Parents turn principal’s office into ground zero
William McKeith
December 7, 2011

”Sophie’s grandmother is very unwell in Paris and we must urgently finish her school term a week before the end of the year.”

”Alessandro needs to finish school tomorrow to attend this Friday his cousin’s wedding in Rome.”

Not unfamiliar reasons written in the email and text messages that hit principals’ desks at this time of the school year, but they are oddly infrequent at times other than those approaching school holidays.

Just coincidentally, international airfares usually rise by about 20 per cent as we move into this busy Christmas period.

For private schools, it’s the ski season and the week before holiday periods that excite in-term requests from some students’ parents for special leave. These requests of principals are irritating, and with some parents, they can result in angry interchanges in the principal’s office – especially when the parents finalise flight bookings in over-confident expectation of the principal’s approval.

Most private schools, in particular those with boarding communities, make it very clear leave under these circumstances will not be permitted. Penalties are often required.

In every school there are repeat offenders – those few students’ parents of the born-to-rule mentality, who seem to think school regulations, signed and agreed to at the point of enrolment, do not really apply to them. There are some parents, a small minority, who assume a principal’s approval and make no attempt to comply with the requirements of the school.

Of course, the case reported in Saturday’s Herald of the two Sydney Grammar primary school brothers, the chess playing champions, is different to this. Or is it?

As with Sydney Grammar School, most large, busy schools have among their students many early high achievers in music, sport, traditional dance, speech, art making and so on. It would be logical to assume that selective government and private schools – Grammar being one of these – would have a disproportionate number of these highly successful young people, especially when one adds sporting, music or academic scholars to the student pool.

However, all good schools nurture these students and provide encouragement and support in the development of excellence and commitment in as many activities as can be managed.

Rarely would a school principal not try her best to accommodate the emerging talents of her students. Guided by the policy framework of the school, programs are developed, members of staff are allocated, time is given within the busyness of the school’s in-school and after-school curriculum. Written school policy, now always publicly accessible, usually guides the extent to which a school can flexibly respond to the exceptional requests of parents.

Sometimes it is not possible or it is unwise to bend to the individual requests of parents. At times, these requests arrive on the principal’s desk without reasonable lead time. Sometimes they are demands, at other times notifications: ”My daughter is absent today attending a local pickup-sticks trial in Carlton.” Sometimes the reasons given are revealed as fabrications.

Occasionally, the request follows a pattern of behaviour where, despite the best efforts of the school staff, performance and attendance at school is clearly secondary to the outside interests of the child.

At other times, the young person could be an integral member of a sporting team or a music or drama ensemble, where they cannot easily be replaced and their absence disadvantages the performance of the whole.

Schools are caring places where the essential mission is the intellectual and social development of each young person entrusted to them by the parents. And our schools have policies that exist for legal, administrative and general welfare reasons, which in private schools are agreed to in writing by parents at the point of enrolment.

The principal’s office is where the core tensions between mission and policy are eventually resolved, rarely to the happy satisfaction of everyone.

Dr William McKeith is the former principal of PLC Sydney and now advises schools in Australia and Asia.


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