Surfing is no substitute for hard work

7th January 2005 at 00:00
ightly, there is an increasing focus on parents who take their children out of school for term-time holidays. Statistics show that one in six Scottish pupils skives off on vacation while their classmates labour away at their desks.

I haven't conducted a scientific study on this, but such absentees often have a less than ideal attendance record. Maybe education is not viewed as a prized commodity by the family or a laissez-faire attitude prevails of "what does it matter if they miss a few days of school?" Naturally, I'm excluding from my remarks the exceptional circumstances of terminal illness, bereavement and whatever else constitutes major family trauma.

Such situations justifiably de-prioritise school.

It's reasonable to surmise that certain stages of schooling may be more significant than others in terms of the effect of absence on progress. A friend of mine has always regretted taking her daughter out of school in the November of Primary 1. It severely interrupted the journey of learning to read so that, on return from two weeks in sunny Florida, the child had fallen behind her peers. This inevitably impacted on her self-esteem and she has apparently never fully caught up. No surprises there. I am familiar with the impact on secondary-school pupils of being whisked off to lie on beaches during school time. This is definitely bad news in the senior school. While there may be some certificate courses - Standard grade English is one - which may not need all the time allocated to them, the demands of the global picture mean that days off school are not legislated for.

Speaking for philosophy, psychology and religious studies - every minute is accounted for. The only time I legitimately allow total relaxation from the curriculum is the last day of term, when it would be unrealistic to expect pupils to engage in real work.

Admittedly, pupils who are absent from school can be given the relevant notes etc, but what cannot be replicated is class discussion. Many subjects now - because of the greater awareness of brain theory and the subsequent need for varied teaching and learning strategies - incorporate a substantial amount of verbal interaction between classmates. These are high-quality learning experiences and, if you're absent for a couple of weeks, they can't be played back to you.

Parents need to be educated as to how much classroom learning processes have changed since they were school pupils. In the past, it might have been relatively easy to replace lost time in the classroom by instructing the absentee to read chapter six in the textbook. Not any more. Life in the classroom is as multi-faceted as it is elsewhere. Additionally, time is now at such a premium that it's completely unrealistic for parents to imagine that teachers can somehow find several hours to sit down and attempt to go over work missed while the pupil has been windsurfing in the Mediterranean.

Another knock-on effect of taking children out of school during term-time is the important message it communicates to them. What happens if they go on to higher education? Universities will not tolerate students missing essay deadlines because they are sunbathing in Tenerife with a so-called responsible parent.

It's also important that teachers themselves remain above contradiction.

This can be challenging if you live within one authority and teach in another, thus having different holiday dates. Disturbingly, at the time of writing, there's a rumour circulating that one education officer has taken a child out of school for an extended Christmas holiday. I hope it's not true, because it would demonstrate the very same tendencies of the parents to exercise rights rather than responsibilities. Headteachers would be left without a leg to stand on, and the nightmare mantra would become "do as I say, not as I do".

Marj Adams teaches religious studies, philosophy and psychology at Forres Academy.

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