Mama Holiday: Lying to get kids out of school for holidays

I have a confession to make: I’m a pathological liar. But only when it comes to taking the kids out of school for holidays.

It used to be easy. You’d mutter something about “Gold Coast” and “peak season” and the teacher/principal would smile benignly and let you go. Now? Well, you’ve either got to travel at triple the price during the school break, or invent a distant relative to knock off in order to attend a funeral.

I’m not making this up. Education Departments in New South Wales and Victoria have cracked down on absenteeism.

Parents of children in Victoria who are absent without a “reasonable excuse” for at least five days face fines of $70.

Excuses include bereavement, cultural observance, special events, and family holidays, “where the parent notifies the school in advance and the student completes a Student Absence Learning Plan”.

“A day missed in primary school could be the day the class learns a fundamental maths technique, which can have flow-on effects,” says Victorian Education Minister Martin Dixon. In NSW, principals have been told to investigate any student who misses classes for 10 or more days without good reason.

“We believe there is a double standard applying when parents tell their children they must achieve high learning outcomes while simultaneously taking them out of school to go on holidays,” says Australian Primary Principals’ Association president Norm Hart.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m passionate about education. Hey, I come from a family of teachers. But I see no harm in taking young kids out for a couple of days, even weeks, a year. (Of course, it’s different when they’re in high school.) Many families can’t afford to go away during school holidays.

Rampant absenteeism is usually the result of poor parenting – not the occasional trip up the coast. “People taking their kids out of school to go skiing, well, we’re not really concerned about that,” a spokesman from the Department of Education and Communities says.

“The main problem is truancy, and parents who generally don’t do the right thing.”

Since the new law came into effect in Victoria earlier this year, there have been no prosecutions: only 11 attendance notices to “start a conversation” about absences.

However, I’m concerned we’ll end up like Britain, where a quarter of primary school leaders have fined parents for taking kids out of school for “unauthorised holidays” since September last year, according to a survey conducted by The Key consultancy. This prompted one mother to start an e-petition calling on the British government to stop companies charging extra during school holidays. The reality is, market forces will prevail.

In the meantime, law-abiding citizens will continue to lie.

Filling out an exemption form before the Easter holidays, I ticked the box next to Exceptional Domestic Circumstances with the reason “family reunion”, so we could leave earlier to get cheaper flights. “Gee, we have a lot of family reunions, don’t we?!” nine-year-old Taj exclaimed, watching me write this for the 10th time. “Bloody bureaucracy,” I snarled, like the cartoon dog, Mutley.

Whatever happened to good old-fashioned common sense?