So the Department for Education and Skills is reviewing "term-time holidays" guidelines. Given that the facility of 10 days' family holiday was introduced during the Second World War to account for service leave, it is about time.
This overdue review is particularly relevant as the long winter evenings drag on into the New Year and parents pore over glossy brochures with promises of sun, sea, sand and sangria. British pupils, as TES readers will know, should spend 190 days per year in school - leaving the equivalent, including weekends, of 25 weeks available for holidays and leisure. Yet, this remains inadequate for many families, as shown by the increasing number taking holidays in school time. This situation has become worse in recent years, with the increase in low-cost air fares and outrageous high-season mark-ups by travel operators.
This parental contempt and indifference for education is disruptive to teaching and learning, and frustrating to staff. Even more annoying are the astonishing number of banal excuses used by parents to justify these selfish attitudes. Here are some real examples that would be impossible to make up: "He was on the business studies trip to Disneyland Paris. We thought we would go to Orlando to compare the two."
"His father is seconded to the USA and missing us, so we are going out there to be with him." (The secondment was for only four weeks.).
"We are going to relatives in Australia for six weeks. Please set work. He will have plenty of time to do it while sitting on the beach. We will send it back so it can be marked by his return."
"Sir, I wrote for permission to take my daughter out of school. I think it is unreasonable of you to refuse."
"Grandfather is retiring and has booked a three-week cruise in the Caribbean for the family."
"We have bought a timeshare which can only be used in term time."
"He (Year 7 pupil) wants to study geography at university. So we are going to India."
And the classics: "This is the only time we can get off work". ( Always at low-cost time in MayJune.) and "It will be all right to go in the last week of term time. They never do any work anyway."
The final irony is the increasing number of complaints about how glad they are when their children return to school after the long holidays. Why can't they just be honest and admit they don't give a damn about education? Until, that is, the GCSE results. Then, as sure as night follows day, they will blame the school, teachers and the education system for "letting them down".
Now, consider the "mathematics of absence". The total possible days'
attendance from Y7 to Y11 is 950 (190x5). On average, pupils have about 5 per cent authorised absence each year for illness, etc. (50). Parents can take them off during term for 10 days (50). "They never do anything during the last week of term anyway so we will go away a couple of days early".
(Illegal but they get away with it; 30). "All the flights during half-term are full and we can only go on a Friday and get back on a Monday." (Also illegal; 30).
That's a maximum of 160 days. A staggering possibility of parents conspiring for absence of over 15 per cent of "education" time.
Legitimate loss of teaching time, including exams, "study leave", field trips, visits, foreign exchanges, rehearsalsproductions, speakers, charity events, sports, fire drill, power cuts and transport problems, can reasonably be expected to add up to at least 135 days and even as much as 150.
Adding the two together (295 days) gives over 30 per cent out of the classroom in five years.
So, the next time a parent comments about your holidays, fight back.
Complain about unreasonable high-season costs, adding how you wish you could take your own holidays in term time like them. This will annoy them.
Suggest, with the support of the Equal Opportunities Commission, that the unions are negotiating term-time holidays as part of the "workload agreement". Add the European Community 48-hour week "working time directive", meaning teachers will henceforth work at least 15 hours per week fewer. This will annoy them even more.
If this does not shut them up, invite them to take up teaching. It's a doddle: well paid (sic), promotion prospects, a five-hour day and 13 weeks holiday a year. The inevitable reply will, no doubt, be: "I could not possibly do your job. Long hours marking, preparing lessons, reports, dealing with aggressive parents. It would be far too hard. Anyway, I could not possibly afford to go away in July or August and, if I did, it would be at the same time as all those nasty school children."
Paul Strong is headteacher at William Farr School, Welton, Lincoln