivated parents with children in highly rated OFSTED primaries struggle to have this recognised.

The pupil premium, in giving Heads more discretion, not less, to use positive and creative measures on a local basis to engage children and parents is an approach we can be rightly proud of, rather than this use of an inappropriate sledgehammer.

* Karen Wilkinson was Parliamentary Candidate for Kingwood in June 2017

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38 Comments

  • I agree. This is an area where flexibility and common sense are needed, rather than heavy-handed, rigid diktats from Whitehall (isn’t the coalition supposed to be in favour of local discretion rather than top-down rules?). I also think that this is yet another policy which will hit the poor more harshly than the rich – better-off parents will just take their children off on holiday, regardless, and pay the resultant fine.

    As for the question – “Is it usual for a Secretary of State to accept unevidenced documents as Mr Gove did here?” For this Secretary of State, the only “evidence” required is his own opinion.

  • Andrew Suffield 21st Jul '13 - 9:39am

    You appear to have found a number of real problems here, but this bit caught my eye:

    It does nothing to help those who are most vulnerable: single mothers who keep their children at home for company are often cited to me. Punishing young women whom the education system failed for the total natural human instinct of keeping their children close to them? Unacceptable.

    Obviously punishing them is wrong, but that’s not “total[sic] natural”, it’s a serious psychological problem that is harming the children, and the state does need to intervene in these cases. Treatment is the right answer, and foster care where necessary for the welfare of the children.

    (Yes, I am aware of how bad the foster system is; it needs to be applied cautiously, but there’s still plenty of cases where leaving the child with their parents is worse. I’d like to see a serious proposal to reform the foster system with a view to improving outcomes.)

  • Nonconformistradical 21st Jul '13 - 10:22am

    “Andrew – I disagree, The idea that mothers and children must be separated at the age of 4 is a relatively modern phenomenon.”
    Karen – are you implying that there are no circumstances in which you consider it would be better to remove a child from a mother at the age of 4? However bad the parenting?

  • Nonconformistradical 21st Jul '13 - 10:28am

    ” What is illiberal is that this measure seems to be a centrally determined policy, rather than one that has been genuinely left to the discretion of individual head teachers and governing bodies to enable them to take account of local and individual circumstances.”
    Looking solely at the issue of taking children on holiday during term time (as opposed to other issues around non-attendance at school) – I’m struggling to understand in what circumstances taking a child out of school during term time to sit on the beach in Marbella or wherever is more important than the child’s education.

  • Helen Tedcastle 21st Jul '13 - 11:48am

    I agree with this article – this is an illiberal move and an example of the nanny state at work: the ” Gove knows best” phenomenon, which we have had to endure for the past three years.

    Of course there is no evidence needed. Gove didn’t need evidence to introduce the new History curriculum until 96% of History teachers and eminent Historians, ( even some who were ‘consulted’ on an earlier draft), condemned the final version as made up on the back of a fag packet by Gove and his cronies. It has now been watered down.

    Sadly, Conservatives are not known for their compassion regarding single mothers, or the most vulnerable. It is up the Liberal Democrats to stop their worst excesses. Inexplicably, on this occasion, Gove has not been stopped.

  • Simon Oliver 21st Jul '13 - 12:15pm

    this
    http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/15377903.2013.751478#.UevCHI3VBfs
    found no significant relationship between level of absenteeism and reading attainment levels – may be worth following up on their research to see what they’ve published more recently and what others are saying who cite their research.

  • Helen Tedcastle 21st Jul '13 - 12:16pm

    I would add that I have just signed the e-petition (link above in Karen’s article) and I would urge all Lib Dems to do the same! We need to change this illiberal move by Gove.

  • This is exactly the sort of illiberal control freakery that we despised New Labour for. I remember a similar discussion last time the rules were tightened and amongst the evidence that they needed to be draconian was the example of a parent who had said that their child had missed a day’s school because their hamster had died and she had taken her to buy a replacement. Well, sorry, but anyone who thinks that a child’s emotional well-being is less important than spending another day sitting in a classroom knows very little about children or education. My daughter didn’t go to school until she was 12 and feels she missed nothing educationally by not spending six years at primary school.

  • Ben Jephcott 21st Jul '13 - 12:41pm

    Signing the petition, this has got to be stopped.

    I am amazed this idea has been signed off by the coalition – not just from a Lib Dem point of view, but also that the Tories have backed it (if it has been ‘signed off’ – I rather suspect this is just Gove at it again without consulting anyone).

    Criminalising the extended family seems a strange policy for Conservatives, and from a Liberal perspective it puts the state ahead of the parent in a rather radical and dangerous way – but so very Gove, so very Blairite.

    I also think that the headteacher’s discretion is the best check and balance for holidays during term time, some parents in some kinds of job will find it difficult to do otherwise.

