School attendance and overseas trips

By Lesley Murrihy | Posted: Wednesday October 14, 2015

Recently there has been a great deal of talk in the media about attendance and in particular holidays taken during term time.

Attendance at school is really important as the research I have presented at different times shows. However, my stance and the stance of the Board of Trustees is not as hardnosed as some of the views presented recently in the media. We understand that trips home for family and cultural celebrations are really valuable. We think it is important for our students and their families to stay strongly connected to their cultural heritage and family overseas.

While we are less supportive of holidays taken during term time simply to save money, we recognise that all international travel has some educational value. However, as much as I am in favour of opportunities to travel, I am also aware of a potential cost to the school's resources. We do live in a world where national standards exist and we are legally obligated to report to parents, to the ministry and publicly on whether students are "below", "at" or "above" in relation to national standards. When a child travels overseas for significant periods of time, or takes a lot of days off here and there, it is inevitable that they will miss out on important learning. This is true, not only for the time they are away, but also for the transition time it takes for them to fit back in and find their feet again (which varies depending on the child). This would be absolutely fine, if the context allowed for students to gradually pick up the knowledge they have missed over time. But the reality is, we have to make the national standard judgments against the number of years at school, and this can mean that students who have been away on long trips or had poor attendance may end up being judged as "below" or "at" when maybe they would have been "at" or "above".

The first concern is that these judgments are made public (as aggregated data) and affect how our school achievement is viewed in the public eye. Therefore, there is pressure on principals not to allow overseas trips. The second point is that no parent wants their child to be judged "below" so we sometimes have pressure put on us (and we put it on ourselves) to make up the ground quickly even though the students were taken out of school for a significant period of time for an (albeit, important) overseas trip. This means allocating an already scarce resource to get students up to speed as a result of overseas travel when there are already plenty of needs among those who have not travelled.

I think the situation of trips overseas is a difficult one. We acknowledge they are important but they can also be costly, particularly in the current educational climate. My response really is to suggest to parents that they think carefully and make a decision to take their child overseas during term time with full knowledge of the possible risks to their child's learning. The reality is that the school may not always be able to allocate the resource necessary to get their child up to speed quickly once they return. While our commitment is to ensure that students gain all the skills and knowledge they need, parents will need to be prepared for this to happen over time, and this might mean that their child is judged lower than they might otherwise have been in relation to national standards for a period of time.