Education Department Crackdown on Holidaying Students: What Will This Mean for Schools?

Child Vacation

Parents may wish to take their children out of school to go on a vacation or to celebrate a birthday – research released during 2017 suggested that two-thirds of parents would be happy to have their children absent from school to take them for a fortnight’s holiday. Some educational experts suggest such practices are ‘harmless’ but others counsel that they may have an adverse educational impact.

In 2015, a report looking at the attendance records and NAPLAN results of WA students found an absence from school leads to a drop in academic performance. The report also said that a 10-day period of unauthorised absence in a year was enough for a child to drop one band in NAPLAN. Ahead of the commencement of Term 3 for schools, the Western Australian Department of Education released figures which show that one in seven unexplained student absences in the first half of 2017 related to students going on family holidays with their parents. Further statistics suggest that 40% of unauthorised absences in higher socio-economic schools occur due to holidays.

In response to these statistics, the Western Australian Department of Education has publicly criticised these practices by parents, and warned them that they are breaking the law by doing so.

The Legal Attendance Duty of Parents in Western Australia

The School Education Act 1999 (WA) covers attendance requirements, and absenteeism, for students enrolled in Western Australian government and non-government schools. Under section 38, it is an offence for a parent of a child of compulsory school age who is enrolled at a school to fail to ensure that section 23 is complied with by the child. The child also commits an offence if there is a failure to comply with section 23. The maximum penalty for this offence is $1,000 for the parent and $10 for the child.

Section 23 states that a student must, on the days on which the school is open for instruction, either attend the school at which they are enrolled, or otherwise participate in an educational programme. Section 25 sets out that a student is excused from attending school or participating in an educational programme if the following criteria are met:

  • the student is prevented from attending/participating by temporary physical/mental incapacity (i.e. illness) or any other reasonable cause
  • a responsible person (i.e. the parent of a student under 18 years of age) has notified the school principal of the cause for non-attendance as soon as is practicable and in any case within 3 school days of the day non-attendance started
  • a medical certificate is provided to support an incapacity cause, if requested to do so by the principal.

Reasonable cause is not defined under the Act, but the Department of Education’s website states that the Authorised Absence code ‘Reasonable Cause’ should be used when the principal has deemed the reason provided as being acceptable, other than an absence due to suspension, cultural absence, illness or family holiday. One code for Authorised Absences is for ‘Vacation’. This may be used when the absence has been negotiated in advance and the principal is satisfied that reasonable grounds for authorising the absence apply. Completion of a work package (i.e. ‘vacation homework’) during the period of absence may be requested by the principal. This indicates that only certain ‘approved’ (and pre-approved) family holidays are permissible.

Attendance Requirements in Other Jurisdictions

Every Australian state and territory jurisdiction, under its relevant Education Act or equivalent, places a duty upon parents to ensure that their child attends the school in which they are enrolled, and most specify that this attendance is required on each designated school day or part thereof. In the ACT, there is a further requirement that the parent ensures that their child attends every activity of the school that the school requires the child to attend.

In every jurisdiction there is an offence related to this duty. All jurisdictions except for the ACT and Victoria make it an offence to fail to ensure the child’s attendance without reasonable excuse. The penalties range from $500 in SA to $2750 in NSW. NSW, NT and Qld also have greater penalties for repeated offences. Under the Tasmanian equivalent provision, a fine of $318 can be issued for each day during which the offence continues.

In the ACT and Victoria, there is no specific offence for parents to fail to comply with the legislative duty. However, it is an offence to fail to respond to, or comply with, a notice issued to them about their child’s non-attendance.

There appears to be a shift towards increased stringency in relation to school attendance requirements across Australia. For example, the former ACT attendance policy for public schools stated that an example of a ‘reasonable excuse’ for a child’s absence may include ‘family holidays or extended visits overseas’ as well as ‘sanctioned extended absence in relation to children of travelling families’. In the current policy, however, the former has been removed, so that only a ‘sanctioned absence’ may be considered reasonable in relation to holidays and travel.

In NSW, the Exemption from School Procedures policy previously stated that principals may grant exemptions due to exceptional circumstances such as participation in family holidays where this is in the best educational interests of the child. This basis was removed as a formal exemption in 2015. At the time, a spokesperson for the Department of Education stated that the removal was to ensure students were at school “every day they are able”.

How Should Schools Respond to These Trends?

While the legal obligations of parents to their children is under the spotlight, schools also have an obligation to manage the attendance of students, often as part of their minimum requirements for ongoing registration.

Each Education Act places some level of responsibility upon a school and/or its principal to keep a register of attendances to monitor student attendance and absences. Many of these Acts also require schools to establish procedures to encourage regular student attendance and to help parents to encourage their children to regularly attend. A key component of these procedures is often communicating the legal requirement to parents and the potential school disciplinary and legal consequences that may follow.

All schools, particularly non-government schools, manage student attendance in their own way according to their approach to education and development, which will clearly manifest in the kinds of absences that are permitted or discouraged.

However, many schools have publicly-available attendance policies which are out of sync with their jurisdictions’ current expectations for attendance, by still referring to exemptions for family holidays (as discussed above) that have since been removed. Consequently, schools need to ensure that the procedures they have in place to manage and monitor attendance are compliant with legislation and their registration obligations.

About the Author

Kieran Seed is a Legal Research Consultant and School Governance reporter. He can be contacted here.

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