Is “regular” really the point?

Today the High Court is going to rule on the case of Isle of Wight parent Jon Platt on whether to uphold the £120 fine for taking his kids out of school for a family holiday. I must admit that when I first heard about this case I was inclined to take the side of this man who was taking on the system and apparently winning. I thought his core argument that his kids haven’t had other absences and therefore have attended school “regularly” was a good one, at least on the face of it, and that if nothing else he was bringing to the fore a key problem with the current guidelines – the fact that they don’t really state what they really mean. However, this verging admiration for this man completely faded when I heard him talking on Radio4 this morning and I realised that he was in fact operating from a point of complete pride and ignorance.

In the interview this morning he was asked about his reasons for taking his children out of school in term time, he was asked about his challenge to the fine and he challenged a Headmistress on the arguments from the educational establishment on why this holiday he’d taken his children on was a bad thing. It was unfortunate that the Headmistress they’d chosen really wasn’t very good at defending the position of the education system, as he was easily able to rebuff her with some relatively naive arguments such as saying that he didn’t understand how his children, who now attend a private school, could get a better education even though they attended for 25 days less a year than they would at a state school, or that his children had a 93% attendance rating across the year and surely this was good. Another argument, one which I often think is the tenet of the desperate, was that he (as a parent of the children) surely knew far better than a school or local authority what was better for his own kids. The argument that I find most perplexing is that he wanted to arrange a family holiday where everyone could attend, and by this I mean practically the family goldfish as well. 15 members (including both sets of parents, fiancé, children, parents in law, grandparents) seemed to be attending a holiday to Florida, which Mr Platt said was his aim back in April 2015. Incidentally he did the same thing again in January this year for a family skiing holiday to Lapland.

My problem with this situation is that I can sympathise with both sides. Like Mr Platt, I am a parent who is divorced and so understand that contact with children in this situation can be less easy to arrange and that holidays with the whole family can also be hard to coordinate. However, I am also the governor of an Infant school where my daughter attends and so I have seen first hand what an absence, even for a week, can do to a child’s progress. So what are the main issues here then?

What is regular?

The legislation that exists is worded to say that children should attend school regularly. This is the key part of the case Jon Platt’s is using as his defence, saying that 93% attendance across the school year (which is what he claims his children have) is regular. But this defence, whilst on the surface seems to stand up, misses the key point of the intention of this law. The principle of the law is to try and make sure children attend school every day (pending illness or other unavoidable absence). The headmistress who was interviewed made a particularly big hash of trying to defend this, trying to make out that the point was that children need to be in school everyday so that we know where they are and that they are safe. This was a point easily and rather pointedly defended by Mr Platt with the throwaway question “Are you saying my children aren’t safe when they’re with me?” I can understand his response but it really doesn’t do him any credit.

Neither person got to the nub of the point here and I was very disappointed that a headmistress didn’t do better. Because the main issue here really isn’t about safety, it is about a child missing a large amount of potentially key education. So let’s dispel a few myths here. Firstly 93% attendance is not good. The national average is 95%, so by definition 93% is below average and therefore cannot be good. But further still, at the school I govern at we consider 96% to be the minimum we want to aim for and wouldn’t consider anything below that to be good. And that is across the whole year. But here is the rather more important point to consider. The curriculum is broken down into key areas, modules that are taught over a period of weeks before moving on to the next one. It is rather like walking up a set of stairs. You learn the first module (the first step) and then next you learn the second step, whilst reinforcing the first one (you move up to the second step). If you don’t have a solid knowledge and understand of the preceding steps then you won’t adequately progress. In the analogy, you can’t progress because you have a step missing. Why is this an important point? Because whilst Jon Platt’s children’s attendance was 93% across the year, for the half-term when he took his child on that holiday it would have been somewhere around 83% (and that is if it was only a one week absence), or 67% for a two week absence. Time is the key consideration here, because it is easy to claim regular attendance across a whole year, but when you start looking at the timescales that are actually significant, weeks rather than years, the time it takes to teach and reinforce key educational concepts, then you start to see where problems can occur. Come back to those steps in our analogy again. It only takes a couple of weeks for one of those steps to be badly formed, and then that can have a knock on affect so that the rest of the steps aren’t well formed either. Education is progressive and if you miss a key introduction that can affect a child significantly in the long term.

Some may argue that surely this is only a relevant argument when children are younger, and learning the key early years skills (reading, writing and early maths) and that once a child is older then they can catch up? Well I am an example of this isn’t the case. In year 9 I didn’t do a full week at school due to illness. This coincided with the introduction of complex algebra. I missed the key early sessions in the year and then I found it impossible to catch up. In fact I never did fully and so my grades suffered. And because physics also relied on algebra, I struggled and eventually dropped out of A level physics, simply because I just didn’t have the basis I needed to keep up. The steps in my educational staircase were missing at that level.

Attendance regularly is important, not just across the whole year but across the terms and half-terms. Without this things will be missed and catchup is hard, if not impossible. And distracting staff resources just to catch a child up is also taking away valuable resource for very selfish reasons.

Private education

So that brings us on to his next argument, that he can’t understand how if his children attend for 25 less days a year at a private school than they would at a state school how they could get a better education. We will skim past the point that he is openly admitting that his children’s education is squeezed into less days, so by definition more intense, and yet he still chooses to take them away for a holiday.

