Opinion: Campaign against school attendance policy update

With the fining of Stewart & Natasha Sutherland this week, an update on the campaign to reverse the changes to the attendance policy (see my previous article).

Emma Whiting’s e-petition to 10 Downing St gained almost 50,000 signatures and closed before most parents were aware of the forthcoming changes. Craig Langman, finding himself unable to sign it in September, put up a members’ petition on 38 degrees and it went viral, gaining 127,000 signatures within a few weeks without any media coverage or promotion by 38 degrees. It now has 190,000 signatures. We delivered it to a nervous civil servant outside the Department for Education in late October along with a summary of the key reasons parents objected to the change.

The email response from another civil servant, as Ministers were too busy, added nothing to the unsatisfactory responses parents were already obtaining from the DfE.

In debates on TV and radio, most callers are against this new policy. I won’t rehearse all the arguments now: they will be available when the campaign group’s website launches in February. The petition is currently at 190,000.

The Department for Education has repeatedly failed to engage with parents. Its standard response is: a) once in the state sector, parents have a legal obligation to send their children to school b) there’s a link between attendance and attainment:

 “There is clear evidence that absence from school can and does link to a pupil’s poor attainment.  I should clarify that our analysis is based on absence as a whole. Whether it is caused by truanting, illness or parents taken their children out of school on holiday it all adds up because the child is not in school to receive their education.” (See FoI response.)

Actually the Department’s own statistics show no such clear evidence. Yes, there is a correlation between overall absence and attainment but absolutely no evidence that there is any causal link between them, let alone between family holidays and attainment.  The statistics are too blunt and the Department has failed to produce any research establishing such a link.

Family holidays account for 8.3% of overall absence and 0.5% of all school sessions. The DfE states that the majority of children absent for family holidays are of primary age then links absenteeism with GCSE results for secondary pupils. For US evidence that there is no link between reading attainment and absenteeism, see link provided by Simon Oliver in response to my previous article.

The DfE’s grasp of economics and the workplace is equally suspect:  “The Government does not believe that this change would affect business”. (response to the petition, DfE reference number 2013/0066683.) Craig Langman has received contacts from a range of businesses from large travel groups, an agricultural show and individual seasonal businesses which beg to differ. Any phone-in on the subject brings up examples of workers who cannot take holidays in the school holidays or where there are too many workers with children to allow them all to take time off.

We understand the DfE thinks it is acting in the best interests of pupils but it has failed to show the academic rigour, common sense, emotional intelligence, collaborative and communication skills and creative thinking that are exemplified by the best in the State education sector. If you agree that this illiberal policy has to be reversed, can I urge you to say so in the consultation to the Manifesto 2015.  Further, as the campaign to win the argument becomes more co-ordinated, we are looking for MPs to take up this issue for us in Parliament: please get in touch by emailing [email protected] or by tweeting @this_karen if you would like to discuss the evidence and questions we have in more detail.

* Karen Wilkinson was Parliamentary Candidate for Kingwood in June 2017

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  • Julian Critchley 18th Jan '14 - 10:36am

    Keep at it Helen. You’re absolutely right in all you say here. The Govian DFE has become a bizarre place, banging out statements of “belief”, as if they were the same as evidenced policy. Some of the more recent claims are risible – take their response to the well-researched guardian article about the corruption in academy chains, for which the DFE claimed that academies were subject to far more financial scrutiny than LEA schools. Just bizarre.

    But then, given that one of their standard lines on the benefits of academization is that it “frees” schools from local authority control of their curriculum, when in fact all schools’ curricula are set by central government and enforced by OFSTED, shows just how far through the looking glass the DFE has travelled under the mad Gove.

    It is ironic that Gove professes to be a liberal – even a libertarian – yet he has established the most Stalinist system of top-down diktat in the education system that we’ve ever seen. I think he only gets away with it because so few of our journalists and politicians actually have any personal experience of the state education system, so they simply don’t care enough to actually compare Gove’s fictions with fact.

  • Colin Taylor 18th Jan '14 - 10:45am

    I could not agree more with what Helen has posted.
    Many years ago when my two children where both in infant and primary school, I could not net my holiday from work in the School holiday period so we had to have a holiday in term times.
    We took our children on camping holidays to France where they met children from Germany , Holland and France as well as from all over the UK.. Even with out having any of the languages the co-operation between all the children as they taught each other games was a joy to behold.
    Missing ten days schooloing from formal learning was worth it for the experiences of those holidays and they still talk about them thirty years later
    To criminalise parents who want to give that sort of experience to their children is a monumental disgrace and need to be rectified urgently.

  • We tend to take our key stage 2 daughter out of the last day of term each summer. This reduces the cost of the ferry by 30% and has zero impact on her education. Why am I so certain it is zero impact…. because they watch dvd’s and play games all day on the last day of the school year.

