When can parents justify a term-time family holiday?

An irishtimes.com poll shows a slight majority agreeing the practice is acceptable

The Hogan Family at their home in Dublin: with Jen and Paul Hogan are their seven children:Tobey (2), Chloe (14), Adam (11), Jamie (9), Noah (seven months), Luke (7) and Zach (5). Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

The Hogan Family at their home in Dublin: with Jen and Paul Hogan are their seven children:Tobey (2), Chloe (14), Adam (11), Jamie (9), Noah (seven months), Luke (7) and Zach (5). Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

 

The Hogan family is going on its first foreign holiday this May and mother Jen feels “no guilt” about taking her children out of school for a week in Lanzarote.

 With seven children in the family, ranging in age from 15 years to 18 months, she and her husband, Paul, are saving at least €1,000 on what the holiday would cost them in high season.

 “As we have never been able to afford to get everybody abroad, another €1,000 was just not a runner,” Jen says.

 With five of their seven children having to be taken out of school for this holiday, the Hogans can be very glad that they don’t live in England, where they would face fines of £60 (€70) per child from the local education authority – unless the school head had approved the absence. And guidelines from the department of education there have, since 2013, asked head teachers to refrain from doing that for holidays unless there are “exceptional circumstances”.

 It’s an additional cost that families in England now factor into term-time trips away – and some holiday operators are said to offer explicit “discounts” to off-set that cost on their low-season packages.

 The education authorities’ stance has been bolstered by the recent supreme court judgment in London against Jon Platt, who was appealing the £120 fine (the £60 doubles if not paid within 21 days) for taking his seven-year-old daughter to Disney World in Florida for a week in April 2015 without the head teacher’s permission.

 Platt had successfully argued in Britain’s high court in London that because his daughter’s overall attendance was 92.3 per cent, he should not be fined by the Isle of Wight council just because she missed one week of school. But the British supreme court ruled that the required “regular” attendance at school must be in keeping with the rules of the school and that “no child should be taken out of school without good reason”.

 Irish schools are not obliged to report a child’s absence to Tusla, the Child and Family Agency, until 20 days or more have been missed in a school year.

  The same rules don’t apply here (nor in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland), where the Irish Constitution recognises the family as the “primary and natural” educator of the child. But news of the case still sparked debate on this side of the water about the advisability and, indeed, morality of taking children out of school for holidays. Although we all know parents who do it – and indeed we might have done it ourselves – there are no statistics on how widespread a practice it is.

 But with considerably longer school holidays here – two months at primary level and up to three months for secondary-school pupils not sitting State exams – there is less of an excuse for families in Ireland to extend that break. Parents of children in English state schools have only about six weeks to play with in the summer.

 Irish schools are not obliged to report a child’s absence to Tusla, the Child and Family Agency, until 20 days or more have been missed in a school year.  And although Tusla’s Educational Welfare Services track the level of absenteeism in both primary and secondary schools, a spokeswoman says it does not have information on the number of days missed due to holidays.

 However, the agency advises parents not to take their children out of school for holidays during term time because they miss important school time.

  “It will be difficult for them to catch up on work later on,” it warns. “As a result, they may fall behind with school work and lose confidence in their abilities.” 

 Parents seem fairly evenly split on the issue, with an irishtimes.com poll recording a slight majority agreeing it was okay to take children out of school for a holiday.

  Even though the Hogans are doing it, Jen is “not really over-keen on the idea”, she admits. “I do feel strongly that they shouldn’t miss school, ideally, unnecessarily, but that’s ideally. I would like them to think school is very important and that you don’t miss it just willy-nilly but, at the same time, we have the situation where we would like to have a family holiday together – and family time is also very important.”

  Usually the Hogans rent a house in west Cork for their annual holiday and pay the peak summer cost, which on Irish holiday homes can be at least double what it would be in May.

 “But we really wanted to go away this year and try to have a foreign holiday because we have never done that because the cost is enormous.” They have to rent two adjoining apartments.