  • What do employers’ groups think of this? At present many employers face heavy demand for holidays in, roughly, a six week period. This move, combined with more autonomy for schools to set their own term times could potentially reduce that gap to four weeks or so.

    For employers in London, this is less likely to be a problem as their staff come from a wide area and will have children at hundreds of different schools. For those employers, the holiday season may even be increased, thereby reducing the problem of maintaining sufficient cover. However, elsewhere in the country, there will be employers with many local staff and, therefore, children at far fewer schools. If, for instance, the main secondary school decided to have significantly different holidays from the feeder primary schools, an employer could find heavy demand for holidays in a very short period.

  • anon this time 21st Jul '13 - 5:30pm

    Twenty years ago, our ten-year old son would come out of school at 3.30 yawning after yet another unproductive and largely wasted day. Then he would get home, wake up, and start some real education – reading something he actually wanted to read, or programming his BBC Micro, or building a model, for example. When our children were primary age, we used to deliberately take our holidays in June – not mainly to save money, but because it meant our children could have the whole summer break at home, where they learnt more than they did at school. (Admittedly this doesn’t apply at secondary level, where parents won’t easily match the specialist teaching a school provides). In those days, we “got away” with it – to everybody’s benefit!

  • Tony Greaves 21st Jul '13 - 7:13pm

    I am sorry but I am not amazed at anything that David Laws accepts. I doubt if any of the education ministers understand the real world of families, children and ordinary schools.

    When I was at primary school we often took a family holiday in June due to cheaper rates, better weather (this country of course) and less demand from my father’s co-workers. I still used to come top of the class or nearly so.

    I recently dealt with a single mother whose housing benefit and working credits had been stopped due to false allegations that she had a man living with her. So her two sons no longer qualified for free school dinners. She could not afford to pay for school dinners so kept them off school for several days (in bed due to no heating). [The school stepped in and provided free dinners anyway – and it has not all been resolved – but what a nightmare at the time].

    Tony Greaves

  • Nonconformistradical 21st Jul '13 - 7:48pm

    @Tony Greaves
    “When I was at primary school we often took a family holiday in June due to cheaper rates, better weather (this country of course) and less demand from my father’s co-workers. I still used to come top of the class or nearly so.”

    With respect Tony (and I have enormous respect for you) you are obviously a very bright person, you are an Oxford graduate (unless Wikipedia is wrong) and catching up on a missed couple of weeks of school might be a good deal easier for people like you than for a large proportion of school students. I’m guessing that your parents cared a good deal about your education and ensured you made up afterwards anything you might have missed through being on holiday in term time.

    A child whose parents may not see the value of education may not bother about their child missing school – I suspect that child is – unless very able – unlikely to catch up on what they might have missed.

  • Helen Tedcastle 21st Jul '13 - 8:00pm

    @nonconformistradical: There is a big difference between occasional absence from school and frequent absence. Every schoolteacher knows that the children who occasionally miss school – even for a holiday which could be taken for very good reasons in term time – will catch up. These children do not have to be potential Oxford undergraduates to fit into this category.

    The real problem of absence in term time is with a small number of persistent absconders and the parents who allow it. Often these parents have chronic problems and may have had poor educational attainment themselves.

    Gove’s ‘initiative’ is like taking a sledgehammer to crack a nut. This is going to punish parents who work hard but cannot afford to take a Summer holiday at the peak .

    It also punishes families with an extended number of relatives – Aunties, Uncles. Children will no longer be allowed to attend funerals of these relatives on compassionate grounds with incurring an ‘Unauthorised Absence’ – tantamount to calling attending a funeral, truancy.

    How is this beneficial to families or society in general? How is this Liberal? Answer: It isn’t.

  • Tony Greaves – “I’m sorry but I am not amazed by anything that David Laws accepts”. Quite. I have not forgiven him for opposing, and then supporting the abolition of, the Education Maintenance Allowance. For a family on benefits that £30 a week made all the difference. Ok, I’m sure there were people receiving it who didn’t really need it and who spent it on booze, fags and drugs as the Daily Mail would have us believe, but there were also people like my granddaughter who without it could not afford the bus fare to college and whose education then came to a grinding halt. It infuriates me that the millionaires who govern us appear to have no concept that what to them is loose change is a life changing amount of money to someone who is poor. I haven’t spent my life working for the Liberal Party and the Liberal Democrats to end up making life harder for the people in our society who already have to struggle to survive.

  • Andrew Suffield 21st Jul '13 - 11:20pm

    I have not forgiven him for opposing, and then supporting the abolition of, the Education Maintenance Allowance. For a family on benefits that £30 a week made all the difference.

