More and more people are in trouble with the law for keeping their children away from school. Figures obtained by the Press Association under Freedom of Information show 16,430 prosecutions in England in 2014 – up from 13,128 in 2013.
Much of the increase is being put down to more parents being punished for taking their children on holiday during term-time. But is there real evidence to support that kind of drastic action?
The Department for Education (DfE) certainly thinks so. In February this year it released a research report, The Link Between Absence and Attainment at KS2 and KS4, which substantiates the already well-established link between attendance and attainment.
Secretary of state Nicky Morgan, however, homed in on the effect of shorter breaks. A section of the report concludes that, while 44 per cent of pupils with no absence in key stage 4 achieve the English Baccalaureate, this falls to 31.7 per cent for pupils who miss 14 days of school during their two GCSE years (and 16.4 per cent for those who miss up to 28 days).
The accompanying DfE press release, picked up widely by the media, summarises this as: "Even short breaks from school can reduce a pupil's chances of succeeding at school by as much as a quarter."
Ms Morgan goes on to use these figures in support of her department's "holiday fines" policy: "The myth that pulling a child out of school for a holiday is harmless to their education has been busted by this research. Heads across the country have been vindicated – missing school can have a lasting effect on a pupil's life chances."
Given the universal tendency of all governments to seize on the bits of evidence that best support their actions, I felt quite uneasy about this sweeping conclusion. A quick tweet about my doubts led me to the website "Fullfact.org" and an article by their education lead Amy Sippitt.
She points out that the report doesn't distinguish between possible reasons for one or two-week absences: "...the report doesn't explicitly look at whether term-time holidays cause poorer attainment."
Then, using further figures from DfE research: "The government initiatives can only improve absence rates by so much too, since illness – not term-time holidays – is persistently the most common reason for absence. It accounted for 58 per cent of all absences in the latest figures (for 2012/13) while family holidays accounted for 11 per cent."
You might think that a better use of DfE time than setting up a punitive system to deal with that 11 per cent would be to support schools in working one-to-one with parents on attendance. After all, there'll be many possible reasons why a child is away from school, and it is often not just the one that's offered.
However, governments have always preferred what's usually called a "crackdown". Some years ago the focus of fuss and palaver was "truancy", a word that seemed to mean different things at different times.
All the way back to the beginnings of state education, governments have had a bums-on-seats attitude to attendance, reinforced by financial carrots and punitive sticks applied simultaneously to both schools and parents. People of my generation remember when the local authority attendance officer (called, in our village, the school bobby) was a recognisable figure as he walked the streets, knocking on the doors of errant families. Now, we have the law hovering over the family as they enjoy an affordable holiday, wielding the ultimate threat of jail for mum or dad when they get back. At the same time, Ofsted keeps watch on individual school attendance figures and policies.
The underlying assumption, always, is the oft-used mantra "if you're not in school you're not learning" (you could argue that one, but let's leave it for now), backed by the frequent use of figures showing a clear correlation between attendance and attainment.
But that's all it does show – correlation, and as we all know, "correlation does not imply causation", yet a DfE report last year stated, baldly: "The evidence shows absence from school has a significant negative effect on attainment."
I suggest that it does no such thing. The point – and teachers get this, even if secretaries of state do not – is that correlated effects may be the result of further overarching influences. We know, for example, that both poor performance and poor attendance can arise from any of a host of other reasons, which may need careful teasing out, including bullying, chronic ill-health, lack of parental support or straightforward poverty. The truth is that attendance cannot easily be seen as a manageable isolated performance figure; it is part of a bigger, more intricate network of influences and pressures.
Finally, allow me to indulge in the subversive thought that causation might not always work in the assumed direction. It seems equally reasonable to suggest that increasingly poor performance and adverse teacher reactions could cause a child to stay away from school, and, conversely, that the glow of classroom stardom will encourage a child to turn up; but presumably that's not an explanation that fits the preferred scenario.
- Gerald Haigh was a teacher in primary, secondary and special schools for 30 years, 11 of them in headship. You can find him on Twitter @geraldhaigh1