Pupils have told a Doncaster schools trust they would be more likely to stay in education if holidays were at cheaper times of the year.
With fines issued to parents taking their children on holiday during term time, it always an emotive issue.
And the borough’s term times and fines are among the matters discussed by education experts in part two of our Doncaster Free Press round table on school attendance and exclusions.
Our panel was Karen Fagg, headteacher, Park Primary, Intake; Jamie McMahon, regional director of post 16 education for Delta Academies Trust; Helen Redford-Hernandez, headteacher, Hungerhill Academy, Dr Nicola Crossley director of inclusion; Astrea Academies Trust; Gwynn ap Harri, chief executive ,XP Schools Trust, Paul Ruane, Doncaster Council head of service for learning provision, Martyn Owen, Doncaster Council head of service for inclusion; Leanne Hornsby, Doncaster Council assistant director commissioning and business development.Sam Twiselton, vice chairman of Doncaster Opportunity Area Board, Damien Allen, Doncaster Council director of children’s services, Saul Farrell, Doncaster Council strategy and performance manager. Free Press community engagement editor David Kessen chaired.
Should parents be fined for taking their children on holiday in term time?
Gwynn ap Harri: “At XP we don’t fine parents. If we’re saying relationships with parents are the most important thing, I think fining them is the opposite, so we don’t fine them. Personally I would rather have a £60 fine and go on a holiday that’s half the price than have a difficult conversation with someone”.
Damien Allen: We have a statutory expectation n terms of how we handle and manage the process but the principle, particularly, is around unauthorised absences and holidays that are taken during term time and there are other reasons as well that lead to fines but that was a major issue several years ago and part of the trend. It is a stick and a carrot. At one level, to discourage parents was the prospect of a fine. As Gwyn has pointed out, is the £60 fine deterrent? Versus taking your child out of school to go on holiday? If you’re not in school you can’t learn. You can’t catch up that time. and as we’ve said its critically important in terms of the engagement. We’ve got some children with less than 50 per cent attendance, and you are just not going to recover that. This comes back to a statutory expectation on parents is to send their children to school and what the state expects in terms of compliance. There are always reasons why it doesn’t happen. Some of those are legitimate.Schools have a level of discretion and they’re responsive to that, but there are some parents who allow persistent condoned absence and that sets the wrong example and tone to the child, but also it has a ripple effect on others within the school. Therefore the school has to respond to that and the local authority, when the threshold for fines is identified, has a responsibility to enact that as well. The money from fines all goes back into looking at initiatives to reduce absenteeism. I would rather have a system where parents understand the value of education, see their responsibility and send their children accordingly. But the reality is the balance between rights and responsibilities has shifted over time and that we do need to reluctantly but necessarily, issue fines. I think there’s always a conversation to be had about incentives and our strategy is not based entirely on deterrence.
Martyn Owen: We have had a campaign using incentives and awareness that has been round the schools . We’ve tried to take a varied approach and strategy. We’ve put out the message about the value of education. There is a correlation between schools who have improved their attendance have worked hard on their ethos and developed personalised curriculums and know their children well. We think they are contributing to improvements.
Nicola Crossley: Children are aware they missing out. We know when we’ve done pupil level surveys about the value of going to school they tell us frequently that its about the socialisation opportunities – it’s about building friendships and connections and that we shouldn’t underestimate that you're missing out on your friends. Not everything can be achieved through social media. Real meaningful relationships and understanding how to build them and sustain them are done well by schools in their PHSE curriculcum but also part of that pastoral role that Gwynn spoke of.
Jamie McMahon: “We did a survey of our sixth form students who had opted to stay in school, and what they thought would work in terms of motivating them. They said in Doncaster one of the biggest issues was that they followed traditional term dates and for Christmas, Easter, summer and half term was always the most expensive time to go on holiday. They did a small bit of research, and they looked at surrounding local authorities – they didn’t go a million miles away – and they just came back and said ‘look, if we made half term that week of November to that week of November we would have been the only local authority that was on half term and that would have meant our parents could get a cheaper holiday. But because we went when everyone else was off, it was more expensive’. Then there is Easter. Why do we have to have two weeks off at Easter? We’re in most of it for revision. Why don’t we have one week, and have an extra week in the summer. Then that gives the parents another opportunity to have a cheaper holiday. Leeds in particular is very good at this and they always have a long bank holiday for Easter, but their Easter holiday is always two weeks or three weeks before everyone else’s because they work on a fixed term. Leeds were going back to school on the Monday Doncaster schools broke up. Because the authority makes that decision to be more strategic or adaptive with term dates, what is actually given for the year 11 students is more time in the classroom because they’re taking away some holidays and putting it into the summer, so they can be more flexible in those summer holidays. That was our sixth form students views.
“The problem is that if we do that as a group of schools, the primary schools are not all necessarily Delta primary schools. If you've got a parent with a child in secondary and a child in primary, the parents go mad as they can’t take them away at the same time. In areas like Rossington where most of the primaries that feed into the school are Delta, yes we perhaps could. But where we haven’t got that opportunity it would not necessarily work and you can’t audit all the parents. It would have to be something where a group of schools came together and said ‘can we be a bit more astute?’ The other factor to take into account is that we draw staff from other local authorities and their children may be on holiday at different times.
“If we focus on it as Doncaster as a whole, that may be something that could be resolved.
“As an academies trust we have the right to change those dates, but by working together as a group of schools, its better to make those decisions jointly because you have to think about the communities.”
GaH: “We do have different holiday dates and if I was to say one thing that all schools might agree on, its having an extra week in October stops you from dying a death by the time you get to Christmas. We basically have five terms of eight weeks, with two weeks in between roughly, and most of the time one of the weeks overlaps with a half term for the local authority so it reduces some of that heartache. I thought when we started that it would be a problem with parents and was coming up with all sorts of imaginative ways around it like creches and summer camps, but we’ve not needed to because the parents have been so grateful of being able to take advantage of things. We’ve done it and people seem to get round it and its not been a problem.”
JM: “Another thing we’ve done at a school at Stockton on Tees is lengthen the school day, and lengthened the holidays. So if the amount of hours that the child should be in education may be 8.30 to 3.30, there it goes until 5.30, but they get two weeks at every holiday apart from summer, which is eight. They have the same amount of time in the classroom but they're there longer. The parents have bought into that, especially the working parents. I think whatever is the best thing for Doncaster would have to be done together.”