Does term-time absenteeism betray your child?

Michael Lambert discusses the question of whether term-time absenteeism is a betrayal of a child's education

Children only get one chance at education. The time they spend with teachers is already limited. Every day counts. Chris Ratcliffe / Bloomberg News
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Michael Gove, former education secretary for the UK, was a campaigner. His mission was to restore a long-lost empire of British educational imperialism by reintroducing the dead white males of English literature to the GCSE and A-Level syllabus and requiring Brits to study the rise and fall of the kings and queens of England.

Within this call-to-arms for an educational renaissance came an edict on school attendance. As Mr Gove reminded us last week in an opinion piece for The Times: “Children only get one chance at education. The time they spend with teachers is already limited. Every day counts. And every hour in school is more valuable than at any time before ... In a world growing ever more competitive, the best security against change and the greatest investment in our future is the accumulation of knowledge and mastery of skills.”

Regulations issued in 2006 said UK head teachers of state schools could grant leave of absence of up to 10 days for the purposes of a family holiday during term time in “special circumstances” and that head teachers could also grant extended leave for more than 10 days in “exceptional circumstances”. But in September 2013, Mr Gove and his fellow ministers removed all references to family holidays from the regulations and said heads could not grant any leave to pupils during term time without “exceptional circumstances”.

As a consequence, justices in the UK’s Supreme Court upheld fines imposed on a father named Jon Platt last week for taking his daughter out of school for an unauthorised break. Despite his daughter’s 92.3 per cent attendance rate, Mr Platt’s appeal was overturned when he failed to demonstrate that his daughter attended “regularly”. The reason being that “regularly” has just been redefined to mean “in accordance with the attendance rules”.

Since then a fierce debate has arisen among parents concerning the right that the UK government or indeed any government has to legislate for attendance in schools. Those who see the state as the ultimate liberator of children from the incompetence and neglect of their parents will be reminded of Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which declares: “Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free [and] Elementary education shall be mandatory.” Confronted with such a noble ambition it feels at best churlish to argue for parental rights to exercise their judgment when it comes to the regularity of that education.

Data from Pisa and Timss results in the UAE, for example, show a 20 per cent shortfall in the scores of Emirati students in public schools compared to their expatriate contemporaries in private schools. Put that statistic alongside the fact that in any given fortnight Emirati pupils are significantly more likely to absent themselves from school at least once more than any of their privately educated peers. The correlation between attendance and outcomes is quite clear.

By fining a British citizen for his daughter’s absence from school, the state hopes to make an example of Mr Platt for all other misguided parents who would take their children out of school during term-time.

Such a symbolic act for such a marginal case, however, risks disempowering parents who choose public education without acknowledging the very grey areas of British legislation that pertain to home schooling.

Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights also declares that parents “have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children” and in Britain you can teach your child at home, either full- or part-time. All that is required to access this option is to write to the head teacher if you plan to take your child out of school.

As a home schooling parent you are completely at liberty to decide that an overseas trip is part of your child’s broader education and act unilaterally to book the trip without fear of reprisal or punishment.

Brits, with their love of civil liberties, do not take kindly to being told how and when they educate their children when there are such glaring inconsistencies in their state-run system. As a wise man once said, principles are expensive and when you judge a man by exacting standards you need to ensure that your own ship is in order.

For theatrical effect, of course, Mr Gove remarked: “I simply cannot understand why anyone would think it acceptable to withdraw a child from a whole week of school lessons because a trip to Disney World was thought to be better for their welfare. What sort of world is it where we need the Supreme Court to remind us that being able to spend a week among men pretending to be cartoon mice and giant ducks and queuing for Frozen Ever After is not a vital human right?”

And yet when you consider that Mr Platt and his wife are divorced and the children’s access to both parents is necessarily limited, would we really say that his daughter’s time with him was bad for her welfare, that it was not a vital human right?

Thanks to EL James we have learnt that life is not black and white; in fact, there are by all accounts at least 50 shades of grey. Perhaps it is time that governments realise that one size never fits all and that the “best generation of professionals” that Mr Gove has ever known could be empowered to make humane and discretionary judgments in such circumstances.

Michael Lambert is headmaster of Dubai College