Absent without leave

Mike Kent

I was brought up with what used to be known as a work ethic. I don't recall my father ever having a day away from his job, and his view was that, unless your house was flooded or your leg had fallen off, you went to work.

My mother felt the same way about my attendance at school. I was fit for work unless I was shaking like a jelly and my face was the colour of a suet pudding. Once, when I was dreading a mathematics test and said I had a nasty stomach ache, she sighed, walked me swiftly home from school and told me to get into bed while she called the doctor. When I pleaded that I was ill, but not ill enough to get into bed, she hurried me straight back to the classroom.

How times have changed. Although English primary schools are closed for 13 weeks a year, an increasing number of parents take their children out of school in term time. Why? To go abroad on holiday, because flights are much cheaper then. Understandably, there's considerable concern about this, because two or three weeks is a sizeable chunk of missed education, especially in the later primary years. It's certainly an inconvenience for the teacher, who will have embarked on a topic and will then be required to help the child catch up.

I'm not without sympathy for the parents, though, especially those who struggle to make ends meet. Many parents at my school were single, living with their children in crowded, uncomfortable high-rise flats. The temptation to have a brief, affordable holiday must be very strong, however much parents value their children's education.

And does it harm their schooling? Probably not, if it happens only occasionally, and the more able children will catch up quickly. Often, too, the parent will ask for work to take away so that their conscience is appeased and the child is at least doing some writing each day. Many teachers ask the child to keep a diary and then talk to the class about their experiences when they return.

But there's no doubt that many children have far too much time off school these days. At my school, children came from a wide range of ethnic backgrounds and families often needed to return to their home countries when elderly relatives were dying. This meant the child being absent for anything up to six weeks, and that is far too much time to miss. Although I was obliged only to keep a place open for a fortnight, it seemed churlish not to accept the child on their return, especially as we had already put a lot of hard work into their education.

But far more annoying are the occasions when children are kept away from school for the most trivial of reasons. One parent told me her son was absent because he needed to get his hair cut. When I asked why it couldn't be cut on a Saturday, she said she didn't want to waste any of the weekend. Another said her son had been away because he had lost his pyjamas and had to wear his dad's. He was so embarrassed about it that he hadn't slept.

I can only imagine what my own father would have said about that.

Mike Kent is a retired primary school headteacher in England. Email: mikejkent@aol.com.

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