As schools resume today after their winter break they will have learning programmes prepared for all classes for the coming term. They ought to be able to expect the pupils to be present for the whole programme, barring illness. Unfortunately, that will not be the only reason some children miss a week or two. In too many cases, it is their parents' decision.
The propensity of some people to take their children away from school in term time is staggering. It is a problem, as we reported on Friday, that the schools call "parent-condoned truancy". Some of it is caused by poverty, when pupils are kept at home to care for younger siblings so parents can go to work. But it is not confined to the poor. Better-off parents sometimes think nothing of taking their children away from classes for a holiday.
These people are not thinking at all. They may be under the illusion that school lessons are random exercises, easily repeated if necessary, no particular loss if their child misses a few of them. They are certainly not thinking of the rest of the class that might be held up while their child catches up, or thinking of the teacher who has to get the class through a required curriculum and whose task is made harder when any pupil falls off the pace.
There will be rare occasions when a mid-term trip overseas can be justified. A bereavement or some other significant family gathering, perhaps. But too often, according to principals, the family is taking the trip in term time for no better reason than the lower cost of air travel outside school holidays.
The parents normally ask permission of the school but the school feels it is not in a position to refuse. As one principal told our reporter, "The parents are clearly going, there is not a lot of point saying no". The best the school can do, he said, is send a letter stressing the child should take some schoolwork to do while away and stressing they will need to catch up when they return.
It is hard to suggest much else that schools could do. They could take a harder line by giving no help to the children to catch up, and warning parents so before they go, but it is always wrong to make a child pay for an adult's irresponsibility. If education ranks below a cheap holiday in a parent's priorities, the child's progress is probably suffering anyway.
Probably the best that schools can do is to stress the importance of attendance at every opportunity, which they no doubt do. And no doubt they could do with some help from outside. They deserve better than the comment by an educationist at Auckland University, Professor Peter O'Connor, who told our reporter that mid-term holidays could benefit a child's education.
"The opportunity to take your child to Florence when they are 9 or 10 years old, and take them out of school for a week. I'd suggest that can have significant impacts on learning for the positive," he said. That sort of comment from a credentialed expert is music to the ears of those looking for self-justification, few of whom will be going to Florence.
Schools these days organise some wondrous trips overseas for senior classes with the help of parents and sponsors. Any parent who genuinely wants to take a child away for supposed educational benefit would be well advised to wait for a class trip. It will involve preparatory study and be part of a coherent programme of learning.
For all other purposes there are four school holiday periods in the year amounting to 12 weeks in all. That is surely more than enough.
Anyone taking a pupil out of school during a term for no good reason should feel a cold draught of social disapproval. It might help them think again.