Debate Hots Up over Schools and Holidays

A Young girl enjoying her time on the beach

The ongoing debate about releasing children from school for family holidays has re-ignited with news offensives on both sides of the discussion.

Campaign group “Parents Want a Say” has launched an online petition to demand a relaxation of the changes introduced last year that guide head teachers to only grant term-time absence in “exceptional circumstances”. The group say they have “already made some progress towards reversing the government’s ruling on term-time holidays. In recent months, we’ve got MPs debating in Westminster Hall and seen the Local Government Association back our call for the law to be overturned.” 

Their online petition has attracted more than 220,000 signatures and they are launching an online survey that they hope will gather evidence in support of their campaign, which says that “All children who have a good attendance record should be allowed the opportunity to enjoy quality time with their parents on an annual holiday of up to 10 days once per year”. The argument focuses on the benefits of family holidays, their educational potential, and the difficulty faced by less welloff families in affording holidays at the peak time of the year in the summer. Campaigners also draw attention to the difficulty faced by families where holiday dates are restricted by work, including military families, and the families of police officers and healthcare workers. The impact on the holiday industry is probably not their main concern but of course the industry is affected by peoples’ ability to take time off.

The Department for Education has fired an apparently powerful shot by publishing a research report conducted by statisticians in the Department. The report looked at the attainments of children at the end of Key Stages 2 and 4 and compared the achievements with the number of absences. The figures show a clear correlation between absences and attainment.

graph showing percentage (%) rates

Government ministers were quick to draw conclusions. The Education Secretary, Vicky Morgan, is reported in the press as saying “The myth that pulling a child out of school for a holiday is harmless to their education has been busted by this research. Today heads across the country have been vindicated – missing school can have a lasting effect on a pupil’s life chances.”

However, this is not what the report actually says. The report paints a convincing picture of correlation and there can be little doubt that there is a strong correlation between absence
rates and academic achievement. But correlation means that two sets of figures change together. Correlation is not the same as cause and what the report does not say is that the absences cause the poorer academic results. The report alludes to this by stating that “Absence is not the only factor that has a link to a pupil’s attainment. There are other complex relationships, such as the strong link from prior attainment and the link between different pupil characteristics and attainment, which should also be taken into account.” In other words, when two sets of data are
correlated, it may be the case that one or more other things are influencing both sets of figures and not that whatever is being measured by one set of figures is causing the changes in the other set. There is no attempt in the report to consider or analyse whether the relationship between absence and attainment is causal.

It is possible, in this case, that parents who take a conscientious approach to the education of their children ensure that absences from school are minimised, and also give encouragement to their children and make them do their homework! So it might be parental attitude rather than a great attendance record that influences exam results.

Making a slightly different point, LibDem MP John Hemming, chair of the Parents Want a Say group, said: “Nicky Morgan gets an F for statistics. She has lumped together all types of absence and therefore fails to analyse the impact of different types of absence.”

In fact the Department’s report seems to be soundly based but does not prove that missing school can have a lasting effect on a pupil’s life chances, nor the opposite.

However, the campaigners for liberalisation of the absence rules are up against an intrinsic issue. If school is beneficial to kids, then missing it can hardly be anything other than deleterious to their interests. To suggest that missing school has no impact on educational outcomes is hard to reconcile with putting a value on schooling.

EASCO made a policy decision last year to work long-term for a system of staggered school holidays by region in England. This wouldn’t solve all the problems but it would increase the length of the holiday season and make summer holidays more affordable as there would be less competition for just a few short summer weeks if Preston pupils were not having their summer break at the exactly the same time as Southampton scholars. This would create issues regarding the timings of examinations but the approach is well established in Holland and other European countries, proving that it can be successful.

EASCO – English Association Self Catering Operators