The Government’s crackdown on parents taking children out of school in term time seems to have backfired, with many authorities handing out record fines. Neil Hudson reports.
Rewind a few decades and no one bothered much about term-time holidays.
Back then, when a fortnight in Cornwall still had the whiff of adventure, the annual family trip always took place in August and for most it rarely amounted to more than a week at the coast.
There was always the odd pupil who would disappear a few days before the start of the official holidays, but generally the status quo prevailed. Not any more. The dates of the school terms are no longer sacrosanct and many parents don’t think twice about sacrificing a few periods of double English if it means a more affordable family holiday.
Take Leeds. The number of penalty fines issued to parents for taking children out of school without authorisation is already double last year’s figure and there’s still half the year still to go.
In the academic year ending 2013, the city’s education authority issued 210 fines for unauthorised absence. This year the figure is already more than 500. If the trend continues, fines could easily top 1,000 by September – a five-fold increase on last year.
The rise in term-time fines comes in the wake of Education Secretary Michael Gove’s toughening up of the rules governing unauthorised absence. The zero-tolerance approach, introduced last September, removed the right of headteachers to grant up to 10 days “authorised” leave and shortened the time parents had to pay fines to 21 days.
It effectively meant a family of two adults and two children taking a holiday in term time would potentially face a fine of £240 and the amount would be doubled if not paid within the stated time.
All local authorities are duty bound to work with schools to see the law is upheld. News of the Leeds figures comes on the back of recent reports that some holiday firms are offering to pay the fines of parents.
Lee Quince, the boss of ski travel company Mountain Base, which had offered to cover the fines, said it was simply a marketing strategy and no different from “buy one get one free” ski pass deals.
The move was described by travel association ABTA as a “gimmick” and the Government stressed that regardless of any financial loss taking children out of school without authorisation remained a criminal offence. Yet even with the introduction of fines, it is becoming increasingly clear that the supposedly tough legislation lacks teeth.
“There are a number of ways of dealing with unauthorised absence from school,” says Leeds education officer Jancis Andrew. “Issuing a penalty notice fine is just one of these, and is an alternative to going through the magistrate’s court, although this can be a direct route in some cases.
“In light of the new Government legislation we are now considering if our previous advice about issuing fines is fit for purpose. We need to assess our position and talk to headteachers about how the scheme is supporting them in improving school attendance across the city.
“Despite the increase in fines issued since September 2013, the vast majority of parents in Leeds are supporting their children to have good attendance at school. Every single school day is precious – even just half a day out of school at any age can have a huge impact on a child’s learning and future potential, and there is a clear link between school attendance and attainment.”
According to guidance issued by Leeds City Council, parents will not be fined for absences of less then five days in a term but each case is considered on its merits and previous absences are always taken into consideration.
Deputy director of education Paul Brennan is keen to point out that it is not a blank cheque for parents: “Some parents may have viewed this guidance as them having an allowance of five days per term, whereas under the law, that is not the case and taking your son or daughter out of school can only be authorised in exceptional circumstances.
“The reality is taking your children out of school for even half a day is illegal if not authorised.”
Under the Education Act 1996, section 444, parents are required by law to make sure their children attend school regularly for 190 days a year. Penalty notices were introduced in 2007 and have been amended several times since then, with the latest change coming in September – when Mr Gove reduced the time that parents have to pay fines.
If a parent chooses to take a child out of school in term time, the headteacher can request that the LEA issue a fine. The LEA will then assess the case on its merits and look into the particular circumstances, including previous absences and assess if this would be classed as “irregular absence”.
Councillor Judith Blake, deputy leader of Leeds City Council and executive member for children’s services says: “This is a change in legislation by national government, and we, the local authority, schools and parents have no choice but to comply with the new law.
“Regardless of whether or not parents receive a fine, it is against the law for them to take their child out of school to go on holiday for any length of time, and headteachers are simply unable to authorise any such absence unless there are exceptional circumstances.
“The role of the local authority is to support schools and ensure that a consistent approach is adopted across the city. The majority of parents in Leeds support their children in having good and regular attendance at school, and recognise that this is the best place for them to be during term-time.”
However, more change may be to come. In September 2015, the whole issue of parents being overcharged for holidays outside term time could be thrown into chaos when individual schools get the power to set their own term dates.
The change has the potential to bring disruption to families who have children in different schools, or teachers who have children in a different school. However, it could also enable schools to thwart holiday firms who hike up their prices to cash in on parents during school holiday time.
However, while it could blur the lines as to when term-time ends, some have called for any changes to be adopted on a region-by-region basis in a bid to prevent neighbouring schools setting different holidays.
At the moment at least the leisure industry remains unrepentant, suggesting the fluctuating prices are a simple case of supply and demand.
A spokesperson for ABTA, the travel association which represents travel agents, said: “Price rises during school holidays and other busy periods are down to supply and demand.
“More people in the UK and across Europe want to take holidays in July and August, at Easter and at Christmas, therefore prices rise during these times, as there is increased demand for a finite number of hotel rooms and flight seats.
“ABTA believes that the best potential solution to relieve the pressure of demand during the short window of the school holidays is for schools to consider staggering the dates they take their holidays which would allow more British families to take breaks in periods of lower demand.
“A good way to ensure an affordable holiday, with the greatest flexibility and choice, is to book early: package tour operators offer free child places for early bookers and lower fares for children.
“For those that can be flexible on destination there are usually affordable deals on offer at all times of the year.”