JavaScript disabled. Please enable JavaScript to use My News, My Clippings, My Comments and user settings.

If you have trouble accessing our login form below, you can go to our login page.

If you have trouble accessing our login form below, you can go to our login page.

No safe level of missing school, study finds


Amy Mcneilage and Timna Jacks

Missing just one day of school has negative consequences for a student’s academic achievement, the first major study linking poor attendance to lower NAPLAN results has found.

And school attendance patterns established as early as year 1 can predict how often a student will show up to class right throughout high school, according to the research.

Australia is alarmingly slack when it comes to school attendance, with high school students skipping more days of school than almost any other developed country.

On Monday, the harmful effects of that absenteeism will be detailed by the results of a study to be presented at the Australian Council for Educational Research’s annual conference.

An analysis of the attendance records and NAPLAN results of more than 400,000 students from Western Australia found any absence of school leads to a slip in academic performance.

The study dispels the common belief there is a safe level of absence students can get away with before their grades will suffer.

“We were able to show that actually every day counts and days that you’re missing in year 3 and year 5, we can detect that all the way through to year 9,” the report’s co-author Professor Stephen Zubrick from the University of Western Australia said.

“A 10 day period of unauthorised absence in a year is sufficient to drop a child about a band in the NAPLAN testing.”

The most startling finding, he said, was that students arrive in year 1 “with their school attendance careers already in their pockets”.

“For most children, year 1 sets the pattern for what school attendance will look like in the future,” Dr Zubrick said. “You’re learning more than reading and writing. You’re learning to show up.”

While poor attendance is a problem across the socioeconomic spectrum, families in affluent areas often interrupt schooling for overseas holidays.

Dr Zubrick insists his message is not about finger-wagging or guilt trips, but says “we do need to recognise that when a child is standing on the Eiffel Tower so to speak, they may be learning a lot about the world but they’re not necessarily learning everything they’d be learning at school.”

Principle of Lauriston Girls’ School Susan Just said the school does not endorse families taking holidays during school time, and while students may take homework on a trip, they risk missing out on the "classroom experience".

She said acceptable grounds for leave could include health complications or athletic and cultural commitments sanctioned by the school.

Brighton College principal Julie Podbury said the school does not consider a family holiday to be an appropriate reason for missing school, but acknowledged that overseas travel can be beneficial to children.

“If the students go overseas, it impacts on their education. If they’re not engaged in any part of their education, they can fall behind the class and returning to school can be traumatic,” she said.

But Ms Podbury conceded that extended family travel can be “educational and enlightening". "There are things you just cannot learn in the classroom," she said.

In a major international survey of 15-year-olds, conducted by the OECD in 2012, almost one-third of Australian students said they had skipped at least one day of school in the previous two weeks.

That means Australian students skip school more frequently than any other developed country except Turkey and Italy. In high-performing countries such as Japan and Korea that figure was less than 2 per cent. 

Chris Chant, the headmaster of Gardenvale Primary School, said absenteeism is a long-standing challenge of the school, with up to 10 of the 430 families withdrawing their kids during the year for travel.

Mr Chant said younger students were at greater risk of suffering academically after extended absenteeism, but older kids can stay afloat by keeping a travel diary, sending postcards to their teachers, learning a new language and keeping up to date with homework.

He added if parents were going to pull their kids out of school, it was up to them to ensure the trip is enriching.

“If the parents just want to go to Bali to buy cheap souvenirs and sit on the beach, you have to question their logic. But if it’s a four-week-tour of Italy, that’s different,” he said. “In some cases, kids will get to see things that I and the teachers can’t provide.”

Kate Ulman, mother of three from Daylesford, pulled her three daughters out of kindergarten and school for six months to drive through Australia in a caravan with her husband in 2011.

Ms Ulman said her three children, then under the age of 10, were travelling in a makeshift classroom, as they wrote journal entries, calculated distances and figured out how much petrol they would need and the cost of refuelling the caravan.

“We really are of the belief that what we teach them at home and  in their natural environment is as important as what they get at school,” said Ms Ulman, who plans to take the family overseas for another six months in 2015.

“As far as I’m concerned, the kids fit in socially and academically after the trip.”


  • I spent a year travelling the world with my family when I was 7 (camping). It was easily the most significant experience of my childhood. I have 3 university degrees and doing a 4th!

    Date and time
    August 03, 2014, 10:49AM
    • Similar. My family took me and my brother out of school every single year up until year 10 for an overseas holiday. Never harmed me at all and each time I wrote my experiences down and presented the. At school. Methinks these researchers and the principal of Lauriston need to get out a bit more and stop being so regimented. Probably explains why we DO have an education issue these days. Ultimately, a child's education comes down to the support of the family, no support and you can be going to the best school but you are still going to be a louse.

      Date and time
      August 03, 2014, 12:11PM
    • It's also important that we don't all turn out the same.

      If everyone grows up in the exact same circumstances then we're creating a homogenized culture, and that will make us dull.And possibly less able to survive as a species.

      Diversity is to be encouraged, not dissuaded.

      Date and time
      August 03, 2014, 12:57PM
    • Me too. My sisters and I were taken out of school every year for a month in August, so that we could spend time with our European family over a northern summer period. We did a little homework every morning. We weren't wealthy, not by any stretch, but were simply able to travel on standby as our father worked for an airline. He did this so that we could all travel together like this. We were considered an oddity in the economically and socially stagnant place we grew up in.

      Looking back on this in my 40s, I can really appreciate how this has contributed to great personal and professional success. I am completely bilingual, and can be understood in another 3 languages. We had a vastly expanded worldview presented to us, and have carried it throughout our lives. This makes one think about things differently, more expansively, more elastically, more tangentially. These are not things that can be learnt in school, especially in the geographically isolated position we Australians live in.

      So it depends on where and how, but in principle I see no great problem in taking kids out of school to see the world.

      Date and time
      August 03, 2014, 1:06PM
    • You mustn't have taken any statistics courses because clearly you don't understand the insignificance of an anecdote in the levels of evidence.

      Date and time
      August 03, 2014, 1:55PM
    • Yeah, yeah, yeah but none of you travellers then went and sat a NAPLAN test did you?

      Don't you realise that NAPLAN is the be all and end all of our school education system? There is no greater or more important goal than a good NAPLAN score. And if the happiness and well being of a few children need to be sacrificed to the god of NAPLAN then so be it. It's a small price to pay..........

      Average Joe
      Date and time
      August 03, 2014, 2:54PM
    • Adrian. I have done a lot of stats. It's precisely this sort of quantitative research that fails to explore experience and complexity. If comments aren't for exploring theses things what are they for Adrian, being smart arsed and nasty?

      Date and time
      August 03, 2014, 3:26PM
  • They may miss some school, but as a family they look deliriously happy.

    Date and time
    August 03, 2014, 10:53AM
    • Cat. Top comment and very true. That is a great photo and the kids are learning all about life. Awesome. Proud of these folks and happy for their children.

      Date and time
      August 03, 2014, 11:52AM
    • Agreed. Very together looking family. Big difference between families that let the kids skive off school and watch TV all day, and those who remove their kids for what can be a far superior 'education'.

      cuts both ways
      Date and time
      August 03, 2014, 12:36PM

More comments

Comments are now closed

HuffPost Australia

Follow Us

Featured advertisers