Leading Article: Conformity cannot be true discipline

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The Independent Culture
PLANNING YOUR holidays this weekend? The nanny state wants to tell you when you are permitted to travel. David Blunkett would like to draw your attention to Government Guidelines on the Taking of Holidays and Efficient Administration of Schools.

The Education Secretary's response to the narrow-minded bleating of headteachers, who claim their schools are being disrupted by children going on holiday in term-time, is worrying on two counts. Less important is the sheer feeble- mindedness of the Government's desire to tell travel agents how they should price their products, as if some edict from Gosplan could dictate that off-season and peak-period holidays should cost the same and thus eliminate the financial incentive to travel during school terms. It says a lot about New Labour's commitment to the "dynamic market economy" that Mr Blunkett thinks that the laws of supply and demand can be suspended over beer and sandwiches with a bunch of tour operators.

But more fundamental is what it tells us about the Government's instinct for conformity. If parents make a considered decision that their children would learn more by doing interesting things with them than by being at school, how dare headteachers appeal for state sanctions to declare otherwise? And why should Mr Blunkett indulge them by agreeing that it is all very worrying, instead of reminding them sharply that the primary legal responsibility for a child's education lies with the parent?

It has been a fundamental principle of law since the 1944 Education Act, that, while education is compulsory, attendance at school is not, and that it is up to parents to decide how their children shall be educated (in England and Wales at least - in Scotland, unfortunately, parents need "permission" to teach children at home).

For all Mr Blunkett's commendable focus on school standards and how to raise them, this Government has an alarming tendency to slide away from this basic liberal premise underlying the provision of state education. Instead of instinctively siding with the rights of free citizens - pupils and parents - the Government seems to equate going on holiday at a time inconvenient to a school with truancy.

Which is all the more alarming from a Government which already sees truancy as a police matter rather than, as is often the case, a rational response to what a young person justly sees as a waste of their time.

Instead of being indulged, any headteacher who thinks like that should automatically lose any chance of the extra salary incentives this Government has promised them. Mr Blunkett should not confuse discipline with conformity, nor learning with regimentation.