Air fares and accommodation are cheaper during term time, but if you take your kids out of school you'll be fined. Aly Ganney questions why, and looks for solutions
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In September 2013, education secretary Michael Gove introduced fines for parents who took their children out of school. Before this time, headteachers had a discretionary ten days that they could allocate each child per year for holidays, or other days of absence, taken during termtime.
Now parents have to demonstrate exceptional circumstances, and make an application to the headteacher well in advance, otherwise they can be fined £60 per child. If you don't pay you could be prosecuted, which could result in a fine of £2,500, a court order or a jail sentence of up to three months.
It was a controversial policy, from a very marmite minister, whose current replacement is Damian Hinds . It threw petrol on a fire that had been smouldering for some time anyway - is it fair that holidays are so much more expensive at the only times of year that families can actually take them?
Do travel companies blatantly exploit the fact that families have set periods when they are able to travel, and therefore hike prices up accordingly? Or is it merely a case of supply and demand? Is the government simply letting market forces do their thing, or does it have a responsibility to do more to help responsible families?
Richard Singer, of travel deals company Travelzoo, believes that there now exists what he calls a 'parent trap' when it comes to holidays for British families. During an exclusive chat with Up All Hours, he explained the 'toxic combination' that he thinks is responsible: school fines + the UK having the world's highest flight tax.
This results in "increased pressure on the dates that families can travel, which in turn pushes peak pricing up even higher, so families are literally trapped,” according to Mr Singer.
With this in mind Travelzoo launched a campaign to get the APD (air passenger duty - basically the tax on flying into or out of the UK) scrapped on all flights taken during school summer holidays. In 2015 the government announced that APD would be scrapped for children under the age of 12 - and from 2016 it was scrapped for all those under 16.
So what difference will this make cost-wise to families booking their half term break or summer holiday this year?
The scrapping of APD will save families on average about £71 per child, so, some might say, that's not really a holiday–changing amount. Though of course it depends how many children you have, and what sort of budget you're looking at. With package holidays costing nearly 40% more during the peak school holiday season, this is a saving for families, but is it enough?
More than 90,000 families were fined in the last academic year alone at a toatl cost of £5.6 M,so maybe parents are expressing their frustrations with their passports. Perhaps they think the cost of going away with their kids during school holidays is still so prohibitive it's worth the fine. This is an increase of £1.5M on the previous year and represents a staggering increase of 273%!
A spokesperson for the Department of Education said: “It is a myth that missing school even for a short time is harmless to a child’s education. Our evidence shows missing the equivalent of just one week a year from school can mean a child is a quarter less likely to achieve good GCSE grades, having a lasting effect on their life chances.”
So, with this in mind, how necessary is it to take a holiday as a family? Many believe that time away together is vital for children and parents alike. New, memorable experiences contribute to a child's overall education, not just the time they spend in school. In addition to this, the fining system makes it difficult for families to take time away for religious holidays that fall outside of the standard school holiday season.
So what are the other options? Here are some suggestions for the key players, but feel free to make your own by leaving a comment below:
- Use your judgment about the best interests of the child. Responsible families with good attendance records don't necessarily need to be reported to the council, who impose the fine. The 'exceptional circumstances' clause allows headteachers some discretion.
- Stagger term timetables, like they do in Germany. This can be problematic for families with children at different schools though.
- Move away from the three-term, long-summer-holiday system, which is actually based on the agricultural calendar. Mr Gove was in favour of this, as well as a longer school day, in order for British kids to keep up with those in other countries. He also noted that the system is “fixed on a world where a majority of mums stayed home. That world no longer exists and we can't afford to have an education system whose hours were essentially set in the 19th century.”
Private schools, academies and free schools already have the power to set their own dates, and from September 2015 council-run state schools will also have that power. Seventy percent of those headteachers asked said they were likely to take advantage of this new power which could result in some flexibility on term time.
Up All Hours' top tip: Schedule all five of your INSET days (every state school takes these across the year for teacher training) into one week, away from peak holiday times. Eveswell Primary School, in Newport, has done just this.
- Regulate the industry. A mother in Essex set up a petition to stop holiday companies charging extra in school holidays, which went viral after a dad's rant (about Center Parcs) on Facebook. As the petition was set up on the government's own e-petitions website, and gained over 100,000 signatures, the issue can now be considered by the Backbench Business Committee for parliamentary time, so it could be debated by MPs.
- Ensure that when APD is suspended, for a certain time period, or age range, the airline passes the full benefit onto the customer.
Up All Hours' top tip: Help LEAs (local education authorities - the bodies in charge of state schools at council level) to find ways to lesson the financial burden for schools within their area who share services. LEAs often award a contract for cleaning, or providing school lunches, to all of its schools in an area to a single company. These contracts can be more expensive if schools have different holiday dates. Competition and flexibility should be encouraged, and could eventually benefit all parties.
- Factor this issue into your business - it's not going to go away any time soon. There's always going to be some advantage to giving the customer what they want, and being the first to do so.
- Look at how other industries have coped with ethical concerns: engage with your customers, and make changes before the government forces you to do so.
Up All Hours' top tip: Offer discounts on early bookings, up to a year ahead. Ask for bigger deposits if necessary. This could help stabilise cashflow all year round if they do reduce prices during school holidays.
- Make the most of having family holidays in off-peak times before your kids are school age!
- If you're going to bite the bullet, make a considered case to the headteacher, either in writing or in person. Point out good attendance records to date, explain why perhaps visiting a family member abroad should count as exceptional circumstances, and gather advice from other parents who have previously taken their kids out of your school.
- Do your sums. If the cost of the potential fine(s) is less than the extra cost of going during the school holidays, some people think it's worth taking the hit.
- If that's your strategy, be sure to pay it promptly, as it rises from £60 per child to £120 if paid between 21-28 days later.
Up All Hours' top tip: Note that the policy doesn't apply to children until they're five - or, more specifically, 'the school term after their fifth birthday'. So you might get ticked off for taking your four-year-old out of Reception on a termtime holiday, but you won't get fined.