Church to back down on Easter holiday stance

London, UK - The Church of England has indicated that it is ready to abandon its opposition to the link between Easter and the school holidays as schools in England brace themselves for mass pupil absences later this month.

This year Easter is the earliest it has been since 1913 with Easter Sunday falling on March 23. Pupils in two thirds of local authorities will have days off on Good Friday (March 21) and Easter Monday (March 24), but will then have to return to school until start of the school holidays on Friday April 4.

Teachers fear that some parents wanting to take advantage of their own time off from work over the Easter Bank holiday will simply pull their children out of school to take them away during the week before or after Easter, rather than wait for the official school break two weeks later.

John Dunford, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “There is a real risk that parents will pull children out of school during term time.”

This is most likely to happen in local authorities that are adjacent to other authorities where the spring school holidays coincide with the religious festival, he added.

The Church of England has in the past opposed proposals that would cut the connection between Easter and the spring school holiday, because of fears that this would erode the Christian basis of one of the nation's shared holidays and upset the "rhythm" of national life.

Eight years ago, the Church objected strongly when some local authorities introduced a six-term school year.

But the Church told The Times that dioceses now would be unlikely to object if any of its faith schools broke the link between the Easter and the holiday to match neighbouring local authority schools. The bonus for the Church is that if the link is broken, they can expect to have the children at school for themed assemblies during Holy Week, one of the most important in the Christian year.

A break in the connection between the festival and the school year would help almost every section of society, including industry, schools, parents and travel companies.

Schools come under intense pressure from the schools inspectorate Ofsted and central government not to authorise parents to take children on holiday during term time, there is nothing they can do to stop it. Any unauthorised absences of this type will show up on the schools performance record and could count against them during an Ofsted inspection.

“Ofsted will see that unauthorised absences have gone up, but they are unlikely to look at the reasons behind this, so schools could suffer,” Dr Dunford said.

Chris Keates, general secretary of the NASUWT teaching union, said: “We are getting more and more reports from our members in schools saying that parents are complaining that the Easter holidays do not coincide with the Easter bank holiday.”

In schools where the Easter holidays coincide with Easter Sunday are unlikely to be hit by mass unauthorised absences, but their pupils will then face a longer, and potentially exhausting, summer term.

The only bright news is that the traditional school Easter holiday price hike for flights and package deals is expected to be less pronounced this year.

A spokesman for the Association of British Travel Agents, said: “The peak in demand and in prices will not be so marked over the Easter weekend because a lot of families will not be travelling then. And because parents will take holidays at different times in April, it will have the effect of staggering demand and prices.”

Widespread dissatisfaction with this year’s Easter holidays is bound to increase pressure on the Local Government Association to persuade more of its members to stick to its standard school year of six terms of near equal length. At present only two thirds do.

The concern about the Easter holiday coincides with publication of figures this week showing that truancy in England's schools rose to record levels last year, with 63,000 pupils skipping class every day, despite more than £1 billion being spent on schemes to boost attendance.

Kevin Brennan, minister for Children, Young People and Families, urged parents not to take children out of school during term time, saying that even a couple of days ‘unofficial holiday’ can have a negative impact on their child’s progress.

“While it’s fair that heads should have the discretion to allow parents holidays in exceptional circumstances, local authorities should not tolerate instances where parents wilfully take their child out of school without authorisation,” he said.

Although the problem of Easter falling on 23 March will not arise again until the year 2160, there are likely to be problems again in 2011, when Easter will be late, falling on April 25.

A Church spokesman said: "We recognise that there are advantages to children being at school during Holy Week - one upside is the opportunity it gives through religious education and collective worship to explore the themes of the days leading up to Christ's crucifixion and resurrection at the appropriate point in the Christian calendar. That said, we would be very surprised indeed if church schools, or indeed any schools, were in class on Good Friday."

He added: "Where Local Education Authorities are recommending the 'standard school year' system, dioceses are unlikely to suggest that voluntary aided church schools retain different holidays to their neighbouring schools. This is mainly because of the inconvenience this could pose to parents whose children go to different schools, or families where one or both parents are teachers. That said, we would be surprised if any school plans to open on Good Friday, which is a Bank Holiday."