Opinion: We are enablers not dictators

The way to school

My brother has been battling cancer for just over a year, I asked for a week last October to take my children out of school as while he was having a break from his long going chemo treatment as we wanted to go as a family, it was denied even with the detailed letter attached , sadly my amazing wonderful 26 year old brother died this April , thanks to the stupid government rules I will never get to go on holiday with my brother again, I should of just paid the fine, if that is not exceptional circumstances then I don’t know what is!

LibDem Voice reported on Sunday that 44% of respondents to its poll are in favour of allowing parents to take term time holidays and 48% against.

Parents Want a Say is the campaign group fighting to reverse the school attendance policy changes and champion the voice of pupils and parents in education. John Hemming MP and myself are among the founding members. The Sunday Times this week covered the legal action we are supporting (here and here) and this website gives an outline of our legal issue with the policy. The statement above is one of the many nonsensical decisions reported to us daily because, contrary to the presumption of the Department for Education, parents who take their children out of school in term time do so for a wide range of reasons.

Here’s another case told to me by my neighbour, a retired teacher. A few months ago, she had advanced a plasterer working for her payment against his last piece of work. He’d been saving for years to take his family on their very first overseas holiday, was all ready and had borrowed a suitcase to take all their things. At the last minute he’d discovered another airport tax, hence the need for the loan. They went somewhere inexpensive in the Med – the sort of holiday which is routinely cited to me as being of no educational value. Going out of term time would have rendered the whole enterprise unaffordable. On returning from the holiday, he was fined for taking his children out of school. The retired teacher was horrified. “The educational benefit to those children of using an airport – let alone flying or visiting another country – was immense. That father worked hard for years to give his children something the school couldn’t – how dare he be branded an irresponsible parent!”

Besides the lack of evidence in favour of this policy and plenty against it, there is a very strong political reason for supporting the repeal of this law. It is highly indicative of the breakdown in trust between politicians and people. There is a sense in the wider world that politics, and now education, are characterised by an attitude of “we the educated professionals know better than you what is good for you so we have the right to dictate how you live your lives”. Politicians are perceived as not trusting voters.

Yet we are the party which aims to help people to achieve what they want to achieve. We are enablers not dictators, bottom up not top down. Our biggest think tank is our membership. That is the story we have tell very clearly if we want people to re-engage with a political party – and repealing this policy is a great place to start. If you agree, please tell the manifesto group so at www.manifesto2015.com.

Photo by Nicola Jones

* Karen Wilkinson was Parliamentary Candidate for Kingwood in June 2017

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38 Comments

  • Tsar Nicholas 4th Jul '14 - 10:28am

    My condolences to you on the passing of your brother.

    Sadly, the trend in England seems to be to deny children permission leave of absence for grandparents’ funerals and even their own mothers’ weddings.

    This is not in any way a feature of a free society, and unfortunately the trend towards a ‘liberal totalitarianism’ continues.

  • David Allen 4th Jul '14 - 10:38am

    We lock up two classes of people in this country: those who deserve punishment for their crimes, and those who are under 18.

  • Isn’t there a saying about hard cases, and the kind of law they make?

  • I tend to think parents can not win they are told look after them but state interfears with holidays, food types if it could I feel sure they would regulate air quality in the home.

    I also offer my condolenses for the death of her brother beurocracy gone mad

  • Jenny Barnes 4th Jul '14 - 11:18am

    If you see school as a sort of prison for children, it’ll make much more sense.

  • Don’t we call the sort of people who see school as a prison for children, ‘children’?

  • even their own mothers’ weddings

    Presumably not a wedding to their father?

    Oh, no, that would be terrifically old-fashioned, wouldn’t it?

  • Must not let them off the cattle truck, lest they see there’s a more educationally fulfilling world beyond the drab snot flecked walls and high windows intended so kids could not see out!

    Deschooling Society should be the liberal approach 🙂 Reading Ivan Illich the first step!