  • Peter Watson 18th Jan '14 - 12:50pm

    “Yes, there is a correlation between overall absence and attainment but absolutely no evidence that there is any causal link between them, let alone between family holidays and attainment.”
    Hmmm. Nope, can’t think of a possible causal relationship between being absent from school and not doing well at school.
    There are many factors that contribute directly to a child’s academic attainment but to suggest that absence from school is not one sounds ridiculous. Every year people bemoan the fact that absence from school for a long summer holiday sets children back when they return.
    I cannot access the paper to which you link, but I would suggest that reading is less likely to suffer from absence from school than other aspects of their education since a child is still quite likely to read while away from school. If a class has carried out an experiment or practical activity then that is not easy for an absent child to catch up.
    I accept that some parents will make every effort to ensure their children’s learning does not suffer when absent from school, in much the same way that many of us try to provide opportunities for our children outside school hours, at weekends, and during normal school holidays. But if a parent chooses to take their child out of school, it is that child who misses out, not the parent. It is teachers and other children in the class who are disrupted in helping that child to catch up. And what message does it send to children, saving a few quid to spend a week on the beach is more important than school?
    Being strict on this sort of absenteeism is probably the only policy to come out of the Education department since 2010 that I’m happy about. But just how liberal do you want the alternative to be? If we get rid of the legal requirement to attend school and allow parents to drop their children in school as and when they choose, would that be acceptable? After all, if absence is not a problem, why put in illiberal restrictions about two week limits, special circumstances, only for certain types of holidays, only at certain times of the year, only for primary school children, only for middle-class families whose kids are doing well, …

  • Richard Shaw 18th Jan '14 - 1:48pm

    The problem here is that some parents seem to think that disrupting their child’s education is ok if it saves them money or if it’s convenient for the parents’ own annual leave arrangements. Foreign holidays aren’t mandatory and squashing ‘quality family time’ into a two week break isn’t going to make up for poor family life the other 50 weeks a year.

    I myself was taken out during term time one more than one occasion, and though I think it didn’t impede my overall education al attainment and, yes, the foreign holidays were mostly nice, it was always a complete hassle for me when I went back to school to catch up on homework and stuff. Thankfully, it only happened once a year as most of our family breaks were weekends camping/caravanning regularly during the year – a much less expensive and stressful experience than going abroad and no less fulfilling.

  • Richard Shaw 18th Jan '14 - 2:56pm


    re: 1 – I don’t know how many, but based on comments about this story the main reason seems to based on cost or parental holidays, hence me mentioning them. If there’s a family emergency or bereavement or disability involved then obviously that should be considered. As for “enhanced family relationships” – see my previous comment about 2 weeks not making up for 50 weeks of poor relationships. And is it not common for people to come back from holiday more stressed than before? 😉

    As for seeing parents enjoying reading books – that can be done at home, before or after work/school or at weekends. Books can be read almost anywhere, any time, in front of anyone and I think it wrong to undermine the importance of school in order to let the kid see their parents read something they may have picked up from an airport bookshop.

    “Does the state have the right to deny a hard working family on minimum wage the opportunity to be able to afford an out of season Sun voucher holiday?”

    Speaking as a Liberal, I say yes, they do and invoke JS Mill and the Harm Principle, etc. which permits (though doesn’t demand) such intervention; The right to a cheap foreign holiday during term time ends where it encroaches upon the child’s right to an education and teaching them and society as a whole the importance of it.

  • Julian Critchley 18th Jan '14 - 6:35pm


    “But if a parent chooses to take their child out of school, it is that child who misses out, not the parent.”

    Well, not necessarily. Children are sick all the time, but catch up. Children miss lessons for sporting events, but are unaffected. Children can be taken off timetable to practise for the school show, but get the same results. Children miss lessons every time they go on a school trip, yet few call for such trips to be abolished. Education isn’t so fragile that to miss a few days here, or a few days there, will being the whole edifice crashing down. Nor is it solely classroom (or even school) based. After all, there is no uniformity in school terms across the country, and from private to state sectors. Similarly many other countries have rather shorter, or longer, school years. Yet none of these things have been shown to have significant impacts. There is a perfectly good argument that a gradgrindian approach to learning as only taking place in the classroom at the appointed time in the appointed place is fairly crippling.

    “It is teachers and other children in the class who are disrupted in helping that child to catch up.”

    I can only speak as a very experienced practising teacher here, but this just isn’t true. As mentioned above, children miss lesson all the time. It’d be a woeful teacher who couldn’t deal with that. Likewise, I cannot even imagine a situation in which a teacher would disrupt the other students for a child who had missed lessons. It just wouldn’t happen, ever. Otherwise every single lesson would be derailed, because of the one child who was absent last week for any of the above reasons. You simply set the class their task, and then speak solely to the absent child, tell them what they need to do to catch up, and carry on. The rest of the class are blissfully unaffected.

    “And what message does it send to children, saving a few quid to spend a week on the beach is more important than school?”

    I think this could be overdone. Or reversed: what message does this sort of decision send to children about who is more important : the school or their parents ? What message does this send to parents about their children : you have primary responsibility for them, or the state ?

