Where does the responsibilities of the State end and those of the individual begin? From Plato and Aristotle through to John Rawls and Robert Nozick, this has long been one of the central questions of political philosophy. Nozick, for instance, argued in favour of a minimal state, ‘limited to the narrow functions of protection against force, theft, fraud, enforcement of contracts, and so on.’ When a state takes on more responsibilities than these, he argued, rights will be violated. Others take a more positive, expansive and interventionist role for the state suggesting that it is only the state that has the coercive power to defend the rights of individuals against those who seek to limit those rights. It is the defender of the ‘common good’—something generally undefined—and this justifies its restriction of individual rights for the benefit of society as a whole. Individual rights are justified only where they do not do harm to others—the archetypal view of John Stuart Mill in his On Liberty published in 1859—but also increasingly where they do not threaten the hegemony of the state. Far from being the defender of democratic principles, though it will always argue that it is, the state is increasingly technocratic in tone—the notion that the state knows best—and anti-democratic in emphasis calling for political transparency on the one hand while denying it on the other. It is becoming in Hobbesian terms, ‘the leviathan’.
Across the gamut of things that affect the individual—personal morality, health, education and so on—the state now takes the view that it knows best and seeks to regulate individuals’ lives effectively emasculating individual choice. Take, for instance, the issue of students taking time off school during term time. Recent regulations now make this not only unacceptable but, because head teachers can now imposed fines of parents who do so, can result in individuals having a criminal record if they refuse to pay the fines and are taken to court. The justification for this is that students should be in school learning and not enjoying early holidays so parents can escape the exorbitant increases charged by travel companies during the school holidays. This then appears, at least in the eyes of the Department for Education, to result in the poor standing of British students in the global tests such as Pisa, an argument that I find completely unconvincing. Just how many students were taken out of school for holidays and when? In my experience, this practice was most prevalent in the last week of the Summer term and then only affected a small number of students. In 2004, we conducted a survey in my school and found that, of 1,300 students, only 21 were absent because of holidays in the final week of the Summer term. Now, you may argue, that this is too many and why can’t parents use the six week break to go on holiday but if the alternative is pulling your kids out of school for the last week or no holiday at all then the question is whether a break with all the family together is more important than what is often a fairly relaxed last week of term.
Of greater concern in tightening up the rules is that what would in the past have been seen as an acceptable absence is often no longer seen in that light. As a result, students have been refused permission to attend family weddings, funerals, visits to terminally-ill grandparents and even denied permission when their doctors have said they need a break. This has placed parents in the unenviable position of either accepting the schools’ decisions or doing what they feel is in their families’ interests and paying a fine. To be fair it also places head teachers in the often invidious position of having to decide whether to apply the letter of the rules or risk seeing their absence rates go up—a cardinal sin as far as Ofsted is concerned. The state appears to have taken the view that it has the right to determine what is best for the family when the evidence suggests that students do no lose out by missing lessons in school. Let me pose the question…a student misses a week of lessons to go on a school trip to Paris to study Art so no Maths, English, History and so on for that week but that’s not an unexplained absence, while if a student misses a day’s lessons to attend a family funeral it is, so does the state really know what’s best?