I couldn’t help but feel a sense of injustice, as I listened to Jon Platt on the news this morning, making his impassioned speech outside the Supreme Court, having just lost his case for taking his daughter out of school for a family holiday. I was surprised to learn that it is now actually illegal to have your child out of school for any period of time, without the consent of that school. Even more shocking is that parents can face jail if they do not pay the hefty fines, although many are willing to pay these, rather than the extortionate prices the travel companies charge during school holidays. Prices that mean many low and middle income families are forced to miss out.
So as my two year old played around on the carpet in front of me, it caused me to wonder – who actually owns our children? Why does the state seem to believe it knows better than I do, when it comes to what is best for her? I consider myself extremely pro-education, but I am surprised the court has failed to recognise the value of life experiences, and in this case, yes, I mean holidays. Holidays are not merely ‘fun’. Travel, culture, history, the true realisation for a child that other people and other places actually exist, not just as photos in books. Travel opens our eyes to the wonders of the world. Holidays are also vital for our mental wellbeing, and I would argue that mental health has a far greater impact on a child’s future than being behind on a week of lessons.
I have come to understand all this in retrospect, I should add, as we never had any such family holidays when I was growing up, save for the odd trip to the seaside. And yes, this did have an effect on my future – have a read of my 3-part UCL blog posts, to get an understanding of my sense of alienation at being one of the only new undergrads at a top university who hadn’t really travelled anywhere, and the extent to which this made me extremely naive and uneducated about certain things.
In this case, Mr Platt took his daughter on a trip to Disneyland. Some have reasoned that this was not exactly a high-brow educational experience and so therefore did not justify the ‘disruption’ to her education, but I have to disagree. Because as it happens, I went to Disneyland once. I was fifteen and it was a high school Media Studies trip to Paris, and as much as it was highly enjoyable, I spent most of the time wishing I was eight. It struck me that once childhood is gone, your ability to experience the world in that magical way, is gone forever too. So I genuinely hope his daughter had a wonderful time. Sadly, not all online commentators seem to share this view, and it always amazes me how so many British people seem determined to resent anyone deemed to be overstepping their allocated capacity to have a good time.
So I can’t help but feel that it was unkind of this judge to decide that the happy holiday Mr Platt’s daughter experienced, now constitutes a criminal offence for her family. How many other children are going to miss out on these life experiences now? As for the judge herself, I think it’s fairly safe to say that neither she nor her family will have to go without a holiday due to financial concerns. She strikes me as out of touch, or simply unsympathetic to the difficulties that poorer families face.
Which is where the Myers-Briggs test comes in…
I have been chatting with a friend of mine recently about something called the MBTI (Myers-Briggs Type Indicator), which, in a nutshell, seems to be the trendy new alternative to star signs. Unlike with star signs however, you are given a four letter code based on your answers to a series of questions, so the result can be a surprisingly accurate reflection of your personality. Incidentally, I’m an INFJ and my friend is an INTJ, which naturally got us discussing the F and the T – Feeling and Thinking, respectively. Apparently, those who are ‘Feelers’ tend to make judgements based on their personal values, identifying with others and showing respect for them. They like to assess the impact of their decisions on people and strive for harmony. ‘Thinkers’ in contrast, prefer to look at the logical consequences of their judgements. They tend to remove themselves from the situation to weigh up the pros and cons and find a standard that will work in all similar situations. Now, while both of these are perfectly acceptable ways to make decisions, I can’t help but feel that what we are seeing in the judgement of the Supreme Court today, is a complete overload of Thinkery.
It occurred to me, that this might also help to explain why opinion has been so polarised on this case. It’s like the MBTI equivalent of that notorious blue and black dress – in that the conclusion you draw from the court judgement, largely depends on your ability to see it from an emotional point of view or a logical one. In my humble, feely opinion, it would appear that this judge has completely failed to consider the emotional impact this will have on the people involved, and on the children from low-income families that this ruling will continue to affect. This quote from the Guardian article continues to prove my point:
“First, there are many examples where a very minor or trivial breach of the law can lead to criminal liability. It is an offence to steal a milk bottle, to drive at 31mph where the limit is 30mph or to fail to declare imported goods which are just over the permitted limit.”
Yet NONE of these scenarios has an emotional impact on the people involved. It honestly amazes me how some people can be so blind to this. We should not allow ourselves to become so bound up with following rules that we lose sight of what is truly important in life. Learning is vital, yes, but life experiences also have meaning, and can make far deeper impressions upon us as people than textbooks ever could.
I am going to cast my mind back now, to 1991. I was five years old and incredibly excited, as the school had granted permission for me to have the afternoon off, so that I could go to my local theatre to watch a ballet performance of The Sleeping Beauty. At that age, ballet was my life, and it was great fun to don my tutu every week and skip around with the others in ballet class. So the school had decided that this was educational enough to warrant a term time absence, and I can actually recall my glee at leaving that classroom. I had never seen a proper ballet performance before.
I can still remember exactly where I was sitting in the theatre. Top left, at the back. I watched the perfection and grace of those dancers and I was completely wowed. When I saw them dance, I saw something I could become, and the thought of that potential filled me with excitement. Needless to say, at 30 years old, I am now imbued with the perfection and grace of your average hippo, but the point is that I clearly remember that afternoon and how it made me feel. The thrill of learning from the real world, outside of the classroom. Watching real professionals being brilliant. Experiencing the beauty and soul of a classic piece of art. The sheer fun of being in a different world for a while. Would I still be able to recall the afternoon which I would otherwise have spent in school? No, I would not. Are any of my now 30 year old classmates in any way suffering from the ‘disruption’ my afternoon of absence caused? Categorically no. Did they suffer at the time? Probably not.
So we need to get some perspective here.
Incidentally, I can also remember getting my ‘good attendance’ sticker from the headmaster at the end of the year, and I have many happy memories of learning and playing in school. But the fact remains, that after this court ruling, such decisions about what is deemed sufficient to warrant a school absence are completely at the discretion of the school. If the school refuses and a parent takes the child out anyway, that parent faces criminal charges and this cannot be right. It is in the interests of schools and the state to have parents on their side. I feel rulings such as this one only serve to make enemies out of well-meaning parents. Ultimately it is the children who suffer, as they learn from an early age that ‘the system’ is petty and unfair, the possible result of which is that they may feel less enthusiastic about co-operating with authority when they are older.
And on a final note, let’s not forget the travel companies, who are the real rogues in all of this. But then I suppose it would be naive to even imagine that the right of companies to make big fat profits would ever be scrutinised in the Supreme Court for ‘disrupting’ children’s education?
Personally, I just think the world would benefit from a little more empathy and a few more Feely people. But then I would think that, wouldn’t I? 😉