Debunked: links between term-time holidays and lower grades

Writing in the Conservation, Peter Jones, Lecturer in Education at Keele University, examines the Government’s claim claims that missing class to go on holiday impacts on attainment.

A recent victory for parent Jon Platt at the High Court means that the 2013 ban on parents taking their children on holidays during term-time is now out of step with English law.

Platt’s case has become something of a cause célèbre after he argued that he should have the right to take his daughter away for six school days to Disney World in Florida without permission from her school because no evidence could be produced that she had failed to attend school “regularly”. The court did not define what “regularly” meant, but ruled that he had no case to answer for refusing to pay a £120 fine.

The government’s guidance on attendance states that parents are “responsible for making sure that their children of compulsory school age receive a suitable full-time education”, which can be by “regular attendance at school”, an alternative provision, or home schooling.

The significance of the case has been amplified by wider concerns about the number of parents being fined and the impacts on particular groups including military personnel.

Quite apart from the financial incentives to take family holidays during school terms, Platt’s central claim chimes with concerns about the protection of the right to a family life. It has also provoked libertarian demands that it should be for the parent and not the state to make decisions, within the law, about what is in their children’s best interests.

The response of the Department for Education (DfE) has been to double-down. Nicky Morgan, secretary of state for education, repeated the claim that even a week missed from school impacts on attainment.

It would seem that the DfE is minded to change the law to specify what “regular attendance” means and to bear down on any day missed other than for unavoidable causes.

But this policy is out of step with the evidence used to support it. It is based on the myth that each missing day of school, including days missed for holidays, has a measurable impact on educational achievement. That myth, and the numbers used to support it, have become something of a meme in the educational community, cited by schools and Local Education Authorities.

Out to get truants

The first intimations of the policy came in 2011 when the DfE reported that there was a clear link between absence and attainment. The report was rooted in comparisons between those who were persistent absentees (higher than 20% absence) and the rest, making no attempt to distinguish between the relationship between grades and levels of absence of less than 20%. It’s authors warned for caution surrounding claims in this area because of the reality that the majority of absences are caused by a minority of pupils.

Under Morgan’s predecessor, Michael Gove, attention continued to focus on the persistent absentees, changing the definition of this to refer to those with more than 15% absence (the definition is now 10%).

Since 2012, there has been a focus on evidence to support the claims that all patterns of attendance explain attainment and that the attainment impact can be tracked to ever-smaller units of relevant attendance. It is within this context that the term-time holiday rule was brought in, even though holidays accounted for around 7.5% of all absence compared to 60% for illness.

The primary source of evidence to support this relentless focus on attendance was a February 2015 DfE report. It is this report which led to the headline claims that:

44% of pupils with no absence in Key Stage 4 (normally aged 16) achieve the English Baccalaureate – the gold standard package of GCSE qualifications that includes English, maths, science, history or geography and a language – opening doors to their future. But this figure falls by a quarter to just 31.7% for pupils who miss just 14 days of lessons over the two years that pupils study for their GCSEs, which equates to around one week per year, and to 16.4% for those who miss up to 28 days.

Difficulties with the data

There are a number of problems with the data and the claims. First, attainment at the end of Key Stage 4 – GCSE level – is only considered in relation to attendance in five terms over Years 10 and 11 when children are 14- to 16-years-old. This is despite data for the whole of secondary school being available through the National Pupil Database.

Second, “success” in the English Baccalaureate subjects is not available to students not taking those subjects – they are not yet compulsory. It may well be the case that pupils who don’t take the English Baccalaureate have poor patterns of attainment or are not engaged with schooling.

Third, the attendance bands are very broad – over 50% of pupils are absent only 0-5% of the time. As the 90-95% attendance band covers absences of between 16 and 32 missed days over the five terms in Year 10 and Year 11, this grossly lumps together quite disparate patterns of attendance.

The government makes no distinction between types of attendance and the data cannot be used to support claims that all types of absence, including days missed for holidays, contribute uniformly to a pupil’s grades.

Nonetheless, the claims linking poor attendance to poor school performance continue to be made. With the percentage of pupils who were absent for at least one session of school because of a term-time holiday increasing from 4.9% in autumn 2014 to 5.2% in autumn 2015, the struggles between parents, schools, the DfE and the courts look set to continue.

