Trawling online recently I came across an article about a UK school defending its decision to suspend a pupil over a wrestling logo shaved into his hair; and before that, another story about another school apologizing for insisting a parent supply a photograph of their chickenpox-stricken child for absence monitoring.
Taken together they were a startling reminder of the differences in education and social attitudes between Britain and Ontario, Canada, where we‘ve lived now for nearly four years; almost long enough to forget all the small ways life overseas can be strikingly different even in countries broadly similar.Held Hostage By The System
Every summer in the UK the same old debate rages over the stranglehold parents endure from inflated holiday airfares and restrictions on removing children from school during term time. The ages of compulsory attendance in the UK are 5-16 and those who fall foul of the law can end up facing heavy fines, as Natasha and Stewart Sutherland discovered when they booked a week long autumn trip to Greece a year in advance.
Previously, the Department of Education allowed teachers to permit term time absences for family holidays in ‘special circumstances’ of up to 10 days per year. But amendments last September removed references to ‘family holiday’ and ‘extended leave’, as well as the statutory threshold of 10 school days. The Sutherlands ended up paying more than $1,800 in costs and fines.
Children in Canada are legally required to attend school between the ages of 6 and 18. Any parent neglecting to ensure this is guilty of an offence and liable to a fine of $1,000. But on the plus-side schools here have a great deal more discretion about granting leave of absence.
Cases are addressed on an individual basis and, provided they obtain proper clearances from school officials, the decision ultimately rests with the parents. Many families escape the grinding cold in January/February for a week or two in the sun and Disneyland is an autumn tradition for many more; unthinkable in the UK.
Freedom Of Expression
Another sharp contrast comes in the shape of uniform. Most British schools constantly battle a willful adolescent urge towards customization in order to maintain a strict uniform policy, but here uniform is mainly confined to private schools. In the public system hoodies, polo shirts and caps emblazoned with a school’s logo are available online and many kids wear them to celebration assemblies but just as many don’t. Clothing is viewed with more of a practical eye in Canada – couture won’t help you navigate snowbanks or stay comfortable in sweltering heat – so I’ve seen none of the peer pressure to emulate the latest fashions that so concerned the pro-uniform groups back home.
It’s also not uncommon (even something of a rite of passage) for young boys to sport Mohawks at elementary school and I’ve seen kids of both genders with coloured streaks in their hair.
Overall there’s a wider social acceptance of individual expression in the form of dyed hair or tattoos than was customary back home; in the case of tattoos, not in schools obviously, but on people in clerical and administrative positions. It seems they don’t carry the same negative connotations as they do in Britain.
Back home vestiges of the class system make it easier to ‘judge a book by its cover’ and, by and large, people exhibit the behavior expected of them – teenagers are surly and rude and getting tattoos is a hobby for many on welfare. But here expect the unexpected – the hoodied tenth grader with hair in his eyes who holds the door for you, or the piercing-riddled Goth who chirps “You’re welcome” when you say “Thank you”.
It Takes A Village…
It’s funny that, given the homogenized apparel of UK school children and apparatchik administrative staff, it’s Canadians who, by contrast, for all their apparent freedoms, think more as a ‘collective’ – evidenced by Valentines Day, when the sending of Valentines includes every child in the class. The birth of the highly commendable anti-bullying initiative Pink Shirt Day is another case in point, when a Nova Scotia high school ‘community’ came to the rescue of a bullied new student in a way that would’ve made Gandhi’s heart sing.
Perhaps it’s the idea of connection to a larger group – that sense of being part of a team. Canada is a sports-crazy nation where even the politicians elucidate their blueprint for running the country in sporting analogies, and most children participate in team sports as soon as they start Junior Kindergarten (age 4) if not before.
This concept of connection is further cemented in the form of volunteering. All Ontario high school students are required to complete 40 hours of volunteer community service before they can graduate, whether it’s done through a recognized charity or not-for-profit organization, or by providing unpaid help to people in the community, like shoveling snow for an elderly neighbor.
Perhaps this accounts for Canada’s greater sense of community. Whatever it is, this Canadian ethos gives rise to an astounding level of random altruism. Not a year’s gone by when we haven’t heard of some anonymous philanthropist picking up the tab for all the patrons in a roadside diner or High Street café.
Perhaps Britain could relax its grip – lose the world and gain a universe.
by Aisha Ashraf.
Aisha Isabel Ashraf is a freelance writer and author of the popular blog EXPATLOG – a collection of irreverent observations from her experiences as a "cultural chameleon". It's where you'll find her, strung out on caffeine, humorously dissecting the peculiarities of expat life for her own amusement and the benefit of future generations."
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