Lisa Daly, a mother of five in Co Limerick, recently booked the summer family holiday. The resort in Morocco isn’t cheap, but she estimates they can save anything up to €2,000 by taking one simple step: travelling during school time.
“We’re booked for June 11th, so we’ll take them out of school for two weeks, though our oldest boy is in secondary, so he won’t miss anything,” says Daly, whose children range in age from four to 13 years.
“The savings are huge. The teachers don’t seem to mind. My two sisters are teachers and they give me a bit of stick – but they would probably do the same thing if they could!”
Lindsey Satelle, a mother of four who lives in Citywest, Dublin, and her husband, a carpenter, plan their holidays with military precision with the help of Skyscanner. The best deals, inevitably, are during term time.
The family spent nine days in Gran Canaria in early January; a trip to Disneyland is pencilled in the calendar next month; in June there is a long-delayed honeymoon Caribbean cruise, with a few days in New York.
In all, she estimates her children – aged three, eight, 10 and 14 – will miss about 16 days of school as a result of holidays in this academic year.
“I’ve no guilt about taking them out of school, to be honest,” Satelle says. “If the kids were struggling at school it would be different, but they’re not ... Life is too short. We’re taking the opportunity to do this while we can.”
For Caoimhe M Flanagan, a mother of two from Co Monaghan, going on holidays isn’t really about saving money; it’s one of the few times of year that suits the family to head away, due to work commitments.
An artist and children’s author, she has a cottage garden which is almost a full-time job in itself during the summer, she says: harvesting vegetables, cutting flowers, keeping everything under control.
“We never go away in the summer. We’d miss it [the garden] too much, the kids would miss it too, and it’s too much to ask people to look after,” she says. “We usually go away for a week in late September, when things calm down in the garden.”
Families taking their children out of school for holidays isn’t a new phenomenon, but it is a fast-growing trend. Higher peak-season travel costs and a post-pandemic urge to go abroad are just some of the factors behind the dramatic increase.
Latest figures compiled by Tusla show the estimated number of extended absences at primary level where holidays were a factor ballooned from 60,000-65,000 in 2019 to 350,000 in 2022. More recent data is due soon. Anecdotally, principals say the trend has continued at a high level.
Not everyone is happy. While school principals are broadly sympathetic, some now require signed “holiday declaration forms” which state that parents are aware that schools cannot give them permission for such absences.
“I totally understand why parents do this, taking advantage of cheaper holidays, et cetera,” says one exasperated primary principal in what would be regarded as a middle-class area, “but from an educational point of view I cannot condone it.”
The principal introduced the form recently in response to a spike in holidays in May and June, in particular.
Several school leaders grumble that holiday absences are causing disruption to the final weeks of the academic year when standardised tests typically take place, a mandatory requirement.
“It means that if a pupil has been away and then returns, we have to find a resource teacher to do the test with the child. That, in turn, takes away the resource teacher from a vulnerable child who needs support. It’s not ideal, by any means,” says one primary principal in Co Wicklow.
Others have acknowledged there is little they can do about it and have adjusted their school calendars to schedule a week off in May, partly as a way to facilitate parents who want to get cheaper holidays and minimise school disruption.
“We try to be humane about it. We understand where parents are coming from, so we’ve introduced a week’s break in May to allow family to do a cheaper holiday if they need to,” says one Co Louth principal.
The pattern of absences varies. In more disadvantaged schools, many say they have been struggling to keep up the high levels of attendance they had before Covid. The growing trend of holiday absences as well, say some school leaders, gives rise to the unhelpful impression that school attendance is optional.
“We have had testy responses from parents when we’ve notified them that they have missed 20 days of school, which is a legal requirement for us,” said the principal of a Deis, or disadvantaged, school, who says that Covid has prompted “a more lackadaisical attitude towards attendance”.
We travelled around, it exposed them to a very different way of living ... they‘re still talking about it ... travel is an education in itself— Lisa Daly
Some schools with higher numbers of migrant children or pupils from non-Irish families say holidays absences for visits home can result in extended absences.
