A warning to all those about to dive into this article – it is long and ever so slightly geeky (graph alert). However, the issue of parents taking their children out from school during term time in order to take a holiday has become such a topic of conversation that I hope you will find it worth it.
The last week has seen this long-raging debate come to the fore again. The thorny subject has been back in the new because of a debate in something called the Backbench Business Committee in the House of Commons on 24 February.
The debate was called as a result of an e-petition initiated by Donna Thresher which has achieved some 170,000 signatures since she started it more than a year ago. The e-petition calls on the government to cap the increase on holiday prices during school holidays . In the petition Donna says, “It’s time to stop the holiday companies cashing in on school holidays and let parents have some guilt-free family time!”
As well as Donna Thresher’s e-petition, there are others on similar subjects. Another petition set up by the head of online travel company Travelzoo and signed by nearly 40,000 people has called for the government to suspend or reduce the rate of Air Passenger Duty (APD) during July and August.
In the time since Donna Thresher’s e-petition was started, there has been a significant change in legislation affecting parents who want to take their children out of school.
Before 1 September, the rules were that headteachers could grant up to 10 school days of leave per year for the purpose of a family holiday during term time in “special circumstances”, with the ability to grant extended leave for more than ten school days in “exceptional circumstances”.
On 1 September, amendments were made to the legislation which removed references to term-time holidays, scrapped the ten-day limit and imposed a requirement on headteachers that leave should only be given in exceptional circumstances (i.e. special circumstances are not special enough now). Neither piece of legislation says what “exceptional circumstances”, preferring to leave this to the discretion of the head teacher and governors.
Now, parents who take their children on holiday in term time can expect to face a fine of £60. The fine is levied per child and also issue to every adult who is legally responsible for ensuring their child attends school. So two parents taking two children on term-time holiday without permission will have to pay £240. This fine doubles if not paid within 21 days. If not paid within 28 days, the matter may be referred to court.
That is a high price to pay to be able to take your kids on a term-time holiday but for many parents it is a price worth paying.
A 2011 survey by the bank Santander found, although the data was limited, that the premium paid for going away in school holidays compared to term time was 43% on average. “A family of four planning a trip abroad during the school break can therefore expect to pay an average of £790 more than they would in the weeks that follow,” the research said.
So do parents pay the extra £790 for a break during school holidays or go for something cheaper during term time and pay the fine? In fact, many parents are already choosing to pay the fines. In Derbyshire, the Derby Telegraph reports that 900 penalty notices have been issued since the beginning of September, compared with around 1,000 for the whole of last year. In my neck of the woods, the Bedfordshire on Sunday has just reported that parents have paid tens of thousands of pounds worth of fines in penalty notices for taking their kids on holiday in term time.
That is a lot of parents. In fact, school absences related to holidays make up a quite substantial proportion – 7.5% of absence in primary schools and 2.5% in secondary schools is holiday-related, according to the Backbench Business Committee. Other research shows these figures to be even higher, perhaps as much as 11% in primary schools.
So what did MPs have to say about this and what will happen as a result?
The debate was chaired by Liberal Democrat MP John Hemming (Birmingham Yardley) and lasted for more than two hours, although this was not a full Commons debate, taking place in a committee meeting room rather than the main chamber.
Of Donna Thresher’s idea of capping holiday time the price increases, Hemming said, “I do not think that that is a practical solution, particularly given that the market includes people visiting this country.”
Another MP, Damian Hinds (East Hampshire), added, “It is inconceivable that a British Government of any political persuasion would impose price controls on the British-based travel business. If such price controls were imposed, firms would go out of business—plenty of holiday companies go out of business anyway because margins can be thin across the year—and capacity in foreign resorts would not be made available to British tourists. Instead, capacity would be sold to people from other countries, which would have the disastrous consequence of more German towels on loungers, and we can all unite around wanting to avoid that.”
