We're all going on a term-time holiday
The man sat opposite Val Cameron was a keen caravanner. There were few things he enjoyed more than whisking his daughters off for a long weekend to enjoy bucolic charms in their mobile home-from-home. So he saw little harm in asking permission to take his two daughters out of school on a Friday afternoon to indulge in his favourite pastime.
It was only when he saw a chart setting out the regular Friday afternoon and Monday morning absences in black and white, however, that he realised quite how much he liked it.
"He was taken aback," says Mrs Cameron, headteacher of Park Lane Primary in Whittlesey near Peterborough. "He had no idea he had done it that much and the impact it was having until I highlighted all the absences."
A caravan enthusiast is a long way from the conventional image of a school truant. Wending along narrow country roads bears as much resemblance to hanging around a shopping centre as a windcheater does to a hoodie. But this perception is rapidly being exposed as outdated.
While unauthorised absences in secondary schools have been inching down over the past few years, in primary schools they are going in the opposite direction. Although truancy rates are still lower than in secondaries, about 22,600 primary pupils a day skip lessons.
At Park Lane, Mrs Cameron has no doubts about the reason. "The biggest cause is family holidays and the main driver of that is the cost of holidays," she says.
Every parent who asks to take their child out of Park Lane for a holiday is invited into school for an interview with the head. She shows them data about their child's attendance and explains the importance of not missing school. Invariably, she refuses their request. Invariably, the parents book the holiday anyway. "There isn't one who has said, `OK, I won't go then'," says Mrs Cameron.
Some parents try to circumvent the system by claiming their child is ill. On several occasions this has backfired, however, when the pupil has come back to school and happily told their teacher and classmates that they have been on holiday.
Despite this, there were signs that her approach - of asking parents to come in every time they wanted to take their children out during term - was paying off. In her first year at Park Lane, 200708, there were 109 requests for term-time holidays. The following year it fell to 74 and in 2009-10 there were just 40 requests.
Unfortunately, it seems her optimism was misplaced. This year, there have already been 80 requests. "I thought it was the impact of me doing interviews, but it could have just been the start of the recession," she says.
Tracy Bennett-Tighe, a parent with two children at Park Lane, admits to taking a holiday during term-time, but that was only because she got her dates mixed up and thought it was half-term.
But while she backs the school's firm approach, she admits that the appeal of a cheaper holiday can be overwhelming. "Parents know they shouldn't book holiday in term-time, but it is very tempting," she says. "Even for caravan holidays, the difference between going during term-time and going in the school holidays can be double."
But it is not just holidays that are to blame for the rise in unauthorised absence at primary school. Truancy expert Professor Ken Reid, who led a review into attendance and behaviour for the Welsh Government and is emeritus professor of education at Swansea Metropolitan University, says the increase has been one of the more significant recent educational trends.
"Truancy in primary schools was extremely rare, but we're now in the position where around 36 per cent of all truants begin their history of non-attendance in primary schools," he says.
He suggests two key developments are responsible. One is the extent of family breakdown and the consequent upheaval in a child's domestic set-up. Splitting their week between different parental homes can play havoc with their ability to get organised for school, he says. On top of this, some parents deliberately keep their children off school to use them as an emotional crutch, he adds.
The second factor is the introduction of a rigorous curriculum and regular testing. "Primary schools used to be enjoyable places," he says. "Now, everybody gets a diet of the same, whether it is suitable for everybody or not, and people are teaching to the next attainment target. It has changed the nature of primary school."
As a result, pupils who are falling behind or have not done their homework will sometimes see not going to school as a way of avoiding the repercussions. This has serious implications for their subsequent school careers.
"If pupils are having problems in primary school, all the evidence is they get worse when they go to secondary school," says Professor Reid.
Chris Harrison, headteacher of Oulton Broad Primary in Suffolk and president of heads' union the NAHT, has personal experience of the effect of family breakdown on pupils' attendance.
"If one parent wants to take their child on holiday and the other wants to take them at a different time, it can be difficult for them to avoid term- time," he says.
While he believes there is no single reason for the increase in primary truancy, he agrees with Mrs Cameron that the cost of holidays is a major factor. "Money is tight and parents will naturally try to get the best deals they can," he adds.
He says he arranges for staff training to take place on the first two days of the school year, giving parents plenty of notice to at least give them the option of one week's holiday out of peak season.
Although schools understand the pressure parents are under, he says he will always emphasise the effect a term-time holiday will have on a child's education. Missing even a few days can have a significant impact on their progress, he says.
But ultimately, schools can do little to improve attendance, argues Professor Reid. Most of the causes are outside their control and their efforts only make a marginal difference. As a result, he believes the bulk of the money spent on trying to reduce truancy is wasted.
"It is very difficult for schools to do much about this," he says. "Despite all the money spent on this there has been a barely perceptible change. Hundreds of millions of pounds has been thrown away."
This conclusion is endorsed by Philippa James, a researcher at Cardiff University who has conducted extensive studies into truancy, at both primary and secondary level.
Her work has identified two types of truancy which are prevalent in primary schools but are often overlooked. One is where pupils pretend to be ill so they can have a day off school. The other she describes as "in- school truancy", where pupils turn up at school but spend large parts of the lesson out of the classroom, often either in the toilets or feigning illness in the school sickbay. Neither of these shows up in the truancy statistics. While the first is recorded as an authorised absence, the second is almost completely undetected.
"These are kids who are not necessarily fully detached from school," she says. "Often they have very successful school lives, they behave well and achieve well."
While bullying was one reason for avoiding lessons, Ms James's interviews with pupils suggest that most of them did it as a way of asserting their independence. "It is a minor act of resistance," she says.
At Park Lane Primary, Mrs Cameron is not so sure. Teachers would soon notice if a pupil was spending a lot of time in the toilets, she says. But she acknowledges there is a limit to how much schools can do.
Along with neighbouring schools, Park Lane has produced a leaflet for parents emphasising the importance of good attendance.
Technology has also helped. A Schoolcomms communications system allows administrative staff to text parents whose children are not in school, while the Sims information management system provided by Capita provides an instant breakdown of attendance patterns. Pupils get bronze, silver and gold certificates for good attendance, while Cookie the bear is a much sought-after reward for the class with the best record.
But while all of this effort only makes a difference at the margins, it is still important for schools to push regular attendance, even if requests not to take term-time holidays are ignored.
"The total absence patterns haven't changed significantly," says Mrs Cameron. "But if schools don't follow up holiday requests with parents they are accepting it as an authorised absence."
And the reality is that as long as travel companies continue to charge a premium for taking a break in the school holidays, then the rise of primary truancy is unlikely to be reversed.