Hundreds of parents are being fined for taking their children on holiday in term-time. Kimberley Barber reports.
Hundreds of parents have been fined for taking their children out of school during term-time as part of a government bid to boost attendance.
Councils have made thousands of pounds from imposing the £60 fines although statistics from the Department for Education show that attendance has never been higher.
In Portsmouth 831 parents have been fined this year.
In September 2013 the law changed, giving the city council the ability to fine parents if they take their children out of school during term-time.
Before this, headteachers could grant 10 days of absence per year in special circumstances, but headteachers can now only grant leave from school in exceptional circumstances.
These absences are subject to strict rules, with headteachers expected to determine in advance the exact number of days a pupil may have away from school.
This combined with a reduction from 20 per cent to 15 per cent in October 2011 to the threshold by which absence is defined as persistent, has meant that schools are held to a higher standard in performance tables, putting headteachers under more pressure and in turn leading to more parents receiving fines.
If a parent takes their child out of school during term-time they face a £60 fine, increasing to £120 if not paid within 21 days.
And if this fine is still not paid, the parent faces prosecution and a maximum fine of £2,500 or a jail sentence of up to three months.
The fines are having an impact, with government figures published last month showing there are fewer pupils persistently missing lessons than ever before and that there are now more pupils regularly attending school since comparable records began in 2006.
School reform minister Nick Gibb said: ‘Our plan for education is getting more young people than ever before back in class, helping thousands more to fulfil their potential and realise their aspirations.
‘Missing lessons can be hugely damaging to a pupil’s education, but these figures show more pupils than ever before are getting the best preparation for life in modern Britain.
‘The figures reveal that teachers can be increasingly confident in the behaviour and commitment of their pupils in lessons.
‘Our plan for school attendance and classroom behaviour is designed to give pupils the best start to life and teachers the best possible environment in which to teach.’
So far, it claims that the plan is working, with the number of pupils missing lessons for holidays dropping by almost a third since last year. However, the Local Government Association (LGA), which represents councils across the country, has been calling for the automatic fines to be scrapped, and says that headteachers should be allowed to follow a ‘common sense’ approach.
It warns that under the current rules, hard-pressed parents looking to go abroad during school holidays can find they are hit with costs that are sometimes more than double that of travelling during term-time.
This is not helped by holiday companies raising prices in the school holidays to such an extent that prices for a family of four can be thousands of pounds higher than during term-time.
It says this is particularly hard on workers in key professions such as those in the emergency services and the military as they are often unable to request leave during busy school holiday periods.
The LGA is calling for it to be at the discretion of headteachers, not central government, to make decisions on a case-by-case basis.
David Simmonds, chairman of the LGA’s children and young people board, said: ‘Headteachers know the circumstances of families and what’s going on in their school throughout the year and should be trusted to make decisions without being forced to issue fines and start prosecutions.
‘Heads are accountable for the performance of their school and councils want to be able to let them make decisions rather than being tied up in red tape or having to worry about Ofsted or the Department for Education bearing down on them for authorising short absences.’
Portsmouth City Council defended the fines, saying they have helped to produce the best ever education figures.
Julien Kramer, interim head of education at Portsmouth City Council, said the penalties have resulted in the best attendance figures ever seen and the best set of educational results.
At Hampshire County Council, which has fined 71 parents since the start of the year, Peter Edgar, executive member for education, said the council’s comparatively low figure was a sign of the close relationship with schools.
He said that Hampshire schools only take action when a pupil is persistently absent without permission for reasons other than illness.
He added that absence from school in Hampshire is lower than the national average and unauthorised absence is very low – accounting for less than 0.8 per cent of absence in the autumn and spring terms 2013 combined.
Cllr Edgar said: ‘As a former teacher I think it is more important today, with structured learning, than ever before that children do not miss time in school.
‘I am a great believer that every case must be looked into very carefully and treated on its merits.
‘Sometimes there may be educational advantages to parents being with their children at certain times.’
He added: ‘I am anxious that every case is looked into very carefully and legislation is not just blindly applied.’
Meanwhile, many parents say they are prepared to pay the fine as they feel the benefits far outweigh the monetary punishment.
They claim their children learn more from spending time in another county, experiencing another culture and getting to have some quality time with their families.
With the holiday companies charging considerably more in school holidays, many parents say they are still financially better off to book a term-time holiday and pay the fine, rather than paying the inflated school holiday prices.
Helen Louth and husband Steve were fined £240 when they took their children Maxi, eight, and Jessica, six, to Morocco for two weeks in June.
They had asked for permission from both Langstone Infant and Junior School, which was rejected.
It was the first holiday they had been on together, as they are unable to go away in the school holidays because Steve can’t get time off work.
His job involves doing building work at schools, which can only be done when they are shut.
The Louths paid £1,800 for the holiday but it would have cost twice that had they had gone during the school holidays.
Helen, 37, of Sunningdale Road, Baffins, said: ‘The saving far outweighs the fine, but it’s not about that.
‘We had a lovely family holiday. The children had lots of fun. It gave them a good understanding of a different culture.’
Sarah McDuff and her husband Robert were fined £240 after taking their children out of school for two weeks.
The McDuffs went to Tunisia in September and had asked Ark Dickens Primary Academy for permission before they went, which was rejected.
Sarah said that Alfie, five, and Maddison, seven, who have since moved schools, learnt more from the break than two weeks at school.
Sarah, of Farmside Gardens, Hilsea, said: ‘It is all about money. It does not work at all.
‘What the school and council need to do is log on to Facebook and see who is not bothering to take their kids to school out of laziness. If a child’s attendance falls below 90 per cent then the school should be finding out why, that’s the real issue, not punishing families taking their kids on holiday.’
Becky Gordon was fined £60 for taking her seven-year-old daughter Maddie out of school for a week in May.
The 43-year-old went with Maddie and her other daughter Stacey, 21, to Majorca for a family holiday after they had suffered two family deaths.
Becky, a sales assistant and single parent, had asked for permission from Manor Infant School, which was turned down.
Becky, of Harcourt Road, Portsmouth, said: ‘It’s just wrong.
‘Maddie is high up in all her classes. She is one of the brightest children in her class and she was not behind. She is only ever off school if she is poorly. I couldn’t believe it. When I had booked it I had just lost my cousin to cancer and then my dad died. I wanted to take my daughters on holiday for some family time after all they had been through and the school said no and fined me.’