School days mean school days

The judgement of the Supreme Court on the matter of whether term-time holidays are ‘acceptable’ in terms of pupil missing school is interesting. The lower courts clearly sides with the parent, and accepted the decision of the parent. This presumably was based, at least in part, on the contract between parent and State. The parent is required to secure the education of their child, but the State doesn’t prescribe how that is achieved, except in essence by stating a default position of schooling provided by the State. The Supreme Court had to decide the meaning of “fails to attend regularly” in section 444(1) of the Education Act 1996.

The Supreme Court would now seem to have very clearly reaffirmed that if you enter into that contract with the State for the State to educate your child, it is binding in terms of the requirement to deliver your child to school when the school is in session; illness and other specified unavoidable events apart being allowed as reasons for non-attendance.

Interestingly, the parent or child has historically had no come-back on the school or its overall operator if for any reason the school cannot open. Hence the residual duty remaining with local authorities to step in and ‘secure’ the education of a child if something happens to an academy or free school. Hence, also why the State has never guaranteed the level of teaching or the qualifications of those required to teach any particular child anything.

I have read the judgement of the Supreme Court, and Lady Hale in particular with interest and was struck by the following paragraph in what was an excellent summary of education history and the law on attendance that is well worth reading and largely free of legal jargon.

Finally, given the strictness of the previous law, Parliament is unlikely to have found it acceptable that parents could take their children out of school in blatant disregard of the school rules, either without having asked for permission at all or, having asked for it, been refused. This is not an approach to rule-keeping which any educational system can be expected to find acceptable. It is a slap in the face to those obedient parents who do keep the rules, whatever the cost or inconvenience to themselves.

Copied from: https://www.supremecourt.uk/cases/docs/uksc-2016-0155-judgment.pdf

We are now, it seems, much closer to the pre-1944 Education Act position where even a single day of missed school could be regarded as unacceptable and the commission of an offence. Parents will now need to take heed of the rules of the school.

However, I foresee some future questions over the legitimacy of absence by ‘illnesses where the illness is self-certified by the parent. Taking a Friday and the following Monday off ‘sick’ may be especially risky is a school creates a rule requiring a doctor’s note in such circumstances. The absence of a note might be an unreasonable absence.

The case still leaves un-resolved the twin problems of the price of holidays for families with children at school and the issue of families that work in holiday areas. The original Victorian legislation recognised we were in part an agricultural nation and that affected attendance at school. The current legislation doesn’t recognise we are now a service-based economy. For good measure, it also doesn’t recognise that the Victorian legislation on home to school transport provision needs bringing up to date as well.

 

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Thank you Mr Taylor

The Ministry of Justice published an important report on Youth Justice this week. It was written by Mr Taylor. Regular readers of this blog may recall this civil servant and former head teacher when he was in charge of teacher training and espoused the view that planning ITT numbers was not useful. His views at that time were the focus of a series of blog posts.

Youth Justice, and especially the manner in which children were dealt with by the criminal justice system, was a blot on the reputation of the last Labour government. As the Taylor Report makes clear https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/review-of-the-youth-justice-system offending by young people reached a peak in 2007 after ten years of Labour governments and during the time the police were being required to meet targets to reduce offending.

In 2007, 225,000 children in England and Wales received a caution or conviction for a notifiable offence. Of these children, 106,000 were first-time entrants to the system having never before received a caution or conviction. 126,000 were prosecuted at court, and 5,800 were sentenced to custody. The average monthly under-18 custodial population for 2007 was 2,909.

  1. Since that high watermark the number of children dealt with by the youth justice system has reduced spectacularly, with consistent year-on-year falls. The number of children cautioned or convicted in 2015 was 47,000 – down 79% since 2007. Over the same period the number of children entering the youth justice system for the first time has fallen by 82%, the number prosecuted at court has reduced by 69%, and there are now around only 900 under-18s in custody.

This blog has commented before on the reduction in the size of the youth prison population when it fell below 1,000 for the first time in recent history. Now 900, is still far too many, but averages just below three per local authority at any one time.

The risk in the new proposals is that the current diffuse system run from both Westminster and by local authorities becomes a devolved system with some local authorities not large enough to handle an effective system. My guess is that then the government would step in and creates the regional structures it is now seeking in the adoption world where provision was patchy. Indeed, the Taylor report hints at this approach.

I also find the section on education rather woolly in terms of who takes control? Academisation and years of under-mining local authorities means that they no longer have the power to intervene when schools are not living up to the high standards required to help keep young people away from the path of a life of crime.

However, the recommendation about making convictions and cautions spent when resulting from actions when a person was a child, chimes with what I have been saying for many years. Too many people have their careers blighted by a single act as a young person. In this age of ever tightening restrictions it can mean the difference between working in a profession or not and even where a person can go on holiday.

The idea of Youth Panels sitting in local buildings also chimes with my thinking when a magistrate. With reducing workload children attending court have had to travel ever further and this means not only defendants, but also witnesses and victims: not a good idea.

As ever, with this government, the issue comes down to money and whether any changes will be used to pass the buck and reduce not improve services. We certainly don’t want to see a quarter of a million children a year receive a caution or conviction. Those days must never return.

