In a recent article, The Sydney Morning Herald reported:
Public school principals will crack down on family holidays during term time with new rules stating students will be allowed to miss school only if they are competing in elite sport, arts or in the entertainment industry.
The policy of the NSW Education Department was changed last month. Now, principals in government schools are able to “decline to accept an explanation for absence and record the absence as unjustified”, especially if that absence is for a family holiday the principal considers unacceptable.
Cracking down on family trips seems to be based on evidence that absenteeism leads to poorer school results. However, whether it is the absenteeism or the reason for being absent that has greater effect remains unclear.
The UK has been cracking down on truant families for years
Since 1996, fines have been issued to UK families who take a holiday during term time. Failure to ensure your child attends school is an offence under Section 444 of the UK’s Education Act (1996). As such, according to The Guardian,
parents have no legal right to take their children out of school during term time for holidays.
One UK family was threatened with court action after their children accompanied them on a five-day trip. In another case, one family took the department to court over the school’s refusal to allow a term-time trip.
There are fines of up to £60 per pupil, per parent, rising to £120 if not paid within seven days. Further offences are punishable by court, a large £2,500 fine or a three-month jail sentence.
The law in Australia
In Australia, a NSW Education Department publication says “regular school attendance will help your child to succeed in later life”. It also says,
Parents and carers are encouraged not to withdraw their children from school for family holidays. Families should try to arrange holidays during school vacations.
In Queensland, the department states that holidays during term time should be “actively discouraged”. Any absences of more than 10 consecutive school days require an exemption.
In Victoria, the policy states that absences should be excused for family holidays “where the parent notifies the school in advance” and the student completes a “Student Absence Learning Plan”.
In Tasmania, Western Australia and the Northern Territory, the policy is quite vague. What is meant by chronic absence, how much time is allowable and how much leeway is given to families is a bit unclear.
In WA, truant officers police student absences. These officers have, among other powers, the ability to enter a place, such as a cinema or a games arcade, without paying to arrest offending children.
Why do parents take trips during term time?
Parents may choose to take a holiday during term time for a number of reasons. Most of them can be summed up in two phrases: cheaper airfares and the tyranny of distance.
In the UK, where this policy has been implemented for almost 20 years, the same reasons were given. Parents were visiting relatives, sometimes in Australia, when it was cheaper and the weather more pleasant.
Why punish families who take a ‘non-gazetted’ holiday?
One frequent justification is the effect on students’ academic achievement. Lila Mularczyk, a principal and head of the NSW Secondary Principals Association, was quoted in the SMH. She argued that time away adversely affects students’ education, because it detracts from a “coherent and consistent education”.
Stephen Zubrick from the University of Western Australia co-wrote a report linking attendance and NAPLAN performance. The report argues that a 10-day absence could cause a child to drop a NAPLAN band.
In the UK, it has been suggested job prospects were poorer among those who missed school for family holidays. However, the evidence for this seems vague.
There is research that suggests that school absenteeism affects performance more generally and outside of standardised tests. Too much absenteeism has been associated with school refusal and a number of conditions including anxiety, depression and other disruptive behaviour disorders. However, in these studies, the students missed much more than 20 days.
Significantly, the research on absenteeism focuses on students from disadvantaged backgrounds or those whose absenteeism is due to poor health. As such, it’s difficult to say what has the greater effect: poor health, disadvantage or absenteeism.
It may be useful to consider research suggesting the biggest influence on student achievement is the family. Those families whose absenteeism is due to an expensive family overseas trip may not experience the same negative effects on school performance as absenteeism due to disadvantage.