Playing with truants

To boost our seasonal spirits, the UK government is entering the New Year with a new phase of its war on truancy. Not content with locking up parents whose children persistently play hooky from school, it has now teamed up with travel agents to issue £100 fines to parents who take their children out of class for a family holiday (1).

The move has been widely interpreted as an attack on middle-class parents, who arrogantly assume that the benefits to their children of a week’s quality time together in the sun outweigh those of sitting in a classroom going over yet more revision exercises for upcoming national tests. Indeed, given the warped logic of today’s generation of officials, it is easy to see the holiday fines as a cack-handed attempt to level the playing field, by showing that people who live on housing estates and take their kids out of school to go shoplifting do not have a monopoly on irresponsible parenting.

Whoever the government hopes to target with this latest madcap scheme, however, it clearly is parents, not children. Each manifestation of New Labour’s war on truancy has not been a practical attempt to deal with a real problem so much as a political stunt designed to show the kind of attitude and behaviour it expects from the mums and dads of Britain. That is: total acquiescence to the fact that, for most weeks of the year, it is the state raising your children (if not educating them all that well), and those pesky parents who attempt to interfere with this process will be sent to the bottom of the class.

‘Taking a holiday during term-time can mean that children miss important schoolwork and coursework and it will be difficult for them to catch up later on’, intoned education minster Ivan Lewis. ‘Taking a child out of school for a holiday without the head’s permission is unacceptable and will be treated as truancy.’ (2) The first bit of this is nonsense; the second is rather telling.

To argue that a child’s education will be seriously damaged by missing a few days of school here or there implies an incredibly weak education system, and rock-bottom expectations of pupils – neither of which are warranted today, whatever your views of contemporary teaching or the nation’s yoof. The clause about getting permission from the head, meanwhile, sums up the government’s view of parents – that they are the naughty children, in need of enhanced discipline from the authorities. And if arguments alone don’t work, send in the travel agents to warn that booking that bargain break could result in a £100 fine.

The decision to send in the travel agents is the corporate equivalent of the decision to send in the courts in the more mundane cases of local truancy. Since the government started its legal crackdown on truancy in 2001, 7,500 parents have reportedly been taken to court for failing to ensure that their children attended school, resulting in guilty verdicts in 80 per cent of cases. Some have been sent to jail, though most were given community service orders (3). It all amounts to the same token gesture – punishing the parents for failing to treat the education system with the requisite reverence.

But the use of such strong-arm tactics only serves to highlight the government’s weakness. Education, after all, is supposed to be the key issue of importance that unites parents and politicians. Yet the government does not feel capable even of convincing parents to send their kids to school, instead resorting immediately to threats, fines and imprisonment, and doing so not on the basis of its own authority, but hiding behind the courts and travel agents.

When it comes to the decision between a break in the sun and a day in the classroom, parents generally feel quite capable of making the right choice – and quite rightly affronted by the idea that they should go crawling to headteachers for permission, or risk being treated as criminals. The holiday-fines seem unlikely to make the government many friends. So what do Ivan Lewis and his ministerial chums hope to achieve by such a stunt?

In one news report, Lewis boasted about the government’s achievement in reducing truancy levels. ‘Since last year 1,200 truants have been returned to full-time education and 133 of 150 local education authorities have reported an improvement in attendance at secondary level’, he said (4). But given that the preceding paragraph of this report stated that pre-Christmas ‘truancy sweeps’ showed that ‘48 per cent of truants were with their parents – most of them shopping for presents’, it seems logical that redefining truancy as occasional supervisied shopping or vacationing, and then making that into some kind of crime, cannot but help the government to meet artificial targets for boosting school attendance.

Furthermore, if there are only a few thousand truants among millions of pupils, and half of these are missing school because their parents say they can, one wonders how it is possible for the government to make truancy out to be a major problem.

Rather than having any real rationale or practical benefit, it seems that this policy, like so many other New Labour offerings, is motivated primarily by an inability to leave anything well enough alone. Only two days ago Ivan Lewis’ boss, education secretary Charles Clarke, launched a broadside against ‘violence’ on children’s TV, claiming that it led to bullying in schools and announcing his intention to push for further regulation (5). In the 2003 Queen’s Speech, the government announced its intention to make better-off parents pay for their children’s transport on the school bus (6). From the most mundane to the downright petty, the government cannot resist meddling in every aspect of children’s upbringing and education, for no apparent reason and with no positive consequences.

Forget redefining truancy and fining parents. The best thing the government could do for education is learn to keep its hands to itself.

First published by spiked, 30 December 2003.


(1) Warning on school time holidays, BBC News, 30 December 2003
(2) Travel agents to help curb term-time holidays, Angus Macleod, The Times(London), 30 December 2003
(3) Travel agents to help curb term-time holidays, Angus Macleod, The Times(London), 30 December 2003
(4) Travel agents to help curb term-time holidays, Angus Macleod, The Times(London), 30 December 2003
(5) Clarke: TV violence creates bullies, Kamal Ahmed, Observer, 28 December 2003
(6) Wealthier ‘to pay for school bus’, BBC News, 26 November 2003

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