Kate Ulman (left) with husband Brendon and daughters (from left) Indigo, 13, Jarrah, 10, and Pepper, 6, on their Musk Vale farm. Photo: Getty Images/Paul Jeffers
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.
Illustration: Matt Golding.
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.”
Principal 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.”