I know this is a sensitive subject and that not everyone will agree with my take on this, but when I was a head I always found it difficult when parents let me know that their child would be missing school for a family holiday or other social occasion. And usually they said they were ‘letting me know’, rather than asking permission. Very occasionally they didn’t notify the school in advance, and in the worst case scenario, sent in a retrospective letter to say their child had been unwell (when during the absence their friends had been all talking about what a wonderful time the missing pupil was having, according to the texts and Facebook messages!)
I do understand the financial repercussions of confining holidays to school breaks, and I am not unsympathetic to families managing tight budgets and still wanting to give their family a really good holiday experience. I have known parents (especially of younger children) claiming that their children may learn more on a well-planned family holiday than they would do at school during the same period. Parents have also said that they perceive ‘little is actually done at school’ in the days leading up to a major school holiday – a perception I would always challenge!
I think missing school for holidays or social events sends a potentially damaging message to young people about the relative importance of school. It suggests a possible lack of commitment to education which I am sure most parents would not subscribe to. The absences usually involve the children missing the last few days of term, which often contain special events which they should enjoy alongside their friends, in addition to the formal learning opportunities which are lost. Even more disruptive to the child’s education is when parents book holidays which involve their offspring missing the beginning of a school term, even the beginning of the academic year. In my experience, children who start school late in the autumn often find it more difficult to settle into their new classes.
So, as the head of an independent school, which didn’t have to defer to the guidelines of a Local Authority or Trust, I had my own strategy for dealing with this. We always published our term dates as early as possible, put them on the website and reminded parents of them from time to time in our regular communications with home. At the time new dates were published I always explained how important it was that parents took a careful note of them and avoided taking their child out of school when the school was in session. When a letter came in informing me of a proposed absence, I always wrote back explaining why I was disappointed. I said that I hoped these were exceptional circumstances and term time absence wasn’t something the parents would routinely request/arrange. We kept a record of this and, if the parents did the same thing again at a later stage, I wrote a stronger letter, reminding them that this was the second time they had done this and repeating the reasons why I didn’t feel it was in their child’s best interests to miss school.
If it happened a third time during an individual’s career at the school, I arranged for them to come in to meet me so that I could explain face to face why I was concerned. This did lead to one or two difficult conversations! I explained that the easy option for me would have been just to ignore that this was happening, know that the child may have been disadvantaged and not care. Because I did care (and I knew the parents cared about their child’s education too) I would rather have an uncomfortable conversation with a parent than turn a blind eye. I have to say, most of the parents I met did seem to respect this, and no parent I met face to face to talk it through ever took their child out in term time again – at least during my tenure as head.
Since I finished headship in 2010, one of the joys I have experienced is having the opportunity to take holidays when the schools are still in session. (When you get to #lifeafter, believe me, this never gets old…) The only problem is when we are at an airport and I see families with children who should be in school. I really want to have a quiet word. Needless to say, my husband holds me back!
I think it is one of those situations where schools and parents should work together for the sake of the child at the centre of this crucial relationship. What do others think?
Photo credit: John Berry