  • I’m sorry but I can’t help but think that if some of those commenting had to readjust lessons,provide additional work ,find a new Jesus for the nativity at 24 hours notice because the pupil who was taking on the role has gone skiing,they’d see things differently.It’s not just the individual child that’s affected when parents “pull” their kids in term time it very often generates additional work for the teacher and may well impact negatively on classmates.
    Sorry if it’s a bit ranty but my wife’s a primary school teacher who works all the hours God sends and dedicates herself to helping her pupils achieve the best they can – and to read comments like Jenny’s…….

  • Richard Dean 4th Jul '14 - 1:27pm

    If you see school as a prison for children, that’s what it will be.
    If you see it as an opportunity for learning, that’s what it will be.

    The saying is that “hard cases make bad law”, as explained by the ever helpful Wikipedia. In just the same way, rare sad stories make poor bases for general policies, and what is beneficial as an exception can be damaging as a rule.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hard_cases_make_bad_law

  • @Dav: “Presumably not a wedding to their father?

    Oh, no, that would be terrifically old-fashioned, wouldn’t it?”

    How delightful of you to be so sanctimonious about someone you’ve never met, and someone whose circumstances you don’t know.

  • How delightful of you to be so sanctimonious about someone you’ve never met, and someone whose circumstances you don’t know.

    You’re right, there are probably details not publicised about the case that make it clear it is an exception to, and not, as it at first sight appears, a perfect example of the modern trend.

  • This sort of prescriptive rule-based nonsense has become endemic in all sorts of fields. I was talking to a friend the other day and he was telling me of a self-employed friend of his with no staff who, for some reason has to be registered for PAYE (to do with certain non-salary benefits I think). Because he is registered for PAYE he has to do a monthly return of pay etc. even though it’s invariably a NIL return. Then he forgot for a few months and got hit with a fine of over £2,000. My friend says that the system has become so punitive and so inflexible that it’s causing real damage to small businesses.

  • Richard Dean 4th Jul '14 - 6:23pm

    @GF
    You should tell your friend to get registered with the government Gateway at http://www.hmrc.gov.uk. It’s then very easy to keep up with PAYE for a small company, even one with no paid staff.

    The bills they sent out last year seem to have been aimed at frightening people to get registered. Once registered you have to submit something that tells them your situation, and the bill may then disappear.

  • Tony Dawson 4th Jul '14 - 8:52pm

    If your children were to ’emigrate’ to Pakistan for several months, and then amazinglydecide to re-migrate back to the UK, I doubt seriously whether the government could lawfully take any action against you.

  • @Richard Dean.

    Sorry to go off-thread but registering at the Govt Gateway does NOT make PAYE “very easy to keep up with”. Been there, got the scars. Nightmare of intrusive governance to no purpose.

  • The policy is nonsensical. When I was a kid growing up for a year while my dad worked 200 miles away my mum took us out of school fortnightly on a Thursday. It had no educational ill effect and it kept our family together. The people behind this policy think only in economic and not human terms. Im considering taking my own kids out of school for a week next academic year to strengthen their bilingualism in a school abroad, which this school year they attended in UK easter school holidays. Even if this has academic merit I doubt their school here will give permission. I wish the Tories would make council meeting attendance compulsory for their lazy skiving councillors.

  • Richard Harris 6th Jul '14 - 8:16am

    As someone that lost a brother to cancer a few years ago you have my deepest sympathy. Karen, i agree with every word you have written. Goodness me, anyone that defends the school’s actions in the account above needs a serious reality check. The family was dealing with a family crisis in the most mature, positive way possible.

    Quality time with family is more important than anything learnt in a classroom. Apart from being an utterly moral question about personal choice (is any liberal happy with the idea that government can say whether you can have a holiday?), to raise emotionally confident children who know they are loved and can experience their family having fun creates a better society. For those readers that think it’s important (though I think its way down the list) such children probably function better economically as adults too.

    To use a system of fines also greatly benefits those that can afford it. The very idea is sick, yet again handing freedom to those with the means, denying it to those without. The system also supports minority groups, such as Travelers, who are allowed to vanish from the educational system for months on end, retain their place at a school and there is no requirement to pay fines, or even to inform the school of where they are going. How is this remotely fair?

