Absence makes the head irate

26th January 1996 at 00:00
Denise Bates on problems created by parents taking children on holiday in term. More families now take holidays in term time, though not all schools seem to be affected uniformly. Some parents believe that their child has a right to two weeks holiday at a time of their own choosing; others schools have relatively few requests for discretionary leave.

But managing holiday absence now demands a considered strategy. One school recently analysed all requests for leave received over the year and found that in total 1.5 per cent of available teaching time was lost to holidays and almost 50 per cent of pupils had been granted at least one day's leave. Hardly a week passed without someone being on holiday.

Most families took a few days absences either immediately before or after a school holiday. Some took a fortnight either before or after the school holiday, disrupting their childrens' learning pattern for several weeks. A few children missed at least a week in September, beginning their holiday only days after returning for the new academic year.

Holiday absence has an impact upon curriculum delivery and individual achievement. Teachers often want to introduce important areas of work early in a new half-term when pupils might be presumed to be at their most receptive, yet lessons can be affected by stragglers returning throughout the first fortnight.

The summer term produces a procession of children who would benefit from concerted individual tuition to counter the effects of their holiday. If major topics were scheduled for times of least holiday absence, the optimum months would be late November, December, mid-January and February. However, the excitement surrounding Christmas and the high sickness absence in January and February, suggest these too may not be ideal times to introduce new work.

The impetus towards term-time holidays undoubtedly has its roots in the growth of cheap, out-of-season packages, but parental selfishness is not the predominant reason why families avoid the peak holiday season. Unemployment, whether actual or feared, is one reason for curbing holiday costs. So too are the inherent uncertainties involved in working on short-term contracts with families slipping in a holiday, often at short notice, when they have free time.

Social factors cannot be discounted. Some children keep in touch with two families; others have a lone parent - their well-being may be better served by allowing them holidays in term rather than keeping them in school. Absence management strategies therefore need to be both realistic and understanding. Guidance issued by the DFEE in 1994 indicates that schools should find out reasons for proposed holiday absence - and to be prepared to withhold permission. In practice this is fraught with problems. Most adjudications of this kind are undertaken by paid officials or tribunal members who know the circumstances but not the people. Expecting heads or governors to delve too deeply into sensitive personal circumstances surrounding friends or acquaintances is unrealistic.

Nevertheless, there are a number of things schools can do to influence parental attitudes:

* Educate them about the likely effects of cumulative holiday absence on their child. Two weeks holiday per year for 12 years represents two terms education voluntarily missed.

* Decide times when the school will refuse to authorise absence, for example, while a child is involved in SATs.

* Be pragmatic about the fact that some parents will request holidays - try to influence them towards a few days immediately before rather than a fortnight immediately after a school holiday.

* Take a firm line with parents where the child's absence rate is high, whether resulting from holiday or not.

* Consider whether families who request discretionary leave annually should be rigorously questioned as to why it is necessary for them to holiday during term.

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