Arguing the case for term-time holidays

Written by: Karen Sullivan | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Taking students out of school for term-time breaks has become a controversial issue. However, Karen Sullivan argues that the practice is no bad thing, with evidence suggesting that it can help attainment

When Martin Platt, a father of three, challenged his conviction for taking his daughter out of school during term-time, subsequently winning his case in what was hailed as a “triumph of common sense”, parents breathed a collective sigh of relief.

For one thing, family holidays can be up to 400 per cent more expensive in peak periods; for another, parents cannot always choose when they take their holiday leave, particularly in smaller companies or in businesses where trade is seasonal.

While there can be no doubt that sustained absence from school can be detrimental to a child’s education, it is important to note that holidays play an important role in overall health and wellbeing. And, despite the Department for Education’s (DfE) suggestion that missing just a few days of school can damage GCSE results, the evidence actually points to the opposite – something that savvy headteachers are now taking on board.

My youngest son’s secondary school is currently reviewing the structure of the terms, with a view to providing a two-week half-term break in the autumn, and making up the time by judiciously adding extra hours to the school day and an extra day here and there.

Like the 35 or so councils in England that have changed their policies on fining parents, and now consider term-time absence on a case-by-case basis, my son’s school has allowed us to take him out of class for limited periods of time, to accompany me on international travels.

These travels don’t just provide opportunities for learning outside the classroom, but encourage communication skills, confidence and independence, open his eyes to the world beyond the school walls, and also strengthen family bonds.

The vast majority of schools now offer online support, accepting assignments by email or upload. Being away from the classroom for short periods of time doesn’t mean that learning grinds to a halt; in fact, it is not only possible for students to keep up and to add to their learning, but in the process, they learn valuable time-management skills in order to balance holiday and learning time.

The DfE has said that children should not be taken out of school without “good reason”, and it supports schools and local authorities to use their powers to “tackle unauthorised absence”. Instead of criminalising parents, I would suggest that headteachers are trusted to make the right decisions for their students and their families, and to consider the overall benefits of a reasonable break during term-time in the context of each student’s overall attendance record.

And indeed the research is compelling. In research last year, Dr Beccy Smith looked at records from 2009 to 2014 and found that 78.7 per cent of pupils who took no authorised term-time holiday were at the level they should be at the end of primary school, but that number increased to 82.2 per cent for families who took between one and 20 days’ holiday during the term.

The DfE often cites the 2015 paper it published – entitled A Profile of Pupil Absence in England – stating that “pupils who are persistently absent over both the key stage 4 years ... were just under four times less likely to achieve five or more A* to C grades in GCSE, including English and maths”.

However, the DfE’s paper does not actually distinguish between children who are absent due to illness, exclusion, family emergencies or even parental neglect, and those who are taken on holiday.

Furthermore, many term-time absences are ostensibly authorised by schools, and are not represented in these figures.

An attempt was made to clarify this in a second report, in March 2016, however there remains no consistent proof that short-term holidays have any negative impact on attainment.

In fact, in 2012, a study undertaken by Nottingham University Business School found that “holidays can be considered an added value for education and can effectively function as an extension of the national curriculum”, and suggests they can improve confidence, decision-making, relaxation, attitude and ability to bond.

A paper published in 2016 (Panksepp) found that holidays can advance brain development in children, as two areas of the limbic area of the brain (the play and seeking systems) are often “unexercised” in the home.

Panksepp found that when these systems are activated, through exploring, play, and unpressured relaxation time, they “reduce stress and activate, warm, generous feelings”.

What’s more, using these systems “brings about brain growth and maturation in the frontal lobes, the part of the brain involved in cognitive functioning, social intelligence and goal-directed behaviours”, which will have an impact upon attainment both at school and into adulthood.

And in 2014, Hannan found that the “enriched environment” of holidays enhance functions of the frontal lobes of the brain, including those involved in regulating stress, attention, concentration, planning, learning ability and physical and mental health, and these are also associated with a higher IQ in children (Gunnell, 2005).

While it would be nonsensical to suggest that schools should allow a holiday free-for-all, the benefits of a reasonable term-time holiday for children (and their families) cannot be underestimated. This is particularly the case for disadvantaged families, who may never be able to afford a break at other times.

Furthermore, there are now ways to ensure that pupils continue to learn while they take a break from the curriculum, and to cement and pass on that knowledge upon their return. Next time, I’ll look at how to achieve this.

  • Karen Sullivan is a best-selling author, psychologist and childcare expert. Email kesullivan@aol.com. To read her previous articles for SecEd, including in this series, go to http://bit.ly/1SNgg00

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