Defence of the controversial Get a Grip campaign to improve school attendance levels in East Sussex has been labelled ‘shocking’ by parents.
More than 11,000 people signed a petition, started by Seaford mum of two Ella Lewis, which urged East Sussex County Council to withdraw the campaign and apologise.
A motion by Lib Dem councillor Carolyn Lambert, which called for the campaign to be paused and a forum to be set up to find a more constructive way of engaging on the issue, was defeated at a meeting on Tuesday (December 5).
Afterwards Mrs Lewis said: “The leaflet distributed to our school children was frankly offensive. For councillors to resolve that the campaign is well run is shocking.
“They are effectively saying the ends justify the means, and that a culture of fear and harassment is permitted if they achieve better attendance.”
Although there was general agreement among councillors about the need for measures to improve school attendance, some councillors suggested the tone of the Get a Grip campaign was wrong, as it was perceived to be attacking parents who legitimately keep their children out of school for health reasons.
Kelly-Marie Blundell, a Lib Dem parliamentary candidate for Lewes, said: “I’m firmly on the side of parents in this case. Insulting them is not going to improve attendance rates. I’m astounded the Conservatives feel that a campaign that has generated over 11,000 objections has in any way been considered successful.”
Cllr Lambert, who represents Seaford South, added: “We still feel the council should pause the campaign, and instead set up a parents and stakeholders forum who can work with councillors to identify reasons for poor attendance and address this so that neither children nor schools suffer in a positive way.”
The number of school days lost in East Sussex has risen from 587,000 in 2014/15, to nearly 600,000 in 15/16 and around 650,000 in 16/17.
Bob Standley, lead member for education and inclusion, special educational needs and disability, said the campaign was not intended to offend anyone, while he did not think it was not bullying or patronising.
He added: “The leaflet was intended to make a bold statement and get noticed and it’s certainly done that.
“Ironically I have to thank the organisers of the petition as that was the catalyst in getting the subject talked about in a way that has not happened before.”
Fellow Conservative John Barnes added: “There was an old saying when I was a boy: ‘If the cap fits, wear it’. If the message is not intended for you why be offended by it? Let’s concentrate on the problem.”
Godfrey Daniel, one of Labour’s councillors for Hastings, appeared to agree as he suggested ‘people are getting offended too easily’.
He argued the real problem was how some children learned techniques to convince their parents to let them stay at home with a ‘sniff, cold, or sore throat’.
He added: “Children are very clever, trust me I was one once, and basically if you give them a technique how they can avoid going [to school] they will.”
But Lib Dem John Ungar said the message they should be portraying was that schools were ‘not open door prisons but places were children go to enrich themselves with learning’. He added: It’s invigorating to go to school that’s the message we need to get across and identify those young people who need support to get to school and see how we can provide that.”
David Tutt, leader of the Lib Dem group, added: “We cannot continue to treat parents in such a disrespectful way.”
Meanwhile lead member for transport and environment Bill Bentley, who was Mr Standley’s predecessor, said: “It’s not about responsible parents taking their kids out of school when they are unwell, it’s what happens in some households where the children are not expected to go to school and that is why I hope the Get a Grip campaign if nothing else has at least raised the topic so we are talking about it.”
What do you think? Email the newsdesk.