School rules (well Andrew thinks so anyway)

Once again I find myself writing about education. I knew I had a strong view on it, but recently I’ve really felt compelled to write my thoughts down, mainly so they come out of my head and allow me to have some brain space back!

This week I was interested to read about the case of a father who received a fine for taking his daughter out of school for a week’s holiday to Disney World. He refused to pay it on the grounds that she still had over 90% attendance, which is the figure set by the Department for Education as a truancy marker. A high court judge ruled in his favour, and he doesn’t have to pay the fine (though he has had to pay legal fees which he raised through crowd funding).

I think the judge was right in his application of the law – this father did not break the law and so shouldn’t be punished with a criminal fine. This does mean that I think the law now needs to be changed to come into line with the rules that schools have been given for attendance since 2013 – up to 10 days leave per child per year in exceptional circumstances. However, this case doesn’t change my view of the fact that I wouldn’t take Andrew out of school for a week long holiday in term time, and here’s why…..

When we chose for him to attend our local infant school, we chose to sign up to the rules of that school. I’m not talking about laws which are punishable with criminal convictions, I’m talking about rules that the school has decided on, some with influence from national government, some with influence from the local authority, some by their own staff. These include, amongst others: zero tolerance towards bullying and racism, the wearing of a school uniform (no logos necessary, just roughly the same colours), no scooting or biking in the playground, no attendance if the child has certain infectious illnesses such as a vomiting bug or chicken pox, and no holidays in term time. If I wasn’t prepared to comply with one or more of these rules than I would have spoken to the head teacher to see whether there was any scope to change it/them, and if there wasn’t a change then I would have not sent my child to the school, since I don’t have to send my child to that or any school.

If I were to then decide that actually it suited me to break one of these rules, then I would expect to be reprimanded in some way for it, because that is what happens when you break a rule. This is what I expect my children to learn too, to prepare them for adult life. There are many jobs out there which have limits on when you can take holidays – teacher being the obvious one, and many others too. Unless you’re self employed, your employer can often perfectly legally cancel your annual leave and give it to you at a different time if they feel it is in the best interests of the organisation. Many employers would recognise exceptional circumstances and allow time off for events such as family weddings, funerals or graduations – indeed we are receiving a day of paid leave this week as Tom has a day off for my Grandad’s funeral, and Tom’s mum, a teacher, had a day off in term time for his graduation. These situations are not holidays, and I believe our school would allow days off for such occasions – if we felt Andrew was old enough, I know the school would allow a day off this week for the funeral.

We don’t have many rules at home, but those we do have, we explain why they are in place. This is not to say that we should never question rules – of course we should always question rules if we feel they are not fair, and I encourage my children to do this; Joel is fantastic at questioning rules. Those parents who don’t like the no term time holidays rule have the opportunity to write to their MP or do some form of protest/demonstration if they feel that strongly against it. I’d far rather teach my kids to first challenge or protest against a rule with reasoned arguments than to simply break a rule.

My faith requires me to sometimes be a rule breaker – Jesus was a huge rule breaker when he came to Earth, he spent time with social outcasts and criminals, something which broke all the rules that the religious leaders followed at the time. As Christians we are called to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us – a bit bonkers by 21st century non-religious thinking in this country, as this turns social rules upside down. So I’m not averse to breaking rules when I feel it’s necessary, but coming back to our school rules, I do think they are fair, particularly to teachers.

When I posted about this on Facebook, a few friends said they would/have/will take their child(ren) out of school for one or two days at the end of a term in order to get cheaper flights/holidays abroad. I totally understand why on the face of it this seems fine, and I’m certainly NOT going to argue that those days would be critical to their education because that’s rubbish. For me this debate isn’t about missing school, because I don’t think my kids would be disadvantaged at all if they had a couple of days or even a couple of weeks off – there’s more to education than school, as I have written about before. However, I can imagine being a head teacher in the following scenario…

One day I get a request from a parent to take a child on holiday at the end of term, they’d only miss one day. OK, I think, I don’t see why not, it’s only one day, and I authorise the absence. The next day I get a similar request, but it’s two days at the end of term. Ah well, it’s only one more day than yesterday’s request, it won’t matter, so I authorise the absence. The next day I get a request for a family to go on holiday for a 5 day week at the end of term, they’re going on a tour of Italy – great, the kids can learn all about the Romans and learn some Italian. And it’s only 3 more days than the last request, so I authorise the absence. The next week I get a request for a family to go on holiday for 10 days including a weekend, they’re going to Iceland – great, they can experience volcanoes, geysers and learn some Icelandic, and it’s only a few more days than the last request, so I authorise the absence. The next week I get a request for a family to go on holiday for 2 school weeks, they’re going to America including a trip to Disneyland – great, they can see all sorts of sights, have fun at Disney, make some fantastic memories, and learn some differences between American and British English. And it’s only a few days longer than the last request, so I authorise the absence. The next week I get a request for a family to go on holiday for a month to Australia. They have family there and will see experience all sorts of sights, sounds and tastes like nothing in Europe – sounds amazing! It’s only a couple of weeks longer than the last request. I’m a little hesitant, a month sounds quite a long time, but he’s a bright child and I’m sure the family will take a bit of maths and literacy work with them if I ask them to. So I authorise the absence. The next week I get a request from a family who want to go camping down the road in Worcestershire for a month. Hmmm, that doesn’t sound as amazing as Australia, and their child struggles with literacy work, and I don’t know if the parents would want to take any books with them, they talked about only taking the bare essentials. I’m not sure, but I feel bad that I’ve let all the other requests go through, what should I do? Where should I draw the line? Should I base my decision on the length of time, or the capability of the child, or how likely I think the parents are to engage them in stimulating activities rather than just sit inside all day, or the place where they’re going? Or all of these? But that’s so complicated. And what about the head of the school down the road? What would they do?

