Saturday 16 December 2017

Taking your children on holidays during school term

Attitudes to taking kids out of school for trips aren't as harsh here as in the UK, where one couple faced a fine after a term-time family holiday, but it is frowned upon, writes Arlene Harris

Mayca Fernandez with her daughter Sofia (6). For Sofia, holidays in Spain are her only link with her culture, says Mayca. Photo: Dave Meehan
Mayca Fernandez with her daughter Sofia (6). For Sofia, holidays in Spain are her only link with her culture, says Mayca. Photo: Dave Meehan
Aisling O'Donoghue with her children Niamh, Fionn and Cian. Photo: Dave Meehan

Arlene Harris

It's a well-known fact that it costs significantly more to take a family break during the school holidays. Everything from flights and hotels to car hire and even activities are hugely inflated during this season. So parents are forced to either hand over the extra money or run the risk of aggravating their school principals by taking their children away during term time.

Due to work commitments, I took my own three boys out of school for a few days towards the end of the term because it wasn't possible for us to go away later in the year. And while it wasn't an ideal situation, I ensured their work was up to scratch and anything missed was covered on their return.

They in turn knew the score and although they didn't relish having to do the extra work after their holiday, it was a fair price to pay.

Also for my own peace of mind, I believed that while they missed a couple of lessons, they would learn so much of the wider world. Whilst away, I found every opportunity to let them practise a few words of a foreign language, get to grips with train timetables and street maps, taste a variety of different foods and visit places which would undoubtedly broaden their horizons.

With only a couple of days until the end of the school year, I didn't feel their absence would leave a mark on their education but if UK officials had their way, I would be penalised heavily and fined for allowing them to miss a few days of school.

Stewart and Natasha Sutherland took their three children to the Greek island of Rhodes for a week during term time and were ordered to pay a £360 (€438) fine. When they neglected to cough up during the allotted 21-day period, the fine was doubled and the couple was warned they could face a jail sentence.

Mr Sutherland (39), who works for the Ministry of Defence Guard Service, said the family struggle to fit in a regular holiday and was desperate to get away.

"It's like a revolving door in our house – I come in from work and my wife goes out," he said.

"We haven't been able to get leave in the school holidays at the same time for five years and we desperately needed a family break."

"I work in a sensitive job where staffing levels have to be maintained – there's been a recruitment and overtime ban and it's been impossible to arrange summer leave that fits in with the rest of the family. I know how important education is – but there's a bigger picture. Family time is important, too and the children's behaviour and schooling has improved massively since our holiday together."

But while the family undoubtedly enjoyed their trip, according to stringent new rules in the UK, parents are legally required to ensure their children don't miss school unless absolutely necessary and failure to do so can land them a fine or even a prison sentence.

While Irish schoolchildren are not permitted to take unnecessary absence from school, there is a softer approach and many parents allow their children to miss a few days a year as they take advantage of lower holiday prices.

Aisling and Sean O'Donoghue from Blackrock in Dublin have taken their two boys – Fionn (8) and Cian (6) – out of school to go on holiday as the family business determines when they can take time off. They firmly believe the British guidelines are over the top.

"I think this ruling is taking things a bit too far," says Aisling. "It is only a new law so the family should have been given the benefit of the doubt as they had booked their trip a year earlier. I believe that each situation is different and parents know their own children and school – if the kids are up to speed with their schoolwork and you're not taking them out all the time then I think it should be okay."

42-year-old Aisling (who also has a three-year-old daughter called Niamh) runs her own company – – which is busiest during the summer months and feels that she can offer customers a better service if she has recently been away with her own children.

"I run my business from home selling everything parents would need to go on holidays with their children – this means I have to travel with my own kids so I can share my experiences with other parents," she says.

"I know it's a nice excuse but I also take them out during term time for a couple of other reasons – firstly if we are flying somewhere, availability and cost is much better at that time of year. And if we are holidaying in Ireland, we get a decent few days away rather than a rushed two-day trip. Family time is so precious and we are all so busy, so if I have the opportunity to get away with my husband and children, I want to make the most of it.''

Although she has no hesitation in allowing her children to miss a few days of school, the business-woman has only taken them out on a number of occasions and doesn't feel there have been any repercussions so far.

"We've taken the boys out twice before, once for a trip to London last October to visit my sister and to go to Legoland in Windsor which was fantastic and then early last summer to go down the country for a long weekend – so we were out Friday and Monday on both occasions," she says.

"I see travel as educating kids in a fun way because it's good to step outside your routine, for a short while. We have had no negative feedback from other parents or the school as yet and I think while the boys are in the lower primary classes it's okay.

