Tuesday, 25 April 2017

Term Time Absence from School: A Comment

The Jersey Evening Post reported that:

“PARENTS have reacted angrily after Jersey’s Chief Officer said that taking children out of school to go on holiday was ‘unacceptable’. In Saturday’s JEP, Justin Donovan said that such action was damaging pupils’ education. He spoke out after figures revealed that a fifth of pupil absences in the last year were due to parents taking their children on holiday. “

“Almost 100 people commented on the story on the JEP’s Facebook page, with many saying that parents should be given greater flexibility to take their children out of school. Some parents also suggested that the Education Department should shift school term-times, so parents can avoid price hikes associated with UK school holiday weeks.”

A Guardian article explains some of the rationale behind parents taking children away on holiday, and its history:

“Parents who wished to take advantage of cheaper, off-peak holiday rates used to be able to bend the rules a little, as head teachers at state schools in England were allowed to grant up to two weeks’ term-time holiday for pupils with good attendance. But in 2013 new regulations banning term-time absences were brought in.”

“Every single holiday cost more in August with the average holiday costing £905 more than in July and £1,310 more than in June while in one case the price of a holiday jumped by 126% between June and August, a £1,903 difference.”

So why is this an important issue, and are all the facts available? An article in the 2015 Times Educational Supplement said that:

“Research shows that children who miss school for just seven days a year damage their ‘life chances’, and only 31 per cent of children who missed more than 14 days of lessons over two years achieved good grades in the traditionally academic subjects. Yes, children do miss school owing to illness and it is reasonable to expect teachers to help them make up what they missed. It is not reasonable to expect teachers to do so for frivolous reasons.”

And these kinds of statistics are also mentioned by Leeds City Council on their website:

“Children who frequently miss school often fall behind. There is a strong link between good school attendance and achieving good results. For example, only 12% of pupils with below 80% school attendance achieve five or more GCSEs at grades A*-C including English and Maths, compared to 68% for pupils with attendance greater than 95%. “

“Requests for leave can only be granted by schools if there are exceptional circumstances, and holidays are not considered exceptional.”

A government report in 2016, based in 2013 and 2014 data, concluded that:

“Missing school for just a few days a year can damage pupils’ chances of gaining good GCSEs, according to a new report published by the Department for Education today (24 March 2016).”

The problem is that these research reports are cited without any details about their limitations. My mathematical hackles rise when I see bare figures being produced which seem to fly in the face of common sense.

For instance, because of sickness, it is almost inconceivable that any children have not lost a few days a year. Almost every child will be affected, and that is really too absurd to countenance. When I was at school, I certainly lost at least a few days because of illness, and that was before more the stringent regulations of today in which a child must stay at home for at least two days for anything like a vomiting bug.

A child who suffers a couple of weeks’ illness doesn’t suffer irreversible damage to its career, and anyone who believes that statistics show this need to have their head examined.

If I might cite a personal example, back in the 1960s, an outbreak of influenza both so devastated staff and teachers at my primary school for around three to four weeks so that formal lessons were largely revision, or on many occasions, we played chess throughout a lesson, or read books. Neither we not those who were off ill seem to have suffered in terms of academic attainment. One even became Greffier to the State for many years.

Fortunately, BBC’s More or Less examined the statistics behind the hyperbole in detail. Here’s a transcript of the relevant part of the programme.

From the today programme:

Nick Gibb [School Standards Minister]: Our data shows that just a week off per year as they’re leading up to GCSE courses can reduce the chances of that child getting good GCSEs by about a quarter…

Interviewer (interrupts): Regardless of what of they do?

Nick Gibb: Yes, it does, any absence, even if it’s illness actually, can damage the long term chances of a child achieving good GSCEs if they take just a week off a year. Now, you can’t do anything about illness – if a child is ill of course they can’t come to school – but we can do something about parents who decide to take their child on holiday simply because they want to save money. “

And here is a transcript of what More or Less made of the figures:

JM: Well, last February the Department for Education released some research looking at the relationship between absence and achievement. It looked at kids in the two years they are doing their GCSE courses and compare their results to their absence rates. The kids with a perfect attendance record would have gone to school for 283 days without missing a day and if you look at their results, surprise, surprise, they go for the best results.

TH: OK, so enough about these goodie-goodies, what about the children who took a week’s holiday?

JM: Well, the government doesn’t have any data on these kids. The data they focus on is the kids who miss between 5 and 6 days during their GCSE years.

TH: For any reason. And these children, they do 25% worse than the perfect kids?

JM: It depends on what measurements you use. The normal way people compare scores at GCSE level is 5 GCSEs including English and Maths. They do 8% worse. The governments’ report on this subject uses this measure but Nick Gibb uses a more obscure measurement: kids who got the English Baccalaureate.

TH: I see. He’s gone for whatever with make the figures look the most extreme? Hang on, English Baccalaureate, what is the English Baccalaureate? Is that different exams?

JM: Well, the be honest, that’s what I thought it was but it’s not, it’s a kind of conceptual qualification. If you got GCSEs in English, Maths, a foreign language, two sciences and in history or geography you’ve passed the English Baccalaureate.

TH: OK, so if you squint at the numbers in the right light you can get the 25% figure to stand up. But James, there’s a bigger question here, it might not be the precious teaching that’s making the difference, I mean the kind of kid who hardly misses a day is the kind of kid who does well in exams. So, or as the third rule of [ORS?] says, correlation is not necessarily causation.

