Classroom Conundrum

24th February 2017

Does the experience of travel – meeting new people, visiting foreign countries – bring geography and languages to life? Does spending time with your family outweigh the importance of studying your lessons at school? Jennifer Lipman reports on the pros and cons of term-time holidays…

As anyone who has ever booked a summer holiday knows, prices soar the minute schools break up. The same is true for Christmas, Easter, and half term. Nor is it a question of just a couple of pounds extra to travel at premium times; research has revealed that holiday prices shoot up by as much as 115%. One study by Nationwide found that taking a family of four on a week’s all-inclusive trip to Spain was 68% more expensive in August than it was in late June. 

Is it any wonder, then, that some parents choose to take their children out of school and grab a family trip during term-time? Estimates vary as to how many ‘hooky holidays’ take place annually, but four fifths of parents interviewed by Mumsnet said the expense of holidaying at peak time annoyed them, with two thirds saying it stopped them going away. Meanwhile, a quarter admitted to Nationwide that they have feigned illness to take a term-time trip. Yet in doing so, they have been breaking the law.

It wasn’t always this way. Parents are duty-bound to ensure that their kids receive an education ‘either by regular attendance at school or otherwise’, but previously headteachers could grant ten days’ leave per year for family trips in ‘special circumstances’ – an approach that gave them wriggle room.

In 2013, the law was changed to narrow this to ‘exceptional circumstances’, leaving it up to headteachers to say yes or no and decide how many days they’d permit, with unauthorised absences provoking a fine. ‘Leave is unlikely… to be granted for the purposes of a family holiday,’ clarifies Department for Education guidance. 

In reality, plenty of heads are still turning a blind eye. But some have taken a tougher view, with more than 50,000 fines issued across nearly a hundred local education authorities in 2014/15. A Hertfordshire Council spokesperson confirmed that they have issued penalty notices for absenteeism since the rules changed.

From the get go, the change prompted furious reaction. More than 200,000 people have signed a petition calling for the Government to ‘bring back the 10 day authorised absence’, while 71 per cent of parents told Mumsnet the Government should backtrack. Dismay climaxed with one father, Jon Platt, taking Isle of Wight Council to court over the fine issued to him for taking his daughter to the States during the school term. Platt won a High Court showdown, but Isle of Wight Council took the case to the Supreme Court earlier this year. Judgment in this controversial issue is currently reserved.

Platt’s position is clear. ‘Parents should be able to take kids out of school for a week long holiday; indeed they can because the requirement is not (and never has been) 100% attendance – it is for ‘regular’ attendance,’ he tells me when we speak before the Supreme Court date. He notes that the High Court ruled that 12 days’ absence for a holiday was not a ‘failure to secure regular attendance’.

Yet it’s not hard to understand the Government position – that absences are harmful to a child’s prospects. “Education is cumulative,” says Schools Minister Nick Gibb. “Unauthorised absences have a significantly adverse effect on the child who is absent, as they miss vital stepping stones.”

Certainly, term-time absences can be a significant challenge for teachers. “It takes up the time and attention of teachers when they get back, as the children need to be brought up to speed,” explains Danielle, a teacher at a north London primary school. “Almost all lessons will lead on from previous ones, so they need to catch up in order to be on the same page (sometimes literally).” As she points out, even if a school is lucky enough to have a teaching assistant to help a child one-to-one, this still takes their time away from others in need of that support. 

She agrees that the main issue is children falling behind, giving the example of maths topics ‘that are building blocks for the future’. “They would just be left having not learnt a whole topic,” says Danielle, pointing out that this could be a significant challenge down the line.

Equally, she suggests that children (and their families) must learn that things might not go their way. “In an age where we try to give children a voice as much as possible, sometimes it can be taken too far and children can grow up having a very strong sense of entitlement,” she says. “When the school is undermined by parents it makes children less respectful of school rules and teachers. Going on holiday during term time effectively sends a message to the child that the family believe holiday to be more important than school. This can lead to knock-on behavioural consequences.”

Yet not all absences are alike. Crucially, term-time holidays are different to persistent truancy. “Certain families are very resistant to any input by attendance officers, and at some point the threat of a fine might work,” says Aneurin Hathway, Assistant Branch Secretary of the Herts Association of Teachers and Lecturers. “But it’s a knee-jerk response to somebody being absent for a week to threaten them with a fine without looking at the context of the absence, the absence rate, and the family.”

Allowing time off for a child with a 75% attendance rate is clearly not the same as if they are at school 95% of the time. “It’s a matter of balance,” he says. “There should be a rational way of dealing with absenteeism, from the point of view of teachers, schools and the families themselves.”

Some argue that taking a child out of primary school is less problematic; others contend that parents should be able to take their kids off in the relaxed final few weeks of term, but not, say, in the run-up to SATs. “In the summer term, if it’s cheaper to take time as a family and go away at the same time, it would seem to me to be wrong to threaten with a fine, when every other aspect of the experience is positive,” agrees Hathway.

Indeed, many point to the developmental benefits of travel; the value of seeing new things, meeting new people, hearing different languages. Hathway argues that destination is beside the point – it’s not about allowing a trip to see Greek ruins but refusing a beach holiday in Majorca. “It doesn’t matter where they are going if the family dynamic is improved,” he stresses.

That’s at the heart of why Platt went to court. “Family holidays make kids (and their parents) happy,” he tells me. “Happy children thrive in school.” And, with two children at private school and only one in the state system, he rejects the link with lesser educational prospects, pointing out that state pupils already spend longer in the classroom – yet private schools invariably yield better results.  

In truth, the evidence around the impact on attainment is mixed. Government statistical analysis published last March concluded that ‘every extra day missed was associated with a lower attainment outcome’. Yet a physicist who conducted her own analysis of the same data found that between 2009 and 2014, 78.7% of Key Stage 4 pupils who took no authorised term-time holiday reached the expected academic level by the end of primary school – compared with 82.2% of those who took between one and 20 days off.

Ultimately, in the complex pot of factors influencing how well a child does at school, attendance is only one piece of a puzzle involving brains, behaviour, teaching quality and home environment. A naturally inquisitive child might thrive even if they miss several days; a struggling one won’t necessarily achieve simply by being always at their desk.

Whatever happens following the Supreme Court ruling, the issue of holiday companies racking up the prices is unlikely to go away. There have been calls for councils to stagger school holiday periods, as happens in some European countries. It’s an approach backed by Travel Association ABTA, but it’s not without problems; as Bevan says “you would have children at primary and secondary schools off at different times, so you couldn’t go away as a family”.

Families across the country wait anxiously for the Supreme Court’s ruling. Will the outcome strike a blow in favour of those who want more discretion for schools? Bevan hopes so. “The judgment should be: can the absence be seen as having a greater intrinsic value than being in the classroom,” he says.

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