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For Goodness' Sake - Give Them A Break!

 

The government website on School Attendance tells us; “You must make sure your child gets a full-time education that meets their needs (for example if they have special educational needs). You can send your child to school or educate them yourself.”

 

So as a parent – you can educate them yourself! It says so in the law…. Or does it?

 

What is an “education?” Is it strictly limited to the lessons and experiences that are delivered in the environment of uninspiring, dusty 70s buildings by tired, frustrated and anxious teachers in the company of peers, currently displaying Mental Health issues far exceeding anything we have been previously aware of?

 

Headteachers need a break. Teachers need a break ... and pupils and families need a break. How many would disagree that a decent fortnight away wouldn’t make the world of difference to their ability to deliver a more resilient and professional approach in the classroom?

 

Most teachers, despite the shocking state of public sector salaries at this time, could probably afford to find some quality time away during the school holidays. Yet there are a significant number of people who are unable, either through finance or the machinations of their workforce rules regarding annual leave to achieve quality family time together.

 

At a time when it’s more important than ever before.

 

I remember during the Jubilee year of 2012, a parent, a senior policeman, working locally, took the trouble to visit me and ask for permission to take his child out of school for a week’s holiday. It was November. His annual leave had been suspended for the year due to the duties associated with managing the national Queen’s Jubilee celebrations and he wanted to take his 11 year old daughter to go to see the Northern Lights in Iceland. (I know – I wanted to go with him as well!)

 

And meanwhile, professionally – all the advice I was receiving formally and informally about taking school holidays outside of the set holiday dates was to *refuse the request unless the reason was “exceptional.”*

 

So … it was my job to suggest to this highly intelligent man who had worked his socks off quite literally for Queen and country, for weeks…months actually with little or no time for his delightful family … that the experience, value and benefit his daughter would get from a drab November in my school (as delightful as it was) was more beneficial for her than a week in the aesthetically incredible Iceland countryside with a family whom she loved, re-connecting after a tricky year. And seeing the Northern Lights first-hand.

 

My mind went back to my first Ofsted Inspection as headteacher in 1997. The Inspector, working through his schedule sternly asked…”And what do you do to promote awe and wonder?”

 

Should I be asked again; my answer was absolutely and positively not going to be “prevent a lovely family get some quality time together and see the Northern Lights”

 

I reached for the holiday form and wrote “exceptional circumstances noted!” It was the start of a prolonged period of noting “not particularly exceptional circumstances” as “exceptional” since the world seems to have lost sight of and the value of….”quality family time.”

 

Official Department for Education statistics tell us that in 2018, local authorities issued 223,000 penalty notices to parents for taking holidays during term time.

 

Up from 110,000 the year before.

 

Really? … Really?

 

The state can determine with one absolute policy that families are better off being in school during terms time – even though their own rules state that children can be educated “at home” (or in Iceland.)

 

Is it just me that doesn’t get this?

 

The United Kingdom has had more than ten years of austerity imposed by a government who determined it was “best” for us. Even the most hardened Tory Ministers in this election year are back tracking more earnestly and steadfastly than ***Plennie Lawrence Wingo.*** (See end.)

 

In 2019, families can not so easily afford a fortnight away to have fun, laughter and positive experiences together. But it doesn’t matter – since apparently those experiences don’t matter.

 

As recently as 2004, statistics on mental health in children suggested that 1 in 10 were experiencing problems with mental health. By 2017, those figures have risen to 1 in 9 – actually 1 in 8 if slightly older children are taken into consideration. We are living in an increasingly anxious world.

 

One eighth of the nation’s children have mental health issues … and somehow, getting a family break isn’t important? Its banned? You will be fined £60 per child for doing it?

 

For heaven’s sake – fine me £60 if I speed at 50mph in a 30 zone or park in a supermarket disabled bay. If I did that, I would deserve it – no argument. But fining me because I, the person who knows my family best, determine that we need a break engenders an attitude of “to hell with it if I get fined.” It both demeans the role of the parent and it also quietly undermines the moral authority of the rule of law. Because it’s wrong (with a capital “R” as my young son used to say rather indignantly!)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In 2018, it was recorded that 42% of all marriages end in divorce and one in every three children under the age of 16 witness their parents splitting up.