“Some children might be going on a big holiday home to, say, India or Pakistan and could be there for a few months, and miss several weeks of schools,” says the principal of another Deis primary school. “We can’t stop that. It means there are gaps, which isn’t ideal.”
The relevant law – the Education (Welfare) Act, 2000 – states that parents shall “cause their child to attend school” on each day a school is open. If unable to do so, the parent must notify the principal of the reasons for the child’s absence, in accordance with the school’s code of behaviour.
Where a child misses 20 or more days of school, principals are required to notify Tusla, the child and family agency, of these absences with reasons such as “illness”, “urgent”, “holidays” or “unexplained”.
Tusla says it “strongly advises” against taking children out of school to go on holiday during term time. “Parents and guardians have a legal obligation to ensure that their child attends a school or else receives an education,” it says.
If authorities consider that a parent is failing to do so, it must send the parent a school attendance notice, warning that legal action will follow if the child does not attend school regularly.
If a parent fails to comply with a warning, they may be prosecuted and, if, convicted, fined or potentially imprisoned.
In practice, though, there are no known repercussions for families who take their children out of school for holidays, unless there are wider concerns about school attendance in general. This is usually in the form or a referral from a principal.
“In my memory, we have not received a referral to say that a school, a principal, a board of management or another agency or another parent is concerned about school attendance driven by school holidays,” says Áine O’Keeffe, national manager with Tusla Educational Support Service.
“I’m not saying it never will. So, really for us ... regular school attendance is important. Teaching and learning is happening every day the school is open – that is the expectation and it’s what our service is set up to do.”
The more relaxed Irish approach to school holidays stands in sharp contrast to the UK and much of Europe.
In the UK, for example, any school-time absence must be pre-authorised by the principal for “exceptional circumstances”. Otherwise, parents can face fines of £60 (€70), rising to £120 (€140) if not paid promptly, for taking children out of school without permission. While a disincentive for many, anecdotally, considerable numbers of families actively factors these costs into their cheaper holidays.
France, Germany, Austria, Italy and many other counties have similar rules and fines.
O’Keeffe says the question of whether Ireland should take a tougher approach, or whether we are happy to allow families the option of travelling, is a broader societal question, beyond the remit of Tusla.
“For our part, anyone who is missing school days at a level where it is going to impact on their ability to achieve their potential in the system should be notified to us. And as the statutory agency with responsibility, we will take action,” she says.
A friend died the year before last and she left behind five kids. Life is too short. It’s about making memories. I’m more lax about these things since— Lindsey Satelle
Even as things stand, Tusla is under strain to support families where schools attendance is an issue.
The agency, for example, received some 140,000 20-day absence notices in respect of primary school pupils in 2022 and more than 50,000 for second-level students.
Meanwhile, Tusla’s education and support service currently employs about 124 education and welfare officers across 4,000 schools, well below the equivalent rate for many neighbouring jurisdictions.
Many families, meanwhile, feel the approach in Ireland strikes the right balance between promoting school and giving families flexibility to travel and spend time together.
Caoimhe M Flanagan says that while she not trying to promote taking children out of school during school term, it is “just what works for our wee family”.
“The lower cost is a bonus, but we’ve other reasons to holiday then. Even before we [had] the kids, we’d never holidayed during the summer,” she says.
Lindsey Satelle says she feels her children are getting a chance to experience the wider world and broaden their horizons.
“They’re my children. They get to experience the world, see different cultures ... a friend died the year before last and she left behind five kids. Life is too short. It’s about making memories. I’m more lax about these things since,” she says.
She not the only one, she adds. “In Gran Canaria in January there were kids everywhere – and there were busloads arriving even as we were leaving.”
For Lisa Daly, school is hugely important – but she feels her children have had wonderful chances to see the world and learn about different cultures. Last year, for example, they visited Cambodia and Vietnam.
“It was unbelievable,” she says. “We travelled around, it exposed them to a very different way of living ... they‘re still talking about it ... travel is an education in itself. It’s life, rather than sitting in a classroom. It 100 per cent broadens their horizons.”