Viewpoint: Never mind the exams, we're off to Florida: It is an outdated law that lets parents take children out of school for extra holidays

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The Independent Online
AT ANY given time, one or more pupils will probably be missing from each of my classes. They are not ill, nor are they truanting in the accepted sense. They are legitimately and legally absent from school, on holiday. Their parents have sought official permission and, because of an anachronistic law, the school has little choice but to grant it.

It is an extraordinary relic of former times that this practice continues to be permitted. Almost gone are the days when parents were arbitrarily allocated dollops of leave by their employers or when workplaces closed for 'factory fortnight'. Such things were once so widespread that the paternalistic drafters of education legislation decided that children should be allowed to be withdrawn from school to accompany their parents on holiday for up to two weeks in the year. In a slacker educational climate the family holiday was evidently thought to matter more than schooling.

Today this outdated perception merely enables families to take advantage of off-peak rates to sunny foreign resorts. If it were no longer permitted, holiday operators might be forced to reconsider the economics of their seasonal pricing policies, because there would be fewer customers available to benefit from low-season offers. It is surely insupportable that education should be legally expendable just because Florida beckons at a bargain price.

Whether the two weeks should be in the same calendar or academic year is variously interpreted by schools and local authorities. I have known pupils go twice in a school year, say in November and again in the following April. Others might go in June and again in November, straddling two academic years. Either way it represents a major incursion into school time, and seriously disrupts learning.

The system is also wide open to abuse. How can a school check that the parents really do take the child away on holiday? We can hardly ask to see the receipts. What about the family who cannot afford to go away but the father (say) has a bit of time off and wants his children at home, available for days out? It sounds reasonable, but is it a holiday or not? Too often these pupils hang about, indistinguishable from truants, when their peers are at school - and the temptation to join them can prove too strong for some. The legality of extra holidays may thus be encouraging truancy in some quarters.

Some families see the 'holiday form' as a fortnight's leave entitlement, additional to the designated 12 weeks of ordinary school holiday. A parent recently wrote to inform me that her daughters would be out of school for a day because the family had tickets for the matinee performance of a London show. My protestations on the telephone were peremptorily countered with the statement that Mrs W would fill in a form and the London visit would therefore count as a 'holiday'.

Of course the law was never intended to condone this sort of casual attitude, but it leaves schools in a difficult position. Now that we are under such relentless pressure to raise standards, it is time to dispose of this nonsensical loophole in the legal requirement to send your children to school.

Too many children are missing vital teaching. An enormous amount can be covered in two weeks, for which no amount of 'copying up' can ever compensate. Sometimes, moreover, they miss examinations and assessments. Worst of all is the pupil who goes on holiday in September, having just had six weeks off, thereby missing the early high-powered teaching at the beginning of new courses and in new classes.

I am persuaded that the problem is less acute in grammar schools, where the parents of academically able children are more likely to place a high value on the education of their children. Furthermore, the fact that their pupils are selected means that they can just as easily be deselected if their attitude is unsatisfactory or they fall behind.

The real problem is with the pupils whose educational difficulties place them in the bottom third of ability. If we are to put that right we need to have them in school. Every day.

A change in the law would help us in the more general fight against absenteeism. It would give a clear message: school is essential and must come first. For three months in the year parents with the wherewithal can take their children away if they wish, at no cost to their children's education.

The writer teaches at a secondary modern school in Kent.