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Mark Ellse: School absence – unreasonable bureaucracy fosters dishonesty

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A mid-week flight to a holiday destination had the normal sort of elderly clientele that one would expect to that place. Amongst them were a couple of chatty girls trying to keep a young family member in check. In the course of conversation I asked them if they were on half term. They grinned mischievously but said nothing.

‘So what excuse did you tell to the school about taking them out?’ I asked the mothers. ‘Mine’s got a cold,’ said one and ‘Mine’s got a tummy bug,’ said the other. I smiled, something that was reciprocated until I mentioned that I used to be a headmaster.

Allaying their fears I told the mothers that in my eighteen years running a school I never raised a single objection to a parent taking a child out of school after receiving my consent. Mine was an independent school and that made some difference, but we had the same problems with those whose education was damaged by absence. It was usually the same sort of family. A weak or absent father, an over-protective mother and a highly manipulative child. Mondays and Fridays for some. Games days for quite a number. The aversions were different but the excuses similar – undiagnosable medical conditions like coughs and headaches, even ‘being absolutely exhausted from worry and not having slept all night’.

From time to time one got in the local authority’s welfare officer, but what could they do? How can you take action when a child is at home and in bed and claiming to have a headache? Those of us who are strong parents make sure that the children know exactly who is boss and have cultivated the habit of obedience to the extent that children know that they go to school, headache or not. Were such tyranny exposed, the welfare officer would probably take the child’s side, though that is another matter. But I have never seen a welfare officer even remotely near even thinking about ordering a child out of bed and into school, let alone having the authority to do so. Their standard treatment of habitual refuseniks is to transfer them onto the role of a pupil referral unit and have a ‘managed reintroduction to regular schooling’, which means that they are put in an environment where it doesn’t matter very much how often they go to school.

The nanny state, aware of the reality of problem absence, has done what it does best. As I have already explained, the State has no effective mechanisms for dealing with real problem truants but, in the absence of solving a few real problems, the State has imposed regulation over everyone. Education is full of this tactic. Less intelligent children find English grammar difficult. So the junior school curriculum has been stuffed full of grammatical concepts that even Nick Gibbs, the schools minister, does not understand. This helps the weak children not a jot, of course, but it removes time from reading and free writing, the natural ways that middle and high ability children learn their native language. The Scottish government, concerned that a few parents behave badly, is on the point of introducing mandatory oversight of all families by introducing a ‘named person’ responsible for every child. Will it solve the problem of cruelty to children? Not at all. But it will tie up everyone with bureaucracy. We see exactly the same situation with madrassas. A few are teaching extremism and to solve that problem the bureaucratic mind wants to regulate all children’s work up to and including Sunday Schools.

John Platt committed the shocking crime of taking his daughter out of school for five days. The High Court reasonably ruled that his daughter attended school regularly and the few days away was entirely reasonable. But the dead hand of the nanny state brooks no interference. After all, if one can challenge one part, one might challenge another and the whole edifice of the State would fall down. So the Isle of Wight Council, supported by the Department of Education, is expected to apply for permission to appeal against the High Court decision. Poor, reasonable Mr Platt. He should, like my holiday acquaintances, have simply telephoned in to say that his daughter was ill. All unreasonable bureaucracy provides increasing temptation to dishonesty.

Is it really worth the whole power of the State to pursue a claim to the Court of Appeal because a man whose daughter, in the High Court’s words, had attended school regularly, missed five school days on a family holiday? The matter is, of course, one of principle. Those who believe that the State should have such power over other people’s children are those who believe that the State makes a better parent than the real parent.

The consequences of living in a State like that are frightening and a shudder passes through me as I imagine someone at the Department for Education asking for copies of flight manifests on which my name appears, and then running a finger down them to embark upon a legal case against two mothers who dared to conspire to enable their children to miss a couple of days of school.

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Mark Ellse
Mark Ellse
Mark Ellse is a physicist and author. He is a former headmaster, independent school inspector and A level chief examiner.

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