Jenny Willott, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills – the department which would have to impose price capping were it to be implemented – said, “The UK holiday sector is one of the most competitive markets in the UK….An almost endless variety of offers are available for people, which meets the demand from consumers for more choice, flexibility, value and so on. The dynamism and innovation that is shown in this diverse sector is evidence of keen and persistent competition in the market, so the Government feel that there is no market failure and therefore no reason for the Government to intervene to impose price limits.”
The Association of British Travel Agents (ABTA) – which clearly has a vested interest – agrees. It says, “Holiday pricing during the school holidays is driven by supply and demand factors. More people in the UK and across Europe want to take holidays in July and August, and at half-term breaks; therefore prices will typically rise during these times as there is increased demand for a finite number of flight seats and hotel rooms.”
Critics of the changed legislation also point out that richer parents – or at least those who choose to send their offspring to private schools – are less likely to be affected. Solihull MP Lorely Burt said: “Academies normally work for 190 days a year, and private sector schools work, on average, 165 days. There is a measure of irony about that. The children with the wealthiest parents get most choice about when they can go on holiday.” A fair point.
Committee chair John Hemmings also felt that cutting APD would not work. “If the APD proposal reached the Treasury, it would go into a nosedive; we would find that it was not a flyer,” joked Hemming.
APD currently generates around £2.9 billion a year for the Treasury, money that it would have difficulty finding elsewhere.
Proposing potential solutions, Hemmings said he felt that there were two potential solutions to something that has clearly angered parents – school holidays could be staggered or the amendments to the legislation could be scrapped, either in full or part.
Staggering holidays already works successfully in some other European countries – France, Germany, Ireland, Sweden, Norway, the Netherlands and Finland.
In fact, many schools – notably academies and free schools – already have the ability to set their own term dates. However, MPs on the committee said that if this happened, it would be important to co-ordinate dates within a town or region so that siblings would not be off at different times.
One solution proposed by the committee was innovative but might not work in practice. Justin Tomlinson (Swindon North) added, “If we cannot manage flexible term times, another suggestion is extending the school year by two weeks and allowing everybody automatically two weeks’ worth of discretion throughout the year. That would probably be incredibly unpopular with teachers.”
On the question of holiday pricing, Damian Hinds spoke from a position of experience, having work in pricing in the hotel industry before becoming an MP
He said, “I understand why people would say, “If holiday companies can make money charging price X in the winter, surely they must be able to make profit by charging the same price in the summer? By charging a higher price, they must be making huge profits on the backs of other people.” That is not correct. If the same is charged in summer as in winter for a popular sun-based tourist destination, those companies would be out of business and nobody would be going on those holidays. It is also worth saying that what counts as a peak period in the travel business is partly but not entirely determined by when school holidays are. Weather also plays a big part, and so does the timing of public holidays such as Easter, Christmas and, in this country, bank holidays.”
Hinds added that part of the problem is that for overseas package holidays there is an international market. “No one in this country decides the market rate of a hotel room in Spain in the high season. Even if we believed that British companies set the prices for holidays, no one would suggest that Spanish hoteliers are within the control of Her Majesty’s Government.”
He believes that introducing flexibility would help reduce prices but “the effect would not be nearly as big as many people anticipate”. The season might be extended by a week or two, but those would still be shoulder periods. They would not be peak periods, so there would be a difference, but the difference would not be huge.
The Committee also looked at the question of how headteachers use their discretion.
Penny Mordaunt (Portsmouth North) said, “Some schools have been pragmatic in allowing members of the armed forces, particularly if they are being deployed, to spend a holiday with their children. It is particularly shoddy when they are not given that opportunity, especially now that we have the armed forces covenant.”
Hemming added, “Perhaps the hardest case is that of the police, who not only often do not have any choice as to when they take holiday, but also can be fired if they are fined. That is a double whammy. Not only is taking holiday difficult; they also face losing their job.”
No-one would contest these exceptional cases, surely? But this element of discretion can put teachers in the firing line.
Dr Julian Lewis (New Forest East) said, “If the issue is left to individual head teachers and schools, they will be put in an invidious position in deciding which families get to save on the air fares and which families do not? Therefore, should we not look at something that enables the general discretion to be applied—other than, of course, bereavements and similar things—as to when the holiday is taken by everyone, rather than just flexibility on an individual case by an individual head teacher?”