    This law is about as illiberal, and as ill-thought out, as any on the statute books. It’s a classic case of unforeseen consequences in New Labour authoritarian tabloid-pleasing “toughness”. It was designed to deal with “problem families” who either allowed their kids to truant and miss not – 5 days – but 5 weeks, or 5 months, of school, every year; or those families who often removed their child for a term every year to go overseas. Yet the consequence is we’ve ended up criminally prosecuting a thoughtful family who considered the pros and cons, tried to give the appropriate notice, and made a decision for their own family which is perfectly justifiable.

  • Jane Christie 18th Jan '14 - 6:57pm

    For me the wider issue is about accountability of the DofE to parents. I believe they are confusing the impact on education of persistent absenteeism with the impact of families taking holidays however because the DofE won’t have a sensible conversation with parents about this issue we will never know. There needs to be a system of allowing parents a say in educational policy and Government needs to be accountable. It is not unreasonable to ask the DofE to explain why they believe taking family holidays is such a problem that they will take parents to court about it.

  • Peter Watson 18th Jan '14 - 8:46pm

    @Julian Critchley “Children are sick all the time, but catch up. Children miss lessons for sporting events, but are unaffected. Children can be taken off timetable to practise for the school show, but get the same results.”
    And you want them to take random holidays in term-time in addition to all that?

  • Peter Watson 18th Jan '14 - 8:51pm

    @Julian Critchley “Children miss lessons every time they go on a school trip, yet few call for such trips to be abolished.”
    I would hope that all such trips are educational, open to all, and a valuable part of every child’s education. The clue is in the name “school trip”. Nobody (I hope) is arguing that kids should be restricted to the classroom.

  • Peter Watson 18th Jan '14 - 9:10pm

    @Helen Tedcastle “No child’s education is fatally damaged by this, unless the parents are in the habit of taking regular week long trips away every term for years on end.”
    But what if the parents are in the habit of doing just that? Ten days, a figure regularly quoted, is the equivalent of doing this for two out of the three terms every year. How many days a year is acceptable? Is it more for for one child but fewer for another, possibly a sibling?
    “Is it Liberal not to trust responsible and caring parents to make the right decisions for themselves and their families?”
    But how do we determine which parents are “responsible and caring” and which are not? Is withdrawing children from school in order to sunbathe by a pool evidence of one or the other? Do we give one group more rights and freedoms than the other?

  • I wonder whether part of the problem is due to the difference in funding between state and private schools: in private schools the fee’s are the fee’s and they are to be paid regardless of a child’s attendance/non-attendance. Hence the introduction of fines is a, rather heavy handed, way of “levelling the playing field”. Personally, if you really were keen on financially hitting parents for removing their child, a daily absence tariff based on the cost of a school place (information easily extracted from the annual funding formula) could be levied.

    However, all of the above ignores one rather awkward point: state schools take more pupils from poorer and disadvantaged backgrounds than the private sector. Hence I would appreciate someone explaining how fines (and court appearances) will make any real positive difference to the lives of these children. I suspect that the majority of schools will only actually fine and chase for payment those parents who they have a reasonable expectation of recovering the monies from.

    Interestingly, the court case Karen refers to, shows that the wording “either by regular attendance at school or otherwise.” used in the 1996 Education Act has been taken to mean something totally different.
    Given the above, looking at the Act, I think the definition of what a “full-time education suitable to the requirements of pupils of x school age” is, is open to legal challenge, particularly given the variation of school years (term length and organisation).

  • @Peter Watson Re: “School Trips”
    Yes you would hope that all were educational, but what is “educational”? I ask as I know in the hands of capable teacher/head a school’s Christmas disco and/or watching the local panto is educational. Likewise “family holidays” can also be ‘holidays’ or ‘educational’ experiences; the difference being largely in the spin put on them.

    No one of the real issues with this introduction of fines, is actually who can issue such fines, namely: “A police constable, local authority officer, headteachers and those authorised by them (deputy and assistant head only).” It is unclear from the press reports of the court case Karen refers to, whether it was the school or the local authority that imposed the fine and hence who it was who took the parents to court – I suspect it was the local council given how I’ve not located a comment by the school and whilst some may glibly say the absence was “unauthorised”, this is actually meaningless as all absences have officially been recorded as ‘unauthorised’ for sometime now.

    To put this into context, a few recent ‘unauthorised’ absences my children have had: to support and watch their cousin carry the Olympic torch, to perform in front of the Queen as part of an out of school music group, visits to prospective secondary schools on official open days… So whilst all of these absences have been officially recorded as ‘unapproved’ the school (off the record) did approve the absences. However, in the current climate we can see the local authority either removing or overriding the discretion of Head’s and forcing all ‘unauthorised’ absences to be fined…

    A final point, is their any reference in the Education Act to schools being able to effectively close for “Training Days” and another ‘unauthorised’ reason? if not then this is another area where parents could push back as local authorities are obviously failing to provide a “full-time education” – obviously using the same scale of fines and terms of payment …

  • Julian Critchley 19th Jan '14 - 12:10am


    It’s really important not to make the mistake – as Gove and some others who are not education professionals do – in thinking that education involves children as empty vessels, for whom a missed lesson means that their vessel won’t be as full as their peers’ unless they find a way to fill the gap. Learning simply does not work like that. Even the most basic part of education – the receipt of knowledge – does not work like that. People forget things they’ve been told, or retain them for different lengths of time, for example. Or they misplace the memory and then recall either an accurate or inaccurate one later. So if they were simply empty knowledge boxes, then those boxes are filling and refilling all the time. In that context, then a missed lesson is utterly irrelevant.

