Why taking your kids out of school for a holiday is OK

Family travel: Education doesn't begin and end at school.
Family travel: Education doesn't begin and end at school. Photo: Getty

Would you take your child out of school for a family holiday? 

The NSW Department of Education thinks you shouldn't, introducing new guidelines that penalise parents for taking students on 'unjustified' leave. In other places, such as Britain, it's a finable offence that could potentially lead to jail.

Try taking your child out of a French public school during term, for instance. When we were living in Paris, we needed to take our primary-school age daughter out of school during term to travel to Australia. Naturally, we sought her school principal's permission. But the principal's approval wasn't enough. We needed the permission of the bureaucrats at the local town hall. Finally, I had to line up with hundreds of other immigrants at the Prefecture of Police to get something called an aller-retour visa, which was the official stamp saying that her trip had been sanctioned by the government.

Hagia Sophia: Lessons in history and architecture.
Hagia Sophia: Lessons in history and architecture. Photo: iStock

Truancy is an issue, not just in France, and most educators agree that there's a strong correlation between attendance and performance. The consistency of uninterrupted studies is deemed to be the one of the important factors in a child's growth into a well-educated human being.

But many people don't believe education begins and ends at school. I know there are some parents who actively plan a major international trip for their family every year or two, when they can afford it, sometimes outside school holiday times, or at least long enough to extend beyond the parameters of the official holidays. Many of these parents are motivated by the belief that travel is good for their children, an important adjunct to the learning done in the schoolroom. 

Travel doesn't have to be specifically course-related, such as the student of Japanese visiting Japan to hear the language spoken. It might simply relate to a general broadening of horizons, of experiencing and absorbing another culture on the ground in a non-dogmatic way. These parents believe they are best placed to make decisions on what can benefit their child.

Children jump in the Trocadero fountains, in front of the Eiffel tower, in Paris.
Children jump in the Trocadero fountains, in front of the Eiffel tower, in Paris. Photo: AP

I imagine that even the most rigid principal probably would not have problems with the occasional educational trip, as long as the child kept up with their homework while they were away. But there are other reasons families travel in school time. One is to avoid the price gouging that happens during school holidays, when airfares, accommodation and even some food costs are inflated for a captive audience. There's also the prospect of holiday destinations being overly crowded at these times.

Many parents can't always get time off work during school holidays. Sometimes both work in different professions with different annual schedules that don't tally with the education department's schedule. If the family wants to holiday together, it needs to happen at some stage during the school year. And some parents consider the bonds of family as least as equal as education.

There are some who fairly argue that teachers are not merely babysitters, there to be ignored at a parent's whim. When a child takes off time from their studies it creates extra work for the teacher so that the child doesn't fall behind. Some people do have a sense of self-entitlement about everything – they do what they want when they want, regardless that there's a system in place that's trying to be fair to all kids. Sporadic attendance by some children is disruptive to the class as a whole. 

I note that the NSW Department of Education considers absence justified if it involves attending elite sports, or arts or entertainment industry. In other words, if your child is a champion junior tennis player or has a role on Neighbours, it's fine. But that still doesn't help the parent who believes two months spent in China or a few weeks on an art tour of Europe is invaluable to their child's development.  

Where do I stand on this? I'm in favour of the occasional cultural trip abroad even if it's in school time. But it very much depends on the nature of the trip. Where are you taking the kids? To visit the Hagia Sophia, or to hang out on a beach in Byron? Is the child coping well at school or struggling? Will the trip be during important academic terms, such as test periods or HSC? 

I think we need to develop tolerant, broad-minded world citizens. Take your kids with you if you can, but make sure they share their experiences with those who are left behind.