I listened with horror to today’s reports that more than 60,000 parents have been fined for taking their children out of school without permission.
I am a great believer in schools and a great believer that children should attend school on a regular basis with the full support and commitment of their parents. I am however also in favour of family holidays and know the strength and vitality that a strong family can give to all children’s endeavours in school and out. Sometimes these two ambitions conflict.
For the past few years I have been free of having to holiday in school holiday periods. Erica no longer teaches and our children have long flown the nest. Originally I was horrified at the number of families with children who were going out somewhere warm in September long after schools were back in. However when talking to people and finding out why they were there I changed my mind. There appear to be three reasons why people take their children out of school:
1. They are in seasonal work. This, at least, is partly recognised by the current law but only partly. The fact is that it is not only agricultural workers whose work is seasonal. Many people in the wider tourism and entertainments industry also have to work to ensure that others have a holiday.
2. Their employers just will not or in many cases cannot let them have the time off during school holidays. If an employer has a large number of employees with children they just cannot let them all off at once or even over a restricted 6 week period.
3. That they cannot afford to have a holiday in times of peak travel. It’s either June or September or nothing.
Now of course if you are a well-paid law maker on, say, £70,000 per year plus perks the difficulties mean little to you. You can afford to pay peak rates and keep your children in school. You may not have two people working in different companies on different shift systems where child care never mind holidays are difficult to balance. But the reality for millions of other people is much harsher.
I believe that having a good family life is a key indicator of the future success of a child. When you look back on your childhood I’ll bet that many of your happiest memories are of your holidays. I well remember crawling with fishing nets around rock pools in the South West and damp but happy days feeding unwanted sandwiches to militant seagulls. Spending time together is such an important part of life. Being part of a loving family provides the stability from which you can go out to face life in school and in the wider world. Holidays are not the be all and end all of this and many families for a variety of reasons do not take family holidays.
I believe that we need to do two things:
The first is to amend the law to give back to head teachers who should know the children and their families the discretion to act appropriately. Please, please crack down on oafish parents who do not care about their responsibilities. Use the courts or other means to ensure attendance. However where there is clear evidence of otherwise good attendance and a strong family commitment to the ethos of school and learning then having, say, one week off should be allowable.
Secondly do something about the debate that has simmered on for at least the last 40 years about school terms. We are basically stuck with a system which maximised holidays in the summer to allow the maximum involvement from teenagers and even younger children in agrarian activity – particularly getting the harvest in. Now only about 2% of the population are engaged in seasonal food production but our holidays haven’t changed. Why don’t we have 4 terms a year? This would not only help deal with the problems of payment but also reduce the educational drag which teachers know many children experience over the 6 week long (longer in the private sector) summer breaks.
Family life now is incredibly complex yet our institutions still act as if kids live in a two parent middle class family with Daddy earning the cash and smoking his pipe, Mummy doing the washing and Janet and John playing with dolls and train sets. Those days are gone and we need to reflect that in the way we provide education and the holidays which children and their families need in order to benefit from the education.