Exclusive: Term-time holidays 'do not harm primary test scores'

Findings undermine government's clampdown on school absences, claim researchers

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Authorised term-time holidays have little impact on primary pupils’ attainment and may even be linked to better performance in tests, according to findings seen by TES.

The researchers say the figures undermine the government’s “mind-boggling” clampdown on term-time holidays, which is currently being contested in the courts.

The DfE has repeatedly claimed that each day missed from school can harm pupils’ attainment. Since September 2013, heads have been allowed to authorise term-time absences only in “exceptional circumstances”, which do not usually include holidays.

Earlier this year, the DfE published key stage 2 and KS4 data, which schools minister Nick Gibb said provided “further evidence that missing school for even a day can mean a child is less likely to achieve good grades, which can have a damaging effect on their life chances.”

However, two scientists have investigated the figures, separating the data for authorised term-time holidays from the broader dataset used by the government, which includes other absences such as those related to illness or exclusion.

They have concluded, independently, that authorised holiday absences are not linked to poorer attainment at KS2.

In addition, the data shows that pupils who take no authorised holiday absence at all are less likely to reach level 4 at KS2 than those who take at least one day off for a family trip during term-time.

The analysis was carried out by Beccy Smith, a theoretical physicist by background, who has two primary-aged children who are educated partly at school and partly at home. She said that her research threw doubt on to the government’s “mind-boggling” claims about the effects of school absences.

Dr Smith focused on KS2 because her children were at that stage. “I thought it was particularly unbelievable that taking them out of school for one day to go to a museum could have any effect at all,” she explained.

Alan Barr, a physicist involved with the ATLAS experiment at the Large Hadron Collider, has been looking at school absence data in his own time. He agreed that Dr Smith’s analysis showed that “overall reduced attainment at KS2 is correlated strongly with illness, but not with agreed holidays”.

Pupils who take no authorised holiday absence at all “are likely to do worse than those who do take at least one day”, he added.

The DfE pointed to its own research which, it said -  unlike the scientists’ findings - took into account prior attainment and other “pupil characteristics” and showed unequivocally that every extra day missed was associated with a lower attainment outcome.

However, a detailed report attached to this same research also pointed out that “agreed family holiday absence has no statistically significant effect at KS2.”

This is an edited version of an article in the 21 October edition of TES. Subscribers can read the full article here.To subscribe, click here. This week's TES magazine is available at all good newsagents. To download the digital edition, Android users can click here and iOS users can click here.

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