“My husband has family scattered around the globe, so there are always weddings, funerals and gatherings that we’re expected to attend,” says Emma Herbert, a web designer from Leicester. “We try to be reasonable and don’t go to more than one or two a year, but inevitably this often happens in term-time. We’ve always taken these days as ‘non-agreed absences’ — and the only consequence has been that it’s been noted on our daughter’s end-of-term report.”
Most parents don’t treat taking their kids out of school lightly, but there are occasions when their jobs, a commitment to extended-family, or — let’s face it — a make-or-break difference of literally hundreds of pounds for a family holiday during peak periods, means they request time off school for their child. And if it’s not granted, many take it anyway.
But the Department for Education (DfE) is taking a hard line, insisting that schools in England should only give permission for absence during term time in ‘exceptional’ circumstances.
“Poor attendance at school can have a hugely damaging effect on a child’s education,” says a DfE spokesperson. “Children who attend school regularly are four times more likely to achieve five or more good GCSEs than those who are regularly absent.”
The past few years have seen a rise in unauthorised absences that the DfE believes is a direct result of head teachers taking a tougher stance on allowing time off school. “Although the number of days lost through agreed family holidays has been falling,” says the DfE, “the number of unauthorised family holidays has risen — especially in primary schools.
“That’s why we’ve given schools more power to tackle poor attendance. Schools can now intervene much earlier and we’ve increased the amount parents can be fined for the unauthorised absence of their child.”
But Herbert claims that maintaining family connections can be as crucial to a child’s wellbeing as their education. “My daughter is only seven, so I hardly think a few days of missed school here and there are going to hold her back. What I do think would be detrimental to her development — especially as an only child — would be to rarely see her foreign family. And because most of them live in North America, flight prices during holidays are often prohibitive for us.”
Richard Hill, who recently left his job as an English teacher at a London secondary school to teach in Malaysia, is sympathetic. “We had a significant proportion of Afro-Caribbean students who would regularly return to Jamaica, for example, for the summer. This resulted in more absences at the end of the summer term. But I don’t think it has too serious an effect on students’ education at that time of year — if they’re performing well.
“Our response to parents taking a child out during term time was dependent on the time of year of the absence and the level of support we felt the student had at home — would the parents oversee extra work, for example?”
Schools are penalised for high numbers of unauthorised absences because they can’t achieve the national attendance benchmark of 94%. “But,” says Hill, “some absences for holiday purposes were then phoned in as illness, so they didn’t affect our attendance record.”
Chris Wheal, a former governor at a London primary school, highlights the contradictions in the response to term-time absences: “Our school was penalised when a parent took their kid out for a holiday because we marked it as unauthorised.
“Yet my own children’s school gave permission for such absences and was therefore deemed to be ‘outstanding’ by Ofsted. I argued with Ofsted about the absurdity of our school having to authorise term-time absences to stop being penalised, but I was accused of being a pedant.”
And Wheal has since taken his daughter out of secondary school during term time. “I asked if I could take my daughter to a festival in Pamplona, so she could meet a girl with whom I was arranging an exchange trip. The school agreed it would be educational and that she could go.
“I don’t think anyone seriously feels kids’ education is irrevocably damaged by a term-time holiday. Teachers have inset days and schools are closed and turned into voting booths for elections that garner a turnout of less than 30%. Nobody shouts that the children are suffering. It would make more sense to authorise all children to have one term-time holiday.”
Although the regulations are broadly the same for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, regional autonomy means these amendments are only relevant to schools in England.
Derek Jolly and his wife, who live in Fife, Scotland, have had no problem securing term-time holiday on several occasions. As two nurses, though, the couple meets the ‘exceptional’ circumstances criteria. “We’ve taken our children out of school for two weeks for two years running. In Scotland, emergency services workers can do this because they can’t be guaranteed leave during school holidays — therefore we get authorised leave.
“Generally, we ask in advance and the class teachers give the kids a project. After one trip to Amsterdam, they were asked to present booklets to their classes about a visit to the Anne Frank House. The school takes the view that the kids learn from the experience, as long as we don’t take advantage.”
Head teachers have long had the discretionary power to grant term-time holidays, or mark them as unauthorised when taken anyway. Local authorities have also had the ability to fine parents for such absences, with the power to prosecute. And despite the DfE’s new wording, it seems that discretion remains.
Damien Jordan, head teacher at Fairlight Primary & Nursery School in Brighton, says his school will continue to look at absence requests on a case-by-case basis, although he is unequivocal about the relationship between good attendance and academic performance. “Children with 100% attendance do significantly better as a group than those with poor attendance, therefore we encourage good attendance,” he says.
