The term-time holiday debate

Written by: Paul Wyllie | Published:
Image: iStock

The recent High Court ruling in favour of a parent who pulled his daughter out of school for a family holiday has got headteacher Paul Wyllie thinking...

I was sitting in a water park in Darwin, Australia, last year. And sitting it was – I’m no hero when it comes to anything involving risk. It was the middle of the Northern Territory’s winter term, known as the dry season, and all the children would be in school.

So I thought we would have the park to ourselves.But to our horror – no. There were four children in it. Now you can take the head out of the school but you can’t take the school out of the head! The words “absence” and “unauthorised” sprang to mind.

So like an off-duty policeman I set off to investigate.

The ensuing response was like a breath of fresh air in the stifled world of punitive education and government interference. The parent lived in Melbourne, the other end of the country, and had taken her children out of school for four weeks to tour Australia.

I must admit to feeling guilty about my initial response. It wasn’t to enjoy the story of their adventure, the places they had been to and the things that the children had done, or reminisce about a long-forgotten curriculum that used to have children at its heart, first-hand experience, creativity, spontaneous learning, using their knowledge and experiences, etc. No, my first response was to ask what sanctions the school had imposed. Had she jumped bail? Was there a “contract” out on her!?

But no. The head had simply said: “Have a lovely time and make sure that you tell us about the trip when you get back.”

I had to get her to repeat the first bit just to make sure I wasn’t hearing things – a head saying “have a lovely time...”.

She was amazed when I told her that such action in England is a criminal offence and that the head’s response is expected to be that “this will be recorded as...” or “you will be reported to...” or even that “you will be charged with...”.

Another parent there with children at another school told me that a request for a week in New Zealand had been denied. I advised her to ask her school exactly what it is that the child will be doing during that week that will enhance their life education so much more than going New Zealand.

So why are heads put into this situation and what gives them the moral right to say “yes” or “no”, to decide whether a grandmother in India can see her grandchild for the first time or a family can have a week together in some memorable location (which they could not afford were the trip to be taken during school holidays)?

Families and family values are supposed to be at the heart of this government’s philosophy, so why are these draconian, hypocritical measures in place? Why are the personal and social benefits of these opportunities for families to be together, share experiences and see other ways of life denied? Why are headteachers not allowed to use their judgement and common sense?

We all know that there are some parents who can’t be bothered to get their children to school and that measures have to be placed on those parents but why do the overwhelming majority have to suffer because of the smallest minority?

Of course taking a child out during SATs or the run up to them should be met with opposition from the school. But for Nick Gibb, the schools minister, to claim as he has done that “just one week off can ‘damage’ a child’s education” is ludicrous. Children are ill all the time and we cope with this.

What he ought to realise is that excessive government interference, not listening to professionals, the misuse of school assessment, the constant changes in policies, the plethora of new initiatives by those who know nothing about the job, and the totally unrealistic expectation of the latest new curriculum, are all things that can seriously “damage” a child’s education – not a week in France in late June.

The reason we are in this mess is simple. Holiday companies charge a great deal more during school holidays. I’ve yet to hear a justifiable reason why. But if there is one, the flexibility by which they operate should be afforded to families and schools.

I found the following in The Sun recently (while waiting to pick up a Chinese takeaway): “School holiday rules are mad”. The article said that nearly 250,000 have signed an online petition against holiday prices. Why? Here are just two examples:

  • Seven nights in Morocco during October half-term: £760 (the following week: £342).
  • Seven nights in Portugal during October half-term: £428 (the following week: £105).

It is not just holidays abroad either, breaks in the UK suffer some similar price inflations.

This is all in the news of course after one parent took his local authority to court – and won.

A father of a child living on the Isle of Wight took the county council to court over a £120 fine he was given for taking his daughter abroad during term-time. He argued that it was unfair because of his daughter’s exemplary attendance record. He was cleared by local magistrates but the county council appealed to the High Court.

He won again – because the ruling states that parents have to send their child to school regularly, which he does. He ended up out of pocket because of the heavy costs of going to court, but he said it was worth every penny.

Ominously, the Department for Education has said it now plans to “strengthen” statutory guidance to schools in light of the ruling.
If you have read this far then you may be expecting some sort of rebellious conclusion. It is tempting, but I only want to say that in our school we trust parents to be responsible and apply common sense.

Decisions will be made by me but will always be made in the best interests of the children’s life experiences and opportunities, their academic education and social development – in exactly the same way that you make decisions as parents.

  • Paul Wyllie is headteacher of Radford Semele Primary School near Leamington Spa.

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