You either were that kid or you were jealous of that kid: the one whose parents plucked them out of school to visit Disneyland, or see the pyramids, or even live in Tokyo for a few months.
But from this month in Tasmania, the rules have been tightened. It’s left parents worrying that they could face fines or legal battles should they break them.
What has happened in Tasmania?
Previously, there was more discretion: a school principal could approve absences that were for “any reasonable cause”, which could include overseas holidays.
But now the rules say students can essentially only be excused for sickness or incapacity.
“The Department of Education strongly encourages families and carers to plan family holidays, and other avoidable absences, in the three months when a child is not required to attend school,” a spokeswoman said.
What’s the situation in the rest of the country?
The rules differ state by state, territory by territory.
In New South Wales and Queensland, families are discouraged from taking holidays mid-term. In Victoria, it’s said to be acceptable when there’s advance notice. The rules are less clear elsewhere.
Rebecca English, an education lecturer at the Queensland University of Technology, explained how the rules differ state-by-state in an article for The Conversation.
Is there anything that schools can actually do to stop you?
According to Dr English, not really.
“I’ve never heard of fines being given,” she said.
Dr English says schools might not be happy about parents taking their children on holidays mid-term, and might kick up a fuss, but there’s not much more they can do.
She says that’s because parental choice is enshrined in education legislation across the country, and it’s these laws that allow parents to opt for private or home schooling over state education.
“If the law says that we have the right to choose the school for our children, then the law says that we have the right to choose what is best for their education,” Dr English said.
“You cannot have one without the other.”
She says she knows of a family who wanted to take their children out of Catholic school for a trip to Vanuatu. The school told them they couldn’t, but in the end, it was “all bluster”.
Dr English says students can even be taken out of school for an entire year without having to do home schooling.
But there can be consequences, right?
Yes. Dr English said there can be serious academic repercussions, particularly if the absence is during the senior years of high school.
As well, she says planned absences are one thing; truancy is another.
“If your kid is just leaving and going to the mall and hanging out for weeks at a time, that is a different thing to the parent making a choice,” she said.
But even then, she says the power of the state to do anything about it is limited by the circumstances of the parent. For instance, some parents could be forced onto a cashless welfare card as a result of their child’s truancy, but this penalty wouldn’t apply to a wealthier parent.
There are also fines for truancy, but the 2014 Forrest Review found these weren’t being used:
“The number of fines imposed on parents for cases of truancy by any particular state or territory government over a 12-month period is very low, yet the incidence of truancy is very high.
“This seems to be wilful negligence by governments and a refusal to enforce their own laws. In Victoria, for example, it is reported that there have been no truancy fines at all since 2006. In Queensland in 2011, just two fines were imposed, yet 36,000 students missed 20 days or more of school in the first semester of that year alone.”
As well, there are limits to how long a child can miss school. Education is compulsory across Australia and parents can face fines or court action for non-compliance.
What should you do if you want to take your child out of school for a trip?
Dr English says you should approach the teacher first and let them know.
“It would be good to warn him/her you’re going to send an email to them and the principal letting them know the dates the children will be away, where they’ll be going, and any work you plan on doing while they’re absent,” she said.
Also: be polite.
Is there an argument to be made in favour of taking children out of school for short periods?
Dr English thinks so.
“We need to have a conversation in this country about what it means to be well educated: is it that they did really well on standardised testing or is it a deeper engagement with the world?”
She says even the two week mid-term trip to Disneyland has educational merit, by sparking conversations about different currencies, cultures, etc.
Many readers told the ABC the same thing on Facebook:
“We didn’t make a habit of it, but I had the chance to take my then 10 year old to China for 2 weeks. I considered that experience would far outweigh whatever she missed in 10 days of school,” Anne Mitchell said.
“If you have the opportunity to travel it is great for the family and the children! The world is a great place to learn. Kids don’t only learn at school, thank God,” Adrian Thorts Somerville said.
However, not everyone was on board:
“Some parents clearly do not see the importance of an education. Come on guys, you have school holidays for things like that,” Loretta Seeber said.
“So over kids always being taken out of class in term time. Seems like education is not as valued as holidays. The kids miss heaps of important lessons and learning time when they are gone,” Suzanne Spiers said.