"We've also been very lucky in that our kids are quite healthy so apart from the couple of trips, they have missed no school time at all. I'd imagine if they were missing days here and there, the school would have a problem."

The Dublin family plan to go away again this year during the school season and believe the benefits far outweigh any negative aspects.

"I feel that the last month of school before the summer holidays, is very quiet," says Aisling. This year we plan to take them out for a week during that month and hope to take a camping trip to France. The summer is a really busy time for me so I try to get away early."

"Also availability of the holiday I want is a huge advantage when travelling during term time and the fact that everywhere is simply packed from July 1 to August 31 makes travel during that period unattractive to me.

"The cost of travelling during holiday season is nearly double what it is during off-peak and I think that while my kids are young, I'm going to take advantage of the value and peace where I can."

Mayca Fernandez agrees but she also feels it is a necessity for her to take her children out of school during term time. Married to Paul Egan and running her own organic beauty business called the Spanish-born mother has three children – Alba (19), Nico (17) and Sofia (6) who need to visit Spain in order to spend time with their relatives.

"I have taken my children out of school a couple of times for a maximum of four days each time," says the 45-year-old.

"Because my family is in Spain, we only see them once a year and being from Malaga – which is one of the most popular holidays destinations in Europe, prices are very expensive in high season.

"For us visiting Spain is more than a holiday and it really means a lot especially for little Sofia and my parents who are 80 years old and miss her so much. For Sofia it is the only connection with Spanish culture, weather, food and customs and she also can practise the language and learn more about her Spanish roots. We try to fly in low season when tickets are cheaper but I don't like the fact that my children miss school so this actually puts a lot of pressure on us. We came to Ireland five years ago and I only started my business two years ago so things have been tough in terms of money – I have to juggle many factors in order to visit my family but I feel this is very important for both me and my children."

The Spanish mother says that her children have been reprimanded for time taken out of school and she thinks that parents should be allowed some leeway when it comes to their child's education.

"I believe there should be some room for common sense from both the parents and the school.

"We have had negative feedback a couple of times when the children missed the first days of the year because we were in Spain and some teachers reproached them about this in front of everyone in the class but I don't think it should have been a big deal. I think it's all about common sense and communicating your own circumstances to the school. Because the school rules are good in general, I totally respect them but also feel that rules are relative so should be discussed. But I would never abuse the system and take two weeks out as I believe this is would make a significant difference to a child's progress."

So while most parents are in agreement that missing school unnecessarily is not a good thing for their child's education, sometimes work commitments and the exorbitant hike in travel prices means the only way the family will get away is for the children to miss a couple of days of school.

Fuelled by outrage over the hefty fine and potential jail term faced by the Sutherland family, parents in the UK have taken matters into their own hands and have set up a Facebook page entitled Holiday Price Increase which has thousands of followers and aims to bring a petition to parliament in a bid to urge the government there to force travel companies to retain reasonable prices throughout the year.

Fines and jail sentences don't seem to be in the pipeline for Irish parents who take their children out of school, but if the bad weather continues and prices continue to double during official holiday time, more and more parents may feel that the only option is for their children to miss a few days during the term.

We all want the best education possible for our children, but life is short and families need to spend time together so perhaps it is also time for some change in Ireland.


'It can disrupt a child's education ...'

Maria Doyle, principal of Our Lady of Mercy Primary School in Waterford, says taking holidays during term time is not advisable as it can disrupt a child's education but the number of people doing this has reduced greatly in recent years.

"During the Celtic Tiger years, the instances of families taking children on holiday during term time reached an all-time high," she says.

"But since the recession hit, this trend has reversed significantly and parents are regularly reminded that frequent school absences – for whatever reason – are not in the best interest of their child."

But holidays during term time do happen and the principal says if parents cannot take their children away at any other time of the year, she will make allowances.

"The influx of International families into our schools over the past 10 years has contributed to the numbers taking holidays during term time as many of these families head back to their homelands at intervals during the school year for a variety of reasons," she says.

"Our board of management has always held the view that while it is desirable that our pupils should be in school without interruption for the full school year, parents are never refused permission to take children on holiday during term time if this is unavoidable.

The board does request a letter outlining the duration of the absence and why it is necessary to be taken during term time."

Understanding the varying family situations, Doyle says that while parents would probably prefer not to take their children out of school, sometimes there is no other option.

"The complex nature of what constitutes a family unit in modern Ireland means children may be taken away at different times during the school year by either parent," she says. "It would be unrealistic to place an impediment in the way of a child spending time with either parent.

"Also, the significant hike in the cost of foreign holidays and flights when schools take traditional breaks can make taking holidays at this time impossible for many families."

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