Compassionate leave – why don’t under-18s deserve it?

I thought something had been done about this – but really, apparently not. The issue rumbles on:

A couple who took their children out of school without permission to visit their sick grandfather in India are being taken to court this week as part of the government’s continuing crackdown on term-time absence.

Shahnawaz and Sofiya Patel had put in a request to their two sons’ primary school for an authorised absence to make the trip last December when the children’s grandfather was undergoing surgery. It was the first time the Patels, from Preston, Lancashire, had made such a request, and their children – Omar, 11, and Eiad, eight – have had no previous unauthorised absences, but their school, the English Martyrs Catholic primary in Preston, refused permission.

Compare and contrast with the beginning and end of our own sorry tale.

The beginning of the story:

These are the slightly amended contents of an email I have sent to a couple of local councillors today. I hope this version of it will reach the eyes of Michael Gove, or someone who counts in his department. I also hope that the situation it describes will very quickly be contemplated in the legislative framework the Coalition government seems to currently – and quite unhappily – believe in.


I am writing to both of you [and now you, Mr Gove] on a local councillor’s suggestion, in relation to the issue I will now put before you.

My name is Mr Williams, I’m a Labour Party member in the Upton branch and I’ve been speaking to the councillor in question about a request my wife and I put in yesterday to our local school for five days’ leave of absence for compassionate reasons for our daughter, who is currently in Year 11. We are a multicultural family – I am Anglo-Croat, and my wife and children Spanish, though they have been living, studying and working in Chester since 2003.

Our daughter’s grandfather was hospitalised in Spain last Sunday in palliative care, and the doctor who saw him first on the Sunday and then again on the Wednesday said he would not live beyond the end of this March. My wife has travelled to Spain today to be with her father and we were awaiting the decision from the school to book plane tickets for our daughter and our other two children (the others are adults and do not require institutional permission). The school, however, has refused the request, saying that since new legislation from September 2013 no leave of any kind is contemplated for schoolchildren.

The school in conversation with me this morning recognised that our daughter’s attendance is excellent and she works hard, but said if we took the five days requested we would get a fixed penalty notice, though let it be understood that a four-day unauthorised absence would incur no penalty. However, as we have striven throughout her time at the school to insist upon her the importance of records and marks, we are most unwilling to – we will not in fact – take any such unauthorised absence. As I write this email, she is extremely affected by the news and will not speak to me. In fact, her initial response was to get angry with me for assuming the school, or perhaps better the government which passed this legislation, might understand the meaning of compassion. She was also clearly upset with me for doing things as per due process and procedure. In other countries (like Spain for example), leave in cases of serious family illness and bereavement is automatic. It would appear that in a globalising world, however, the current England & Wales education system cares little for the familial ties that continue to exist, even at a distance.

One of the people I spoke to today said the legislation was needed to prevent people taking cheap holidays in term time. My wife’s flight cost 215 GBP return for 10 days stay; to get our children across to Spain to see their grandfather before he dies would cost us another 450-800 GBP. In no way is this a cheap adventure for ourselves. In extremely difficult and emotional times, it would simply be the minimum a family could do to bear witness to the passing of a loved one.

I would be interested to get feedback on all or any of the above, and in particular would like to start a debate around the need to amend the legislation in question – or its particular implementation – so that other people with multicultural/transnational needs are not penalised by legislators who know nothing of globalisation’s reality on the ground.

In the meantime, I shall, as the relevant local council department informed me I should, email a complaint to the school and then – as per the reply I get – raise the issue with the Board of Governors.

I realise it is too late for us to do anything for our case in particular, but as I hope and expect our daughter to continue in the England & Wales education system for at least another two years, I would not like this situation to recur in the future.

Many thanks in advance for your attention thus far, and apologies if the issues to hand do not fall within either or both of your remits.

Kind regards,

Miljenko Williams

The end of the story:

Those of you who’ve been reading this blog and elsewhere too recently will know that we have had a death in the family, and that my wife was given compassionate leave by the same institution which in the same week refused our daughter permission for authorised leave of absence to see her grandfather before he died of a horrific cancer.

In the letter which refused the permission for our daughter, and which arrived through the post on 25th March 2014, the day the leave of absence was supposed to start and two days after her grandfather had died of his (I believe) three-week long haemorrhage, they included the following information (it looks like a standard letter for the purpose, which probably explains why they have chosen to give the impression that to visit a dying grandfather under such circumstances is to be seen by the education system – or this school/local authority in particular – as a holiday):

Should you still choose to take a holiday with your child during this period, a Fixed Penalty Notice will be requested by the school nominated person on your child’s return to school should the absence be five days or more. The notice will then be issued to you (and husband/wife/partner) by the Local Authority in accordance of section 44 of the Education Act 1996. The current rates payable by parents are £60 where the amount is paid within 21 days and £120 where the amount is paid within 28 days. This charge is per parent/carer per child. If the fixed penalty notice remains unpaid this could lead to prosecution in the Magistrate’s Court.

Please note any child who is absent longer than five days after the indicated return date can be legally removed from the school register and the parent/carer may be liable to prosecution.

As you can see, since our case and the blogposts I wrote, nothing – absolutely nothing – has changed.

All that is left to us to ask is the following question: why are the over-18s (ie in our case, my wife) considered beings worthy of compassionate leave – whilst the under-18s (ie our daughter) have zero rights in the matter?

What kind of society are we living in where the feelings of its youngest members – their rites not rights of passage; their growing up through unrepeatable experience – count for nothing in parliamentary legislation?

And are my family and I the only people who think this is terribly wrong?


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