Truancy is obviously damaging to a child's education, but so is its well-to-do relative: family holidays during term. For the first time in its annual analysis of school attendance, the Ministry of Education counted the number of children taken out of school for a holiday and discovered it accounted for more than 10 per cent of all unjustified absences last year.
Many parents think nothing of taking their children out of school for a week when it suits them to take a holiday. They may be surprised the ministry catalogues their child's absence as "unjustified", but let them be honest. It probably is. The fact that air fares and accommodation packages may be cheaper outside school holiday periods is poor justification when weighed against the disruption to a carefully planned educational programme.
The parents tell themselves (and the school) their children will have a rich educational experience where they are going, and the school does not argue. Principals and teachers know there is nothing they can do. The trip has been booked and the family are going regardless.
The best a teacher can do is outline what the child will miss and maybe suggest some reading they could do, but knowing it is unlikely. The teacher will have to spend some additional time with the child when they get back. That may disrupt lessons for the rest of the class a little, which probably has not crossed the minds of the happy holiday-makers.
After all, they will tell themselves, the same catch-up would be necessary if their child was off sick for a week. Class programmes must be disrupted by absences for all sorts of reasons. That may be so, but it does not excuse avoidable absences. Illness is accepted as a justified absence, family holidays are now wholly in the ministry's unjustified category with plain truancy.
The good news in the ministry's report is the 23,000 pupils taken out of school during term time last year are only 3.6 per cent of pupils surveyed. The proportion might have been expected to be much higher. Quite a number of parents of school-age children appear to think nothing of taking the kids away from class whenever it suits.
The fact that the survey has found so few do so ought to cause those few to reflect. They are out of step with the great majority of New Zealanders with school-age children who instil in their youngsters a commitment to their education and their school. To discover the meaning of commitment is one of the most valuable experiences imparted by compulsory schooling.
School holidays provide a family with four opportunities a year, totally 12 weeks in all, to go away together. There is no need to be encroaching on the 40 precious weeks that children are in school. Teachers have a great deal to get through in those 40 weeks. Every hour of every day will have been planned to make the maximum use of children's attention span and need of activities.
Parents expect teachers to do their bit. They would resent a need for a reliever because a teacher has gone skiing. Education requires the parents' commitment too.