Heavy hand from a Nanny state?

16 July 2014

By Sabina Frediani

July and August see many of us packing our bags for sunnier climes - or at least for another, rainy part of the UK. But for some, the prospect of a family holiday, or of visiting relatives living abroad, is a distant dream. For many, affordability is an issue. And in our increasingly fast-paced world, finding time for a break while juggling work, school and other childcare commitments can be a difficult balance to strike. But what on earth does this have to do with human rights and civil liberties, I hear you cry?

Last month, a series of media reports made a link between the Human Rights Act and new rules introduced by recently re-shuffled Education Secretary Michael Gove, banning parents from taking their children out of school unless the circumstances are “exceptional”. Although the new rules have been in place since September 2013, the case of James and Dana Haymore has catapulted the issue into the media spotlight. Mr and Mrs Haymore were refused permission to take one of their children out of primary school for a family reunion in America intended to commemorate Mrs Haymore’s grandfather, who had recently died. After going ahead, they are being hauled before court for refusing to pay a £120 fine and now face a £1,000 fine. The Haymores are arguing that the decision breaches the Human Rights Act because it affects their and their children’s right to a family life.

The campaign group, Parents Want A Say, state that prior to September 2013, head teachers had the discretion to allow up to 10 days authorised absence from school. They say that there has been no guidance given to schools on what “exceptional” should mean and that, as a result, the confusion is driving a wedge between parents and teachers. The campaign group says they are “awash with furious families” and are seeking to reverse the changes. Public opinion seems to be on their side. A 38 degrees petition calling for the ban to be reversed has collected over 200,000 signatures and a recent YouGov/Sunday Times poll found that 65 per cent of people believe that “a family holiday, when both parents work full time and can’t take breaks during school holidays” should be regarded as an "exceptional reason" for taking children out of school. Furthermore, 54 per cent of people believe that the same should apply “for a family holiday that can be afforded only if it is taken during term time, because prices in school holidays are higher”.

The Department for Education has said that the clampdown is intended to ensure that children do not miss school and potentially fall behind as a result. I’m sure that most parents would agree that consistent, lengthy periods of absence from school can be hugely detrimental to a child’s education. But that’s exactly why these new rules seem to be missing the point and failing to get to the heart of the problem. This blanket ban does not, in any way, address the deeper and more complex social problems that contribute to some children repeatedly missing school. But it does, disproportionately affect lower income groups and BAME groups for whom visiting family abroad during school holiday time, may not be an affordable reality.

And as a parent, this feels like an unnecessarily heavy hand from a Nanny state. Is criminalising parents for taking their children out of school for weddings and funerals really the best use of court time and public money? Thank you for the new school rules, Mr Gove, but we try to teach our children to use common sense in everyday situations. When it comes to term-time absences, surely parents and teachers should be able to do the same?