Why stop at health? Passport data would be useful too

After Labour’s ‘big brother’ proposal to link health and education data, Tim Leunig suggests we can – and should – go further still

After Labour’s ‘big brother’ proposal to link health and education data, Tim Leunig suggests we can – and should – go further still

26 Jan 2024, 5:00

A columnist – and particularly a new columnist – should work hard to avoid annoying their readers. So let me apologise for the next paragraph. It is necessary for what follows, but I realise it is tactless. I am sorry.

I went to the Canaries in early December. In my defence, it was a very belated summer holiday, but I know that telling teachers about cheap holidays in the sun isn’t kind. You deserve better. 

Like many people staying at the resort we went as a family – the two of us, and our daughter. Most of the children we saw were toddlers. Our daughter is twenty and it was after the university term had ended.

Some families, however, had children who were unambiguously of school age – mostly, but not always, primary school age. They were British. Now I should not jump to conclusions. Perhaps they lived abroad, in countries with school holidays in early December. Perhaps they are home schoolers and will be doing lessons between Christmas and New Year, when the rest of us are off. Still, I bet that these are children who have been taken out of regular schools.

I only went on one foreign holiday as a child – the school French exchange. Of course I am old enough that foreign holidays were rarer when I was a kid. But above all it is because my mum knew that a good education was more important to me and my future than any holiday ever could be. Her attitude was normal back then: the idea of taking a kid out of school for a holiday just didn’t exist. It should not exist now, either. 

But it does. Last September my Public First colleagues, Sally Burtonshaw and Ed Dorrell published a landmark set of interviews with parents about school attendance. Term-time holidays are seen as acceptable. One mum even suggested it was good parenting, saying ‘people are constantly complaining that there’s no family time. People are willing to spend time as a family on a holiday – I don’t understand why anyone would make it harder.’ 

Border Force should share individual data with the DfE

I think this is wrong, but let me pause my moral indignation for a moment. My resort was not crowded with British kids like Butlins at Christmas. We don’t really know the numbers. We need facts and we should be able to get them from Border Force, the official name for passport control.

The passport records will show that I have spent 51 out of the last 52 weeks in the UK. I clearly live here. They will also show that I spent a week in the Canaries, and they will know which week it is. They know that for every British passport holder, including every child of school age – and, I think, for every non-British passport holder with a machine readable passport as well. Border Force can and should report these data to the UK government so that we know the exact scale of the issue. 

We should go further. Border Force should share their data at individual level with the Department for Education. For sure, the National Pupil Database does not have passport numbers, and the passport does not have an education ID. But a name, address and date of birth will be sufficient to ensure a perfect match in almost every case. We could then, in a few years, assess the effect of taking children out of school.

That test will not be perfect – parents who take their children out of school may on average care less about education, and offer less help with homework. This analysis will be a good starting point: what is the effect of a week in the sun on your child’s future? 

Knowing how many children are out of school for holidays and how many days are missed is essential. Linking those data to school outcomes – and ultimately life outcomes – is both important and possible. The government should make it happen. 

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