All going on a summer holiday

7th March 2003 at 00:00
OOH, they set your teeth on edge! There is much to like about the Government's commitment to schooling, but there are moments when its righteous, prissy, bossy, cashpoint-marching instincts could drive you insane. They make you want to grow hair down to your waist, drape yourself in cheesecloth and rechristen the kids Moonbeam and Earthchild before taking them off in a psychedelic van for random lessons in the woods.

Take the latest threat: fixed penalty fines for taking the kids on holiday in termtime. Using the language of industry, the DfES claimed that "4 million school days are lost every year" by parents removing their children for family trips.

A spokesman insisted that "Any unauthorised absence is truancy, whether it is taking a child Christmas shopping, a Mediterranean holiday in school term or just letting a child roam around the local housing estate". It would be double standards, he said piously, to distinguish between "disadvantaged" feckless parents who let their children roam the streets alone, and those who take them on foreign trips . Another spokesman claimed - like at least one government leaflet - "the law says children must be in school".

No, it doesn't. Section 7 of the Education Act 1996 makes parents or guardians ensure that a child receives an efficient full-time education, suitable to age, ability and aptitude, "either by regular attendance at school or otherwise".

Home educators are constantly fighting their corner against LEAs who cannot grasp this. But it's the law - they're our children, we bring them up, and as long as we educate them to a minimum standard (which can't be high, since nobody prosecutes duff primary schools for turning out 11-year-old illiterates) we can do what we like. We can send them to nuns or monks or yogic flyers or Summerhill. Nobody can even force us to teach the national curriculum.

Against this background, threats are not impressive. Don't get me wrong: I like school. They're a good way of educating and socialising children, and passing on culture, knowledge and skill. At their best, they are co-operative and inspiring communities. Even at their worst, they are usually better than hanging round the shopping malls or watching MTV. It is clearly best if term-time removals are sparingly used, by agreement. But school is not all a child needs, nor does it offer a complete education.

There are moments when reasonable parents reasonably decide that it is better for a child to rejoin the tribe, even in term time, for a family celebration or journey. Heads may not like it but they must lump it. And to equate measured, deliberate family decisions with parents who condone unattended shopping-mall truancy is insulting, and probably not legal. I await the first case in which a parent argues that the family project was educationally superior to just another school day.

Of course, not all the absconders are off to the Louvre. Of course, there are inexcusable serial holidaymakers who are a royal pain in the neck. But even so, there are questions to be asked. Such as, why are state school terms so much longer than independents' anyway? And how much actually gets learned in the last fortnight of summer term? And does the spirit flower more readily while doing boring national tests to help your school reach its "targets", or by seeing Greece or climbing a mountain? And what matters most, the child or the school?

The other interesting question is why, in a society where children rule the roost, do these alleged victims play along? Primary schoolchildren may not have much say in whether they are taken out in term time, but secondary pupils have powerful views: I once struggled to persuade one of mine to come out three measly days before half-term: "I'm busy with my work and don't want to miss school." If thousands of parents meet no resistance when removing teenagers in their exam years from weeks of education, then one must ask oneself the same question as we do about real truants: what is wrong with their school life, that it seems so dull and irrelevant to them?

Learning is individual and elastic, not wholly programmable.

Children catch up after illness, after moving house, after family crises.

They are expected to survive the disruption of missing the start of school years because the LEA hasn't found them a place, or of having classrooms closed by leaking roofs and periods cancelled for lack of teachers. It would obviously be nice if parents did not add to the general confusion by taking them to Spain; but if they choose to do so, then there is neither morality nor sense in fines.

Persuade, identify, nag if you will; prosecute the truly negligent. But leave families some dignity. Either the Government wants us to take responsibility for our own children, or it doesn't. It can't have it both ways.

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