But, as the head teacher of a diverse primary school, he recognises the issue of term-time absence is not always straightforward. “In this modern world, seeing relatives isn’t always about popping in after school; sometimes it can involve travelling halfway around the world.”
When the issue comes up for discussion among head teachers, says Jordan, opinion is always divided. “A lot of us feel that children can benefit from these absences — they get to experience different cultures, spend time with extended family or quality time with their own. Other heads, however, feel families have ample chance to do this in holiday time.
“In our school, children have produced amazing projects about their time away.But, the key for us as educators is that we can’t teach children if they’re not here, and if children are here, they learn a lot.
“Many heads would love the government or local authority to have a policy — either way — that we can follow or enforce.”
Head to head
Perhaps it’s the fact the regulations have been so open to interpretation that’s meant they’ve been so unevenly applied. This, in turn, has caused confusion and led some parents to believe taking term-time holiday is perfectly acceptable. Couple this with the fact local authorities weren’t systematically issuing fines, and it’s easy to see why parents have continued to take their children out of school.
But the recent changes have tightened up the penalty process, too. “Amendments to the fine system have also come in for England,” says the DfE, “so there’s less time to pay if fined… So if parents decide to take a child out of school without permission, they’ll be fined or prosecuted.”
But, take Jordan’s own local authority, Brighton & Hove City Council, for example, where this is only the case if the head requests that the local authority issues a Fixed Penalty Notice (FPN) for an unauthorised absence.
“The head teacher is the only person who can decide whether or not an absence can be authorised and they make the decision whether or not to ask the local authority to issue a Fixed Penalty Notice,” says a Brighton & Hove spokesperson. “There’s no obligation for them to do so, but we would encourage them to.”
In the 2012-13 academic year, Brighton & Hove issued 112 FPNs for unauthorised absences for family holidays, compared with 97 in 2011-12.
“The local authority will consider issuing an FPN if the criteria under our Code of Conduct are met,” says the Brighton & Hove spokesperson. “If the FPN is then unpaid, we can consider prosecution… However, we do not have to take legal proceedings and the Act allows us to make that decision based on a number of factors… prosecution would only ever be a last resort.”
But Hill, for one, isn’t sure about the effectiveness of fines. “Many of the students who tended to take time off were living in economically and socially challenging circumstances. Issuing fines would either have no effect or make those circumstances harder.”
It doesn’t take a genius to work out why parents have continued to take their children out of school for a family holiday, authorised or not. A potential fine of £60 per child can seem like a drop in the ocean compared with the possibility of saving hundreds on the price of a family holiday in the summer.
Research conducted on behalf of the Nationwide Building Society in May 2013 found the price of a short break or holiday in the first week of July could double in the school summer holidays. In its survey of parents, 37% admitted they had taken their children out of school to get a good deal. It also claimed many parents were happy to pay the fines, particularly when the savings they could make far outweighed the penalty.
So is the DfE’s recent statement that it will give schools more freedom to choose their own holiday and term dates from 2015 an attempt to reverse the trend of unauthorised absence? “On 2 July 2013, we announced plans to give all schools the autonomy to set their own term dates. We want to see more parents asking schools to consider changes to term and holiday dates that will work for pupils and their families.”
Sean Tipton, of travel association ABTA, thinks this could help tackle the seasonal price hikes: “Allowing schools to choose when they take their holidays could go some way to addressing the issue of increased prices during school holidays. Prices increase in line with demand and schools have traditionally taken their breaks at times of year when demand is high, putting further pressure on prices. If schools took breaks outside of these very busy periods and didn’t take their holidays all at the same time, demand would be more sensibly spread throughout the year.”
While the 2015 changes might go some way to alleviating the financial pressure on families who wish to travel in school holidays, this new autonomy isn’t without its drawbacks. Just imagine the challenge for a family with two or more children at different schools, all with disparate holiday dates.
Term-time absences for family holidays: the new rules
Exceptional circumstances: Amendments made by the Department for Education in April to the Education (Pupil Registration) (England) Regulations 2006, which came into effect on 1 September, say head teachers can no longer grant leave of absence during term time unless there are ‘exceptional’ circumstances. Previously, heads had the discretion to authorise such holiday for up to 10 days during a school year in ‘special’ circumstances.
Key changes: The amendments have removed mention of ‘family holiday’ and ‘extended leave’.
English focus: The regulations are broadly the same for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, but the degree of autonomy that exists means these particular amendments only relate to England.
Penalties: The DfE has also made changes to the fines system in for England: “Those who don’t ensure their child’s regular attendance at school will need to pay £60 per parent residing at the child’s home address for each child within 21 days (previously 28 days), increasing to £120 to be paid within 28 days (previously 42 days).”
Published in the Nov/Dec 2013 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)