As the school term stretches on, many parents might be tempted to take their children out of school. Perhaps they want to beat the crowds at the snow or enjoy off-season prices at the coast. Maybe they just need a break.
As parents, we have certainly experienced this dilemma.
But what are the rules around taking your child out of school in term time? And is it a good idea?
You do need to send your child to school
The precise rules around school attendance differ slightly from state to state. But by law you are required to send your child to school every day.
For example, in New South Wales, the state Education Act says
all students who are enrolled at school, regardless of their age, are expected to attend that school whenever instruction is provided.
The act also says parents are responsible for ensuring their children attend school and must explain absences within seven days. It’s an offence not to send your child to school and parents can be prosecuted.
Habitual school absences can be considered a form of neglect. This is defined as “a minimum of 30 days absence within the past 100 school days”. However, this should only be taken as a guide, because “a range of contextual factors may impact the level of risk”.
Obviously if a child is sick and cannot attend school, it will not be counted. There are some other exemptions, such as if a student is employed in the entertainment industry or participating in elite arts or sports events.
But exemptions around travel are less clear cut.
The NSW Department of Education and NSW Association of Independent Schools both say travel does not qualify as an exemption. However, principals can approve leave on a case-by-case basis. In the public system, if students are away for more than 100 days, a senior education department employee needs to provide approval.
The Catholic Education Office says “extended absence in relation to children of travelling families” may be a “reasonable excuse”.
For longer trips, such as taking students out of school for a term or a year, families can consider home schooling or distance education.
Why a trip can be a good idea
There can be educational benefits around taking your child out of school in term time. There is potential for learning that cannot be easily replicated in schools.
Education psychologists Jerome Bruner and Jean Piaget developed “discovery learning”, believing it is best for learners to discover facts and relationships for themselves. For example, visiting Uluru and taking a tour with local First Nations groups is arguably a better way to learn about Indigenous cultures and history than by reading about them in a book.
This approach can see children develop deeper conceptual understanding, stronger interest in particular topics and an increased sense of responsibility for their own learning.
School excursions are an example of experiential learning, and depending on what trip you’re planning, you might be able to provide your child with invaluable experiences.
Of course, it’s important to note teachers still have a role in this type of learning. They know how to ask the right questions, guide, support, and make connections between real-world and theoretical learning.
So it is not necessarily “educational” to simply present an experience and leave it at that.
It’s also important to be aware of potential negatives when planning to take your child out of school in term time.
When students miss school, they miss lessons and fall behind. There is a wide body of research on the relationship between school attendance and academic achievement, with some studies suggesting school attendance is the best predictor of academic achievement. While there isn’t a specific threshold here, more absences are associated with higher failure rates.
In some instances, taking your child out of school could exacerbate any school refusal tendencies when they return to school. If your child already has a fear of separation, tests, or just being at school, taking them out for an unscheduled break could unintentionally reinforce this pattern of behaviour.
It may also impact the development of social skills. School refusal in early schooling is correlated with more negative social behaviours such as a lack of cooperation and self-control and increased aggressive behaviours.
But is a cheeky long weekend OK?
Taking a mini break or even a longer holiday can provide opportunities for family rest, relaxation and bonding (even though at times, we may question our sanity for choosing to do so).
There is no clear answer around taking your child out of school during term time. It will of course depend on what you are planning to do and for how long. And on your family circumstances.
But it is important to remember the value of setting positive attendance habits early. If children are missing school frequently or for long periods, there is likely to be an impact on your child’s learning. Make sure you contact your school beforehand, so any leave or exemptions can be discussed and approved.
You might be tempted to ask your child’s teacher to provide work to complete while travelling. While COVID school closures may have normalised teachers providing detailed lessons for home use, we’d suggest this now goes beyond the scope of a teacher’s job description.
You might also be tempted to fulfil this role yourself (and all the power to you), but as was also observed during lockdowns, the role of teaching is easier said than done.
Author Bios: Brian Moore is a Lecturer, Educational Psychology & Child Development, School of Education Charles Sturt University and Elizabeth Murrais a Senior Lecturer, Education, School of Education both at Charles Sturt University