I’m all for head teachers using their heads (pun intended) and expert experience to make decisions and judgements based on individual circumstances, but what if their judgement doesn’t match up with the inevitably differing opinions of the various parents at school? The problem is they would risk offending or discriminating against someone, and nobody likes being offended or discriminated against. So I can understand why a blanket ban seems appealing. It may not be everyone’s idea of a perfect solution, but I’m not sure what would be the perfect solution. I wouldn’t want to be a head teacher in that position – damned if I do (apply a blanket ban), damned if I don’t (and end up offending someone because I didn’t allow their holiday but did allow someone else’s)!

If the no term time holidays rule is one that some parents think is OK to break, what about the other rules? I imagine some parents might think a one off bit of mild laughter at the kid with ginger hair or the fat child isn’t that bad, but I personally think that shouldn’t be tolerated at all. Some parents clearly don’t think the rule about scooting in the playground matters, and I’m not actually that bothered about it myself, despite the fact that Joel has been knocked down twice by a scooter (he bounces), but I fully support the school in their enforcement of this rule because they are trying to prevent more serious accidents than has so far occurred with Joel. When Andrew had chicken pox, he wasn’t very poorly with it and in fact cried because he wanted to go to school as he missed it. He was just as infectious before the spots came out and was at school during that time, but the rule is that they have to stay off until they’ve all scabbed over, so he missed 4 days of school, which didn’t do him any harm. It’s quite fashionable to pick and choose which rules we want to follow, those which suit us, and most people don’t complain at that until someone else’s choice not to follow a certain rule makes them the victim. Would parents of a bullied child think it’s OK that another child chose not to follow the no bullying rule? Of course they wouldn’t. Would that stop them taking their child on holiday in term time? Maybe not.

All of the imaginary holidays I came up with above could have been taken in the school holidays that make up the 14 weeks of the year that children aren’t required to attend the school. They will undoubtedly be more expensive due to holiday companies exploiting this feature of the school system, but I think it’s important to teach our children that we can save up for something if we really want it that badly, and that holidays abroad are not a right, but a privilege of having parents who earn enough money to cover the costs over and above their normal weekly budget. If I thought that my children would be much more rounded individuals from having the educational experience of flying abroad once a year, and I couldn’t afford that in school holidays, then I would add that in as consideration in choosing to send them to school at all, and I’d educate them at home instead if it was a deal breaker.

Another example given in my Facebook post on this subject was a friend who had been taken out of school for a whole year to travel around a different country with her parents and siblings. That may seem quite radical compared to a day or two that most people commenting were talking about, but actually I think I’d feel less radical about it. If the opportunity arose (i.e. we had or were provided with the money), I would absolutely do this if Tom was on board. I think it would be a fantastic opportunity in life for us and our children. However, I would deregister them from school for that year and reapply for a place, possibly at another school as ours is oversubscribed, on our return. I have no issue with taking children out of school for such an experience, but I wouldn’t expect the school to save a place, and all the while that we choose to register them at a school, we choose to follow the rules that go with that registration.

One thing I’ve learned from all the opinions on education that I’ve read recently is that it’s a topic that brings out some polar opposite views. I sometimes feel a bit on my own because I don’t think the school system is all bad (I don’t think it’s all good, but in our experience so far the good outweighs the bad for our particular child), but I also identify with many of the reasons one might solely home educate (we already do loads of education outside of school hours) and would not hesitate to do that if it suited us better. I’m not judging parents who choose to teach their kids different lessons from those I choose, we are all different, and I’m well used to being counter-cultural in other aspects of my life – yes I still carry my large three year old on my back sometimes when he’s tired. If I’m judging anyone it’s the big holiday companies who charge such huge price differences in and out of term time – though someone must be paying the high prices otherwise they couldn’t charge that much, the business model wouldn’t work, it’s part of living in a country with a free market.

I had the privilege of being born to parents who could afford to take us on camping holidays to France in the car every summer starting from when I was aged 7 (before that we holidayed in the UK). I learned a lot from this and I’m sure it helped spark my interest in learning languages other than English. Tom didn’t go abroad as often as a child, and neither of us flew abroad on a summer holiday until we were teenagers. I would like to think that we will one day be able to provide similar experiences for our children. But all the while that there are children in this country barely eating enough each day, I count ourselves incredibly blessed to be able to afford the petrol to drive down to Devon this summer and stay with the boys’ grandparents for our summer holiday.


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