Permission to be ill, please, Miss

All over the country, school years have just ended. The morning roads are suddenly quieter and the 3pm traffic carnage has gone until September. The streets have emptied of school uniforms and the shops have filled up with them, every child’s delight at school closing instantly tempered by the flurry of signs announcing ‘Back to School’ that spring up as soon as July ends.


Along with the mysteriously missing PE kit that’s been replaced twice, stray socks, extra jumpers you didn’t know they had, children will have been arriving home laden down with craft projects, paintings and armfuls of prizes and certificates for all sorts of things they’ve earned over the past year. Many of them may have been for 100% attendance, something schools have been rewarding certainly since my grandparents’ days – I have a book with a commemorative plate in the front to prove it. But why do we do this, when it is something children have no control over, and the children who fail to achieve it do so through no fault of their own?


There have been recent stories about classes giving those children with full attendance treats in front of their classmates, classes competing against each other on a weekly basis to improve their attendance percentages, prizes of gift cards and trips to theme parks for pupils with 100% attendance, but its important to bear in mind what we’re actually looking at here – penalising children for being ill. Parents often end up in a Catch 22 situation; if they keep their child away from school they may well get a phone call about their child’s attendance falling below acceptable levels, if they send their child into school they may get a phone call at work demanding to know why they’ve sent a sick child into class.


The school are caught in a similar trap, of course. They are also being judged by their attendance figures. An absent child obviously counts against them, but an unwell child in school runs the risk of making other children ill and spreading sickness, creating more absences, and so any unwell child must stay away from school for the optimum time. Schools have no control over the health of their pupils, just as children have no control over their own health, so how are schools expected to tackle attendance when things like outbreaks of slapped cheek or chickenpox or simple sickness bugs can happen at any time?


Any schools greatest responsibility is to the health and wellbeing of its pupils, not its attendance percentages. A good school should be sending unwell pupils home and ensuring that they stay home rather than risk the health of other pupils, particularly if there are any pupils present with compromised immune systems or other health conditions. A school that has SEN pupils, for instance, or pupils with health needs or disabilities may well have higher percentages of absences than other schools for this reason. This should not count against it, and those absences are necessary absences, and do not affect the learning or teaching of other pupils in any negative way.


When pupils have medical or dental appointments, social care meetings or other pre-arranged reasons to be away from school, these are entered in the register as authorised absences. This is obvious, as these are necessary and unavoidable reasons for a child to miss a session of the school day. But surely so is a broken arm or a bout of vomiting? And surely so is a child going into hospital for an operation and their time away from school afterwards for recovery, or time spent in hospital for chemotherapy. If the school is happy that a child was genuinely ill, then the school already authorises those absences, so why do we let them count against the child or the school?


If a child is absent, and there is no reason given and no contact from the parent, then, yes that is an unauthorised absence and it should be followed up and flagged as an issue. But that is the ONLY kind of absence to be watched. I cannot believe that this is so obvious, and yet is not policy in every school. (Tho, goodness knows, if it’s Capita that still maintains the SIMS system, then god help us for any sweeping change with how the electronic registers store and list data.) Take all authorised absence data out of the percentages, and let the school have a true picture of the absences schools, parents and pupils have some control over, can improve and work towards raising. But don’t let it be a matter of judgement or pride, even when it comes to unauthorised absences. Don’t publish the percentages at all. Don’t find any reason to single out or other those children. Because whatever the reasons children are missing school, it should never be something to shame or judge them for to even the slightest extent, and doing so is never going to make them more willing to attend school.


There is also a greater, more insidious issue underlying this, however. When we reward children for not being ill all year, or for the last two years, or three or five, we associate good health with hard work. We then, in the process, associate ill health with laziness, with not really trying hard enough. We then carry that message through into adulthood, and a society that looks at those Daily Mail headlines about scroungers on disability allowances, and think, well, you know, they could get jobs if they really wanted to, couldn’t they? They’re just lazy, aren’t they? Or even, they become people who don’t claim because they don’t feel they’re entitled to, because this is the mindset we’ve created since they were five years old – sick people don’t win prizes.

At Sea


“My father’s house has many rooms…”

Well, mine has few, but they all echo with him,

In an endless cycle of lost expectation.

Everything here is soaked in it;

Every scent, every sound, every speck of dust.

And I, still listening in the dark

for the distant ebb and flow of his breathing,

Lie shipwrecked by the wash of the waves,

Caught in the tides called by the gravity of his loss,

The massive pull of the place where he used to be,

Endlessly empty, endlessly filled with his absence.

Everywhere here is full of him.

Everywhere here is where he used to be.

Everywhere echoes with the lost whispers

Of one last story, before I sleep.

“They fuck you up, your mum and dad…”

Children. Gawd bless ‘em. Little lambs. We can live vicariously through them, and whilst they may ultimately be more trouble than dogs, at least there’s a chance they’ll get rich and famous and buy us a nice house, one day.

Before you start, I have three children of my own. They are all quite remarkably bright and beautiful, and my absolute pride. If anything justifies my presence here, it’s their presence here, and they are self made, self determined people that I can take no credit for. They also deal amazingly well with questions like ‘How are you here, if your mum’s a big lezzer?’ I apologise to them for having to deal with that, but goddamn, they can give good answers.

