Prior to 2013, schools had discretion to allow term-time absences for pupils. Regulations introduced in 2013 put a stop to this, allowing absences only in exceptional circumstances (such as to attend a funeral), and stipulating fines for families who did not comply. This system of penalties is now likely to be thrown into confusion by the decision of a court to overturn a £120 fine imposed on a father for taking his daughter on a week’s holiday during school term. The appeal against the penalty hinged on the question of what constitutes ‘regular’ attendance. The law simply states that a child must attend school ‘regularly’ without offering a precise definition of the term. In this case, the father pointed out that his daughter’s attendance had been 94% the previous year and was 100% at the point of going on holiday. Clearly—and the court felt so too—such numbers might be thought to fall within the definition of ‘regularly’; equally clearly, ‘regularly’ is a sufficiently vague term to make most fines for non-attendance unreasonable.
But the issues go deeper than legal argument about the definition of a word. In particular, it is worth considering who is responsible for a child’s education. Many people suppose that the state assumes responsibility. Legally, however, this is not the case. Education is compulsory, but the primary responsibility for ensuring that a child receives an education falls to parents. Section 7 of the 1996 Education Act states that it is the ‘duty of parents to secure education of children of compulsory school age’, that this duty involves arranging education suitable to the ‘age, ability and aptitude’ and ‘to any special educational needs’ of the child, and that this may be achieved ‘either by regular attendance at school or otherwise’.
The legal situation can be summarized in this way: parents have the responsibility for ensuring the education of their child, and they can decide to fulfil this, but do not have to do so, by sending their child to school. The phrase ‘or otherwise’ has generally been understood to cover home education—and, indeed, it is the basis for the excellent home education resources and campaigning group, Education Otherwise (whose slogan ‘Education is compulsory, school is optional’ summarizes the legal situation more succinctly than I have done).
The law here seems eminently reasonable: parents may well choose to delegate their child’s education to a school, but to compel them to do so would be an unwarrantable intrusion by the state on the freedom of parents to decide on the best interests of their child. Most parents are better placed than the impersonal state to understand the needs of their child, and there may be excellent reasons why they deem formal schooling unsuitable to those needs. Not all parents believe that corralling children into a classroom to be drilled for hours in preparation for an endless round of tests and exams comes close to representing an ‘education’.*
Both legally and morally, therefore, there are question marks over the power of the state to fine parents for pupil absences. As long as the parents are ensuring that education is being provided, then it would seem that there is compliance with the law. Even if we accept that delegating education to the state involves entering some form of agreement to ensure school attendance, it is not clear that occasional absences are in breach of this agreement. As the recent appeal case confirms, occasional absences do not breach the requirement for ‘regular’ attendance.
Of course, it may be objected that such absences do in fact breach the duty of parents to provide an education for their child. Many suppose that unless a child is in school, that child is not receiving an education—and they will particularly complain about a child being on holiday instead of in school. But such objections stem from an excessively narrow idea of what education is or should be about. Education is not solely about passing exams nor should it be exclusively concerned with preparation for the workplace. These may constitute important parts of it, but above all education is about preparing children for life. A child will learn far more, and far more important things, from a week on holiday (about, for example, a different culture, a different place, different activities, family relations, and so on) than from a week in the classroom. The notion that a few days of lessons are a more important life experience than a holiday is evidence of the skewed values of society today. (Indeed, a child will almost certainly learn more about life from occasional truancy than from the lessons that he or she has skipped.)
Consider the case of the couple who have been taken to court because they took their two young children to India to visit their extremely sick grandfather. There are compelling personal reasons why such an absence might reasonably have been granted, none of which seem to have resisted the bludgeoning approach of the state. But beyond that, it could be argued that the educational value of the trip far surpassed anything that might have been learnt in a week or two of school. Not only would it have entailed the experience of a different culture, but it would have involved (unfortunately, of course) an engagement with such important parts of life as illness, ageing and mortality. Only the most blinkered educationalist would maintain that a few literacy and numeracy classes have more educational value than that.
The Department of Education claims that even one week of missed classes each year will damage a child’s chances at GCSE with a lasting effect on life chances. But this is simple scaremongering; reassuringly for those children who are occasionally ill (i.e. all of them), there is nothing daunting about catching up with a week or so of lessons here and there. I have no doubt that there are often serious problems arising from absenteeism, but trying to solve those problems by clamping down on all absences really does introduce the proverbial sledgehammer and nut into the debate.
Michael Gove, the former Education Secretary, proposed docking child benefit from parents who allow unauthorized absences; Michael Wilshaw, the chief inspector of Ofsted, would like to fine parents whose children don’t do their homework and has urged schools to ‘adopt a hard line and not allow the youngsters out’. In the punitive and narrow vision of Gove and Wilshaw, education amounts only to teachers in classrooms preparing pupils for exams, and the duty of parents ceases to be truly educational but instead one that may be likened to the task of prison officers transporting their charges to the institution and locking them down. I don’t doubt that classroom education has many benefits, nor do I reject the value of exams, but to equate education exclusively to school lessons and testing is not only life-denyingly dreary but also hugely mistaken.
*I declare an interest here: as a former home-educating parent myself, I understand the reservations that many parents feel about school. I intend to write more on this in a future article.