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Losing Diamonds in our search for Gold


‘The Labour government has a target to cut truancy by a third, but the current rate of unauthorised absence in England is a third higher than in 1997.’ (The Guardian, 12th February 2009)

Every week, a UK parent is sent to gaol for not ensuring that their children attends school. This, in spite of the fact that the majority of unauthorised absences from school take place without parents’ consent or knowledge and occur in families with an intimate knowledge of the criminal justice system.

This power – to gaol parents of truants – like so many of this government’s actions, penalises the multiply-disadvantaged. It was introduced against the advice, at the time, of the professionals working with non-school-attenders for that very reason. It did nothing to tackle the underlying reasons for truanting and everything to antagonise the parents most essential to the partnership through which good schools deliver great education.

I make the distinction between schools and education advisedly. There is no duty under English law for a child to attend school, only that they receive a suitable full-time education. In government, most politicians forget this distinction, much as they forget the large number of parents of all social classes who opt out of state education and pay for their child’s education. That too is voting with your feet.

Most often, children succeed when they have good parents and teachers behind them. Sometimes, they do well with the strong support of one party but not the other. Rarely, however, do they do much without somebody being prepared to go into bat on their side.

The teaching profession and its subaltern agencies know all too well that all three participants in the education process – the child, the parents and the school – need to take part for success to be achieved. Take away one leg of this tripod and the stool inevitably falls over.

Those who work in education know that truancy rates are a fair barometer of the disconnect between the aspiration of young people and the offer at local schools. Great schools have great relationships between staff and parents. Pupils are swept-up in the enthusiastic project of personal and communal improvement. High levels of truancy tell you a great deal about things going wrong within schools and in society beyond.

We have lived for a long time in an increasingly anti-intellectual and anti-academic culture which rewards instant celebrity but not the hard work of serious study. Not surprisingly, more children than ever are voting with their feet and staying away from school. For generations they have known that education wasn’t for the likes of them. Now, they see that even a university education gets you nothing –  not even a job.

It is tragically ironic that, having decimated universities in a rush for better education, this government has pushed privilege back into pole position. If everyone applying for professional jobs has a degree – appointments will revert to being made or advertised on the basis of the ‘old boy (or girl) network‘.

Young people can see what is going on and they act accordingly. Already, intelligent youngsters who ought to be at university are weighing their options and considering whether to go for a job which does not incur huge debts rather than a university education that does. This is a perverse outcome. Especially in a woefully under-educated country such as ours.

How sad that the government’s response has been to punish the little boy that asks about the Emperor’s new clothes?

  1. Ian permalink

    Or is it the other side of the coin? The government trying to ensure that children have access to education – whether at home or at school (and yes it is the latter where one expects more truancy) to improve their circumstances, but following your other line of argument, at least if children attend school they stand a chance of encountering someone else who cares.

  2. Hi Ian,
    I think I was trying to point to some unintended consequences. As a rule people don’t go into politics planning to do harm, I imagine. (I am sufficiently trusting to think that this bunch didn’t at least!)
    But most politicians see education as a political football without understanding schools, schooling, teachers, kids or education.
    Sadly, they do not then go to researchers and listen, learn and inwardly digest.
    Educational policy is based on ideology and political expediency in this country and research, if considered, is looked at only post facto to justify the earlier decision.
    Schools – for many children – remain the one safe constant in a chaotic world. I am not disputing that. But, in terms of national policy, this government, like its predecessor) has sought to re-organise the educational deckchairs without much effect on the fate of the steerage passengers.

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