    Then there are skills. Some people won’t learn how to perform a certain function for dozens of attempts. Others get it first time. Still others will require constant repetition and will never develop the skill. A lot of education is doing similar tasks (in history, for example, source analysis is a key skill) with different materials. I’d love to tell you that there’s a way of predicting when such a skill might stick, but there isn’t. Also, a child might seem to understand the skill for a while and use it well, only to revert back to a skill-free zone after a few months.

    That’s before you even get on to the real business of education, which is helping children develop the mental scaffolding to allow them to process information correctly. Nobody understands how this works really. It’s like the magic of being human. Why is it, for example, that some people steadily develop the means to logically analyse and question, whereas others make cognitive leaps (accurately, or off an intellectual cliff), while others can be superbly skilled communicators of the written word, but too dangerously incompetent to be given a bunsen burner ? In a sense, this sort of brain development comes in all shapes and sizes, and there are far, far more important inputs than school. For example, research clearly demonstrates that schools account pretty consistently for about 10% of outcomes. So a child going to the worst possible school might receive results 10% worse than he would in the best possible school. Worth having, to be sure, but 90% of the child’s outcomes are determined by other factors. Which includes non-classroom experiences like family time, holidays and so on.

    Learning is a bizarre and unknowable process, and anyone claiming to have cracked exactly how people learn is wrong. Essentially we travel through life, having a variety of different experiences, of which school is but one, and some of what we experience sticks with us, shapes us, or leaves us unscathed. In that regard, I can say with absolute confidence that the nonsense spewed by the DFE over this issue is just that : nonsense.

    On this issue, Gove takes a hugely simplistic and reductionist approach, and every one of his announcements and policies suggest that he genuinely believes that children are empty vessels into which are poured knowledge. I’m afraid it merely shows just how unsuited he is to having anything to do with the education of children, or the management of the education system. His whole policy is based on a laughably inaccurate view of how children learn. But then, given he dismisses all people who actually know about this field, including eminent academics and experienced practitioners, as “enemies of promise”, I guess we shouldn’t be surprised by that.

    This case has in many ways shown the problem with education in this country. Essentially, nobody cares what the experts say. It’s as if our hospitals were filled with patients telling the doctors that they know very well that their new-fangled antibiotics are evil, and if only they’d use these crystals and this eviscerated pigeon then the bad blood would be drawn out. Teachers are all trained for at least a year at a post-grad level, and then add years of practical experience and continuing professional development. It is a mite frustrating, for all of us, to come up against this attitude of the expert must be wrong, and the amateur must be right.

    There are experienced, trained, practising teachers on this thread, and on the petition, and in the wider debate, and we’re saying that taking a week out of school does not necessarily have any impact at all. The people who are most convinced that such an absence IS an offence worth criminalising parents for, are almost universally not teachers, not educationalists, and haven’t set foot in a classroom since they were children themselves. It’s a bit tragic for our society that successive education secretaries – none of them ever actually trained educationalists – have seen fit to foster such contempt for the teaching profession as a whole that the views of the experts are not just dismissed as irrelevant, but all too often taken as a signifier that the opposite position must be correct.

    Sorry for the length of this.

  • Peter Watson 19th Jan '14 - 6:00pm

    @Julian Critchley
    I am certain, from eloquent posts that you have written here and in other threads, that you are an excellent and committed teacher. But I have to ask, all other things being equal, which pupil will benefit most from your talents, the one who is present or the one who is absent?

  • @Peter Watson
    >But I have to ask, all other things being equal, which pupil will benefit most from your talents, the one who is present or the one who is absent?

    A good question! My son effectively lost a school day last week through the totally avoidable absence of his teacher …

  • Peter Watson 19th Jan '14 - 6:28pm

    @Julian Critchley
    P.S. Even as a parent I am dismayed by everything that Gove (and his Lib Dem accomplices) have done over the last few years, and my views on unnecessary absenteeism have nothing to do with that man.
    My starting point is that children should be in school (in which I include all of the usual non-classroom activities that are an essential part of learning). Absence should only be justified under exceptional circumstances, and I do not consider the price of holidays during term-time to be an acceptable excuse.
    I can only admire a teacher who is prepared to put in a little extra time to help a child catch up on missed lessons and homework, especially in a subject where new learning and skills build upon the previous ones, and who will schedule an extra lab or workshop practical for the child who missed the planned one. But f you have to do that 60 times when each of the 30 kids in your class takes two separate weeks off, and all because their parents want to save a few quid on a holiday when you, as a teacher, cannot during term-time. I would find that very frustrating.

