Absent and friends

13th June 1997 at 01:00
The official guidance to governors on authorised absence can be problematical, says Denise Bates. But one school's determination to cut the number of pupils off on holiday in term time has had some success

One school's determination to cut holiday absences during term time (TES, January 26, 1996) has had encouraging results. When our 200-pupil primary school totted up its 1995-96 absence and compared it to the previous year's, it found that the total available teaching time lost to holidays had dropped by almost 20 per cent. Our strategies to hold holiday absences in check included: * educating parents about the potential effects of holiday absence on their child; * deciding times when the school will refuse to authorise holiday leave; * taking a firm line with parents where the child's absence rate is high, whether arising from holidays or not; * considering whether families who request leave annually should be more rigorously questioned as to why they must always holiday during term.

More gratifying was the dispersion of leave. Holiday requests for the autumn term were noticeably less - especially for September - and although the figure for July was higher, the amount of leave taken during June had fallen by 40 per cent. There was also a decline in the requests for ad hoc days off which were not linked to any holiday.

The figures for 1996-97 continue the trend. It is not possible to predict the overall level of absence, as requests tend to pour in just before the planned holiday in the summer term. But several parents specifically requested school holiday dates so they could book at times when school would be closed!

This tends to suggest that the school's policy of drawing parents' attention to the potential effects of voluntary absence through its prospectus, newsletters and governors' report is having an effect. Possibly the wider debate about the importance of early-years learning may also be an influence.

The governors have purposely not identified a target figure for authorised absence. The original analysis of holiday leave in 1995 indicated more complex factors than parents wanting cheaper, out-of-season holidays. The inherent uncertainties of short-term contracts, visits to relatives abroad and the social consequences of the breakdown of traditional family structures underlay some requests.

The school accepts that a variety of reasons prompt requests for leave so has no intention of making any family feel guilty for needing to ask for holiday during term. On a more pragmatic basis, the dispersion of leave is arguably more significant than the amount. Breaks at the end of the summer term are educationally less disruptive than ones in autumn, and time taken just before breaking up will result in less loss to the pupil than returning after the start of term.

The biggest drawback of any pro-active attempts to manage absence is the amount of time it can consume. Last year each child's annual report contained details of the total number of days schooling missed during the year. This led some shocked parents to query school records, unaware that a fortnight's holiday absence, plus a fortnight's illness, represents 10 per cent of possible attendances. But producing this information was labour intensive - and probably cannot be done every year, given the other demands on staff time.

The school's experience over the past two years suggests that holiday absence can be influenced - but the practicalities of the 1994 guidance to governors regarding the authorisation of absence are problematical. While it is easy to identify policies to tackle holiday absence there may be difficulties in applying them.

Few governors would be happy to ask families the minute details of why they want to holiday in the middle of term each year. Refusing permission if their reasons seem unacceptable could strain relations between the school and family permanently, to the detriment of the child. It could also be hard for schools to avoid accusations of being firm with tractable families while appeasing less co-operative ones.

In the final analysis, a school has little leverage against a family which simply pleases itself. But as part of the wider debate on standards, the issue of holidays in term merits a further look in order to find a way forward which is sensitive to family lifestyles in the 1990s and to the right of children to education. A firm steer from a higher level is needed if schools are not to be faced with parents regarding discretionary leave as a right.

Denise Bates is a school governor in the North-west

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