The couple did go on the odd trip abroad when their family was smaller but “child four down has never been on an airplane”, says Jen. And that makes her feel a bit bad, as she suspects most of their peers in their south Dublin school have.

 Principals can only recommend that children should avail of as many of the 183 days in a school year as they can but the final decision is up to the parents

 They reckoned this is the best year to grab the opportunity because their eldest, Chloe (15), is in transition year, while Adam (12) is in sixth class, Jamie (10) is in fourth class, Luke (eight) is in second class and Zach (six) is in senior infants; Tobey goes to a Montessori and 18-month-old Noah is at home.

  While Jen has seen parents all around her taking children out of school, it’s not something “that sits comfortably with me to do it all the time”. But the financial difference is so huge “we just could not ignore it”.

  French-born Marianne Cassidy and her husband, Micheál, who live in Naas, Co Kildare, don’t take their two sets of twins out of school lightly either but this June they are travelling to France to see the French side of the family, as they do most years.

  The reality is that there are benefits too to a child getting away with their parents.”

 “The price of air or boat travel is significantly cheaper then,” she points out. “The price of any accommodation along the way is also way better.  As a family of six, it is often the only way we can afford a family holiday.

 “I do not think that their education would be in any way hampered by missing a week in school at that age or stage of the school year.” However it’s the children – nine-year-old Felix and Eloise and their six-year-old sisters,  Judith and Celeste, who tend to feel hard done by, she says, as that’s often a games week at school. In France, mid-term and Easter holidays are staggered through three zones so there is very little opportunity to have a better price by taking your kids out of school, she adds, as it is very likely that another area of France is on holidays.

   While the end of May and beginning of June is a popular time for families to get away for cheaper holidays, says Larry Fleming of the Irish Primary Principals Network, it is also a time for standardised tests. Many schools would give out the dates well in advance, stressing that children should be there for those.

 Principals can only recommend that children should avail of as many of the 183 days in a school year as they can but the final decision is up to the parents, he says. However families going away during term time is “a regular occurrence throughout the country. Sometimes you can’t blame parents either and sometimes a foreign trip can be quite an educational experience.”

  There are pros and cons to it all, he says: “The reality is that there are benefits too to a child getting away with their parents.”

 But Áine Lynch, chief executive of the National Parents’ Council (NPC) Primary, advises against taking holidays during term time if possible.

 The other concern is that the summer break is very long as it is, and it can be problematic for some children getting back into school work.

 “The problem is it is giving very clear messages to children that education isn’t that important – we will go on holidays instead.”  That can be difficult to row back on when the child wants to miss school for something else, she suggests.

 “Tayto Park is very busy during the school holidays, so should we take them out for that as well? Where do you draw the line when you get into that kind of conversation?”

 The other concern is that the summer break is very long as it is, and it can be problematic for some children getting back into school work.

“but there are other ways of spending time together – a holiday in Spain isn’t the only way to do it,”

 “If you extend that again by another two weeks for a family holiday, that is a really significant break in their learning – and that’s for the child who is doing okay. If you then put into the mix the child that is struggling, that creates, I think, huge problems in that disengagement from education in school.”

  Although parents like to make themselves feel better by maintaining that “everybody is doing it – and they do nothing during the last two weeks of school anyway”, the reality is that not everybody is doing it and all parts of the school year are important, she says. Indeed, the more relaxed end of the school year sometimes allows for more creative learning.

 People say it is important we have these family experiences “but there are other ways of spending time together – a holiday in Spain isn’t the only way to do it,” Lynch adds.

   The standardised school year adversely affects parents looking to get cheaper holidays, acknowledges Clive Byrne, director of the National Association of Principals and Deputy Principals at secondary level. In their schools, which have the longer summer, it can be more of an issue around mid-term breaks.

 “We obviously want parents to be reasonable and to be conscious of the fact that the child may be in an exam year and time from school is not easy to make up despite people’s best efforts. So as long as people are reasonable and there is an element of common sense, I don’t think we have as big an issue here.”

 His advice to parents is to try to avoid doing it but, if you do, keep the school briefed and if you say you will make up school time, do your best to make it up – “but don’t be expecting the kids to study when they are abroad!”

