Education: Why Sheffield families are victims of market greed with holidays in term-time

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In a Sheffield school this week, a family handed in a holiday request form asking for permission to take their child abroad on a term time vacation. They had thought long and hard about whether to do this or not. They believe school to be extremely important and they were slightly embarrassed at taking their child out of lessons for just over a week – but they still decided to do it.

Both parents know the holiday request will be turned down by the head teacher and, as a result, the school will pass the information onto Sheffield Council so a £60 fine can be issued.

Some people have successfully challenged these fines, but either way the family will become part of a statistic reflecting the extent of unauthorised absence.

When – or should I say if – the Sheffield family pay their £60 fine, it will form part of a significant amount of money now received by local authorities in a bid to curb term time absence. It’s the head teachers who use their discretion to issue fines – but the money goes to the town hall and is not for them to spend in school.

The figures about students missing time at school speak for themselves. Achievement in SATs, GCSEs and A Levels show a direct correlation to attendance. In short, the more time you have off school, the more your education will suffer.

On paper, nobody should be taking their child out of school to go on holiday in term time. Schools have enough holidays. But there are cracks that appear in this argument, and for these reasons the term time holiday debate is not a simple one.

For a start, some years are more important than others. At the start of the school year, the tone-setting assembly will often say the coming year is of the highest importance, but nobody can seriously argue that Year 5 is more important than Year 11, for example.

Is it so bad, then, to take a child out for a holiday in Year 5 if it’s a one-off? Of course, there are always people who will push it in all years; I once taught a boy who was taken out of school for a holiday in Year 10 and missed a GCSE exam. That decision by the parents was a stupid, negligent one and they deserved a fine far more than £60.

The main reason for unauthorised absence, of course, is money. If you take a family of four on a holiday to Spain in the middle of the summer holidays, it could cost you around £3,000. But if you opt to go in November or January you’re likely to see this plummet to maybe £1,000.

The Sheffield family in question are living on a relative low income. Of course they’re going to take the cheap option. For them, it’s the difference between going on a nice foreign family holiday or staying at home.

And this is where the system of fining parents falls into a Dickensian farce. Councils are essentially fining the poor. They are issuing many families with a £60 fine who are being forced into taking a term time holiday because it is cheaper.

The real crooks here are the holiday companies. Tour operators, cottage owners, travel agents, transport providers – they’re all the same.

They are all guilty. It is they who should be fined.

If you don’t have kids, you can book a luxury cottage in Cornwall two weeks before Easter for less than £500. But if you’re wanting to go during the Easter holidays, you’re going to see this figure shoot up. Sometimes the price doubles from one week to the next.

There is no reason for this other than greedy profiteering, but it is this market-led nonsense which is making people take children out of school. Some time ago a friend of mine wrote to the then Education Secretary Michael Gove asking him to do something about the sickening rise in holiday prices during school holidays.

The written reply was short and blunt: the government was not going to get involved in regulating the tourism industry. It had to remain a competitive market. The government cannot have it both ways. If supply and demand continues to push up prices, parents will continue to exercise their choice and go for the budget option. A £60 fine which may not even be enforceable is not going to stop that.

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