 

Supreme Court one; Parliament a half

This has been a busy week, so I am catching up on various issues. The Supreme Court decision announced last week that cautions are no longer to be required to be disclosed for life makes real sense in a world where a volunteer pensioner reading to under-fives can currently be required to disclose all criminal convictions, even those acquired half a century ago.

Now I think is the time to bring the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act and the disclosure rules into harmony so that everyone can easily understand what is required and why. This would include the police and the issue of ‘soft intelligence’. It would be silly if cautions, having been removed as part of the criminal record, reappeared in enhanced disclosures as part of ‘soft intelligence’ held by police and disclosed as part of the process of ensuring unsuitable people don’t work with children or vulnerable adults.

I have awarded a half to parliament because of the work of the group of parliamentarians that appeared at almost the same time as the Supreme Court judgement saying much the same thing. Less, helpful, as those who followed my blog after the stabbing of the Leeds teacher will know, was the actions of Labour and Conservative back bench MPs ganging up together to insert a new clause in the Bill currently going through parliament requiring mandatory prison sentences for anyone convicted of two offences of carrying a bladed instrument: a knife to you, me and the MPs.

To their credit most Liberal Democrats MPs voted against this proposal, and would presumably be happy to leave judgement on sentencing to the courts within the framework of a maximum tariff set down by parliament and the guidelines from the Sentencing Council.

How little there is to distinguish Labour and Tory policies also became apparent this morning in the interview the Labour Secretary of State gave to the Sunday Times. He is reported as saying that all two-year olds should be sent to school because basic skills such as counting and holding a pen are easier to grasp at school rather than at home or with under-qualified child minders. This sends a shudder through me. I suspect most two year olds aren’t ready for fine motor skills required in holding a pen, and as a colleague emailed me:

 Knowledge is now available through a keyboard and touchscreen and increasingly important works are available online. I was delighted to find Fuster’s “Prefrontal Cortex” and Hubel’s  “Eye, Brain, and Vision” available for free download. The basis skill for writing is therefore keyboarding, not pencil printing. And mathematical comprehension is derived from language not perception, so the best way to learn number is by playing with the symbol system on a calculator first. Remember: language is a set of arbitrary symbols with which children come to school equipped. When will politicians and academics understand that all improvement is technology-based? At present all appear to be in denial.

There is certainly a debate to be had about the importance of early writing skills in a technological age where two –year olds won’t retire from the labour market until the 2080s if present trends continue. By then, pens might be restricted to use in calligraphy as an art form.  I might have been more impressed if Mr Hunt had suggested the use of turtles and coding to make them run around the floor. But, he is a historian, so perhaps he is better at looking backwards than forwards.

Fine the feckless?

There are reports in the media that Michael Gove wants to deduct fines imposed on parents of those pupils not attending school from child benefits. This policy was suggested earlier in the coalition by a Conservative adviser, but blocked by the Liberal Democrats. Presumably, this revival of the idea could be designed to prevent UKIP announcing it as a policy ahead of the Conservatives.

As a headline it no doubt resonates with groups that feel you shouldn’t get something for nothing, and part of the contract in receiving state benefits is that you play your part; in this case ensuring your offspring go to school regularly. From the opposite perspective it looks like punishing the child by reducing family income, often already low in real terms, because of the actions of the parents. The sins of the fathers or in this case possibly even the mothers, being transferred to the next generation.

None of this is to underestimate the problem of children missing education, and the part parents play in conniving in their absence from school, but to seek to discover how best to deal with the issue.

I have never liked the idea of schools being able to fine parents. Recent governments have taken the idea that fines can be administered by public bodies without recourse to the judicial system to absurd lengths. This means that, unlike in court, those imposing the fines have neither the whole picture nor the means to compel someone to attend to discuss their means. As a result, fines are a very blunt instrument, and this often resorts in them eventually being written off unpaid. If fines are the solution they need to be imposed by a court with oversight of all State imposed penalties: as a form of punishment a community sentence to some form of parenting programme might well be a better alternative, especially if imposed early in a child’s record of unapproved absence. Personally, I think returning Magistrates’ Courts to local areas so that they can act quickly and decisively with the ability to understand the whole picture might be better than allowing head teachers to cut child benefit.

On the other hand, schools do need to consider how, especially in the early years, they can tackle those children that fall behind in their learning through absence. I am sure that the best schools do this as a matter of course, but some research into outcomes at the 20 or some primary schools with the worst attendance records might pay some interesting dividends. It would be an easy win to ask these schools that the DfE has already identified whether they are using their Pupil Premium to help these children?

Where the welfare of the child is in danger a local authority has the extreme option of directly intervening in the parenting of a child. Perhaps the Secretary of State should start by asking his colleagues in the Children’s Services part of his Department what they would recommend before targeting benefit cuts as the headline solution. Liberal Democrats were correct to block this policy last time it was mooted, and although they cannot stop Mr Gove campaigning to put it in the Tory manifesto for 2015, I hope that they will make clear their opposition to it by a definitive statement to that effect from their education minister, David Laws.