My life choices have affected their childhoods in a variety of ways, not all of them good. But I hope I’ve been supportive, open and loving to them, and always will be. I hope I’ve taught them to be the same. I love my children.

But, not everyone loves children. Not everyone wants them. Women are supposed to be genetically predisposed to hit puberty, and want babies. Men are supposed to be genetically predisposed to want to have lots of sex so they can propagate their genes. Women are supposed to be led to choose a mate based on their ability to give them good strong babies.

Which is fine, if your only consideration is your hormones, and that’s what your decision making is based on.

Jesus. Imagine for a moment if all your decisions were based on your hormones.

We’ve evolved as a species to live in a larger society, and to have wider concerns than our own selfish drives. We have empathy, spirituality, quantum mechanics and science. Our ability to override primal urges and work together are what have made us the dominant species on the planet. Compassion and intelligence are what will keep us there.

Children are lovely. But they are not a prerequisite to being part of society. It has been part of the issues raised against #equalmarriage – gays shouldn’t be allowed to marry, because marriage is all about bringing forth offspring.

Bollocks. Marriage (as stated in previous blog) is about two people making a declaration that they as adults would like to be joined together. If they would like to then raise children, well, that’s lovely.

If they don’t, then no one says they have to. (Apart from the Catholic Church, but that’s a whole other thing) No one who matters says they have to.

Some people want children, desperately, but can’t have them, and my heart goes out to them. Science has done a lot to change this, but sometimes it just doesn’t happen. There are many good people who would be excellent parents, but can’t be. I hope all of them find a way to give that love to children who need it.

Then, there are people who really don’t want children. It’s just not something they feel a need for. Perfectly normal, heterosexual people. They may like other people’s children. They may not actively hate all children. They just don’t feel any need to breed.

And you know what, they have a hard time too. From their parents, from society, from Mariella Frostrup (

I’ve nothing against Ms Frostrup’s column. She very often gives good, reasoned advice, and advice columns are by their nature subjective. She has a valid point of view – I just disagree with it in this instance.

As a species, we are breeding far too fast for the resources available. Yes, you may be middle class and both have nice jobs and are able to provide for little Emily, Joshua and Beatrix. But oh, your carbon footprint. Three children from two adults…? That ways lies species death!

Yes, one of them will be an amazing scientific prodigy (he could read at two, you know?) and solve world hunger. Fine. Keep your children. Yes, I have three too.

I would never advocate breeding control. What I would and do advocate is people’s right to make a choice, and not have to put up with pressure from anyone to change that. It’s not selfish not to have children. Lots of people have children for very selfish reasons, and you know what – that’s a much worse thing to do. I understand that one day, a woman can wake up and realise that the time has passed, and she will never have her own biological child. But that regret is a much smaller and less damaging thing than waking up and realising that you should never have had the children you did.

People have unexpected pregnancies. There is a whole industry devoted to telling us tales of stomach ache turning into a baby rather than the expected large poo. Women find themselves pregnant for a variety of fascinating reasons, and find that the child they end up with is the best thing they ever did. Babies can come from awful relationships, traumatic events, hellish pregnancies and then, then they hand you that baby, and you become overwhelmed with an all consuming love that never leaves you.

Of course, you can have a lovely relationship, glow through your pregnancy, plop out a child with ease and find that you look at that little scrunched up purple alien and feel… nothing. There are no rules, and no easy solutions.

The important, the vitally important thing to remember through all this is that you are bringing a whole new person into the world. Whilst you can never be fully prepared for all this will bring, even when you’ve done it before, you can at least try to make sure that it’s something you really want. And if you don’t want it, don’t do it. If you do regret that decision later, then adopt, foster, start a playgroup, sponsor a child in another country, become a teacher… You can channel that need in ways that will help children whose parents perhaps made the wrong choice, or circumstances shat on.

I work with children, and I see the problems that unprepared, unwilling or damaged parents can have, every day. These problems are fixable, and children are redoubtable creatures, but they are the reason that no one should ever feel pressured into breeding. At three in the morning, even the most wanted and loved baby, toddler or heaven help us, teenager becomes a beast from hell. Everyone with children has had one of those hours. Everyone with children has had a dark hour of despair. How you deal with that, and get through it may well depend on the decision you initially made, and if it wasn’t for the right reasons, it becomes so much harder. I won’t go into politics, and funding for vital support networks here. I will however bless our interconnected society, the NHS and its subsidiaries, and even social care, and hope that no one ever feels they are alone with whatever issues they find themselves up against.

If you feel the need to have something that will give you unconditional love, that you can give a silly name to and dress up – get a small dog. If you want to raise a child, and are prepared for the shit and vomit and angst and expense, if you want to lose your lovely designer home and fill your life with Balamory, Barney and Blues Clues, felt-tip on your white walls and Sudocrem on your ipad, if you are ready for  pain and arguments and destruction, the end of your independence and sheer exhaustion, fine. Go ahead and breed.

But if you don’t, then be strong. We breeders need you for babysitting.

Which is a good final sentence to this. But I do have to say, if you really don’t want children, think of the people that do. Consider donating your eggs or sperm to help those that do. You’re not using them, and there are people out there that need them.