The amendments to the legislation which took place last year were partly introduced to reduce the sense of entitlement that some parents felt about having ten extra days of holiday, even if their child were struggling.
There is also the matter of whether pressure from Ofsted means that head teachers are incentivised to refuse holidays no matter what the circumstances.
Swindon North MP Justin Tomlinson said, “There is the assumption that there is pressure from Ofsted because it looks at attendance records when rating a school. If a school decides to say that, because of cost and work pressures, it will allow a good level of discretion, its attendance records do not look good. That also needs to be considered, because that would be a disincentive for a school to apply common sense discretion.”
What became clear is that every MP on the committee seemed to agree that there was a clear link between attendance and attainment. For example, Natascha Engel (North East Derbyshire) said, “We all want the best education for our children. We all know that the less time a child spends at school, the worse its outcomes will be, and there are lots of different reasons for that. There are children from chaotic families and children who truant, but we are talking about looking at an individual child and the family’s circumstances and seeing whether it would be possible, not to have a week a year taken out of school time, but to have a week occasionally to make sure that that family can spend some quality time together.”
Some critics have said there is no hard evidence of a link between poor attainment and attendance and, as a former scientist, I was particularly interested in this point.
In fact, comprehensive research does exist.
A Department for Education Research Report called A Profile of Pupil Absence in England uses extensive data from the National Pupil Database and shows what seems to be a clear link between attainment in Key Stage 2 subjects and attendance.
The effect of both authorised and unauthorised absences is similar, as the chart below shows:
To give a sense of what those attendance figures mean on the bottom scale, taking one week’s holiday (i.e. five school days or ten sessions) each year for all four years of Key Stage 2 equates to around 2.6%.
Other studies have had similar findings, at least anecdotally. A 2003 study by the University of Glasgow for the Department for Education and Skills covering 13 primary schools and 14 secondary schools in seven local education authorities found, “Most teachers thought that the major effect of absence from school was upon pupils’ academic underachievement.”
Yet looking more closely at the figures from A Profile of Pupil Absence in England reveals some interesting facts.
The chart above shows the effect on attainment at KS2 of unauthorised absence for particular reasons. Attainment for pupils taking unauthorised family holidays does fall but by no means as fast as other reasons. In fact, for short absences (less than 4%), the line is virtually level.
The chart above shows the percentage of pupils achieving expected levels at KS2 in English and Maths by reason for absence. What is particularly interesting is the line showing Authorised family holidays, which is virtually flat. The different shape of these two lines tells the scientist in me that the pre-September regime, when headteachers were using their discretion more, worked quite well.
Now let’s focus on older children. The chart above looks at the effect of authorised absence on attainment in GCSEs. Attainment for pupils who take authorised family holidays again declines more slowly than many other absences. Perhaps of most interest for parents who use the “holidays are educational” argument is the fact that GCSE attainment is actually higher for overall absences of less than 4% (about ten days a year).
The scientist in me says this evidence is pretty compelling. The research is based on an enormous data set and tells me that parents taking their children out of school during term time for a holiday, as long as the absence is relatively short, do no harm to their children’s exam prospects. It is a gut feeling that I have had since my children have been at school and yes, I have taken my children out for very short holidays. Having looked at the numbers I feel somewhat vindicated. That said, I do feel that schools could look more at flexibility with term dates to help spread reduce costs for those that do not feel able to take their kids out during term time.
Personally, I feel it unlikely that the Government will perform a U-turn and repeal the amendments that have the potential to criminalise parents for taking their kids out of school.
Jenny Willott, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, concluded her contribution to the debate by saying, “On the issue of absence, despite the clear value that a family holiday can have for children and also for parents, the Government’s view is that a good education is more valuable for pupils in the long run and that getting a good education depends on regular school attendance throughout the school year.”
The committee’s findings are now likely to be passed to the Education Select Committee for further consideration.
Congratulations to everyone who made it to the end. I hope you found it worth it.