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Term-time travel: What’s the big deal?

A recent Supreme Court ruling has made it much harder to take kids on term-time breaks. we look at its likely consequences and ask what more could be done to ease parents' holiday dilemmas

Term-time travel: What’s the big deal?
Image: Getty

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It’s the question being debated outside school gates across the land: is it okay to take a holiday during term time? The debate rages on. Some people argue that travel — regardless of the destination — is an enriching experience for kids; others insist that missing even a day can affect a child’s education, and no amount of time frolicking on a beach during school time can ever be justified.

With the cost of getaways rising steeply during holiday periods, it’s no surprise some parents wish to take their kids out of lessons for a family escape. But after a landmark legal case prompted the Supreme Court to rule that such actions are unlawful, we look at the potential impact this could have on travel-loving families.

Q // What does the law state?

Prior to 2013, head teachers could let kids skip school for up to 10 days due to ‘special circumstances’, with over 10 days permitted in ‘exceptional circumstances’. Ministers argued, however, that some parents were abusing this, and cracked down with new guidelines in 2013 to curb the rising number of unauthorised absences, claiming even a few days away from the classroom could harm a child’s education.

Deeply unpopular with many parents, the new guidelines rule they can only take a child out of class due to illness or ‘exceptional circumstances’ — effectively banning head teachers from signing off term-time holidays.

Parents who choose to flout the rules could be fined £60 (rising to £120 if unpaid after 21 days), with prosecution possible after 28, resulting in a criminal record, a maximum fine of £2,500 or three months in jail.

Q // What can justify time out of school?

In response for calls from head teachers for clarification as to what the ‘exceptional circumstances’ might be, the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) drew up a list. It includes bereavement of a close family member, a funeral, and important religious observances.

In other words, a trip to Disneyland is a definite no-no.

Q // Why’s this in the news?

Last year, Jon Platt successfully challenged a conviction, and fine of £120, for taking his six-year-old daughter out of school for a holiday to Florida. His High Court victory sparked a surge in demand for term-time travel. According to Cheapflights, searches for term-time getaways at popular family holiday destinations including Lanzarote, Malaga, Gran Canaria and Florida jumped by up to 50% following the ruling.

No doubt many parents were emboldened by Mr Platt’s victory, but in April the ruling was overturned by the Supreme Court. Platt had argued his daughter’s unauthorised absence hadn’t resulted in an overall poor attendance record for the year; but the judges of the UK’s highest court ruled he’d shown a ‘blatant disregard of school rules’. Platt now faces a legal bill running to thousands of pounds and a possible fine of £1,000 when the case is re-examined by his local authority later this year.

The high-profile case continues to divide opinion among teachers, parents and travel companies, and has led to demands for a consistent policy on school attendance and fairer peak-season pricing from holiday companies.

Q // Why do parents choose to travel during term time?

Parents with more than one child may send them to different schools with different term dates — so taking one out a day or two earlier might seem a practical option. A more significant reason, though, is because it’s so much cheaper. According to research by travel currency company FairFX, families could be forking out almost double the cost for summer package breaks taken during school holiday periods. The report, which looked at 104 packages for a family of four this summer, found the average price rises by £905 on the weekend of August 5, compared with four weeks earlier — a hike of 32%. This rises to 55% when compared with departures on the weekend of 10 June, eight weeks earlier.

Q // Why shouldn’t I be able to take my children out of school?

According to head teacher Eileen Whiting, because topics and projects are delivered in half-termly blocks, a gap of a week or more in a child’s attendance can hinder their understanding and risk distressing them when they return to find groups have formed without them. “Learning is sequential and children lose their way,” she explains. “If they go at the end of the term, they miss plays, presentations, concerts, open evenings, and this is critical to their sense of commitment and belonging.”

