What's so bad about term time holidays?
Many headteachers are troubled by the pressure to refuse parents term time holidays. This regulation is not only problematic to schools, it is unpopular with parents and an ongoing niggle to the DfE.
Clear link between absence and attainment
In 2011, Education Secretary, Michael Gove commissioned Charlie Taylor, who was then advising the government on behaviour, to carry out a review of attendance following the riots that summer. Taylor suggested that the DfE collect and publish attendance data, strengthen the rules around term time holidays and overhaul the system of fines to make it more effective.
In 2012 he published his report, Improving attendance at school, supported by the first DfE absence research statistics. Taylor’s report made it clear: there is a clear link between absence and attainment. As levels of pupil absences increase, the proportion of pupils reaching the expected levels of attainment at Key Stage 2 and Key Stage 4, decrease.
This was to become the DfE mantra – reduce absence and raise standards. New regulations made it virtually impossible for schools to grant holiday leave of absence except in exceptional circumstances.
An unwritten hard-line expectation
So, headteachers have very little wriggle room when it comes to authorising requests for a family holiday. This is further compounded by the expectations, laid out in Parental responsibility measures for school attendance and behaviour, that parents who choose to keep their child off school (an unauthorised absence) should be subject to a penalty notice.
There is nothing in legislation that says that headteachers must impose a penalty notice, but it has become a kind of unwritten hard-line expectation. Charlie Taylor recommended that:
'Parents who allow their child to miss too much school should receive a fine of £60. If they fail to pay within 28 days then the fine should double to £120 and the money should be recovered directly through their child benefit. Where parents who do not receive child benefit fail to pay fines they would be recovered through the county court.'
Understanding the regulations
Let’s be clear, and a few heads are not, these regulations apply to children of statutory school age. Thus, when the headteacher of an infant school threatened a colleague with a fine for taking his four-year-old out of his Reception class, she was wrong. Similarly, a student may leave school the day after their 16th birthday and, although they are expected to be in education, employment or training, the attendance regulations do not apply.
Now, enter Jon Platt. Mr Platt removed his daughter from school for a holiday and refused to pay the fine he accrued. He was taken to court by Isle of Wight Council and argued that the regulations stated that his daughter should attend school regularly and proved that she had. Since her attendance was 100% (aside from the holiday), the court found no case to answer. The council appealed to the High Court and lost.
Whenever the Minister of State for Schools, Nick Gibb, is asked to comment on this high profile case, he repeats the DfE mantra that a child’s education is imperilled for every day they are absent, as there is a clear link between attendance and progress. The DfE has backed the Isle of Wight Council’s request for leave to appeal to the Supreme Court, and this appeal request has been granted.
Can term time holidays be justified?
However, even Conservative MPs are divided on the issue and Gibb finds himself at odds with many of his parliamentary colleagues. Resistance is also growing amongst the general population and the issue of holiday absence has recently been the subject of an e-petition, its quarter of a million signatures triggering a parliamentary debate.
It is a measure of both public discontent and government intransigence that there have now been two such petitions. A similar petition was submitted to parliament last summer with 120,000 signatures and was debated in October 2015. Once again, the beleaguered Nick Gibb can only repeat that the government will not be relaxing the rules, and that parents have a duty to ensure that their children attend school regularly.
This, of course, was the case presented by Jon Platt, that his daughter did attend regularly. Speakers from all parties generally agreed that it is important that children go regularly to school but the sticking point remains, when is holiday absence justified and when is it not? To refine the arguments still further, when does social equality outweigh doctrine, and if it does, what might that look like in advice to headteachers?
No negative impact says research
Recent research by the University of Durham and, separately, by Oxford’s Professor Alan Barr has reviewed the data for term time holidays. They found that, when looking at only authorised holiday absence, there was no negative impact on performance but that it may rise!
A change in policy in some LAs
Meanwhile, there is a serious equality issue surrounding this controversial issue. Already some local authorities have changed their policy in respect of term time holiday absence but it is a mixed picture across the country. To see what your LA and its neighbours are doing, Jon Platt has created a useful page of updated information as it becomes available.
It’s a real conundrum: headteachers face some hard choices and often no choice at all. If we authorise absence we break the law; if we allow holidays but don’t authorise them, the absence figures will raise questions for Ofsted. The only flexibility lies in the penalty notice and how, or whether, we apply it. And if we don’t apply it, we risk inspectors suggesting that strategies to combat pupil absence are not sufficiently rigorous.
Gibb is under huge pressure to define what circumstances are and are not exceptional, yet he knows that, as soon as he does this, he will face countless legal actions challenging the decision. He is powerless without legislation to prevent the postcode lottery of local authority attitudes to fines, yet he dares not push for such legislation because he knows it is divisive and toxic.
At the moment, this conundrum is far from a solution.
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