No blue sky thinking required on this
Sometimes it seems as if the seasons are going haywire. Three weeks ago there was snow in Yorkshire. A week later it was hotter in Harrogate than Lanzarotte.
All year round, it seems, we can pick up in our supermarkets those most seasonal of items, strawberries and asparagus, whatever the weather, whatever the natural farming rhythms.
But, in my experience as a headteacher of more than fourteen years, there are two seasonal fixtures that never alter. I’m not just referring to Christmas and Easter.
Instead it’s the winter debacle about school snow closures and the summer debate over term-time family holidays.
Let’s leave snow for another day – possibly one when our windowsills are filling with heavy flakes and anxiety-riven headteachers are gazing out, wondering whether they can safely get all their staff and children to school.
Instead, let’s focus on the recent legal ruling about whether parents should take their children on family holidays in term-time.
It’s an issue that came to a head last week when Isle of Wight parent Jon Platt won his landmark High Court case after refusing to pay the fine for taking his daughter during term-time to Disneyland.
Standing on the steps of the High Court, Mr Platt said of term-time absence: “It does not harm them at all. How do I know? Because my own kids are doing really, really well in school.”
Mr Platt believes education authorities should end all prosecutions where pupils have at least a 90 per cent attendance record. He also called on the council to pay for any lost earnings to parents who had been involved in court cases.
There’s no doubt that the High Court ruling leaves parents in a state of some confusion. But, from where I sit, I’m not sure we should expend too much energy debating the implications of the judgement.
At our school, governors have always had a clear policy to sanction absence for certain important family occasions, happy and sad. We therefore grant permission for students to have time off for a family wedding or funeral. As a Church of England school, that’s surely right, and I suspect most schools do the same.
But we also take the view that thirteen weeks of holiday a year is sufficient for parents to have extended their time with children. Of course there are some occupations – especially for those working in agriculture – where the timings won’t work, and we have always considered those requests sympathetically on a case-by-case basis.
But what I aim to avoid is allowing myself to get drawn into making a decision about whether one parent’s family holiday is more worthwhile than another.
Should I, for example, be deciding that a trek in Nepal is more educational than a beach holiday in the Bahamas? Should I give preference to a week exploring the ancient ruins of Rome over a sunshine tour of the Canary Islands?
The answer of course is that my job is to do the best I can to make sure that every child – irrespective of their background – gets an education that leads to the best possible qualifications. It’s these results that open doors for students as well as the way that a school’s success gets judged.
And as we all know, the child who doesn’t attend school regularly is at a significant disadvantage when it comes to their progress and performance.
So while time out with the family may have positive educational effects for some children, it also makes planning the curriculum impossible. It leaves gaps in classes and children who then return from their break with work to catch up on and classroom experience lost.
That’s why ultimately our responsibility as headteachers is to make sure children during term time are where they ought to be – in class, being taught by their teacher.
And that’s surely the message that our legal system should be sending out, too.
-- Geoff Barton is headteacher at King Edward VI School, Bury St Edmunds