The reason private education often gets much better results than state schools is not to do with the amount of days they teach, it is to do with the way they teach and the resources they have available to them. The Headmistress on the Radio4 interview tried, in vain, to suggest that the success of the private school would be partly to do with the demographic attending, to which Mr Platt immediately said naively “it’s non selective”. Who is he kidding? Private schools charge large fees to attend so by definition they are selective. Children are there because their parents can afford to send them there or have chosen to sacrifice a huge amount of other luxuries in life in order to make sure they can go to that school. The parents are either wealthy or very dedicated to good education (or both) and so the children attending will have a very different outlook than the majority of those attending a state school.

But the main consideration for why private schools get better results is actually to do with their resources. Those fees pay for the education, that is how it works. And most private schools have a student / staff ratio that is much lower than state schools. Take the local private school that my daughter attended for a while. They had a maximum class size of 14, with a minimum of three members of staff in the classroom (often four). That means each member of staff is focussing on no more than three pupils at any one time. The time those children get dedicated to them is huge. Compare this to a state school. Often class sizes will be 30 or more, with a teach and maybe two assistants, often only one. The student / staff ratio here means that each member of staff is trying to focus on 10 or more pupils at any one time.The amount of time each student gets in support is very small.

I could go on and on about the massive divide between private and state education, but that would be a whole series of articles in itself. The reality is that comparing the contact days in a private school to those in a state school really isn’t a valid argument. In answer to Jon Platt’s question, the reason private schools can have less days is because they can educate in a much more efficient manner. State schools don’t have this luxury. They don’t have the budgets and they don’t have the cream of the teaching crop either. The pressures are entirely different.

Let’s take the whole family

So what about that family holiday then? Jon wanted to take his whole family with him and I think we can all understand that. I like to be able to take my whole family; my partner, her children and my children. At a stretch, and if it is suitable, we also go on the occasional trip to Devon with my parents or hers. But in Mr Platt’s case it seems that he was trying to get his entire extended family to go. It was a clan invasion of Florida. 15 people in total and that isn’t taking into account the few family members he said couldn’t attend. It is really at this point that I think I started to lose sympathy for Jon. If you want to arrange a holiday where the entire clan attend then it is rather lacking in common sense to try and do it at any other time than the summer, especially if money is apparently not a problem. To have done this twice in less than a calendar year (including his jaunt to Lapland this year) suggests that this isn’t a one off but is actually a habit and a flagrant disregard or respect for education or the rules. I could understand if this was a once in a lifetime trip for everyone, but it would seem in his case that this is something he likes to do a lot.

I know best for my kids

So let’s finish with the weakest argument of all of them, in my humble opinion. I wonder whether Jon would have such a belligerent stance with a doctor treating one of his children for a serious condition as he does with education professionals? Let’s be clear here, whilst Jon is the parent of these children he is not an expert in education or in what it takes to help a child work towards a full education that will mean a successful life, complete with the right attitudes and aptitudes that life will require to succeed.

My experience, simply from being a governor in a state infant school, is that teachers and more importantly the senior teachers, subject leaders, senior management and heads, are very highly trained. They spend a huge amount of time exposed to the latest thoughts in pedagogy and they are, in fact, far more qualified to say what is better for my children’s education than I am. Let’s also not forget that teachers spend far more time around our children than we do and so they probably do know a lot more about their character than we do. It is in our nature, when we are children, to hide things from our parents anyway. So Jon Platt claiming he knows what is best for his children is simply obtuse.

So what?

Education is important. It is not just about children learning things to pass tests. It is about learning about life, about what they like and dislike. It is about learning skills that impact on many areas of their lives and it is about realising that they will need to spend time doing things that they may not enjoy, but they still have to do anyway. It sets them up for life both in their attitudes and in the skills and knowledge. It is our responsibility and moral obligation, as responsible and caring parents, to make sure that we give our children the best start in life. I don’t know what my children will want to do when they’re grown up. But I do know that they rule themselves out of certain things if they don’t have a solid and rounded education. And that is something I don’t want to do. I want all doors to be open. If they want to be astronauts then I want them to have the knowledge to be able to study further in the sciences they need for that. Equally if they want to be a milkman then I want them to have pushed through to attend classes they don’t like, because that sets them up with the attitudes that they will need to cope with getting up before it is light and doing a job that at times seems very unrewarding.

Regular attendance needs to be considered at a teaching level, and not as a marker across a large time period. Did the child attend classes regularly and often on this topic? Did they attend enough to get a proper grasp and understanding of the teaching, which will allow them to progress on to the next level adequately? That is the key question, not ‘were they in the classroom every day?’

What has to change? The law has to change. This law doesn’t educate parents, it gives them a target to attack. Parents need to understand how education works and the law needs to reflect how education works. Scrap the ‘regular’ wording because it is open to interpretation. Instead the law should be that children attend school every day, unless they are ill or otherwise unable to for unforeseen reasons. And how do you actually change people like Jon, someone who works in contractual law and clearly who isn’t intimated by a small fine? Educate them. Give them the chance to see what potential damage they are doing to the potential of their children. And if that doesn’t work, make the fines income related and significant and add extra ramifications, such as a criminal charge. After all, taking these actions can potentially have a drastic affect on a child’s future achievement or options, and that is certainly not in that child’s best interests at all.


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