The Easter holidays are over – and the long wait for the more generous summer break begins. In just a couple of months, schools will break up, air fares will rise, beaches will be busy and the cost of a family holiday will multiply. So surely it makes sense for parents to be allowed to take their children out of school during term time?
That is the appealing option that prompted one irate father to take his legal case all the way to the Supreme Court to establish a ruling earlier this year. Jon Platt, a British businessman, had been fined £120 after he took his daughter to Walt Disney World during school term.
The resulting (and popular) debate centred on whether parents know what is best for their child – or at least that they know better than the state.
The argument for parental authority over school attendance is initially compelling. Travel can be an important and valuable experience for children. It gives them a break from school work, allows for time together as a family, and can no doubt be educational. Schools and education authorities argue, however, that missing school has a negative impact on academic progress.
Parents and children have an important connection to each other that involves responsibilities and benefits. So an assertion of parents’ rights might seem to make sense.
Research over the last two decades has shown how parenting has become increasingly intensive, with parents spending more time, money and energy on ensuring that their children do well. There is more popular discussion about how parents should behave and evermore political interventions to make them behave in particular ways.
Parents are expected to know what is best for their child and act appropriately. If so much responsibility for children is placed on parents then surely parents should be allowed some flexibility in how they perform their role? Mothers and fathers could feel justified in joining with campaigns like the one orchestrated by “Parents want a say” to argue that if their children are not suffering then the state should reduce its interference in the private sphere and support parental authority.
So was Platt right to think that he should be able to take his daughter on holiday when he likes? He had argued that his child, then seven, had a school attendance record of over 90% – high enough to fulfil the legal requirement of “regular” attendance to ensure she was getting a good education. In other words, it might be justified for the state to intervene if there was strong evidence of an adverse effect on the child because of poor parenting decisions. But where there is no evidence of this, parents should be allowed to act as they deem fit. He told a newspaper: “Quite frankly, parents need to decide for themselves.”
But there is a good argument that they shouldn’t be allowed to decide – not because of the claim that schools know the needs of children best. But that selfish individualism should be challenged.
A lesson learned
It may not matter to your child if they miss a few days of school – but it will have an impact on others. Teachers are expected to ensure that children catch up with work they have missed which means less attention on the majority. If significant numbers of children are absent (as might be the tendency if parents take a few extra days around formal holidays) then the problem multiplies.
If you are the only parent who takes their child out there may be little ill effect, but if others start to do the same then the consequences escalate. Recent research by political philosophers on the rights of parents has argued that these need to be limited so that individuals cannot significantly advantage their own children over others, and that is what these parents are doing.
It could be argued even more forcefully that the benefits of your own child are marginal compared to the negative impact on other children. So the best reason for not taking your child out of school to go on holiday isn’t about the risk of educational disadvantage they face, or that it is going against government rules. It is that parenting shouldn’t be about seeking to confer an unfair advantage for your child over others.