  • Richard Harris 6th Jul '14 - 8:41am

    Having looked at the link given above showing the legal advice for parents on this issue, my only further point would be that politicians need to deal with this centrally and give schools the freedom to allow parents to take their children out of school. I understand the need to test the law with individual cases, but this must not become seen as a parents v. individual schools issue. I am a Governor at a primary school and discuss this issue frequently with other governors and staff – as a school we would like to be more generous but our hands are tied by OFSTED who make attendance a central issue to achieving a good grading. Expecting a head to agree to absence is asking him or her to lower the chances of a successful OFSTED inspection. The issue lies at the door of Whitehall, not in the school office.

    Good luck with the campaign.

  • Simon Oliver 6th Jul '14 - 9:56am

    I think we should abolish half terms to provide more teaching time and give parents an absolute right to take their child out of school for one period of 5 days each year, giving at least a month’s notice, and for one day emergencies such as funerals without notice. Schools should be able to require a child attend summer schools to catch up, or else be held back a year, if they miss too much regular time.

  • It is, of course, quite possible that the driving forces behind the issue of “poor school standards”, ie the financialisation of everything, the imperatives that education is only subservient to economics, and that everyone must “work” or not be allowed an income are wrong. As liberals, shouldn’t we be standing up for other values in society, and, of course, for the need for a reversal of the trend to more inequality. This would need to be done – as I have often seen argued here – by attacking the concentrations of power in society, now often running across national borders.

    I thought these ideas were one of our key reasons for ensuring we support a strong international and supranational politics. We should not be giving comfort to those who think they can benefit from weak cross border control of finance, crime, pollution etc. These factors can, among other things entrench poverty and massive inequality in individual countries and world wide.

  • Jayne Mansfield 6th Jul '14 - 11:03am

    @ Karen Wilkinson,
    I read articles on Lib Dem Voice and the responses because I learn so much from them. As someone who would have
    been opposed to parents being allowed to take term time holidays, I am truly shocked and I am having to re-evaluate my views. I had no idea that rule -bound behaviour now trumped human compassion.

    I couldn’t help but notice that the statements in the link you provided had no references so I assume that there is no evidence to suggest that the new rules will achieve what they are intended to achieve. I do agree that here is a problem of some parents not valuing education, but I am now unconvinced having read it that this is the way to solve the problem. It seems that attendance was already improving before the new rules came into being.

    I was also unaware until other posters mentioned it that the rules do not apply to minority groups who may take their children out of school for extended periods. This really is unfair and will probably lead to even greater resentment towards those groups from some who blame the person not the system.

  • Jayne Mansfield 6th Jul '14 - 11:20am

    @ Dean.W,
    Isn’t there some mechanism whereby cases can be judged on their individual merits.

    My own children would not take their children out of school in term time, and when they go on holiday, they pay the premium of not doing so, but I have known of many parents over my lifetime who can well afford to do this but still choose to take their children out of class during term time.

    It is the rigidity of the way rules are enforced that shocks me most. May I say that when Head Masters, who in their own defence argue that their role is now more akin to that of chief executive, take holiday during term time, it hardly sets an example.

  • Jayne Mansfield 6th Jul '14 - 11:21am

    Gosh, please don’t mark my grammar.

  • Hi Jayne – We’ve never experienced ourselves, or have any direct knowledge of, a situation where common sense and compassion haven’t prevailed when circumstances have required. Maybe we’ve been lucky.

  • Peter Chivall 7th Jul '14 - 12:27am

    Thank you for reminding us all once again, Karen, that “the man in Whitehall does not always know best”. About 18 years ago my youngest son requested via his mother that he be allowed to attend a “Caving Camp” in South Devon with a national Children’s Educational Charity. The Head of my son’s school passed the request to his Chair of Governors who turned it down. Because the Charity was based in North London, they had to fit their programme to North London School Holidays, which weren’t ours. At that time there was no fine, so they went.
    The upshot? I think my now ex-wife got a ‘naughty, naughty’ letter from the Head and my son made up the missed work. Oh, and by the way, he got straight A*s at GCSE, straight As in 6 subjects at A level , a 1st at Cambridge in Natural Sciences, a 1st in his MSci and a Doctorate in Solid State Physics. Oh, and the Caving Camp was ‘cool’.

