Leeds stance on school holidays could have national impact

Councillor Judith Blake
Councillor Judith Blake
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Leeds City Council is at odds with a new ‘zero tolerance’ ruling by the Government on unauthorised school-time holidays. Neil Hudson reports.

Leeds City Council has issued a statement declaring that parents who take their children out of school for five days or less will NOT be issued with fines, following the introduction of a so-called “zero tolerance” regime last month.

Education Secretary Michael Gove announced he had removed headteachers’ right to give parents 10 days of discretionary leave, arguing some parents came to view the period as an entitlement.

In September parents of children aged four and above received letters explaining that from now on any unauthorised absence would be met with a fine, unless ‘exceptional circumstances’ could be proved.

Leeds City Council has issued guidance saying fines will not be issued for any absences of five days or less per term.

It was at pains to stress, however, that this was not green light to parents to take unauthorised holidays and said any school absences would be closely monitored.

Ironically, the Leeds ruling would give parents 15 days per year in which they could take their children out of school without being issued with a fine, as opposed to the previous 10 days.

It is the second time the Labour run council has defied the Government. When the so-called “Bedroom Tax” was imposed, the council re-classified hundreds of homes so residents could avoid losing benefits.

The new ruling came following consultation with council lawyers, who believe if a parent challenged a fine and the unauthorised absence was five days or less, magistrates would simply thrown the case out. The Leeds stance could have far-reaching implications for other local authorities.

In a statement, Coun Judith Blake, executive member for children’s services in Leeds, said: “In Leeds, fines will not be issued for less than five days absence in a term/12-week period. This can be a block of five days, or five separate days across the period.”

Parents across the country have been quietly seething since Education Secretary Michael Gove’s new “zero tolerance” crackdown on school term-time holidays. Some argue taking a holiday outside school term-time means paying hundreds (sometimes thousands) of pounds over the odds.

One irate parent, Paul Cookson, posted a picture on Facebook which captured the dilemma facing hard-up parents – the 
image shows the price 
difference for a holiday shack 
at Centerparcs in Sherwood Forest, one during school term time, the other during the school holidays. The difference in price for the same holiday is a whopping £300.

Under the new zero tolerance rules, parents have lost the right to remove their child from school for a family holiday for up to ten days a year. Instead, headteachers will only allow pupils time off in “exceptional circumstances.”

The new rules apply to all children of compulsory school age, so those aged five-16.

Schools will be able to refer parents who ignore the law to the local authority, which could issue a £60 fixed penalty notice per child per parent, meaning a £120 if a child has two parents.

Parents will have 21 days to pay or fines will be doubled. If they are still not paid, parents could be taken to court. Councillor Judith Blake, executive member for children’s services said: “This is a change in legislation by national government and we do not have a choice in the matter. We wrote to parents to make them aware of the changes.

“It’s important to note the penalty notice scheme itself is not new. Schools, headteachers and the local authority have been working with this since 2007 as an alternative to prosecution. We understand individual circumstances are unique.

“However, the government has made it clear how it expects headteachers to deal with requests to take children out of school and we encourage parents to talk to schools as early as possible.”

She added: “Headteachers are no longer allowed to authorise up to 10 days leave for a holiday.

“In Leeds, fines will not be issued for less than five days absence in a term/12-week period. This can be a block of five days, or five separate days across the period. It is at the discretion of headteachers to consider requests for leave in term-time.”

Leeds City Council stressed the rule allowing parents to take children out of school for a period of up to five days per term had been in place since 2007.

A spokeswoman for Centerparcs said: “Like many other companies, our prices are set according to demand. Price increases reflect the demand and popularity of our breaks during peak periods and the value which our guests place on them.”

• A DfE spokesman said: “Children who attend school regularly are nearly four times more likely to achieve five or more good GCSEs than those who are regularly absent. That is why we have encouraged schools to tackle poor attendance earlier, and toughened the law on term time holidays. We have also increased the amount parents can be fined for unauthorised absences and cut the amount of time they have to pay.

“Councils set the codes of conduct on issuing penalty notices. We expect these to be robust and send a clear message to parents of the importance of their child’s regular attendance at school.”