Parents need more sense, not more messages

Are you a bad parent if you keep your child off school on the day a film of dead heroin addicts is shown?
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If there is a phrase that sums up modern society's self-righteous yet lazy search for the quick fix, then it surely must be the dreaded but mercilessly overused homily, "sending out a message".

If there is a phrase that sums up modern society's self-righteous yet lazy search for the quick fix, then it surely must be the dreaded but mercilessly overused homily, "sending out a message".

In order, say campaigners, to "send out the message" that getting drunk, working yourself into a state of fury, then knocking ten bells out of your child for bedwetting is wrong, all parents have to be banned from ever resorting to any sort of corporal punishment.

In order, say other campaigners, to "send out the message" that catching frogs, blowing them up with a straw, pulling their intestines out, then smearing their remains over the playground slide is wrong, then a tiny minority of mildly addled types who like dressing up, galloping along, then watching a pack of hounds doing what comes naturally must be criminalised.

In order, say yet more campaigners, to "send out a message" that injecting yourself with the last of your heroin, "gouching out" till it's worn off, then nipping out and destroying an old lady's life to get some money to buy some more is wrong, everyone has to carry on kidding that smoking a joint of cannabis on a sunny Saturday is quite a similar sort of thing.

What all these "messages" have in common is that sensible people have to abstain from doing something that removes them narrowly from earthly perfection so that everyone can feel, quite erroneously, that the far more difficult, intractable and sinister practice is somehow being tackled by osmosis.

Maybe such messages sometimes work to some extent, but there comes a point when otherwise law-abiding citizens just start feeling narked by such inroads into their private existences. Signs of such resentment were apparent during a recent two-week truancy sweep by Islington police in London.

Not only did the police discover that the vast majority of truanting children they apprehended were accompanied by their parents (my guess would be that the unaccompanied ones steer clear of the police), they also noted that quite a few of the adults were rather irritated to be questioned about their responsibilities as parents, or lack of them, at all.

Truancy, and how to combat it, is a hot topic at the moment.Today, Patricia Amos, single and pathetically inadequate mother of five, launches an appeal against her 60-day custodial sentence for "condoning" the truancy of her two youngest daughters. The Education Secretary, Estelle Morris, is in favour of the sentence, because it "sends out the right messsage".

This message isn't clear enough, though, and was therefore embroidered by a government spokesman. "It cuts across all society and we have to get the message across. This is not an attack on the poor. It is also about middle-class parents who take their kids on holiday during term-time."

Concern about this cancer at the heart of our society is such that talks with the travel industry are to be had, no doubt gently and rhetorically, inquiring as to why it is that they double all their prices during the school hols. The travel industry must definitely be informed that such practices are "sending out the wrong message". And yes, it is pretty appalling that the travel industry behaves in this way. But that's supply, demand, capitalism – the very same system that needs the people at the bottom to remain abject in order to "send out the right message" to encourage the others.

And anyway, doesn't the Government's own rhetoric imply that family holidays during term-time are not the problem at all? Truancy, we are told, is a terrible threat partly because 40 per cent of street crime, 25 per cent of burglaries, 20 per cent of criminal damage and a third of car thefts are being perpetrated by truants aged between 11 and 16. There is an intimate relationship between lack of education and crime.

So are we to believe that children are causing this mayhem while holidaying during term-time – as Mr Blair's children did – in the Seychelles? I think not. Are we to believe that the estimated – and vastly inflated – figure of 80 per cent of pupils who are off school with their parents' knowledge are going out and committing crimes en famille?

If so, the question one must ask is why they have to be threatened with jail for "condoning" truancy, when they can be jailed for street crime, burglaries, criminal damage, car theft, and appalling child abuse instead? Or would that be more complicated than simply keeping an eagle eye on the school register?

Anyway, aren't the feral, criminal children likely to find themselves expelled or excluded shortly after getting back into school anyway? Might it not be better, if a tad more expensive than "messages", to establish educational facilities more suited to these children's extremely specialised needs? Getting these truants back to school is likely to damage everyone's education, not improve it. So far, no useful policy decision has been taken on how to deal with this most challenging of problems.

What a confused message this one on truancy is turning out to be. The message, ostensibly, is that parents must take responsibility for the education of their children. However, if they're responsible enough to be able make a judgement about how to fit the needs of their child into the needs of the family as a whole and make sure that a term-time holiday can be an excellent educational experience, then they're still, in the eyes of the Government, feckless parents.

Anyway, other "messages" from the Government yesterday were fit to send any decent parent reaching for the home-schooling manual. School drug dealers to be expelled? What was the policy before yesterday? Giving them their own little corner in the tuck shop?

Film of dead heroin addicts to be shown to 11-year-olds? Are you a bad parent for keeping your child off school on the day when that charming lesson is slated for them, whether you agree with such tactics or not? With schools this imperfect, how can a parental decision to keep their child away for a day or two always be condemned?

So what is the reason for tarring all parents who ever keep their child off school with the same brush as sad, messed up Mrs Amos? Many a fool will contend that this truancy campaign is all about political correctness, with the middle-classes targeted for reasons of socialist envy. Frankly, that would be preferable to what is really going on, because it would merely be stupid, misguided and patronising. What's actually happening is cynical.

The Government has so far made hardly a dent in the figures, which have been running for years into several million school days lost each year. What it wants is improved statistics and achieved targets, and it has been heavy-handedly "sending the message" out to schools, which are all under orders to improve their attendance records any way they can.

It's much, much easier to persuade caring parents that they are very, very wrong to take their children on holiday during term-time than it is to tackle the woeful dysfunctionality at the heart of the family lives of those such as Mrs Amos.

Cracking down on the discretion of parents – and the teachers at their schools – to take their own decisions about what's best for the children they know intimately will be guaranteed to make an impressive dent in the truancy figures. This will be a lovely "message" for the Government to send out. Sadly though, the "message" will be empty.

d.orr@independent.co.uk

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