14/05/16
Of all of the media calls I received during my tenure as general secretary of ASCL one topic kept coming up over and over again - namely that of term time holidays. Because so many viewers, listeners and readers are parents, broadcasters and newspapers have been keen to cover it even though it is, or has been until now, a much smaller problem then this coverage would imply. Now with the high court judgement finding in favour of Mr Platt whose fine was overturned it is a top story again.

So what is the issue?

High levels of attendance often correlate with high-performance. There is no question about the link between attendance and people performance. Common sense would tell us that pupils who miss significant amounts of schooling are likely to fall behind unless a great deal of compensatory support is available. Every teacher knows that the absence of different pupils from lessons impacts on the continuity of teaching and the availability of the teacher to provide individual attention to pupils. Children may be absent for very good and understandable reasons but these are small numbers and relatively infrequent.
Schools have gone to great lengths to incentivise and reward good attendance. They also put in place effective support for pupils who miss school due to illness, family bereavement etc.

Schools do have a degree of discretion. They are allowed to authorise absence in ‘exceptional circumstances’. It is up to headteachers to define these and most have little difficulty in doing so. This enables sensible decisions to be made when a request comes into school most of the time. Nevertheless two things undermine this:

a small number of parents whose actions seriously undermine the capacity of the school to do the best for their children and who do not help their own children to succeed. They do not provide boundaries, often condone poor behaviour taking up a great deal of school leaders’ time and frequently take their children out of school without good reason. These parents are the first to make a fuss when the holiday is refused and will see this judgement as carte blanche to carry on taking their children out.
accountability and coercive policy. Schools have been required to chase 95% attendance targets and headteachers are in the firing line when performance falls short. The government has chosen to use a coercive approach to deal with parents who take their children out of school and schools which do not meet targets. We all know that such approaches lead, at best to compliance but rarely to ownership and commitment and we all know that they often have unintended consequences such as the growth of fining to very high levels in some parts of the country and punishment of some parents who are actually highly supportive of their children’s schools.

School terms are only for 190 days of the year. Two questions need to be asked.

Why is this a problem in Britain when it is not an issue elsewhere. I once asked a teacher in France whether many children miss school for family holiday. She was utterly mystified and could not imagine this happening.
Why it is that the thirteen weeks of school holidays and bank holidays are inadequate for more than a small minority of people to be able to arrange holidays?
So there are three issues to address.
The government needs to recognise that current policy combined with the heavy handed use of accountability is a blunt instrument and change the law appropriately.
They need to trust schools to work with parents to promote good attendance.
As a society we need to decide what we want from our education system. If we believe that all children should receive a great education in school our society needs a culture which values that and supports teachers 100%. That might involve forgoing the right to the odd cheap foreign holiday.
I would urge Mr Platt and the campaigners to think very carefully about the messages they are sending out. If they want some suggestions about the really important things they could campaign for to improve the life chances of their and other people’s children further I suspect that many teachers will join me to provide suggestions.