The rhetoric around every minute of school counting positively for children is fierce and it is loud, but the facts don’t back it up
In 2013 the government introduced a ban on term time holidays – previously school heads could allow up to ten days at their discretion – supported by a system of fines for parents who break the ban. There’s a £60 fine per child, rising to £120 if not paid within 21 days with a threat of prosecution for non-payment and penalties of up to £2,500 or three months in jail.
The ban has not been popular, with the majority of parents against it. The Local Government Association said, “An outright ban is too simplistic, and doesn’t recognise that family life and circumstances aren’t always so black and white.”
“An outright ban is too simplistic and doesn’t recognise that family life and circumstances aren’t always so black and white.”
It is not just holidays and family time that have been hit. In the past, students who were involved in extracurricular activities such as dance exams with the RDA were permitted to attend these, as part of the child’s education. Now schools are refusing students permission.
When father Jon Platt refused to pay the holiday fines and went to court the government chose to pursue the case right through to the Supreme Court, which ultimately decided in their favour. In comment to the press a Department of Education spokesperson echoed the importance of not missing school. “The evidence shows every extra day of school missed can affect a pupil’s chances of achieving good GCSEs, which has a lasting effect on their life chances.”
This stance was reiterated in 2016, with a headline statement of “every extra day missed was associated with a lower attainment outcome” for the Department of Education’s 2016 report on the link between absence and attainment at KS2 and KS4. Schools minister Nick Gibb echoed this saying: “Missing school for even a day can mean a child is less likely to achieve good grades, which can have a damaging effect on their life chances”.
No drop in attainment
“We have parental responsibility until our children are 18 and we believe that this legislation is impeaching on these rights.”
However, this isn’t what the government’s figures show. Dr Beccy Smith, a theoretical physicist and herself a mother of primary school children, felt sceptical that a day out at a theatre or museum or immersed in foreign culture and language could really impact attainment that badly so she went through the data.
What she found was that attainment is indeed hit when all types of absences, including unauthorised, sickness, exclusion, as well as holiday are included in the data. However, when looking at only authorised holiday absence, we see that KS2 attainment jumps up from 83.8% at no authorised absence to a reasonably level 87% attainment for 1 to 20 days absence. The same pattern is seen across different years. In summary, pupils taking some authorised holiday did better than pupils who did not. This does not mean necessarily that taking authorised holiday causes pupils to do better but it does definitively show that holiday does not cause an attainment drop.
A second scientist, Alan Barr, a physicist involved with the ATLAS experiment at the Large Hadron Collider, came to the same conclusion as Dr Smith when looking at the data in his own time, that there was not a correlation between agreed holiday and attainment.
The government already knew
Dr Beccy Smith also points out that her figures – while they were picked up by the press – are not actually news and were included in the Department of Education’s own reports.
DfE’s 2016 report directly states that “agreed family holiday absence has no statistically significant effect at KS2”, although the report claimed that breaking down the information in this way did “not add a greater understanding of the link between absence and attainment.”
Even more importantly, an earlier 2011 Department for Education report ‘A profile of pupil absence in England’, also contained evidence that attainment was not in fact hit by higher levels of absence due to authorised family holidays, religious observance and study leave. Michael Gove will have had access to the 2011 report above when he introduced the ban in 2013.
The Department of Education said that its research considered prior attainment and other “pupil characteristics” and showed unequivocally that every extra day missed was associated with a lower attainment outcome. If it did so this data was not included in the report and in fact their own findings that “agreed family holiday absence has no statistically significant effect at KS2” is in direct contradiction of this claim.
Parents are responsible for their child, not the state
This is important. It matters, it is about more than ‘just’ holidays. The government has decided that it is the arbitrator of what is good for children. Not the parents. Not even the child’s headteacher, who might reasonably be expected to have a grasp of whether the individual child and the child’s teachers would be able to cope with the days away. Furthermore, the government has decided this in the total absence of any supporting evidence and in the face of serious objection from parents.
Children are not owned by the state. Parents are responsible for their own child’s education. They might ask the state to fulfil that responsibility for them but they – who know that individual child the best – are still responsible. And education and school are not synonymous.
As campaign group ‘Parents Want a Say’ point out: “Childhood is short; family relationships play a key role in each child’s development and contribute considerably to the overall education of the child. We have parental responsibility until our children are 18 and we believe that this legislation is impeaching on these rights.”