Teacher Helen Brough takes a different view: “As a teacher and parent who takes my nine-year-old out of school for two to three days a year for holiday for educational reasons, I believe parents should have the final say on where and what they do with their children and not the state. You can’t measure the experience and educational benefits gained from a family holiday, which far surpass anything that can be gained in a classroom. As a parent, you should be able to decide how to best educate your child and if this includes practical, wider experience on holiday, then so be it.” Other parents echo this sentiment, making the point that taking the kids out of primary school for an educational trip is not detrimental to their learning — and can even be beneficial.

Q // What if my child has a good attendance record, even when term-time absences are taken into account?

According to research by the Department of Education based on extensive pupil absence figures and both GCSE and primary school test results, even short breaks from school can reduce a student’s chances of succeeding at school by as much as a quarter. Commenting on the study, education secretary Nicky Morgan, said: “The myth that pulling a child out of school for a holiday is harmless to their education has been busted by this research… missing school can have a lasting effect on a pupil’s life chances.”

Q // Are the fines having an impact?

There are currently no figures by which their deterrent effect can be measured, but it’s clear that being hit with a £60 fine would leave a substantially smaller dent in the family finances when compared with, for example, the expense
of travelling in August rather than June.

Kevin Courtney, general secretary of the NUT, believes the system of fines will prove to be divisive as well as ineffective. “Fining parents is entirely the wrong route to be going down. Many parents will be able to afford the fine and it will not be a deterrent. This is yet another example of top-down measures being imposed on schools causing unnecessary tensions between head teachers and families.”

Only time will tell if the Supreme Court ruling against Jon Platt will deter those families who jumped on the term-time travel bandwagon following his original High Court victory.

Q // Why do travel companies inflate their prices so much during school holidays?

It’s a simple case of supply and demand, according to the Association of Independent Tour Operators (AITO): ‘It applies to roses on St Valentine’s Day, to British asparagus in its short season and to strawberries during Wimbledon — and, equally, to the six-week school holiday period. A hotel, villa, apartment or campsite has six weeks only in the summer in which, largely to cover its costs for the year.’

Nevertheless, AITO chairman Derek Moore believes the system is ripe for change and that a more flexible school holiday policy is the most practical solution: “AITO urges the government to vary holiday dates from region to region in the UK and to stretch the peak season from six to 12 weeks — from mid-June to mid-September,” he said. “That would allow holiday companies to reduce peak season prices. It would also offer huge economic benefits to key holiday destinations by lengthening their seasons.”

Q // So, either I pay inflated prices during school holidays or face having to break the rules and pay a fine?

At the moment, yes. Book early is the advice from most tour operators, and, according to ABTA, try to be flexible whenever possible on departure dates and destinations.

Q // Are there any changes on the horizon?

Since 2015, schools have had the option of setting the dates of their holiday periods (previously this was role of the local authority). In time, it’s hoped schools across the UK will have such varied term dates that, to a large extent, the traditional school holiday periods will no longer apply, potentially helping to bring holiday prices down. Watch this space.

Image: Getty

Image: Getty

Fast facts

2006: Head teachers could grant leave of up to 10 days for a holiday during term time in ‘special circumstances’ and leave of more than 10 days in ‘exceptional circumstances’.

2013: A major crackdown on absenteeism begins, with head teachers no longer able to grant term-time leave, except in ‘exceptional circumstances’.

Fines: If you flout the rules, you could be fined £60, or £120 if paid after 21 days. If you don’t pay the fine after 28 days you may be prosecuted, leading to a criminal record, a fine of up to £2,500 or jail. In 2015, almost 20,000 people were taken to court for poor absenteeism — a rise of more than a fifth year-on-year; 77% of those found guilty were given fines, eight people were jailed and 553 were given community sentences.

Absence: Department for Education figures reveal that in the 2015/16 academic year, 801,980 pupils in England’s state schools (11.9%) missed a half day or more due to unauthorised family holidays (around one in six and an increase of 10.4% on the previous year).

Prices: According to AITO, holidays are frequently sold at cost price or at a loss, meaning tour operators have little option but to charge considerably more during peak season.

Published in the Jul/Aug 2017 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)