Peter Preston on the double-standard relating to school attendance:
Parents are responsible for making sure their children go to school. Headteachers say so; ministers say so; the law says so. If your child is registered to attend a school, then he or she must turn up – and the full weight of Section 444 of the 1996 Education Act is there to make sure that happens. If you find yourself in court charged under 444, there’s a fine of £1,000 waiting. And now an official report commissioned by education secretary Michael Gove advocates deducting instant fines from child benefit payments just to save time.
Note that: ‘advocates’. Who expects it to actually make it into law?
If you do, you must not have been paying much attention the last few times headline-grabbing, ‘populist’ sanctions were suggested by this government, or the one before…
Well, maybe that’s just for persistent truancy, you say. It’s not for people like us, seeking a few days’ extra holiday with the family in term time, a chance to fit in with parental work schedules, or to save a few pounds by travelling off-peak?
But it turns out, it is.
After all, ‘people like you’ are an easier target; you want to avoid the shame of a fine, you will give your real name and address, you won’t simply ignore the fine, and you certainly won’t threaten the truant officer…
Not so with the persistent truant’s parents, eh?
No: the importance of going to school day after day has never been more weightily stressed, nor more relentlessly enforced. Heads are being given less and less discretion. The message is clear: every single day matters.
But Peter’s noticed a little discrepancy:
But then wander down to my local junior school and read the sign on the door. Another meeting of parents and school supporters – of “friends” – has been cancelled because teachers there are on strike. Again. And there will be many more such signs around this summer as the two biggest unions launch into a new round of strikes. Pensions, pay freezes, targets et al meld into yet more days of action.
And this poses something of a dilemma, does it not?
“We will not be setting out deliberately to undermine the exams season,” says Christine Blower, the NUT’s general secretary. Oh good. Only the learning days before the testing days are at risk here. That’s all right then?
Well, no. No, it clearly isn’t. If it isn’t OK for parents to do it, then how can it be ok for state employees to do it?
It’s not all right, though, because it breaks the essential compact of responsibility. Parents may soon find their child benefit docked for a few days of missed school. Teachers can go on strike and shut school gates against children with impunity.
Should teaching be put on a no-strike basis, deemed too essential for any unauthorised time off? The logic is there, perhaps, but not the practicality.
Well, why not? The forces can’t strike. The police can’t strike. It might be a hard thing to bring in, but it would at least resolve the issue that parents are potentially to be punished financially, while teachers are not, for the same derogation of ‘duty’.
And whilst we’re on the subject of practicalities, Gove’s proposed fines – should they actually ever materialise – aren’t practical, because they are lower than the expected expense of taking holidays during school break!
Teaching is a profession with an implied professional commitment to young lives and young hopes. Teachers, parents and children stand together, joined in responsibility. And responsibility, remember, cuts two ways.
Yes, it does indeed. And people are starting to see that, for the State and its employees, it’s only perceived as running one way.
And they are getting more than a little fed up with it…