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Unauthorised Absences

Justine Roberts

If there’s one issue on which Mumsnet users all tend to agree, it’s the importance of education. Not all of them would necessarily say that ‘education’ and ‘schooling’ are exactly the same thing (we’ve got quite a few dedicated home educators), but the basic principle remains. Parents on Mumsnet come from all over the world and between them represent just about every point on the political compass, but few things are more significant to all of them than the quality of their children’s learning and interactions with the world around them.

This, though – in the way of debates on Mumsnet – tends to be where the consensus ends, because pretty quickly you come to the question: what kinds of things can be classified as truly meaningful educational experiences? Home educators will often advocate for the value of free-range, child-led learning: a morning looking at bugs in the park and working out how the roundabout works; an afternoon choosing a recipe to cook, going shopping with a list, counting out the change and putting a meal together. At the other end of the scale, some parents get quite twitchy about anything less than structured curriculums taught in classrooms, with a heavy emphasis on learning things by heart.

You can probably find most parents in between these two poles, open to the educational value of both approaches but grateful for the expertise and structure offered by schools. But with that structure, of course, comes a measure of inflexibility – and nowhere is this more evident than in the question of elective school absences. How does a holiday taken during term time stack up against an average week in school? How exceptional (or exotic) does a holiday need to be before it qualifies as truly educational?

For parents of some children with autism or behavioural conditions, meanwhile, the crush, stress and noise of busy resorts make peak-period holidays an impossibility for their children

With August just around the corner, many families will be taking big hits to the wallet as they stump up for high-season breaks in the sun; the huge jump in expense occasioned by aligning family holidays with school holidays can come as a bit of a shock to parents of school-age children and is doubtless one of the drivers of term-time absences. For many parents, the premium cost of peak-season vacations means not taking holidays at all. For parents of some children with autism or behavioural conditions, meanwhile, the crush, stress and noise of busy resorts make peak-period holidays an impossibility for their children.

This is where the debate about value comes into play. Where does the greater value lie – is it in hearing a different language spoken, experiencing a different culture, meeting far-flung family members, spending several hours a day swimming or cycling, and experiencing a genuine break from the norm (and from the screen)? Or is it in the maintenance of a programme of carefully timetabled formal education (not to mention teachers’ sanity)?

It’s fair to say that the Department for Education’s decision to change its guidance on the issue came as an unwelcome surprise to some parents, but others sympathise with the educational establishment, pointing out the downsides of elective absences: they are disruptive for staff and other pupils; they necessitate extra catch-up sessions; and they can worsen any pre-existing educational disadvantages.

But even among those who agree with this reasoning, the feeling is that the DfE’s guidance leans too far away from parental discretion and doesn’t allow schools to endorse truly worthy applications for term-time absences. Although discretion formally lies with headteachers, the spectres of poor attendance rates and OFSTED judgements force their hands. When we surveyed our users a couple of years ago, 70% thought that the answer might be to stop factoring attendance rates into OFSTED reports.

A few recent court cases suggest that this issue remains in play, with the parental duty to ensure ‘regular’ school attendance open to interpretation, and the DfE apparently keen to ensure that the intention behind the guidance – to enforce high rates of attendance – is carried through. It’s to be hoped that all parties can resolve the issue with some goodwill and common sense, and it’s not unreasonable to ask that parents play their part. If we’re going to request exceptional treatment that might negatively affect teachers and other pupils, we need to be confident that the circumstances are genuinely out of the ordinary.

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