How is the threat of an extra £20 in fines going to deter parents from taking children out of school for holidays? - Jayne Dowle

The government’s latest idea to crack down on record rates of school absenteeism is to increase fines for taking children out in term-time, but this is missing the point.

Children aren’t going to school – more than a fifth of pupils in England are classed as ‘persistently absent’, defined as missing more than 19 days a year – for many reasons, but the threat of paying an extra 20 quid per kid, up from £60 to £80 under the new rules, is not going to deter parents from opting for family holidays in the sun when it’s hundreds, if not thousands, of pounds cheaper.

In the last few years I’ve noticed an eyebrow-raising trend amongst some of my younger parental acquaintances on social media. Just as September kicks in, with all that promise of crisp new school uniforms and a fresh set of pens and pencils, off they fly, taking their offspring with them.

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I’m not sure ministers, probably not the sort to be necking pints in the airport at 5am and sharing this achievement with the world, are aware of this?

A plane coming in to land at an airport. PIC: Peter Byrne/PA WireA plane coming in to land at an airport. PIC: Peter Byrne/PA Wire
A plane coming in to land at an airport. PIC: Peter Byrne/PA Wire

Term-time holidays are actually turning into the norm, a trend, even. And a competitive one at that.

Posting snaps in the pool, smiling with huge pizzas, riding quad bikes on the beach…there’s a defiance about this practice I certainly never felt on the two occasions I took my own children, now aged 18 and 21, out of school in term-time for a holiday.

In both cases, it was to give us all a break after serious family illness, the decisions taken in close consultation with their headteachers. I felt guilty throughout. I thoroughly believe in the importance of not just education, but attendance at school and a regular routine, especially for children whose home lives might be chaotic.

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But then, the pandemic broke what Andy Cook, chief executive of the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) calls “the contract of trust between schools and parents”.

Everything that followed, from shocking numbers of children and young people suffering from mental health problems such as depression, anxiety and eating disorders, to the rise of home working (and homeschooling), plus the cost of living crisis ‘forcing’ parents to opt for cheaper term-time holidays has led to where we are.

Nearly 400,000 penalty notices were issued to parents in England in 2022-23 for unauthorised­ absences, according to the Department for Education; this is much higher than before the pandemic.

About nine in ten of these fines were for unauthorised holidays as families tried to book cheaper trips outside school term times. Almost half a million penalty notices, mostly for holidays?

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Some people say the holiday companies should be brought to heel and made to offer fairer prices in school holidays.

There’s about as much chance of that as Rishi Sunak deciding to send his two daughters to ‘Requires Improvement’ state school.

I’d say what the government really needs to do is to split school absence into categories. Working with school leaders, educationalists and other experts, they should address each cause of children missing class in turn.

This of course would cost money, rather than raise money. But if the government is really serious about getting kids back into the classroom, it should put a detailed and considered plan in place, backed up by the right support across services including the NHS.

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An easy nut to crack would be setting an example on ‘work from home’ culture. We hear that civil service departments and local authorities are still allowing incredible leniency for staff to put in many – if not all – their hours at home, with flexible working becoming the norm.

Teachers say that this is leading to school absence, particularly on Fridays, because parents are more likely to take this day off than any other.

We learned recently that a worrying number of twentysomethings simply can’t face looking for a job; is it any wonder, when their parents are taking such laissez-faire attitudes towards their own employment?

Then we have the children who simply cannot face school because of anxiety or other mental health issues.

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Waiting lists for children's mental health services are astronomically long and difficult to access, especially if a child is suffering from such serious symptoms they are no longer attending school.

This means that they will have fallen out of the system, perhaps even permanently.

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