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The Forgotten Education of a Holiday

11/03/2014 12:26 GMT | Updated 10/05/2014 10:59 BST

From an angry father's rant on Facebook about the extreme travel price hikes during school holidays - to a debate in Westminster Hall, the story that hit the headlines a few weeks ago certainly shows the power of a single voice.

Nothing gets people talking more than the subject of children and parenthood however, one angle really got my attention. Jenny Willott, the consumer affairs minister, said holidays 'should not be at the expense of a child's education,' going on to mention the possible negative impact of missing school.

Holidays as education

The problem that I'm having with this particular argument is that no one has said this - holidays are educational and they contain an education that children will never get from school.

When I was eleven, my uncle organised a family holiday and booked it without consulting anyone else. It fell neatly across the entire of my year 6 SATs exams. My father spoke to the school and they agreed to award me my predicted grades and let me disappear to Crete for a fortnight. My education didn't suffer. Instead of sitting through a handful of what would be hundreds of exams throughout my schooling, I went to Crete and witnessed a culture and language that I still remember vividly. I went to the ruins of Knossos and saw ancient history with my own eyes, something that I had learnt about in school but never had any context for before that moment.

All my other holidays during my childhood were within the school holidays and varied from cycle touring abroad to walking in the Lake District but still, I learnt. I learnt how to navigate and understand the weather in the Lakes and while cycle touring, I learnt how to communicate despite a language barrier, how different nations lived and how generous people are. Travelling, in the UK or abroad, is educational.

The missing lesson

When I was in school, a week was four maths lessons, three science lessons, an art lesson, playing around in textiles, colouring in pictures in history, parroting language in German and gossiping during hockey. Take a child out of school for a week and they'll learn how to prioritise their workload upon their return, so that they can catch up with what they missed. Work management is education.

The volume of information, culture and communication skills I unwittingly learnt during holidays far surpassed that of a week of school that I took for granted. When I was 14, I was taken to France on holiday for a week where I got to practise French - a language that I had little interest in at school but became very interested in the second I actually got to use it. Going to France for a single week was more valuable to learning French than four years of schooling was.

That 'life experience'

New experiences throw children into a whole new world where they learn very quickly. You don't have to go abroad for children to learn - a family holiday to the Fens will teach children about the incredible birds there, about different landscapes and about new dialects.

A trip to Scotland will teach children about vast spaces and mountains - they'll see Scottish sterling notes (maybe not for much longer) and maybe even have their breath taken away after a three hour hike to a summit. What's going to take their breath away in school?

Standard, standard, standard

This argument is a slippery slope, of course. I can see why ministers don't want parents to think they're 'entitled' to take their child out of school for 10 days. Setting a rule that children can be taken out of school is open to abuse, yes, but there absolutely has to be freedom for the school to allow it.

Not allow it just in 'exceptional circumstances' - but to weigh it up and see if it would affect their education badly and if not allowing it would affect their family badly. Family teaches you too.

Learning differently

There are plenty of children out there who will shrug off formal education and do their best to avoid it but will a week change that? Will the week of school they miss because they're holidaying on Guernsey determine whether they pass an exam or not? Or will that week in Guernsey allow them to learn something that they can really get their teeth into? Children aren't robots; it takes a wide variety of new experiences to find a single thing that really connects, that clicks.

I don't know what the answer is to the school holiday debate but I think that teachers, ministers and parents all need to start recognising that a certificate isn't the only mark of a good education - holidays count too.