What’s “important”, and why that matters

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Wait a third of a year for a post about words and meanings, and two come along at once. A fortnight ago I was penning this piece about definitions and the law. And shortly afterwards I was given an object lesson in how easily this same subjectivity of language can be manipulated for political ends.

Like thousands of others, I had signed a petition against the new school attendance regulations. The story goes that all the regulations do is clarify and dispel the oft-believed myth that parents are entitled to ten days term-time leave for their children each year. That’s the justification, that’s the response from the Department for Education to those who, like me, object. But unfortunately, as even a cursory reading of the regulations and the (limited and shoddily-drafted) guidance on them reveals, it’s this story, this justification, that is in fact the myth.

It’s another parochial-English-parent issue so I won’t inflict the regulations themselves on you, but, in short, Headteachers used to be able to authorise absence in “special” circumstances; that “special” has now become “exceptional”, and Heads have been left in no doubt that they will be expected to apply a far stricter standard of interpretation. Forget a fortnight on the Costa Brava; the (entirely intentional) effect of this legislation is to put an end to all those terrible trips to museums and exhibitions and shows that thoughtless and selfish parents have the nerve (and the right) to drag their children out of school for under the rules as they currently are. It’s just a clarification, say the DfE; just a removal of ambiguity. Heads still have discretion, they insist, without letting on how restricted that discretion has become. They’re playing on the very subjectivity of the words they’ve employed, telling Heads they mean one thing and parents another. My good friend Michael Gove has, it seems, discovered Newspeak.

The truly astonishing thing this time, though, is that some of the teachers appear to have fallen for it as well. Remember, these people are, for the most part, his enemies, implacable and sworn to bring about his downfall. Maybe not sworn, OK, but certainly not opposed to the idea.

And despite the fact that this issue will directly affect hundreds of thousands of parents, who would be useful allies, I’m sure; despite the fact that it shows a mistrust of Headteachers, who would also be handy to have on-side; despite the fact that it’s yet another top-down diktat from a man who claims to be all for decentralisation; despite the chilling “expectation” of reduced absence figures and the even-more chilling sense that those schools that don’t achieve this reduction will end up on a list on a little black book locked in a vault somewhere in the darkest and most secret recesses of the DfE, despite all that, there is a quiet but unmistakeable voice amongst certain groups of teachers on this issue which sounds – and they’re not going to like it, but I’ll say it anyway – which sounds just like Michael Gove himself. We don’t think parents should be taking their kids for a fortnight in Spain when they’re supposed to be in our classrooms, learning, they say, and if they’re good teachers (and most of them are), that’s not an unreasonable argument. It’s just that this isn’t really what the new regulations are about. If a fortnight’s sunshine every year really was the target, the Government would have written the rules in such a way as to target that fortnight. It wouldn’t have been difficult. I’m pretty confident i could have a fair crack at it myself. But the regulations go further than that, much further, and this two-week holiday thing is no more than a fig leaf.

And even if we did agree, these teachers continue, this issue just isn’t as important a the others. Maybe that’s true, maybe they’re right, maybe academisation and taking the curriculum back half a century and fast-tracking unqualified soldiers into the classroom and lengthening the school day at the same time you’re praising the Northern European countries who’ve done the opposite, maybe these things are more important. But to say so, to dismiss this and move on, is to miss both the point and an opportunity at the same time.

The missed point, of course, is the subjectivity of “important”. What they could have said was “if it’s important to you, it’s important to us, too”. They could have acknowledged that parents have a stake in the education of their children, too; that if they want parental support in their own protests over pay and conditions, it makes sense to show an interest in the issues parents are concerned about – and remember, these are real concern, the regulations have been passed, it’s not just another idea floated by a think-tank to be shot down before it ever reaches the surface. They could have taken the opportunity to mobilise the incredibly powerful voice of the nation’s parents against the common enemy – and in the process, discovered that perhaps they have more in common than incredulity at the ongoing political career of Mr Gove. They could have peeked behind the fig leaf and seen what the regulations are really doing. Worried about “academisation”? What do you think is going to happen to the schools in that little black book, then?

Gove has told parents that teachers are lazy and told teachers that parents are feckless, the most obvious example of political divide and conquer you’ll ever see. He’s cut a wedge between these two groups using words like “important” and “exceptional” and “holiday”, and if anyone wants to do anything about it, the first thing they have to do is look behind the words. Parents are starting to do this, to acknowledge that teachers aren’t really anything like the politicians say they are. And huge numbers of teachers are doing the same, engaging with parents, driving a common agenda which will make parents think a little longer about what’s happening to teachers’ pay and conditions and pensions as well as what’s happening to their children in the classroom. Carry on engaging. Stop dismissing. And keep on looking behind the words.

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If you liked this, take a look at some extracts from my soon-to-be-published novel Without Due Care here.

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