    But that’s exactly why it was scrapped – it wasn’t for families on benefits. It was overwhelmingly claimed by everybody else who didn’t need it. The whole point of getting rid of it is so that we can spend the money on policies which actually are targeted on the people who really need it (notably the pupil premium). Your complaint is effectively a proposal to take money away from families on benefits and give it to the wealthy middle classes. I am fundamentally opposed to this idea.

  • anon this time 21st Jul '13 - 11:44pm

    Nonconformist radical: Sure, not everybody is like my son or like Tony Greaves. Other people in different situations would take different decisions to suit their different needs. That’s the advantage of allowing freedom of choice.

    Now, I can see that (read Tim Holyoake and Helen Tedcastle) there may be situations where a school may reasonably want to say to a parent “in your case, it would be wrong”. That’s very different from a blanket diktat by central GOVErnment.

  • “But that’s exactly why it was scrapped – it wasn’t for families on benefits.”

    It was for low income households with children aged 16+ in education, whether they were on benefits or not. According to wiki, the IFS found in a study that staying-on rates (in education) improved up 5.9 percentage points among those who were eligible.

    The pupil premium doesn’t help kids aged 16+ who don’t go to school but are in education and who don’t get free travel. Our son got EMA and it only just covered his bus fares to & from college. Without it he would not have been able to go to college and as a result wouldn’t have got his qualifications that led to his employment.
    Thank goodness he had finished his course before EMA was abolished.

  • Surely Tony Hill speaks for the majority of Lib Dems with his statement:
    ” I haven’t spent my life working for the Liberal Party and the Liberal Democrats to end up making life harder for the people in our society who already have to struggle to survive.”
    Perhaps these people are invisible to those within the Westminster bubble. Shame on them.

  • Andrew Suffield 22nd Jul '13 - 8:23am

    According to wiki, the IFS found in a study that staying-on rates (in education) improved up 5.9 percentage points among those who were eligible.

    You are deliberately, cynically, and outrageously avoiding the point. Of course giving them a tiny amount of extra money is beneficial to a small extent. But that’s not what you’re arguing for. You’re arguing for a policy that mostly gave a lot of money to a lot of other people who didn’t need it, instead of giving substantially more money to people who really did need it, which clearly would have given better outcomes. That is fundamentally wrong and I will always oppose it.

    The pupil premium doesn’t help kids aged 16+ who don’t go to school but are in education and who don’t get free travel.

    That’s a creatively specific statement. Do any such people exist who need help? Free travel support for 16-19 year olds in full-time education is widely available. There is also the national 16 to 19 bursary fund which is available to low income families. You are suggesting that there is some problem with these schemes but carefully avoiding saying what it is, almost as if you don’t want the problem to be solved, you just want to point fingers and complain. That would mean you’re just harming children for political advantage, which is shameful.

    Without it he would not have been able to go to college and as a result wouldn’t have got his qualifications that led to his employment.

    Well that’s just scaremongering, and after the rest of your post, I’m inclined to doubt it’s even true. Policies are in place to make sure that this sort of thing does not happen. You have given no reason to think they don’t work, you’re just pretending they don’t exist.

  • Andrew Suffield 22nd Jul '13 - 8:34am

    Perhaps these people are invisible to those within the Westminster bubble.

    If this was true in any sense then we would not be spending massive amounts of money on new policies designed to help them. Clearly it is not true.

    This is what we’ve been doing. None of these things could be done by somebody who was unable to see things outside the Westminster bubble.

    Surely Tony Hill speaks for the majority of Lib Dems with his statement

    Well not really, because the majority of the party knows how much we’re actually doing. Our policies in government have done more to help the disadvantaged than either of the other parties have in recent years, and they’ve been done under far more strenuous economic conditions. Just imagine what we could do in a strong economy.

    And what do our opponents have to say in response to all this? They don’t bother claiming it doesn’t work, because it clearly does. They can’t argue that we’re wasting money on frivolities, because we’re not. They just pretend that it never happened, because the only thing they can come up with is a lie.

  • Nonconformistradical 22nd Jul '13 - 9:33am

    Quoting from Matthew Green’s posting..

    “I am not surprised it has got past Mr Laws. I think he sees it as his mission to prevent pupils from worse off families from falling behind. Non-attendance of children at school, including at a very young age, is clearly a factor in poorer children falling behind their richer peers.”

    If David Laws sees it as his mission to prevent such pupils from falling behind then more power to his elbow in my view.

    “I’m not really sure that stopping your child getting on in life is one of the great liberal freedoms we should be dying in the ditch for.”

    Quite. For a government to stand by and allow a situation where some children are being hindered in getting on in life on account of their parents’ cavalier attitude towards education is a total betrayal of those children.

  • Helen Tedcastle 22nd Jul '13 - 11:48am

    @ Matthew Green: “I am not surprised it has got past Mr Laws. I think he sees it as his mission to prevent pupils from worse off families from falling behind. ”

    Another Education Minister “…on a mission.” The problem with these missionaries (since 2010) is that they tend not to listen to people on the front line. If they did, they would not create a situation where children and their parents are penalised for attending funerals, for example.