  • The policy represents an unrealistic view of society and life. The most annoying element is the “exceptional circumstances”, because, the Government use this term to express that there is no “Blanket Ban” and they have not defined “Exceptional Circumstances” In response to an FOI request, the DfE stated regarding exceptional circumstances,

    “The Department has no intention of trying to second guess the specific details and wider relevant context behind every request made to a school for leave of absence.Schools know their pupils best and are well placed to make those judgements without central Government attempting to undermine them.”

    However, they twist the arm of a Headteacher, when you look at the pressure from Ofsted on attendance. Even if personally you disagree with the fact that “Cheaper Holidays in term-time” are a valid reason, how can anyone endorse a policy that sees parents refused leave for family funerals, weddings, visiting relatives abroad, or even at the other end of this country, time off when a parent or grandparent is seriously ill and cases where children haves special educational needs, where parents are unable to get time-off due to work commitments?

    Richard Shaw:
    “If there’s a family emergency or bereavement or disability involved then obviously that should be considered. ”
    That is fine to post on a forum, but that is not what is happening in reality as a result of removing the flexibility for ten days at the Head’s discretion. What do we say to these poor parents who are being refused leave of absence under such circumstances, how can a refusal of leave and a possible fine be justified?

    My son was ten years old when his father was diagnosed with esophagus cancer, It involves 3 months chemo, a major operation, and a further 3 months chemo. Survival rates are 30%. After the first 3 months of chemo and before the operation, we took a family break.. The school were very supportive. My son recorded his break, it was in London, sight seeing, I still have his “My Trip to London” folder and he is 16 now. Under the new rules, whilst one might like to think that this leave would be granted, there are cases where it is not happening and parents are being made to feel like “bad” parents and criminalised.

    The removal of Head’s flexibility to apply a common sense approach is leaving family’s with genuine exceptional circumstance in turmoil, worried and confused. Should they do what the DfE says is right or what they know is right for their family at a stressful time and face a fine? Personally, I would do exactly what Stewart Sutherland has just done and make a point. It cost him. I would have taken out a bank loan, if I had to, to pay the fine, if my son had been refused that time with his father, when he could have lost his father forever.

    The previous law allowed the correct level of flexibility, with a common sense approach to family circumstances, based on the Head’s knowledge of that family and the child’s attendance, behaviour and attitude.

    I would ask those who are in favour of this new policy, to firstly read the background of how this change in the Law materialised. It came out of a report from one guy, tasked with tackling “the educational underclass” those , missing 3 weeks of school or more, after the experience of the riots we saw. The report contains no supporting evidence, there was no formal consultation on the change in the Law, no impact assessment. The author concludes early in one sweeping statement:-

    “Truancy though is only one dimension and distracts attention from the cause of these problems, which is nonattendance in the early years when approved by parents”

    So, I have five days holiday in term-time when my child is in Year 5 and I am turning him in to a persistent truant at Secondary School. Detailed analysis, far beyond this report in to the causes of truancy has been going on for years.The statistics speak for themselves. Authorised family holidays are far more prevalent in Primary School showing a common sense approach by parents. Authorised family holidays are far lower in the persistent absentees cohort than non persistent absentees. Detailed research shows links to persistent absenteeism with poverty, unemployment, lack of engagement with education and school, That could not be tackled in a 12 page report could it?

    However, Mr Gove takes a 12 page unsubstantiated report, describes it as excellent and implements the recommendations, without thought for the consequences. Call me cynical, call it a coincidence, but the author, whilst previously being a very well respected Head of a troubled school, then moved to Government adviser, also happens to be an ex Etonion, contemporary of Mr.Cameron. Perhaps I am being too cynical, however, I think of it as follows:- . Parents who need to take term-time holidays, have no alternative, whether that be due to family illness/crisis, special educational needs, work commitments, financial reasons have got caught in the cross-fire of the Eton Rifles.

    Julian: This comment:
    “I cannot even imagine a situation in which a teacher would disrupt the other students for a child who had missed lessons. It just wouldn’t happen, ever.

    I admire your honesty, beacause, when debating this i have always had that argument thrown back it me, yet I have always argued that illness, just like some holidays are unavoidable, yet the world or the class doe not come to an end.
    Personally I think term-time holidays have just become an obsession with people, because the only see it as parents getting a “cheap holiday” and do not see beyond that.

  • Peter Watson 19th Jan '14 - 11:53pm

    @Helen Tedcastle “Sometimes, if a child is very ill, in hospital for example, they are absent for long periods of time. It always amazes me how so often, with parental support, it is these children who show the determination to catch up and not miss out on anything upon their return.”
    But would a child whose parents value a cheaper holiday more than time in school be expected to have the same attitude as one whose absence was not by choice?

