A report published this week found there has been a “radical shift” in parents’ attitudes to children’s school attendance, with term-time holidays “now entirely socially acceptable across all socioeconomic groups”. As mother to three children, ages 12, 10 and six, I wasn’t at all surprised. Instead, I felt validated to discover that I’m not the only one who lets their children sporadically bunk off.
My kids have had days off in term time for myriad reasons over the years: I have taken them to meetings and events with me, on peace marches in London, or let them have duvet days at home – and yes, I’ve taken them out of school for a week here and there to go on holiday, too.
This week’s study found that the pandemic was a key driver of the change in parents’ attitudes towards attendance. With children at home for months on end, we witnessed a magical Sliding Doors other-worldly life reality, where learning didn’t have to be so … rigid. Education was more flexible than we thought! Although home learning was a challenging time many parents were glad to see the back of, we also saw that the world wouldn’t stop turning if our kids didn’t go to school every day.
For many, it was cemented, post-pandemic, when we saw our children back at school, not adversely affected by the hiatus. Since then the new collective consensus seems to be that a day off here, or a week off there, is small fry compared with months of lockdown learning: what difference will it make in the grand scheme of things? Recent teacher strike days have also served to diminish the social contract between teachers and parents, and the iron rule that attendance is compulsory. They provided parents with another chance to let their children loaf out of the classroom, or even book a trip away during term time – a welcome relief and a glimpse at life outside the normal system.
For me, the pandemic simply confirmed my long-held belief that it isn’t necessary or healthy for children to sit in a classroom five days a week from 9am to 3.30pm. It’s unfortunate that schools themselves are penalised by the Government for poor school attendance of its pupils – and that pupils are shamed a little by attendance appearing on the front of their school reports (as if more important than their grades!) – which needs a shake up, I feel, if this trend continues.
My first term-time holiday experience was in 2019 when I took my two school-aged children (and one preschooler) out for a week when I was offered a villa for a great price in Paxos in late May. I wasn’t going to turn down such an opportunity so they could learn a few titbits of maths and phonics. I emailed the headmaster and explained that I was taking them out on an “educational trip to Greece”, which I somehow got away with (no fine, although I probably would have paid one). The children swam in the sea, discovered unusual fish, went paddle boarding and learned a few Greek words, too. This is exactly the sort of cultural worldly upbringing and experience I want my children to have for their life ahead, yes, even more than their ability to hit maths and science attainment targets.
Last year, I was emboldened to take them off for six weeks to go to Ibiza. During that blissful time away in February and March 2022, my children, then 11, nine and five, and I had treasured time on the White Isle: we went to beaches, yes, but also to educational spots such as the Necropolis (city of the dead), and Ibiza’s Museum of Contemporary Art. They learned a little Spanish too. It was the epitome of “school of life” and I would do it all again in a flash. On going back to school, none of them seemed to have missed anything groundbreaking, indeed their learning wasn’t set back. I was worried about getting a hefty school fine, so I took the bold step of un-enrolling them for the six weeks we were away – something I was able to do as we live in the Somerset countryside and schools aren’t over subscribed. The school was surprisingly accommodating, and even let my youngest do a showcase about her trip on return.
The bonus for me taking them for six weeks in early spring rather than for the six-week school summer holiday outweighed whatever schooling I thought they were missing: the island was blissfully quiet, which made exploring a joy, and everything was a fifth of the summer prices, from flights to accommodation. It gave them a boost of life experience (and me, some headspace of getting away from the norm), at a fraction of the usual cost … because, have you seen the cost of holidays these days?
It’s no hidden secret that holidaying during school holidays is extortionate, and often overrated. Browse villas on Airbnb and you’ll see prices triple for accommodation for even short holidays like half term. Ditto flights, even on budget airlines like easyJet, which skyrocket when kids are officially off. Not only is it expensive, but travelling peak season means it is more stressful, too: airport queues are longer, beaches are busier, wait times in restaurants lengthier. Anyone who has queued with three children in tow in peak-season heat will attest that it feels less holiday, more hellish.
It’s a dichotomy, because family holidays don’t feel like holidays when they cost the earth and you’re navigating crowded hotspots. Trust me, it feels like a breeze of fresh air travelling off-season, during term time, when you can swan through an empty airport and get prime spots in quiet beachfront restaurants. With global warming, and summer hot-spots getting hotter, breezes of fresh air are definitely where the smart money’s at – even if off-peak travelling involves a school fine, most likely the fine will be a drop in the ocean compared with the money you’ll save on booking, and the quality of holiday you’ll then have at value-for-money prices.
My mother, a retired teacher, raises an eyebrow when I take my children out of school – as many baby boomers would. Needless to say this luxury of a holiday in term time wasn’t afforded to me when I was at school in the 1980s and 1990s. It wasn’t the social norm to miss school days back then. (Although I did have a couple of months off school aged 14 due to glandular fever, which I spent doing jigsaw puzzles and watching TV, and I can safely say that when it came to my GCSE grades of five As, four Bs and a C, my time away from school mattered not a jot.)
Who on earth knows what the future holds for our children’s generation? With the dawn of AI, and a rapidly growing techscape, many jobs that exist now won’t exist in the future, so it seems insane that the basic model of schooling hasn’t changed in over 120 years. We’re teaching them yesterday’s ways for tomorrow’s life. So maybe this “radical shift” in thinking is the start of changes ahead. Imagine a world where our kids took holidays at the same time as us, and not the other way around. With flexible working on the rise, could flexible schooling be a thing of the future, too?