Research doesn't prove short breaks from school cause poorer pupil attainment

23 February 2015
What was claimed

Research finds short term breaks from school are harmful to pupil attainment.

Our verdict

The research doesn't prove that holidays cause poorer attainment, only that pupils with higher rates of absence overall perform less well.

"The myth that pulling a child out of school for a holiday is harmless to their education has been busted by this research." Nicky Morgan, Secretary of State for Education, 22 February 2015

Short breaks can reduce a pupil's chances of succeeding at school by up to a quarter in England, according to new research published by the Department for Education over the weekend. The story featured in the Guardian, Telegraph and the Times (£).

The Education Secretary said the findings justified government initiatives to "encourage more pupils back into class by toughening up on term-time holidays and attendance". But the report doesn't explicitly look at whether term time holidays cause poorer attainment.

The government initiatives can only improve absence rates by so much too, since illness—not term-time holidays—is persistently the most common reason for absence. It accounted for 58% of all absences in the latest figures (for 2012/13) while family holidays accounted for 11%.

Just because pupils with higher absence rates performed less well doesn't mean that better attendance would definitely improve their performance either. Higher rates of absence can be seen among pupils from more deprived areas and among pupils eligible for Free School Meals. The research doesn't look at whether characteristics such as these are the reason for worse performance rather than the absence itself.

Further research, taking these factors into account, will be published in summer 2015.

When the Department last conducted research on the topic in 2011 it found that pupil performance at Key Stage Two (normally 11 year olds) didn't change very much when children were absent because of authorised family holidays, even if they were absent up to 20% of the time. Long term absences due to exclusions or illnesses did tend to be associated with poorer pupil performance.

At Key Stage Four (normally 16 year olds), both authorised and unauthorised family holidays were associated with poorer pupil performance, though short authorised holidays weren't.

But again, the report said that it couldn't isolate whether the absence from school was the cause or whether the causes of absenteeism were—for example, persistent absentees were more likely to report being bullied or to have negative aspirations and feelings about school.

Image courtesy of Luke Ma.

Update 21 October 2015

As far as we're aware, the Department for Education hasn't published the further research yet. We're waiting to hear back from the Department with confirmation of this.

Update 22 October 2015

The Department confirmed to us no update to the research has been published yet, although it is expected to be published in the next few weeks.

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