    Both yourself and Julian, as well as Karen, have put caveats on those who choose to be absent.
    Julian: “It was designed to deal with “problem families” who either allowed their kids to truant and miss not – 5 days – but 5 weeks, or 5 months, of school, every year; or those families who often removed their child for a term every year to go overseas.”
    Helen: “No child’s education is fatally damaged by this, unless the parents are in the habit of taking regular week long trips away every term for years on end.”
    Karen: “All we are asking for is a return to the previous policy whereby at certain times of the school year (not terms 1 or 5, not during exam years at our primary school), Headteachers had the discretion to authorise up to 10 days holiday.”
    So there appears to be an acceptance by everybody that parents choosing to take their children out of school can be a problem that requires some restrictions on parents, and we are debating practicalities rather than a fundamental liberal principle.

    I appreciate the points that you and Julian make about education and the many different ways that children learn, and it really is great to hear. No-one should argue that a holiday cannot be a valuable learning experience. A holiday abroad (or at home) can be a great chance to learn (for parents as well) about a country’s language, culture and history, with opportunities for impromptu geography and science lessons and a few word and number games to while away the hours travelling. Or it could be spent mindlessly confined to an all-inclusive compound. Either way, those opportunities are still available during school holidays (and weekends), and it does not have to be a choice between either time in school or on holiday.

    Also, sometimes it seems as if there is a middle-class bias in discussions on this topic (but not in this thread I hasten to add) in which it is fine for ‘people like us’ to take our children out of school because our kids are better and what we do is more worthy than the working-class mother we look down on when she takes her child shopping on a school day. At least Gove’s approach to absenteeism means we are all playing by the same rules and no-one is deemed better than anybody else (I only wish that were so for his other policies).

    I appreciate that there are times when choosing to be absent from school is acceptable, but they should be under exceptional circumstances. Obviously we can argue about what is ‘exceptional’, but the previous approach certainly created an impression that two weeks was routine. The admirable Year 11 lad who has recently walked to the South Pole is certainly exceptional and I would not be calling for his parents to be fined even though he has missed more than the allotted 10 days of school. And perhaps a fine is a blunt instrument (though if it makes a cheap holiday look more expensive it could be a good disincentive), and there must be better approaches which combine the carrot and the stick. Also, there are many practical things that could be done as well, e.g. in holiday resorts where parents must make their living during the holiday season, local schools could shift their term dates so that those families can have their own holidays without their children missing school, and schools could organise trips to Karen’s agricultural show (fitting it into the curriculum to enrich and share the experience).

  • Julian Critchley 20th Jan '14 - 12:14am


    I’m glad to hear you’re not a Gove fan. On that, we are of one mind !

    As Helen has explained, so much is conditional on circumstance. I’ve had a student who came into school for 2 days in the whole of year 10 and Year 11 due to school refusal. My sole input into her education was to email her a summary of the course and send her a textbook and some past papers. She got an A*. I’ve also had students with 100% attendance who couldn’t pick up a C grade if it was dropped on their desk in front of them.

    Would I recommend a student taking a whole term off in A-level ? No, they’d miss an awful lot, and would have a hell of a task to cover the ground. But on the other hand, I did have a student who missed the whole of autumn term of Y12, because she originally chose another subject, but then asked to switch to history, so I agreed, and again with a few pointers and resources, she ended up with an A at A-level. On the other hand, I have had some students who have missed a lot of lessons and have underperformed. But I wonder whether they achieved a lower grade because they missed lessons, or because they ultimately weren’t sufficiently engaged in the subject to care about coming in, and wouldn’t have done any better if they were sitting, bored, in my lessons !

    As with so much in education, there are no easy answers here. It’s a spectrum. I’d certainly want some serious intervention if there was a student who was truanting 50% of the time, or whose parents were not bothering to make them attend school at all. But that wouldn’t be because of a concern about exam results, but a concern about child neglect or serious domestic difficulties, and the school should be flagging up such cases with social services. But clearly that’s a very different kettle of fish from a family holiday in term time for students with otherwise good attendance, family support and attitude.

    I guess that’s why what I’m saying is that this shouldn’t be a criminal offence. Certainly schools should look into attendance issues particularly persistent attendance issues, and there are cases where further intervention is necessary for the child’s welfare. But to prosecute the parents ? It’s a horribly illiberal approach based on a lot of assumptions about learning which are simply not true.

    The problem is that OFSTED, wrong on this as in so many things, enforce this “a child only learns when in a classroom” approach in inspections, and this terrifies headteachers into pursuing the most draconian, back-covering approach they can, so as to avoid criticism. This can result in situations which I think you might agree are a bit bonkers. I’ll leave you with one such true example from – cough – a school I know very well. A sixth-form student is ranked in the top five in his country in his chosen sport. He is asked by the national coach to travel to a fascinating part of the world in order to represent his country in an international competition. He would have to miss two days of school in order to attend over a weekend. It’s the opportunity of a lifetime. What a fantastic, life-shaping learning experience. His nearest exams are six months away, and his attendance record is otherwise impeccable. His parents asked the school to authorise the absence, and the school refused.

    This is where we end up when we start from the position that every lesson missed is a catastrophic event worthy of criminal sanction. This is why I support the petition of the original poster. School is important, of course, but life is more important, and just as I wouldn’t expect a parent to tell me how best to teach my syllabus, I wouldn’t tell a parent what experiences will most benefit their child more broadly. The law shouldn’t be in this.