Read more articles in the Conversation

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  1. Jennie Golding

    Whatever the effect on that individual child, a succession of term-time holidays causes havoc for the teacher and the rest of the class, especially in hierarchical and cumulative subjects such as mathematics, where accessing today’s new ideas depends on having mastered yesterday’s (or last week’s). Whose responsibility is it to ensure the child who spent last week in Florida (or in the British Museum) is able to fill in those gaps and move on to the next learning, if not the teacher’s? So does that parental choice to take a holiday in term-time carry with it an entitlement to individual tuition for their child on return to school? And should that take precedence over the needs of the child who has been away ill, or who is slower to assimilate new ideas? How should the teacher prioritise the needs of the 30 or more different children in the class as parents choose to add to the demands? And if the teacher doesn’t manage to fit that in, then the needs of the holiday child will over time affect the progress that the whole class can make: our system is predicated on teacher:student ratios in class of about 1:30, not 1:1, and choosing to remove that one child affects all.

  2. @Jennie Golding This presumes a topic, once presented in class, is never repeated or consolidated.
    No-one has suggested parental choice for taking a term-time holiday brings an ‘entitlement’ to individual tuition.  It does not.  Nor has there been any suggestion that a child who takes a term-time holiday takes ‘precedence’ over slow learners (who should be being catered for in any case) or children who have been away ill.

  3. idontbelieveit

    Janet2  Unfortunately we live in a society where many parents see that it is solely the school’s responsibility to educate their child and not that it has always been a partnership. I have heard many times parents blame the school if the child doesn’t do well without considering the affect their role has had. Maybe this is part of the reason why some parents don’t see that taking their child on holiday in term time as a problem. If we demand good schools and good education then, as parents, we must also play our part as role models by showing our children the importance of education.

  4. idontbelieveit Janet2 True – but there are times when absence is unavoidable.  Illness accounts for far more days off than holidays.   And even ‘holidays’ may not be solely for buying hols more cheaply.   Reasons can include:
    Children at different schools with different term times;
    Parents not being able to get leave of absence for holidays from their employers during school holidays;
    A family tragedy – eg a funeral, or visiting a dying relative, entailing travelling.
    A family celebration – eg a wedding entailing travelling.
    Not all parents who take children out of school for a few days are irresponsible.

  5. idontbelieveit

    Janet2 idontbelieveit  if you read my comments you would have seen that I didn’t say all parents and it is you who has suggested that those that do might be ‘irresponsible’. However, there is a large number who do and not for the reasons you listed. My comments are based on working in education for 30 years and seeing the change in attitudes. It is a symptom of a society that has moved from what’s for the common good to ‘what I want’.

  6. eleonorasfalcon

    mathsolutionz jordyjax 1)Children/families who care about education try to catch up. Kids who hate school and take random days off don’t.

  7. eleonorasfalcon

    mathsolutionz jordyjax 2) Daughters been ill and has been amazing about catching up without me nagging, but quietly she want to do well

  8. eleonorasfalcon

    mathsolutionz jordyjax WantsU0001f633 I’m certain those who’ve been on ‘holiday’ will have caught up too, supportive friends, revision books, web

  9. Hally

    I agree – if a teacher cares about a pupil they do have to give individual support to help that pupil catch up in cumulative subjects such as maths. The poster who suggested that topics are revisited and revised is ignoring the fact that such strategies are designed to build on previous knowledge – this proving the point! If travel companies were stopped from hiking prices during school term time, a major trigger for term time holiday absence would be removed. But far be from me to suggest that children’s education is more important than company profits …

  10. Jon5767

    There’s also the ‘slippery slope’ argument.  If a child can take 1 week off, why not 2… or 4?
    A blanket ban is perceived as much fairer – and it’s easy to communicate.

  11. eleonorasfalcon

    mathsolutionz jordyjax Attendance law makes liars of onside parents/Chn and has no effect on those who are negative about school already

  12. Jon5767 Until September 2013, heads were allowed to sanction at their discretion up to ten school days holiday per year in term time.  This has been the case for decades(I was allowed one week term-time holiday in the early 1960s).  There’s no evidence parents took more and more advantage of the situation.
    That worked fine until Gove decided he would tighten up on this system.  Despite all his rhetoric about trusting heads and letting them have autonomy, he’s taken discretion from them.  This has turned heads into law enforcers with the power to give fines.  This has the potential to sour relations between heads and parents.

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