  • Peter Chivall 7th Jul '14 - 12:45am

    I forgot to say how happy my son was in his secondary school (once he joined the rugby team) and how much he owed to his school for his success – and it was a nominally-comprehensive state school.
    I sometimes feel that so many of our problems with our education system spring from the fact that too many of our legislators and the Civil Servants who advise them come from an unrepresentative class of people who attended fee-paying private schools. They instinctively seem to think that all schools have 16 weeks of holidays per year when the reality for most state schools is 12 weeks, including the 3 half-term weeks.
    No wonder Parliament only seems to sit for half the year.!

  • Just to be polite I would have notified the school and asked for permission, but either way I would have taken my children on the holiday.

  • Richard Dean 7th Jul '14 - 1:25am

    Arguing for rules on the basis of exceptions is a bad way to do it. Should Libdems be so elitist? Not everyone has parents who are supportive enough that their child gets multitudes of 1sts at Cambridge, or rich enough to fund their child on a holiday of his choosing.

  • Matthew Huntbach 7th Jul '14 - 11:20am

    I work as a university lecturer, and even at this level I’ve quite often seen students pulled away from their studies during term time for family reasons (particularly those from certain ethnic minorities). The problem is that in the subject I teach (computer programming) one bit follows another, each topic taught builds on previous topics. So if you lose the thread of it because you were absent for a week or two, it’s VERY hard to catch up. I have seen several cases of student’s career prospects being ruined by this. They are taken away, oh, they claim “I’ll catch up” or “I’ll keep in touch while I’m away”, but they don’t. They fail. In many cases when this happened, the parents didn’t even realise the serious consequences of what they were forcing onto their children, they just didn’t seem to have thought it through.

    So, sorry Karen, as you put it “we the educated professionals know better than you what is good for you” in my case when it comes to teaching what I teach is quite true. I am sorry to see so many students fail because they didn’t believe me (I mean not just those taken away by their parents, but the many others who didn’t believe me when I told them that my subject requires regular hard work throughout term time, exams in it are not “memory tests” and cannot be passed by last minute “revision”). Much the same applies to many school subjects, but in particular Mathematics.

  • Matthew Huntbach 7th Jul '14 - 12:03pm

    Karen Wilkinson

    Yet we are the party which aims to help people to achieve what they want to achieve. We are enablers not dictators, bottom up not top down.

    Yes, that is what I see my role as a university lecturer as being about. I teach skills which are in high demand – I have recruitment agencies who want a list of all those who got high grades in my module because they can offer them jobs. But the module has a high failure rate. There is a direct correlation between patchy attendance and failure in the module. Once students start dropping out of doing the lab work or attending the lecturers, telling themselves “I can catch up later”, they are lost. I have direct and clear evidence of this over the years. The biggest factor predicting success or failure is willingness to work hard throughout term, I’ve seen so many students who definitely had the ability fail through poor attendance, I’ve never seen a single student who attended every lab and lecture go on to fail.

    One of the biggest problems we face is that most of those leading on society and writing public comment and guidance on being a student come from an arts background, and so tend to think of university study in terms of reading and essay writing, and exams which can be passed by last minute cramming. There is hardly any public perception of what it is like to study a lab-based subject, or of what it requires to do well in a subject (like most science and engineering) which is mathematical. Look at the “Guide to university life” guides that will be appearing in the newspapers in the next few months to see that.

    In response to Jock Coates, actually I have a lot of time for Illich. Well, I haven’t read him for a long time, but I did read him a lot when I was young, and was quite influenced by him. If I should be seen as putting across the opposite line, that’s part of the problem. I’d like what I’m doing to be seen as an opportunity which those who want it can take, and those who don’t want it shouldn’t be forced into, or should be left to discover it when they have reached the point on life where they can best benefit from it. Part of the problem I experience is that too many of the students approach their study with this “school” mentality, and so see me as the “teacher” trying to force things onto them, and respond with a shallow school-type approach to the subject. This leads to a wish to pass it by trickery (memorising, plagiarism, etc) rather than by actually grasping the skills I’m trying to give them.