  • @Helen
    Thanks for the reply.
    My point wasn’t that teacher’s shouldn’t have training days, but that “the powers that be” (TPTB) deem it okay for schools to close ie. children to miss school days, for them to occur. ie. lack of consistency from TPTB. Also (not being deeply into the Education system), I’m unaware of other circumstances where a school can decide to close (I’m not referring to staff illness, fire, flood, snow etc.), hence why I raise the query.

    In the context of this discussion, I can see a rather nasty game being played. As the DfE changes the rules and so “regular” is taken to mean “always” attend, so parents will push back (my posts give an indication of the detailed nit-picking that may start to occur), unfortunately it will be the schools and their staff who will get the flack, for something not of their making. [Aside: I’ll be interested to see if the parents in the court case Karen references appeal, as from the reported information, I don’t believe the council proved lack of ‘regular’ attendance, only non-payment of a fine.]

    I support the petition Karen refers to, because it is obvious that responsibility for authorising absence has to reside with the school and it’s head [Aside: this also aligns with the ‘localism’ agenda]. To support them, the school/head need a clear set of principles that allow them to exercise discretion and permit some absence but to clamp down on persistent and/or protracted absences and those who go absent without notice or good reason. I though we had that under the system we had until a few years back…

  • We take our daughter out of school to go to France on a ski trip, We have to go during term time due to partners work commitments and the short ski season. During this week our daughter goes into French ski school and is learning a winter sport and giving her confidence in her own abilities. She is also having French lessons in school and speaks French while away. Her attendance is still above 95% how can this be wrong:?

  • @Julie
    >how can this be wrong:?
    The ski trip isn’t being organised by the school!

    Yes this the level of daftness we are descending into…

  • Peter Watson 20th Jan '14 - 5:59pm

    @Roland ” it is obvious that responsibility for authorising absence has to reside with the school and it’s head [Aside: this also aligns with the ‘localism’ agenda]. To support them, the school/head need a clear set of principles …”
    Has that really changed though?
    Current DfE advice (http://www.education.gov.uk/popularquestions/a005551/can-i-take-my-child-on-holiday-in-term-time?):
    Q:“Can I take my child on holiday in term time?”
    A:“Headteachers have the discretion to grant leave, but they should only do so in exceptional circumstances. If a headteacher grants a leave request, it will be for them to determine the length of time that the child can be away from school. This leave is unlikely, however, to be granted for the purposes of a family holiday.”
    All that seems to have changed is that parents can no longer assume (not that they should have) that two weeks holiday would have been permitted automatically, and that “special circumstances” are replaced by the more onerous sounding “exceptional circumstances”.

  • @Peter
    I suggest you ask the school at which your children attend how they are required to record absences. You will find that whilst the school can say okay, the absence still has to be officially recorded as ‘unauthorised’.

  • Sarah Clark 20th Jan '14 - 7:42pm

    Peter: The fundamental change is in the wording of the Law.

    The Education (Pupil Registration) (England) Regulations 2006 currently allow headteachers to grant leave of absence for the purpose of a family holiday during term time in “special circumstances” of up to ten school days leave per year. Headteachers can also grant extended leave for more than ten school days in exceptional circumstances.

    Amendments to the 2006 regulations remove references to family holiday and extended leave as well as the statutory threshold of ten school days. The amendments make clear that headteachers may not grant any leave of absence during term time unless there are exceptional circumstances. Headteachers should determine the number of school days a child can be away from school if the leave is granted.

    The guidance ,in your post , then confirms that leave is unlikely likely to be granted for the purpose of a family holiday. Exceptional circumstances are not clarified.

    Couple the above, with pressure from Ofsted on attendance targets and the answer is Yes, it has changed. If nothing has changed then there would be no need for a change to the Law. The simple fact is that Holidays that would have been authorised under the old rules, are no longer being authorised, so obviously there has been a change
    Responsibility is still with a Head to grant Leave of absence, but not for the purpose of a family holiday, unless he/she deems that there are exceptional circumstances. The previous guidance already made it clear that it was not a parental right and was not permitted automatically, However, Head’s were prepared to sanction holidays under the guidance below.

    “It is for schools to consider requests for holiday absence during term time. Each request can only be judged on a
    case-by-case basis taking into account individual circumstances, such as the child’s attainment, attendance and
    ability to catch up on missed schooling and the proximity of key dates for tests and examinations. While leave of
    absence might be granted for a term time holiday, it is granted entirely at the head teacher’s discretion, and is not
    a parental right.”

    Now, Heads are not really, in many cases, even considering the requests for holiday absence. The answer is No, unless you can convince them that there are exceptional circumstances. People obviously have very different views on exceptional circumstances. I would like to think that special educational needs, work commitments, family crisis, bereavements, family weddings, visits to relatives abroad, financial reasons would all fall within exceptional circumstances, but it is clearly the case that, as schools are pressured on attendance, the concept of common-sense and reasonableness is going right out the window.

