Last week it was revealed that up to 100,000 children a year are taken out of class for term-time holidays but, asks SUE LEONARD, just how damaging is this to their education?
As a deluge of holiday offers drops through your letterbox or pops up on the internet, it's tempting to dream of Caribbean beaches or skiing breaks. Meanwhile, the children's summer holidays seem an eternity away - and after the long, wet winter, the whole family could do with a break right now.
So why not take the children out of school for some quality time on holiday together? If you do, you will not be alone.
An MORI poll, carried out for the National Education Welfare Board (NEWB) last week, showed that 16pc of parents take their children out of school for a term-time holiday. That adds up to a whopping 100,000 children. And many parents, it seems, take their kids out of school several times a year.
These figures don't surprise John Carr, General Secretary of INTO, the Union for Primary Schools.
"It would be an accurate reflection of our experience," he says. "Holidays are most expensive during July and August, so parents may decide to go in June. This impacts on primary school. Many parents make the decision to holiday when second level schools break up.
"And it does matter. School attendance is the most important factor in success in learning; worldwide studies have shown that. Most children will miss a few days of school for sickness. Add 10 or 14 days (on holiday) to that, and they will miss a tenth of the school year."
The Education Welfare Act, which came into effect in 2002, stated that no child should miss more than 20 days of school. The school principal is obliged to inform the NEWB if a child exceeds 20 days' absence; and they must state the reasons, and hand on any notes sent in by parents.
Surely this has some effect on the most prolific holidaymakers?
"The rule hasn't really impacted," says Carr. "The NEWB don't have enough resources; it's an issue we discussed at our conference. To be fair to them, they are concentrating their efforts on the chromic non-attendees; on the children who miss 60, 70 and 80 days of school."
Some parents, feeling guilty, ask a teacher for work to be done on the holiday. But this, Carr says, is the worst thing you can do: "The child does not want to do it; and the teacher ends up with a mountain of work to correct afterwards".
There are, though, different types of holiday. If parents take a child to America or Australia, it can be educational.
"That's quite different from two weeks by the pool in Spain," admits Carr. "A pupil of mine went to Australia, and we were delighted when he came back with all the stories. We were able to incorporate that into the learning of the class."
Catherine Daly, mum to Lorcan (10) and Cliodhna (7), took the children out of school for a week to go skiing, and is totally unrepentant.
"Skiing is good exercise, and it's something that you can't do in Ireland," she says. "It's not the first time we've taken them, and it won't be the last.
"Both the children are doing well at school, and I can't see it doing any harm. Two years ago we took them out of school early in the summer, too, because we were getting our house in France organised to let out. We won't be doing that this year."
Catherine isn't alone in feeling that time out of primary school doesn't matter. But some secondary schools certainly won't tolerate unnecessary absenteeism. Micheal McMullan, principal of St Gerard's School in Bray, has a very strong policy.
"Parents are told that in no circumstances should they take their children out during the year," he says. "And they mostly do adhere to that. If children are away when a teacher is introducing the subjective in Spanish, they will find it very difficult to catch up, even if they have only been away for two or three days."
'The trip was fabulous... I've no regrets'
Two years ago when Denyse Woods, an author from Cork, told the school she was taking her daughters, Finola and Tamzin, to Australia during term time, she had a sympathetic response.
"Finola was in transition year at the time and Tamzin in first year, and I had nothing but support from the school. Finola was missing the auditions for one of the transition year plays, and a teacher held a part for her.
"The principal felt it was admirable that we wanted to take our children on holiday with us when so many parents want to leave them behind.
"But she did warn me that she'd have to report me under the Education Welfare Act. And I got a reminder from them, a pamphlet telling me that they must not miss more than 20 days. But no other action was taken."
A diplomat's daughter, Denyse spend her teen years living in Australia, and was anxious to show her children the country she so loved. "They learned so much," she says. "There were huge educational benefits."
Last September Denyse took Tamzin, now 15, out of school to go to the Yemen, as part of a cultural trip she had organised to enable Irish and Yemeni women to exchange life experiences. She loves the country, and got to know the women when she was researching her latest novel, 'Like Nowhere Else'.
"I did have to think long and hard about that one," says Denyse. "Tamzin is in third year, so takes her Junior Certificate in the summer, and she had missed some school time through sickness. But it was a once-off experience and she is still so full of it.
"Her Junior Cert art project is all about the Yemen. It is fabulous. She has so much to go on: the amazing architecture in the Capital, Sana'a; the desert and the women. I have absolutely no regrets."