School Attendance and Punishing the Parents

Last week we tweeted our comments on the criminalisation of parents who disregard a school’s refusal to “authorise” children’s absences. Is this the best way to champion children’s rights? To bring the full weight of a criminal court crashing down on parents whose reasons for a child’s absence are judged unacceptable? Is this likely to improve attitudes to school? Might dialogue be better in most cases?


Deborah Orr’s column in the Guardian took on these concerns:

Taking your child out of school doesn’t necessarily make you a terrible parent

Last year, 16,430 parents in England were so wilfully blase about their child’s school attendance that they were prosecuted for it. Of those, 12,479 were found guilty, 9,214 were issued with fines (of £172, on average), and 18 were sent to prison. Pour encourager les autres, as we graduates say.

The threat of prison, apparently, is a really good way for schools to motivate recalcitrant parents. It helps them to understand how serious the situation is. Indeed, I do have a friend who used to tell her school-hating daughter that Mum could go to prison if her child didn’t attend. The funny thing, though, is that this isn’t true – or shouldn’t be, at least.

Parents in England are under no legal obligation to send their children to school, although they are legally obliged to provide them with an education of some kind. Pretty much every one of these prosecuted parents could have avoided the wrath of the authorities simply by writing to the school and saying that they were withdrawing their child, to be educated otherwise.

Deborah Orr

But what if your child’s refusal to go to school is not, in fact, prima facie evidence that you aren’t a proficient parent? What if, instead, you are a perfectly decent parent who understands that school is distressing your child in quite a profound way?

Many parents of children with Asperger’s syndrome home-school because conventional schooling is simply too crowded, too noisy, too smelly, too bright, too ever-changing, too rule-bound, too prescriptive and too full of complex social demands for children with even the mildest of autistic-spectrum disorders to cope with. School is just too school-like for them. The parents are right and the schools are wrong. And that’s just one example.

So, my question is this: what if the huge number of parents being prosecuted for their child’s non-attendance at school isn’t actually indicative of an epidemic of bad parenting at all? What if, instead, it’s indicative of an education system that is inflexible in its demand for conformity from children and families who are incapable of providing it, even with the best will in the world?

There is no acknowledgment, none at all, that it is possible for an educational relationship to break down because the parent knows their child better than the school does.

Obviously, I’m not in favour of parents being lazy and neglectful of their children. But, holidays? A family that took their child away on a holiday even though they knew the school would not agree to it is not necessarily a family that doesn’t value education. It could be a family that knows that their child really, really needs some quality time with her family, even if the school is not in a position to be able to begin to understand that.

The trouble is, an education system that knows the grade of everything and the value of nothing is an education system that has forgotten what education is for.

How can education foster creative and inquiring minds when disagreeing with what educators think is best has become a crime? It’s great to do well at school, get good grades, go to university and join a useful profession. But it’s dreadful to insist that families and children who don’t fit that mould, and think other things are important too, are inferior, wrong and in need of punishment.

Of course the main purpose of education in this country is no longer, if indeed it ever was, to “foster creative and inquiring minds”. It’s to “drive up attainment”, and as such it’s about increasing children’s scores in high stakes tests and exams. The government (and many schools) presume this is best done by having children in school for the maximum number of days and for the maximum number of hours within each day, often with the maximum amount of time spent on the ‘core curriculum’ and in ‘booster classes’. And this is not just a Secondary phase phenomenon – children in Primary school are frequently subjected to the same thinking.

This focus on high stakes tests and exams has distorted the purpose of education to the point that those who’ve introduced this penalty and those who implement it can’t begin to see the value of a day or week out of school doing something equally educational but not necessarily conforming to the stringent and prescribed curriculum our children have to endure. A walk in a park, looking at and learning from nature? Not in the curriculum. A visit to a museum? Doesn’t fit with Key Stage Whatever. A family gathering where an older member talks about life during the Blitz? Not until they’re in KS3.

It’s a preposterous system that precludes parents and carers from involvement in decisions about their child’s learning, formal or otherwise.

Ask a young adult what they remember about their primary education, and 90% will respond by talking about school journeys or trips out of the classroom. That’s the learning that they engage with and can remember most. Of course the ‘basics’ are important, the nuts and bolts of maths and English are important, but they’re NOT the be-all and end-all, and may not even be the main issue for many children, especially those that don’t respond well to formal or programmed learning.

Is it any wonder that home schooling is becoming more and more popular? And this is just the beginning. As the digital age progresses we’ll see massive shifts in attitudes to both teaching and learning. The current model is broken and is failing many, many children, parents and families – in this and many other ways.

We’d be delighted to hear from schools that do NOT set out to criminalise parents who ignore warnings about ‘unauthorised absences’ and learn more about their preferred methods of supporting families and parents who have issues with school attendance.

See also:
Rearranging The Deckchairs

(Scroll to the penultimate letter from yesterday’s Guardian)


About 3D Eye

Gary Foskett and Clare Blackhall are educationalists, writers and consultants. We work with schools and other organisations who share our vision of how schools, businesses, etc should work in the 21st Century. We also run courses and contribute to conferences - speaking about our three dimensional model of intelligences and how schools, colleges and universities can develop the full potential of all their staff and students. We also offer consultancy for businesses and public sector organisations to support staff training and organisational change and development. For more detailed information read our blog at or see our website at
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