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Kathy Gyngell: Once parents fought to get their children into school. Now they fight to get them out


If there was ever an example of the culture change we’ve undergone since the 1960s, the current debate about the ‘right’ to take children out of school in term time ‘to avoid’ peak time holiday prices, is it. Once Britain deferred to education and teacher’s authority. Now we are a ‘Welcome Break’ (from school) Britain.

At risk of sounding like a grumpy old woman back in the days I was at state school, primary and secondary, there was no question about families bunking off for holidays in term time. You were lucky to get an English bucket and spade holiday in August at all. School and education were near to God in families like mine, not so much a passport to success as to becoming that most desired of things – an educated person.

Taking kids out of school for anything apart from illness was not done; taking them out for holidays was not thought of. Few had the money anyway. The rich and the famous lived in a far off land that was simply of no concern to families like mine. Their lifestyles (what we knew of them) were absolutely not to be aspired to or looked up to. And package holidays were barely a twinkle in the eyes of Thomson and Thomas Cook.

It simply was not the consumption-dominated, consumer-obsessed society we are today – the one that has squandered my parent’s generation’s hard earned inheritance. Today’s generation by contrast will not wait for anything, it feels it has the right to have everything now, as Rod Liddle writes in his book Selfish Whining Monkeys.

And that includes a right to the cheapest holidays.

No wonder educational standards have plummeted. Michael Gove, to give him his due, understands this. That’s why he’s trying to stop the rot by fining parents who treat their children’s schooling with such contempt.

Predictably it hasn’t gone down very well. Modern mums and dads, if this recent survey is anything to go by, in the main appear to think that a holiday on the Costa del Sol or in Tenerife will prove more educational for their kids than a week at school.

Even if they are right – given the parlous dumbing down of much of the curriculum it’s just possible – their reaction is quite wrong. It should be one of fury that they and their children are so shortchanged out of the the £80 billion plus of taxpayer’s money this country spends on education every year (most of which goes to schools) – that it makes so little odds whether their children attend or not.

They should be clamouring for better education not freedom to have less of it. The right to have a slack pick and mix of the weeks your children will and will not attend school is not a right that can be justified, or one worth pursuing. No, not even to protect the parlous state of the package holiday industry, as some misguided souls have suggested.

Consumer-driven parents need to have it pointed out that for any schooling system to work – private or state – conformity and cooperation is essential. For teachers having to provide catch up for absentees is not fair on them or the rest of the children in the class.

That brings us to the ‘social divide’ accusation – that exempting parents of fee-paying private schools from fines is unfair. It won’t wash. It’s a red herring.

First most fee-paying parents don’t want to take their children out – not just because they can afford peak-time holidays or that the terms are shorter. It’s because they want value for the money they are stumping up in the hope of a better education for their children. They are paying to have their children in school and not out of it – nor in schools at risk of being closed at will by striking teachers.

Of course, teachers’ attitudes, dominated and misrepresented by the aggressive left-wing teachers’ unions hardly inspire parental respect. If they too are so casual about the system, they are supposed to be the guardians of, perhaps ‘holiday’ parents are not wrong to think their children won’t be missing much. Or – given today’s strikes and school closures – that their children’s presence or absence would be missed anyway.

So given the mess we are in, whose bad behaviour is Mr Gove to target first (teachers’, parents’, or children’s) to change the culture and valuation of education? For his determination to enforce a new respect for school authority through fines is clearly not enough. Fifty per cent of parents recently surveyed said they’d already taken their children out in term time or they planned to and risk the fine.

Gove may have no choice but to resort to tougher measures to change the attitudes of intransigent teachers and casual parents. He might start by locking out striking teachers. He might also give schools the freedom to demand attendance contracts with parents – in return for the right for their children to attend. That would protect the teachers and parents who genuinely believe in the pre–eminent importance of giving our children a proper education.

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Kathy Gyngell
Kathy Gyngell
Kathy is Editor of The Conservative Woman. She is @kathygyngelltcw on GETTR and is back on Twitter.

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