    “Non-attendance of children at school, including at a very young age, is clearly a factor in poorer children falling behind their richer peers.. I’m not really sure that stopping your child getting on in life is one of the great liberal freedoms we should be dying in the ditch for.”

    As has been pointed out, there is a difference between persistent absence and occasional absence. I do not believe for one moment that previous generations of children have missed schooling and fallen behind due to attendance at funerals or occasional term-time holidays. I know that from experience. There is a problem with some children – not all from poor families by the way – I could give you examples of comfortably off families taking children out.

    It is very naive to think that children who miss school occasionally are unable to catch up. It is sensible to target those who miss school persistently.

    Can we please have some common sense from the missionaries currently occupying the Department for Education?

  • Julian Critchley 22nd Jul '13 - 12:23pm

    The problem, as always, is that the deeply illiberal approach of central diktat to familes about how they order their lives is ill-suited to circumstance.

    For example, we’ve already had people point out here that for many students, missing a week or two for a family holiday is not something which would disrupt their education. Indeed, some schools (a shrinking number, sadly) still run school trips which may last several days to a week, and as with many parents, I would argue that these trips can be far more useful in terms of the overall development of my children than another week in the same classrooms.

    Similarly, there are differences about when the absence takes place. With the best will in the world, some children could miss an entire half-term of Y7,8 or 9, and be no worse off for it, whereas missing a full half-term of GCSE or A-level studies would almost certainly hinder their exam prospects.

    Where teachers would generally agree that absence is a problem is when you have a student who is absent two or three days EVERY WEEK. But usually, that absence is a symptom of a much deeper malaise at home, so it’s not the absence, per se, that is hindering the child so much as their entire circumstance.

    All of which ultimately adds up to this : local discretion is vital. The ability to judge when a child is being harmed (or helped) by an absence is held locally, and as a result, the discretion to act should be retained locally. This Stalinist approach of “the state knows best, and everyone tow the line or get fined” is not just illiberal, but wrong.

  • Andrew Colman 22nd Jul '13 - 1:32pm

    I agree with the article.

    This kind of legislation preventing parents from taking children out of school for even short periods would not be out of place ion Soviet Russia or Nazi Germany. In this and a number of other areas, the government are failing to see the the big picture in the drive to meet education targets , something they used to criticise labour about.

    Children benefit loads from the experience of holidays and can easily catch up 2 weeks of work. Time to think again

  • David Allen 22nd Jul '13 - 6:21pm

    Some of this problem may be down to harmful changes in the way teachers are nowadays expected to teach. Once upon a time, it was sensibly understood that primary learning was a gradual process, involving revisiting and reinforcing each topic several times over so that understanding would eventually grow. Nowadays, schools buy commercial educational packages which tell the teacher exactly what must be taught at 9.45 on week 15 Thursday morning, and then – crucially – produce semi-automated reports which tick all the necessary boxes.

    The schools need these stultifying aids now, because without them, they would never have time to tick all the boxes. Though of course, the reports aren’t very meaningful, because they aren’t the result of genuine thoughtful observation of the pupil by the teacher.

    It then becomes a terrible thing to miss the 9.45 lesson, because it will never be repeated. The fact that learning will be impaired if it is not reinforced is of course a problem – which can “best” be solved by cramming the kids for the next test and scraping them through the mark scheme.

  • Andrew Suffield 22nd Jul ’13 – 8:23am

    What an insufferable character you appear to be.

    Every word I wrote was true & fyi student travel is not free where we live in deepest darkest West Sussex ! Have a look for yourself: http://www.westsussex.gov.uk/learning/college/post_16_transport.aspx

    It is posters like you that prevent others from speaking out so well done, I will never post on this site again.

  • @ peter.tyzack

    ” The requirement for your child to attend school is enshrined in law …”

    No, it isn’t.

  • James Robson 25th May '14 - 1:32am

    You don’t even consider others in your desire to let parents take advantage of cheap holidays (that’s all this is about).

    What about the children themselves who find themselves at a different stage from their peers on their return?

    What about the teachers who have to put in extra work to make sure that each absent child has (eventually) caught up with any work they’ve missed? How exactly do you make up that lost time?

    What about the other pupils who suffer because the teacher has to focus on the absentee child/children instead of the rest of the class?

    Try and remember that we’re talking about many teachers for each child, for each absence.

    This is all about a lack of parental responsibility. Rather than give priority to their children’s education, they choose to take their kids out of school at a time which suits them. It’s disruptive, inconsiderate and plain irresponsible.

    Can you please at least and look at this from the perspective of those responsible for your children’s education? Parents should be working with teachers for the benefit of their children – not against them.

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