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There is no substitute for time in the classroom

Date

New research has found that any absence from school hurts academic performance.

EDITORIAL

Every second counts: If you want the best education for your child forget about taking them out of school, even for short breaks.

Every second counts: If you want the best education for your child forget about taking them out of school, even for short breaks.

Travel is an education in itself. Australians are inveterate travellers and those who have taken their child out of school for a family holiday or to visit relatives far away have always had that mantra to fall back on. But new research to be presented at a conference on Monday brings the sobering news that whatever broader benefits travel may bring, it is no substitute for time in the classroom when it comes to educational outcomes - even one day of absence has an effect.

Until now, educators thought there was a threshold of safety when it came to school absence. A certain number of absences could be caught up, but beyond that academic performance would suffer.

Clearly there is a need to let parents know that missing school has educational consequences. 

To the surprise of researchers in Western Australia, however, it seems there is no “safe” threshold - no matter whether the absence is caused by parents not putting a priority on schooling, old-fashioned wagging or travel.

A comparison of the NAPLAN results of more than 400,000 WA students and their records of attendance has found that any absence from school causes a decline in average academic achievement on NAPLAN tests. And the effects of absence are cumulative.

The findings make the tough attendance policies of private schools such as Sydney Grammar look prescient. In 2012, Grammar asked two brothers who took 10 days of unauthorised leave to compete in the World Youth Chess Championships in Brazil to leave the school. At the time, the school’s unyielding attitude was greeted with widespread incredulity.

Data suggests we take a far more casual approach to time away from class than other nations. The most recent Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development survey of 15-year-olds found more than 30 per cent of Australian students had skipped at least one day of school in the previous two weeks. The OECD average was 15 per cent, while in Japan and Korea the figure was less than 2 per cent.

Britain has recently cracked down on truanting, and its tough stand extends to parents who take students out of school for family holidays. Parents can only remove their children in “exceptional circumstances”, cleared by the school. They risk fines and prosecution if they flout the rules. Last year one family was fined ₤630 ($1143) and ordered to ₤300 ($544) in costs for taking their children to Greece. Another couple was fined for taking their children to visit relatives in Australia during term.

We suspect there would be rioting in the school pick-up queues if such measures were imposed here, but if Australia’s future lies in becoming a knowledge economy, surely the most basic step along that road must be keeping our children in school.

Clearly there is a need to let parents know that missing school has educational consequences. This is particularly the case if the absences are for substantial periods of time or occur regularly over a sustained period.

Most importantly, if a pattern of missing school is set early, it continues and gets worse over the child’s school career. Education systems have to focus on keeping kids in the classroom in the early primary years.

Of comfort for parents with wanderlust will be the study’s conclusion that “small amounts of absence, particularly authorised absence, were associated with only small declines in academic achievement”.

But the findings are cause for parents to consider the priority they place on education and attending school as well as whether the savings made from travelling more cheaply outside of school holidays against the potential educational cost to their children. 

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