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Banning term-time days off is not the answer to truancy

Global news, Licenses and Regulations, UK

Yes, missing school is damaging, but we should let parents take a few days out while cracking down on unauthorised absence.

One morning when I was about seven my dad packed us all into the car for school as he did every other school day of the year. It was just an ordinary morning until my mum got in the car as well and they announced that we were all – including my dad, who would usually have gone straight to work after the school run – bunking off and going to Whipsnade safari park for the day. That memory is a mixture of unbridled joy heightened by the complete shock that we were collectively, as a family, throwing the rule book out of the window.

Under Michael Gove’s plans to crack down on truancy my parents would have been automatically fined. Gove wants to scrap the current system whereby parents can legally, with a school’s agreement, remove their children from school for up to 10 days in any school year. This is supposed to be for illness, bereavement and if they can’t get to school because of the weather, but increasingly some families have used this time for holidays out of the horrendously expensive peak season of school holidays. Gove wants to scrap the distinction between these “authorised” absences and unauthorised absences and toughen up the penalties.

My memory of that day my family bunked off is stronger than any individual lesson I remember from school. Having that day off didn’t undermine my parents’ usual no-nonsense insistence that school was a non-negotiable thing – we knew exactly how naughty we were being.

I had this in mind when I tweeted a suggestion that instead of a blanket outlawing of absences, parents should be given five days a year when they could take their child out of school, no questions asked, in return for a wider tougher crackdown on truancy. These two things – advocating a set number of days off while simultaneously condemning unauthorised days off – might seem at odds but I think it could be a practical solution.

There is lots of evidence that missing school is damaging educationally. The Youth Cohort Study found that 38% of persistent truants did not get any GCSEs, compared with 3% of those who did not truant. It’s not clear whether that educational underachievement was a cofactor or caused by truancy, but it’s widely accepted that truancy is damaging. What’s more, the gap between children from educationally rich homes and those from educationally impoverished homes widens during school holidays meaning that truancy can exacerbate inequalities further.

As an education correspondent I spent a day with the police and council officers doing “truancy sweeps” in local high streets and I saw that the bulk of the problem of truancy wasn’t engaged families like mine taking a once in a lifetime day out. I saw lots of kids with their parents who said they were too ill to be at school but were out shopping anyway, some bunking off with their friends and claiming to have “study periods” and one who had to attend a benefits meeting with his mother to act as a translator.

As a school governor I know that there are many families who simply can’t afford to visit relatives overseas or spend time abroad at all during the holidays. The last government tried to do deals with travel companies to make it more affordable, but to no effect. Should families that struggle to afford it be barred from those experiences?

There is clearly a problem with parents advocating truancy, but perhaps the answer isn’t just to criminalise parents further but to strike a new deal whereby they can take a limited amount of time off to avoid the extortionate airfares and spend time with family – time that might, just occasionally, be more valuable than school. In exchange parents would be expected to send their child to school every other day in the school calendar perhaps even with tougher penalties to help enforce it.

At the moment some parents take the whole 10 days off, which is a substantial chunk of school to miss while others are criminalised when they allow their children to truant – or fail to stop them. I think we need a more transparent system with an acknowledged deal between schools and parents that strikes a compromise between the child’s right to a consistent education and a family’s right, within reason, to make its memories.

The Guardian, 20 February 2012


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