Deborah Orr: When 'truancy' is about nothing more than a cheap family holiday

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The Independent Online

I like the way that the bumper increase in school truancy during the past decade has been reported as having occurred "despite" repeated government drives to improve attendance. Actually, even cursory analysis of the figures suggests that at least some of the rise - if not all of it - has happened precisely because of the government's policies.

I don't mean the "testing regime", which has become for a lot of people the only possible reason for all problems with schools. (None of my children have ever been stressed by testing, because they barely seem aware of it, though I note each year that "teaching to the test" drives their teachers mad with frustration and boredom). I mean the politically correct insistence that - apart from physical illness - there can be no possible reason in the world why a parent rather than a headteacher might ever be able to decide whether their child could possibly remain undamaged after a single minute away from school during term-time.

It's significant, of course, that "unauthorised absences" have increased among primary school children, who are mainly still quite dependent on their parents, while they have decreased among secondary school children, who tend to have much more personal autonomy.

Steve Sinnott, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, did not mince his words: "Parental connivance in truanting is a factor."

The instance of "parental connivance in truanting" that is most often cited as a problem is the practice of yanking your children off on holiday during term-time. This is a habit that years ago Labour was, in the first flush of enthusiasm, eager to tackle. Government officials even held a meeting with representatives of the travel industry, exhorting them to "do something" about their tendency vastly to increase all their prices during school breaks.

Unsurprisingly, not much came of it. Yet the idea remained that a miracle plunge in truancy figures might be achieved if parents could be weaned off the habit of booking cheap breaks in term-time.

In order to discourage them, it was decided that even a single day off for such a nefarious purpose had to be requested officially to the headteacher in writing.

For parents determined to go anyway, the risk of flagging up their intentions, only to have them denied, isn't worth taking. (This isn't mature, because mostly heads will say yes if asked nicely, but a lot of adults are still a bit intimidated themselves, in a hangover from their own schooldays, by the idea of asking the head).

And for parents who don't much like lying either, it's more comfortable simply not to call the school with some tale about sore throats.

Is this ideal behaviour? No. Is it a sign that a child is "at risk". No. It's merely a consequence of a situation in which holidays are cheap if you go at weird times, and that people are determined to take advantage of that.

Only the other day, Tony Blair was mistily speaking of his great pride in meeting people who told him they were able to afford a trip abroad for the first time because of the economic prosperity his great reign has brought them.

If this tendency is such a Good Thing (actually it's insane, but that's another story), then maybe it would do no great harm to acknowledge modern life as it is lived, and let parents take their children out of school perfectly legitimately for, say, a week each year, as long as they do the mannerly thing and inform the school.

By some miracle, five days a year or fewer is exactly the number of unauthorised absences two-thirds of pupils take.

Educationalists may argue that even this is a "bad example" to children. But another important thing the truancy figures tell us is that really concentrating resources on the children who are educationally disaffected or seriously unsupported at home, does work. Much better to focus on the real difficulties, than to endlessly insist that minor detours off the path of parental righteousness are an equally damaging problem.

They aren't - or children would "fall behind" at school every time they stayed home with a cold.

Topshop till you drop...

Another wave of high-street fashion hysteria is upon us. Topshop's designers have signed Kate Moss to do a line for them (ha!), and once again the achievement of the bleeding obvious is being hailed as "business genius". Which it is.

I wish I could say I'm likely to remain impervious to the lure of such blandly haveable cultural blandishments, but instead I can already feel myself wanting some of it, whatever it is.

I'm definitely with J G Ballard on consumerism, in theory anyway. Shopping for the instant gratification of non-essential items does quickly develop into a mental disorder. But unlike the great writer, I do shop, so often that I think of the Number Two to Marble Arch as "the Selfridges bus".

I've fallen for these big-names-in-big-chain deals often enough to know better too. I'm already the proud owner of a coveted Celia Birtwell at Topshop dress. It's so youthful that it makes me look like Bette Davis in Whatever Happened To Baby Jane?, and obviously I never wear it. But it was the last one in the shop, it was in my size, and while I was in the changing room, I could hear another poor deluded sufferer plaintively asking where the Celia Birtwell she'd spotted on the racks four seconds ago had gone. So I had to have it, because she wasn't going to. No way.

I was also a lucky participant in the Stella McCartney at Hennes & Mauritz bonanza, though managing on that fabulous occasion only a chain-mail belt. I try it on every time I get dressed, so I'm able to confirm that it can magically transform any outfit into something a woman playing Joan of Arc in an amateur theatricals production might ardently covet. £2.99 well spent.

It's a well-known fact that half the clothes women buy when they are out on shopping trips are never, ever worn, or worn only once then thrust to the back of the wardrobe.

Because they are so cheap now on the high street, the idiocy of making pointless purchases seems slightly more sensible to the active addict, even though it's clearly not.

I'm sure this is the real reason why so many women have so many pairs of shoes, all lovingly stored but never worn. Shoes are a nightmare because it's hard to tell in the shop if they're going to be comfortable. By the time you've given them a proper walk round for half-an-hour, the soles are clearly "damaged" and you can't take them back. So everyone has to pretend that shoes are irresistible, when we just don't want to admit that the huge pile we've already got are just crippling, blistering, useless, mistakes.

* It's always folly to describe cartoons, but here goes anyway. There's a great one in Private Eye this week that shows the police raiding Yardie HQ, ignoring the table groaning with guns, and leaving after they've changed the sign to read "Metrie HQ".

It reminds me of the guide to local services I once picked up in south London, only to see that some clown had described a Narcotics Anonymous meeting room as being "Two hundred Yardies from Brixton Tube".

The attendant Afro-Caribbeans busily working their programme of spiritual renewal were justifiably wounded. "Putting your 30.48 centimetres in it", just doesn't cover things.

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