By Guardian columnist the Fly in the Ointment


YOUNG people and education have been on my mind this week thanks to two stories that made the news.

The first was the tale of a Telford family who had to pay almost £1,000 in fines and costs for taking its three children out of school for a week in Rhodes.

New legislation, which came into force on September 1 last year means children can only be granted term-time absence in ‘exceptional’ circumstances. Families ignoring the new rules can be fined by their education authorities.

Previously, school head teachers had the power to grant up to 10 days’ absence in ‘special’ circumstances.

Stewart Sutherland, the children’s father argued he had booked the family trip before the legislation came into force, though the holiday was taken 25 days into the new regime.

Mr Sutherland, who works for the Ministry of Defence Guard Service, also argued the family’s circumstances were exceptional because of the sensitive nature of his work and because cutbacks and staff shortages meant he had not been allowed to take leave during school holidays.

But a Department for Education spokesman was quite clear in supporting the education authority’s stand, saying: ‘Poor attendance at school can have a hugely damaging effect, and children who attend regularly are nearly four times more likely to achieve five or more good GCSEs than those who are regularly absent.”

Mr Sutherland, however, saw things from a different perspective and extolled the virtues and benefits of a week in the sun. He is reported to have said: “I know how important education is – but there’s a bigger picture. Family time is important, too, and the children’s behaviour and schooling has improved massively since our holiday.”

All this made me feel rather guilty because I too once took my daughter out of school during term time so we could have a family break, although ours was in Cornwall (where it rained almost every day) rather than sun-kissed Rhodes.

My wife and I were made to feel so guilty by my daughter’s infant school teacher we actually lost money, cancelling one of the two weeks we had planned to be away. We had booked off the last two weeks of term, working on the principle that in infant school, little or no work would get done then. But ‘Miss’ insisted it was vital for our daughter’s development she was there for that final week.

Frankly, we were lied to. The last week of term was nothing more than a play week, as we suspected.

Without wishing to sound like a pushy and over proud dad, my daughter has always been a bright girl and when we checked with her teacher, she shamefacedly had to admit that my daughter had still finished the school year as one of the best readers and writers and she had come to the end of the ‘sums’ books six weeks early.

Now, just like my daughter’s infant school teacher, the Government has decided that education is the key to a happy, and in this instance, crime-free future.

Last week, it came to the staggering conclusion that the ‘sky-high’ rate of reoffending by young criminals must be reversed and announced ‘radical’ proposals to rehabilitate young offenders through better education and training.

And just how is the Government going to go about this, you may ask.

The answer, it appears, is simple... send them to school.

Apparently, almost three-quarters of young offenders return to crime when they are released but the figures show they spend on average just 12 hours a day in education and training while they are locked up. Under the new regime, that will be doubled to at least 24 hours a week.

And the Government is also planning to build the ‘Oxbridge’ of prison schools, a pioneering Secure College in the East Midlands.

According to a Government spokesman: “The fortified school will provide young offenders with strong discipline, while focusing squarely on rehabilitation and education.”

I can’t help wondering what kind of response you would get from the head teacher of the Secure College if dad asked if he could take young Kyle the car thief away for two weeks in Magaluf during term time, although I suspect the word ‘term’ probably has a different meaning inside the fortified walls.

A footnote: Thankfully, the week of infant school my daughter missed didn’t really seem to have the damaging effect ‘Miss’ had predicted. She went on to get a First Class honour degree, a Master’s and a PhD and is now teaching university lecturers how to teach.