THOUGH I can be quite anal when it comes to my children’s education, I have nothing but sympathy for Stewart and Natasha Sutherland who were last week forced to pay almost £1,000 in fines and costs for the “offence” of taking their children on holiday in term-time.
Unable to negotiate any time off during the summer break for five years on the trot, they decided pulling their daughters Rhiannon, 15, and Sian, 13, and their son, Keane, six, out of their classes for a few days and heading off for Greece was the only way to guarantee their family spent some quality time together. With Stewart doing 12-hour shifts and frequently missing out on Christmas, birthdays and bank holidays as a result of his job with the Ministry of Defence Guard Service, the family was at breaking point and desperately needed to recharge their batteries.
Looking at the photo of them on Rhodes, it would appear the decision paid off; tanned and relaxed they seem to have escaped the pressures of the “revolving door” lifestyle they share with many other hard-pressed families, however briefly. But a change in the law meant the edge was to be taken off their fleeting pleasure. Until last September, head teachers in England and Wales were allowed to grant pupils a maximum of 10 days off a year at their own discretion. But under new rules, all term-time holidays are now outlawed, so the couple returned to a fixed penalty of £60 per child for each parent - a total of £360. Having refused to pay it on a point of principle, they were ordered to appear before Telford Magistrates Court where the higher fine was issued.
In Scotland, parents like me, who have been known to break the rules, are not fined, but the absences are recorded as unauthorised and councils can issue sanctions, such as a referral to the Children’s Panel. Though such powers are rarely invoked, taking your children out is disapproved of. Certainly, when I told the school we were going to Paris (OK, it was mostly Disneyland Paris) last year, the response was curt. And I suspect it will be the same this year, even though, for work reasons, a ban on holidays during the Commonwealth Games and in the run-up to the referendum (not to mention the cost of flights) makes it impossible for us all to go anywhere during July/August.
You can’t really blame the schools; they are merely pawns in a system which measures the quality of education by the number of Highers gained rather than well-rounded adults produced. Under that system, unauthorised absences can affect league table places and undermine hard-won reputations. But the gap between the single-minded pursuit of A grades and the reality of ordinary people’s lives is captured in figures which show the number of days Scots children missed to go on holiday rose by 81% to 623,246 last year.
Since more and more parents with young children will join the workforce as nursery provision increases, the competition for time off during the school holidays is only going to intensify and some people are going to be disappointed. Combine this with stagnating wages, and airlines and travel companies inflating their prices during the high season, and it’s hardly surprising an increasing number of us are inclined to travel off-peak.
Like the Sutherlands, my own family operates on a “revolving door” basis. We are very rarely all in the house at the same time other than to sleep. But there are other families separated by geography as well as mismatched timetables, families where one parent is forced to travel through work or to take a job down south and commute at weekends. For them a holiday is not a luxury, it’s a lifeline, a means of shoring up the foundations of their most important relationships so they will withstand the buffeting of another turbulent year.
With this in mind, I don’t see the problem with term-time holidays unless it’s part of a wider pattern of non-attendance or your child is falling behind with work. Most such trips are educational, arguably more educational than sitting in a classroom. If we sneak away to New York this year, as we’d always planned to do when our oldest finishes his Highers, we will take the children to Ellis Island, Ground Zero, the Museum of Metropolitan Art. What they learn may not be on the curriculum, but it will be no less valuable.
Even if the holiday has no obvious educational value - a package trip to the Costa Brava, say - there will be something to be gained: exposure to a different language, food or culture. But more important, at a time when we are worried about family breakdowns, is that it will create an opportunity to take stock and remember what you like about one another. At their best, such breaks create a fresh supply of precious memories to act as ballast in the rough waters ahead.
Though I understand it’s irritating for teachers who can’t go off gallivanting outside school holidays and who have to ensure those pupils who do catch up, I think it’s important to recognise the pressure placed on families by the economic crisis and balance the benefits of good exam results with a happy, stable upbringing. In a world where so many children are abused or neglected, it seems short-sighted to punish families – or even tut-tut at them – for stepping off the treadmill and enjoying each other’s company.