The rise of the criminal parents

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I had a friend of mine came over for coffee and a chat last Saturday (I do occasionally get an hour or so off) and she spent most of it bemoaning a fine she had received though the post. That horrid word usually denotes the unwanted attention of some dreary traffic warden or some finger wagging highways officer, but after a headache inducing hour I could only wish it were so. You see, my friend quite happily accepts the usual sorts of financial admonishments, but the nature of this fine left her apoplectic.

It transpired that a holiday taken with her two children had encroached on school term time which had unbeknowst to her had earned the ire of some ‘officious’ (her word not mine) employee within her son’s school. It would appear on further investigation that this is not a rare occurrence. Indeed, the number of parents being taken to court in England for matters relating to their child’s school attendance is increasing. Such incidences have risen by 25% since 2013 and in 2014 the figure was put somewhere in the region of 17,000. According to official statistics over three quarters of these prosecutions resulted in a guilty verdict. These numbers (gathered from the Ministry of Justice by the Press Association) are reflective of a crackdown on truancy. New rules on term-time holidays introduced two years ago are now stringently adhered to, powered in part by pressure from Ofsted. Official data records that in 2014 12,479 people were found guilty of truancy offences of which 9,214 were issued fines averaging £172 pounds. In 18 of these cases the individuals involved were given jail sentences. Courts have the power to issue a maximum penalty of 2,500 pounds or up to 3 months in jail. The guidelines given to schools indicate that a parent may be referred to the local authority’s education welfare service if they fail to pay a fine or if they incur two or more fines. Upon referral, the authority will then assess the grounds for prosecution.

So why the robust response?

Various quotes in the press by a plethora of school and educational leaders have suggested that small periods of absence can have a significant effect on a young person’s education. This is supported by a Department of Education spokesperson who stated:

‘Our evidence shows missing the equivalent of just one week a year from school can mean a child is a quarter less likely to achieve good GCSE grades, having a lasting effect on their life chances.’

They are also keen to point out that as a consequence of the new system ‘200,000 fewer pupils regularly miss school compared with five years ago.’

I must say that the first statement smacks of utter rubbish. This type of maddeningly misleading research, composed of statistics calculated in a vacuum without any regard for the nuances of personal circumstances, makes you want to poke the person responsible with a very large stick. I can broadly accept that having kids in school is probably a good thing (unless of course you go down the home school route), but this kind of wilful scaremongering just irritates me.

Ignoring this for the moment, there are larger issues at stake here. Whilst the threat of jail or a fine may (at least for some) help underline the seriousness of a child school attendance, is it right that any local authority should wield such power? Consider the case of one parent in Huddersfield who took his children on holiday at the end of the extended summer break last year (and thereby encroaching on the new term by a week) and returned to find two fines on his doormat. Feeling compelled to challenge the fine for personal reasons he found himself embroiled in a protracted legal battle.

The crux of his defence was that he was unable, despite persistent attempts, to secure time off work during the school holidays. His decision to take them away during term time was driven by a desire to ensure he did not miss out on important milestones with his young children. This sounds trivial to some I suspect, but I can understand the rationale behind this. Holidays are valuable bonding opportunities and they afford an opportunity to form important and enduring memories into adulthood. In this defendant’s view such laws were unnecessarily draconian and severely compromised his right to a family life. He eventually lost the case and was order to pay a fine and legal costs. He also acquired a criminal record in the process.

Assessing the respective importance of a father or mother to spend quality time with their child against that child’s right to an education is not straightforward. I would also reiterate my personal belief that a week off does not by itself significantly impact a child’s future. To suggest otherwise is a gross simplification. Notwithstanding this, is it right in any case that we accept the criminalisation of such activity? We must after all acknowledge that each individual’s circumstance is different and that this crude one size fits all sanction approach does not work. Take, for example, parents facing mental health problems or issues with addiction. A punitive fine in such cases would be ineffective, if not unethical. There should be greater dialogue and more support. Sanctions should only be entertained as a last resort.

As a final point it is perhaps worth considering that if I were to home school my child these sanctions would be irrelevant. Indeed in such a situation the government would have very little oversight at all. I mention this only to highlight that by enrolling our children in a state system we suddenly become duty bound to accept some quite intrusive government regulation. It is not that I cannot see that there are (and will be) cases of profound and genuine concern, but it is rather the incremental erosion of a families’ right to self-governance that I found truly worrying.

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