Please sir, may I take my children on holiday to the Seychelles?
It is daft to suggest that the young Blairs missing school today will jeopardise their education
Tuesday 05 January 1999
Now, either Charlie Whelan was up to his tricks again, or someone had been doing their sums, for it was very publicly discovered that the three Blairlings were skipping four whole days of school between them so as to complete their Seychelles vacation. Not only that, but Mr John McIntosh, the head of the Oratory School which the Blair boys attend, seemed to cast doubt on whether Tony and Cherie had notified the school of the impending absence. He seemed quite put out, and was quoted, reminding the world: "I say to parents they must observe the three Hs - `haircuts, holidays and homework'."
Does he really say such silly things? As the old gag goes, most kids could observe homework all day - but what is it with the haircut fetish? Perhaps Mr McIntosh stuffs cushions for the deprived with the locks of the fortunate, who are selected to attend his school. But I doubt it. Not for the first time, I suspect, Mr Blair will be wishing that he'd sent his sons to one those nice discreet public schools where the head doesn't talk like Captain Mainwaring. Anyway, No 10 has since made it clear that Cherie, elle-meme, wrote a note to the Oratory yonks ago, giving notice of the upcoming Seychelles adventure.
What messed it up for the Blairs is that - as they disported themselves on the Seychelles (sorry, did I say, "Seychelles" again?) - the Secretary of State for Education, David Blunkett, let it be known that he was actively considering legislation to prevent parents from taking their children out of school for trips abroad and suchlike. Mr Blunkett was responding to worries expressed by David Hart, the head of the Heads Union, and therefore, educationally, the capo di tutti capi.
Alas, as soon as the Blair/Seychelles/term-time holiday scandal broke, this alliance between government and educationalists fell apart. Mr Hart accused the Prime Minister of not setting "a good example" (yes, he really did. Unbelievable, isn't it?). Our old friend, Nigel "Giggles" de Gruchy, General secretary of the NAS/UWT, thought it was a good example - but only of "why politicians should keep their mouths shut and not lecture other parents". He went on, "They try to tell teachers how to run schools and end up being embarrassed themselves." We all know, don't we, whose job Mr de Gruchy thinks it is to lecture parents and to run schools. It's his.
What is interesting for me in this case (besides the unintentional comedy) is that the issue behind it lies slap on the fault line between my warring communitarian and libertarian inclinations. In other words, what should I be rendering Caesar and what may I decide for myself, according to my own inclinations? For parents, school provides one of the greatest tests of discerning the border between private and social behaviour.
We resolved one key issue years ago, and it was in Caesar's favour: parents are not permitted not to educate their children. That's why there are no brochures and magazine articles advertising the best ways to bring your kids up ferally. In addition to this one core restriction on parental freedom, we add many others smaller ones. And I am happy to go along with them. My children are almost never late, homework is done on time, I would support the teacher where he or she was taking action against bullying - even if this involved my own child; and (most terrible of all) I will spend hours, if requested to, making a huge, messy model of a bloody Egyptian shaduf, while simultaneously attempting to explain to my daughter the principles of balance and leverage.
I do all this partly because I can see what the social consequences would be if I didn't. But in one respect I too am a sinner. Like Tony Blair, I will take the kids out of school for the odd day or two in order to go on holiday. Our household is also one where both parents work full time, in jobs whose rhythms are not determined by the changing of the seasons. Finding a clear period when neither of us is working is increasingly difficult. But the times and durations of school holidays in Britain were set when there was still a harvest to be brought in, mother was still at home, the patterns of people's lives were roughly similar, and money - not time - was at a premium.
Attitudes were different then, too. I seem to feel a greater need to spend whatever time I do have with the children than my own father did (catch him struggling with a shaduf). So I have not, until now, felt guilty about taking the kids out of school, if necessary. Quite the opposite. My children won't miss out because we will ensure that they read, write, divide and - all else failing - catch up, before going back to school.
Besides, families like mine are not the problem. In London's Tower Hamlets, a generation of young Bengalis are having their education jeopardised by, among other things, returning to Bangladesh for long, term-time holidays. These kids are disadvantaged enough to begin with, without skipping important sections of the curriculum. It is daft to suggest that the young Blairs missing school today is somehow on a par with this form of absenteeism. That was presumably one reason why No 10, when dealing with the story, pointed out that Mr Blunkett had been talking only about longer absences from school.
But No 10 was wrong. Increasing numbers of parents are doing what we do, because they face the same pressures (and are aware of the same savings to be made by booking out of season). And when everyone starts doing what previously only a few did, you begin to get problems. Teachers find themselves standing in front of half-empty classrooms, or repeating lessons; school plays, concerts, sports, and other events that require constant term-time commitment suffer. That's what Mr B was talking about.
Now of course we (Tony and I) can be confident in our own judgment about the few days our children are away, and can set that against the immense gain to our family lives. My libertarian self says that this is really the only judgment that counts. Yet if the social consequences of an aggregation of such behaviour (bear with me) are malign, then my communitarian self argues for restrictions on my own freedom of action. If there needs to be a rule, then I need to obey it.
If there needs to be. The corollary of this - the communitarian codicil, if you like - is that when there doesn't need to be a rule, then for God's sake don't make one - especially not about haircuts. The three Hs indeed!
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