JM: Well, exactly. Nick Gibbs is saying the absence is the thing which is causing the drop off in grades but the evidence doesn’t show this at all. In fact, even the DfE report acknowledges that factors other than attendance will have an impact on achievement and should be considered to give an accurate picture.

They then take a look at the work of Professor Stephen Gorard. On 6 April 2017, he posted this piece on the Durham University Website and takes a critical look at the Government’s case for fining parents who take their children out of school during term. It is entitled: "Does missing one week of school lead to lower grades?"

There is, as the DfE shows, a consistent and medium-strength correlation between pupil absence from school and subsequent lower attainment at Key Stage 2 (aged 11) and Key Stage 4 (aged 16). However, a more careful consideration shows several things.

The link may not be in one direction only. For example, our analysis shows that the best predictor of pupil absence in any key stage is not their background characteristics, their school, or their prior pattern of absence. It is their prior attainment.

Put simply, pupils who are already doing badly at school may be simply withdrawing further, so producing more missed sessions, rather than the missed sessions causing the later lower attainment.

The link between absence and attainment may be weaker than portrayed by DfE, or even not causal at all.

In the same way that attainment is correlated with pupil absence, attainment is correlated with many other things which are themselves correlated with absence. For example, as well as lower attaining pupils missing more school on average, there is greater average absence among more deprived children, in more deprived schools and areas.

There are also differences between boys and girls, some ethnic minorities, and so on. If attainment is predicted using all of these factors, the link with absence is greatly reduced.

We can estimate how much difference going to school makes in another way as well.

Every year, young children start school if they are born up to 31st August and wait a further year if they are born from 1st September onwards. Therefore, after one year, there are children of almost exactly the same age, half of whom have had a year of schooling and half have not. This, along with tests of literacy and numeracy, can be used to estimate how much each day of school makes to average attainment.

We know that much of the improvement comes solely with age. Schools can and do make an important difference, but less so than the damage being claimed by the DfE for each day missed through absence.

Something is not right. And the simplest explanation is that absence is less important for many pupils than has been widely portrayed.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the DfE conflate very different types of absence.

There are pupils who have chronic illness. Long-term absence from school for them could easily lead to lower qualifications in future years. There are pupils whose home life means that school is not the highest priority every morning – such as those with a caring role for younger siblings, for example. There are those who are suspended or excluded from school, those ‘bunking off’, and those who usually attend regularly but have taken a holiday in term-time.

None of these situations is desirable, but each has different solutions. To use data from the first example to combat the last situation does not make sense. The analysis needs to be more fine-grained than that. This is what we are doing at Durham and fuller results will be available in the summer.

In conclusion...

The main effect to the school of taking children out of school during term time is to disrupt timetables and planning. If every parent did this, this would cause chaos for the running of the school, and the curriculum.

However, there are in every school, in some years, what might be termed “slack times”, where the teachers are essentially filling in time in the last few days of school, most notably in the run up to Christmas, or at the end of the Summer term. In other words, every teaching day has not the same import.

There are a variety of reasons for taking children out in term time, especially at these slack times, and the case should not be automatic but weighed up according to the educational advantages to the child. It should not be automatic, not just because the parents want a cheap holiday.

If I can cite a personal case, I remember missing the final day of a spring term in order to catch flights to go on an educational cruise around the Mediterranean for two weeks on SS Nevasa; because of the logistics Jersey’s travel connections with the UK, this was the only option. The headmaster in question at the Primary School saw no problems with that, and indeed thought it would be an extremely good learning experience, as indeed it was.

That’s rather different from someone who just wants to visit a sunny beach resort at cheaper rates, largely more for the parents benefit than the children’s. There should be some kind of provision for exceptional circumstances as long as a good case can be made, and it is not a regular occurrence.

American schools often include: “Extraordinary educational opportunities preapproved by district administrators.” Perhaps that needs more consideration here. An example of an educational authority guideline says:

“From time to time, students encounter an exceptional opportunity for an experience of an educational nature. While these events may not be part of their schoolwork, they provide an excellent chance to further their education. Under certain circumstances, the days devoted to these opportunities can count as excused absences.”

“The content of the experience must be highly relevant to the student. While some opportunities will be relevant to all students, others will contain very specific content that would limit their relevance to a smaller group of students. For example, a trumpet lesson from jazz great Wynton Marsalis would be very relevant to students who play trumpet, but not to others who do not play trumpet.”

In Australia,  term-time holidays are discouraged, but laws vary from state to state. In Victoria, principals will often allow absences for family holidays if the school is notified in advance, and if a "Student Absence Learning Plan" is in place. In Queensland, absences of more than 10 consecutive days require an exemption. In New South Wales Parents wishing to travel will be obliged to submit itineraries, copies of plane tickets and justification for their trips on educational grounds.

The other matter which must be taken into account is that the statistics, as they stand, are either misrepresented as by Nick Gibb, or taken as applying to all children equally, without looking at causal factors

It is interesting that a study by Oregon looks at a month or more of school days missed per year defined as chronic absenteeism. Common sense suggests that this will impact on education, but they go into more granular detail in determining how to deal with the problem. Term time holidays do not feature, mainly because this is a study of chronic not slight absenteeism.

Holidays are not the only reason for absence, so we cannot use statistics on general absence for specific purposes, as More or Less notes.. Chronic health conditions, family economic and social problems, housing, bullying, truancy etc can also contribute to statistics on poor achievement and that is why I look forward to the fine-grained analysis by Professor Gorard.

A zero-tolerance policy on holidays also does not consider the educational impact of occasional holidays. In in America and Australia, there is a distinction between the frivolous and the educational, and this is important, and should be reflected in policy.


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