 English-born but long-time Irish resident Krysia Lynch has three children in three different educational settings in Dublin – a son in transition year, a 12-year-old in primary school and an eight-year-old she is home-schooling. She would weigh up the pros and cons before taking them away on a trip during term time. How child-centred it was going to be would be a key factor, she says.

You disrupt the child and you disrupt the class and you disrupt the teacher. I think it is also sends out a wrong message to a child, that it’s okay to drop something. And you can’t do that in work.”

 “I am very big into life experiences because I think they stay with children. If you cast your mind back, it is not the endless repetitive days at school you remember but one or two experiences because they were out of the ordinary.

 “If it was an extra or day or two out of school I would do that but I would discuss it with the headmistress first and she is very accommodating when you explain what the educational reason is.”

 The Family Holiday Association, which works in the UK to organise breaks for people who could not otherwise afford them, is in no doubt about the benefit of families getting away together.

 “There is an overwhelming body of evidence showing that a family holiday provides a multitude of health and wellbeing benefits – providing a break from daily struggles, allowing families to bond and create happy memories that can last a lifetime,” says its marketing manager Michael Smout. “Of course, it goes without saying that children need to attend school but learning doesn’t end at the school gates.”

 The association believes that head teachers in England should be free to apply common sense when responding to requests for authorised absences.

 Since there is no requirement here to ask the school for permission, few parents would consult. But it is something the NPA would like to see becoming the norm.

 “I think quite often parents would not ask for permission because they do not want to be told ‘no’,” says Áine Lynch, not that she would want it to be totally up to the principals either.

 “I think it is a decision that should be made in partnership. We look at the extreme of what parents might do and we develop a policy to avoid that, but that’s not really a great policy.

 “The vast majority of parents are quite sensible in making these decisions and they will make better decisions if they are talking to the school as well.”

 If parents are not discussing it with the school, then they have made the decision without a vital piece of information, she points out. “Maybe with that vital piece of information, they would make a different decision.”

 Deirdre Kelly of Ballincollig, Co Cork, a mother of three, always tries to avoid a holiday during school time because she thinks it sets a bad example. She did let her daughter miss three days for a family wedding in France when she was in second year, but her husband stayed home with two younger children.

 “I just think that by leaving children off school, either to go on holiday or just to stay home, sets a bad example and is one that stays with them. I never missed a day of school when I was younger and I do have a very strong work ethic as a result.” 

 Taking your kids out of school for the sake of a cheap holiday is probably not appropriate, says Rita O’Reilly, chief executive of Parentline. “You disrupt the child and you disrupt the class and you disrupt the teacher. I think it is also sends out a wrong message to a child, that it’s okay to drop something. And you can’t do that in work.”

“Having said that,” she continues, there are certain situations where opportunities arise, such as a family wedding abroad, when it would make sense to avail of them. Therefore rules “can’t be hard and fast”.

 That just about sums it up. As in most parenting matters, what’s needed is a mixture of common sense, knowing your individual child and considering the consequences before making a decision that you believe is in the best interests of your family.

   Next week in Health +Family: Why holidays are an investment in your children

 swayman@irishtimes.com

Heading off for a term-time holiday? Things you might think about

Do try to make it the exception rather than the norm.

Do be aware that it sends a wrong message to children about the importance of school.

Do keep the school informed and ideally consult beforehand.

Do be aware that if it means your child is out of school for 20 days or more during the year, the school must report it to Tusla.

Do know that the science is there now to show how a family holiday can boost children’s cognitive development and their sense of well-being.

Do weigh up the pros and cons and then be confident in your own decision as parents.

Don’t plead inability to “afford” going away during school holidays, if what you really mean is that it just annoys you to have to pay a high season premium.

Don’t think that you have to travel far to get all the benefits of a family holiday.

Don’t bring the school books with you if it’s supposed to be a holiday

Don’t expect teachers to help your child make up for the lost time on your return, that’s your job.

Don’t justify your decision by ridiculing the arguments against it. 

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