  • Richard Harris 7th Jul '14 - 1:35pm

    @Matthew Huntbach
    Good points, but are they really relevant to primary and secondary schools? I suspect the younger the child in question, the more important quality family time is. Surely by university level students have complete free will anyway and in effect sign up to attendance agreements with their institutions (apart from the fact that many of university age would probably do anything other than go away with their parents). The school issue is a very different one isn’t it?

  • Jayne Mansfield 7th Jul '14 - 1:36pm

    Whilst grandparents funerals cannot be planned in advance, and it seems from Dean. W.’s post this really isn’t a problem, there is some mechanism to allow for this but I don’t see why people can’t plan their weddings so that they fit around a child’s schooling.

    I think that this sort of behaviour where advanced planning is possible, does demonstrate the value that people do or don’t put on the education of their child’s education, and also their lack of consideration for the effect of their behaviour on others, teachers and pupils.. I would be more worried about creeping totalitarian if there were moves to deny parents the option of home schooling for their child of they think that schools are prisons.

    I don’t think that the decision of not taking our children out of school is anyway damaged the way we functioned or continue to function as a family, the length of the school day and school holidays mean that families are not deprived of family time. The only consequence as far as I can see, is that our children developed the same attitude to the importance of school attendance for their children that we had for theirs.

    I find myself agreeing with Richard Dean, Dean.W and Matthew Huntbach.

  • Jayne Mansfield 7th Jul '14 - 4:59pm

    Oh dear, my problems slowly tapping out a post with an eyesight problem is overwhelming today and I apologise for the above jumble..

  • Matthew Huntbach 8th Jul '14 - 9:56am

    Richard Harris

    @Matthew Huntbach
    Good points, but are they really relevant to primary and secondary schools?

    The main point was about missing something due to being absent, and then not understanding what comes next because it builds on what was missed, and so just falling further and further behind and never being able to catch up.

    Do you really think that is irrelevant to the sort of education that goes on in primary and secondary schools?

  • Matthew Huntbach 8th Jul '14 - 1:07pm

    Richard Harris

    Surely by university level students have complete free will anyway and in effect sign up to attendance agreements with their institutions (apart from the fact that many of university age would probably do anything other than go away with their parents).

    Most of my students come from an ethnic minority background, and most live with their parents. You are illustrating just the point I mentioned – assuming a certain model of university student i.e. white, from a fairly high social class background, doing an arts subject at a campus university.

    Students from Asian families with a tight family structure (a high proportion of those I teach) quite often do get called away to family or religious events and feel they must attend. Quite often it is the case that the parents who are putting the pressure on them over this just don’t realise how damaging it can be if someone is absent for a week or two from teaching which is very structured and where each part depends on understanding gained through practical lab work of the previous part. When I’ve discussed this with students in these cases, it is often the case that the parents just didn’t even consider the issue.

    Now, if I’m observing this where I am, surely you can understand the problem is likely to be much worse for children who aren’t able to argue back with their parents over it, and perhaps for parents who don’t have much of an educational background themselves and so really don’t see the problem of pulling their children out for a week or two. The issue is that, sure, we can raise cases such as those mentioned here where there are very good genuine reasons why we would accept the children being absent, but most cases where children are taken away from school by their parents AREN’T this sort of thing. Most cases will not be the sort I see at university level either, because their children will never get that far. Most cases will be children with parents who lead chaotic lives and who have absolutely no understanding of educational structure, are perhaps quite hostile to education. Most cases will be e.g. the single mother on benefits with a borderline personality disorder who wants her daughter to stay at home and not go to school to keep her company. I am concerned that the casual “Oh, school can easily be missed, the children will learn a lot by doing all these other things” line put here is just the sort of line that is often used by problematical parents to pull children out of school and thus seriously damage their prospects.

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