Are term time holidays damaging? expert interprets Dfe data

“Education Secretary misleads over damage caused by term time holidays”, says Education Professor.​

Research published by the Department for Education fails to show a link between pupil absences from school and their attainment, despite claims by Education Secretary, Nicky Morgan it does.

Acording to Stephen Gorard, Professor of Education at Durham University, the minister makes a common , but hard to excuse, mistake in interpreting the data:

“A new report by the Department for Education in England has shown again a clear correlation between absences from school and lower attainment at Key Stages 2 and 4.

This has been reported in the national press. It led the education secretary, Nicky Morgan, to say “The myth that pulling a child out of school for a holiday is harmless to their education has been busted by this research… missing school can have a lasting effect on a pupil’s life chances”

What she and some commentators have done is to confuse a correlation with a clear case of causation. This is a common mistake but still hard to excuse when dealing with issues of real policy importance.

The study is based on an association not a causal link. The report itself says that there are many other things which should be taken into account “such as the strong link from prior attainment and the link between different pupil characteristics and attainment”. We do not know whether the children with short absences from school would have done worse anyway.

The DfE report is “based on all absences for whatever reason”. It could be that both the tendency to be absent from school and to achieve lower average grades are produced by some other cause. An obvious possibility would be illness, with sickly children or those facing other challenges more likely to have to miss school – and less likely to do well at school anyway.

Finally, estimates of the benefits of attending school for an extra whole year, as opposed to not attending school at all, suggest the difference would only be around 5% in terms of maths test scores. But the DfE is reporting a difference of 25% in attainment within one Key Stage, linked to only 14 days of absence.

These factors all show the education secretary’s claims must be misleading. There is no evidence in these figures that short absences cause lower attainment, and nothing that even links absence for a holiday to lower attainment.

This is not to condone absence from school. Absence may indeed cause lower attainment. But we just do not know on the basis of the evidence presented by DfE.”

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