    A school policy that states evidence is required for time off for a family bereavement clearly indicates to me that common sense and reasonableness, is not going right out of the window – it has gone !

  • Julian Rand 22nd Jan '14 - 6:28pm

    My Wife and I run self-catering holiday cottages on the Lizard in Cornwall and also
    provide play areas and an outside heated swimming pool. For us it is impossible to
    take our annual holidays during the Spring or Summer – these are our busy periods.
    We, therefore, try to take our leave around the October or February half-terms.

    For people who work in the Tourism Industry (the 5th largest UK industry) in Cornwall
    (the 3rd most important UK holiday destination, that accounts for 30% of the County’s GDP),
    we have to take our children out of school in term time for our holiday.

    Obviously, taking children out of school is at odds with the change in the Education
    Act that came into force on the 1st September, so:

    1) We wrote a letter (on our Company Letterhead) to the Head explaining our holiday
    arrangements and seeking her formal approval – this was granted. As in the
    past we arranged with the Teachers a package of holiday homework for
    our 8 year old son, Alex, to complete while he was away.

    2) The matter was discussed at the Governors Meeting (I am Chair of Governors at
    our Primary School, my Wife is Chair of the PTA), and it was agreed to use a
    sensible discretion when considering these requests.

    3) I sent email an to David Laws (Minister for Schools), copy our Andrew George
    MP and Andrew Wallis, Cornwall Council’s portfolio holder.
    I had a meeting with Andrew Wallis (Cornwall Council’s portfolio holder) on Friday
    4th October and discussed this with him.
    His view was that, while there must be action against parents who keep children
    away with no good reason, he understood that for people working in Tourism, and
    indeed Agriculture, this would be an exceptional reason.

    4) I have supported a national petition on “38 Degrees” along with, so far, over 197,000

    As usual it is the politicians “blunt instrument” that comes into play. Who does David
    Cameron think is serving him when he takes his holiday in Cornwall?

    I would also say that the economics our business, a self-catering complex that caters
    for families, means that our rates are cheaper outside the main school holiday periods
    because we are trying to attract people during these “shoulder months” -NOT THAT
    governed by the Market.

    Glebe Hall Cottages – 01326 221155

  • Claire Linford 23rd Jan '14 - 5:10pm

    I wholeheartedly agree with everything in Karen’s post.

    What the Government seem to be missing is the blatant fact that there is more to life, as a child, than JUST education. And there is far more to education than sitting in a classroom. I agree entirely that holidays should, as far as possibly, be taken during the school holidays; that’s the whole point of the school holidays. However, there are a multitude of genuine reasons why a parent might want or need to keep a child off school for a day, or a week, and it should be the right of the parent to decide this – we live in a so-called democracy, not an autocratic state.

    In general, I do not take my children out of school for holidays. However I have, on two occasions over the past five years, added the last day or two of term to the holiday in order to be able to get a holiday that otherwise we wouldn’t have been able to take. As well as the fact that this massively lessens the cost, it allows us to catch flights that operate on days of the week that are not Saturday or Sunday, opening up destinations (and therefore cultural experiences) that otherwise would be missed. Furthermore, the last day of school is famously known as a ‘DVD day’. Not a single thing is taught on these days, and to say that by missing this day of schooling is damaging education is complete and utter tosh. Yet I am not allowed to take my children out of school on this day, and am now treated as a criminal for doing so. Unless, of course, I decide just to lie, and teach the kids to lie too, by pretending that they were just ‘sick’ for that day or two.

    Further to the comments about ‘exceptional circumstances’: In Doncaster, our school was given extremely clear guidance as to what constitutes an exceptional circumstance, and despite the fact that ‘exceptional’ by it’s very nature would normally mean something that we cannot predict, we are only allowed to claim that our circumstances are ‘exceptional’ if we fall into one of three rather unexceptional categories. These three categories allow holidays if a) it has been prescribed by a doctor for either the parent or child, b) you have a work contract that states that you can only take holidays during specified dates outside of school holidays, or c) you are a military family and only have specific dates available. So, if granny pops her clogs and it’s outside of the summer holidays, you can forget taking the day off school to go to the funeral. If Auntie Susie decides to get married on a Thurdsay and asks you to be bridesmaid, you can forget that too. And if your parents work with other parents and have to fight for leave during school holidays, and this year they’re out of luck, then you’re out of luck with that one too.

    A friend of mine wanted to take her 6yr old to London for the day to visit the Science Museum and see the sights. She planned this for the last day of term so as to try and get there on a day that was a bit quieter than either the Christmas holidays or a weekend. But this was refused in line with Mr Gove’s latest policy. Instead, he went to school that day, sung some songs, and watched ‘Elf’.

    I noticed a poll on the Moneysavingexpert website yesterday which showed overwhelming support for the decision to be left to parents provided of course the holidays are taken responsibly. Why does the current Education Minister find it so difficult to understand that this new policy is, simply and utterly, wrong? I don’t know a single person who supports the government on this issue.

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