 

Now I’m not suggesting that having a family holiday would fix them all – but it is clear that there is an important role for “quality family time” surely?

 

The message proudly and emphatically displayed on one Local Authority website states uncompromisingly..”Headteachers cannot and will not authorise school absence purely for the reason of a family holiday…..There is, however, a discretionary power held by headteachers to authorise absence in exceptional circumstances….”Ah! Thank goodness….!

 

Oh …  hold on … spoke too soon … it continues … “This is not an entitlement and a family holiday is not an exceptional circumstance.”

 

Now if this was an extract from a history book referencing 1950s USSR, we would be joining together to decry such a draconian ruling as inhumane. And rightly so. (Use imaginary / mental Sergei from Meerkats voice;) “So Nikolai, you have approached ‘the party’ to seek permission to take your family to visit the ice fields of Siberia…(sneers) … ‘you may get your wish sooner than you expected…!’ Nyet! Permission declined.” (*Laughs indignantly and continues stroking white cat!)

 

But in 2019 UK we have to accept that the government has got it right…just like they did over…oh yes, austerity. That and….(**edited to save approximately 2000 words!**)

 

Come on headteacher colleagues. You really think that parents are going to turn up in your office saying, “actually my marriage is struggling a bit – we really need some time together and we can’t afford it during school holidays?” Surely you would accept that this WOULD be exceptional – but it would be as exceptional for the fact that someone should have to put themselves through the indignity of having to publicly admit it, to the headteacher of their child with the “power” to agree to it.

 

In my career I willingly signed off dozens of “exceptional circumstances.” Admittedly a handful of the forms were sent back to parents, somewhat along the lines of “D minus – must try harder” – but the revised version invariably with a more compelling back story usually got through. I’m not proud of everything I did in my career I got many things wrong. But I am proud of that! (To be fair, there was no chance if attendance was already below 94%.)

 

A quick check of the costs of a flight to Florida in 2020.

 

  • On January 6th for an adult? £245 return. Flying direct with Virgin Atlantic.
  • On 1st August..same flight? You’ve guessed it. £1,079.

 

So a crude application of flying four people in January would be £980.

In August it would set you back £4,316.

 

A saving of £3,237. Or rather, an increase of £3,237.

 

So if I am THAT family – realistically I’m going to laugh in the face of a stern letter from the headteacher and a fine of £120. That and the fact that I will have probably eroded my sense of fairness and justice and trust and just a little respect for “the rule of law.” But it doesn’t matter because we’re not struggling with those issues in this country at the moment are we?

 

Of course I understand that it’s not necessary to go to Florida to get a good family experience, but I use this as an illustration of the manner in which the Holiday Industry racks up its rates during the school holidays. In itself disgraceful behaviour – but it’s the law of supply and demand.

 

Meanwhile, if I elected to educate my child at home, I could take a holiday anytime. The only downside is that I have all the numerous checks and regulations and scrupulous accountability for ensuring my child’s progress and attainment associated with Home Schooling….. Oh …hang on a minute….(!)

 

When was the last time you heard of a parent, home educating their child earnestly (or not as the case may be) receiving a call at 12.15 from “Home Ofsted” explaining that they would be arriving at 8am the following day? Crikey, there wouldn’t be time to write one’s personal “Home Education Policy for our Freddy,” you’d be too busy cleaning the house!

 

Or worse still, after the December 2019 election after which “Home Ofsted” would be introducing unannounced visits for Home Education.

 

Can you imagine the report? “Freddy’s education Requires Improvement”

 

“Freddy’s education wasn’t good because he wasn’t in … He was on a family vacation to Iceland to see the Northern Lights”

It’s still legal to home educate, but apparently not to take a week out of school to see the Aurora Borealis!

 

For goodness’ sake, “give them a break!”

 

 

*** Plennie Lawrence Wingo? Surely everyone knows him? He’s the Guinness world record holder for (and I quote) “the greatest extent of reverse pedestrianism” (that’s going back on himself to you and me!)

 

 

Joe White was a teacher for more than 30 years and a headteacher for more than 20 years. He believes in common sense and common decency.

 

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