Thursday, 6 March 2014

Term-Time Family Holidays - The Reprise

One of my early blogs (over a year ago now – yikes!!!) looked at the phenomenon of term-time family holidays.  I looked at the legal framework and the circumstances in which headteachers could authorise school absences so that families could take holidays during the school term; invariably to keep costs down. 


That has proven to be my most popular blog to date, the subject matter being of interest to all working families with children still of school age.


In this follow-up piece, I look at changes over the last year to the legal landscape so far as term-time holidays are concerned.  I look at how schools are applying rules introduced last autumn, and moves afoot in Parliament to look at this issue afresh. 


What’s Changed?

The baseline legal requirements are the same as a year ago.  Parents have a legal obligation to ensure their children receive what is described as a “suitable full-time education”.  A child must be educated when he or she is of “compulsory school age”:  currently, this means between the ages of 5 and 17 (the upper age will increase to 18 from next year).


Headteachers were entitled under the then rules to authorise pupils to be absent for up to ten days each year (and in rare situations, for longer periods) in “special circumstances”.  This was intended to cover life’s unexpected eventualities that might require a child to be away:  illness, bereavement or inability to get to school due to bad weather.  In addition, many headteachers were approving absences under this power so that children could go on a family holiday during the school term. 


It was this latter accommodation by headteachers that lead to a legal change on 1 September 2013, with the entry into force of the Education (Pupil Registration) (England) (Amendment) Regulations 2013.  These Regulations do away with the ten-day threshold, as well as the qualifier “special circumstances”.  Instead, headteachers now may only grant leaves of absence in “exceptional circumstances”.


I’ll come on shortly to look at whether in reality there is any difference between circumstances that are “special” as opposed to “exceptional”.


It’s worth noting that this legislative change was snuck in through the back door.  The Regulations were put before Parliament on 4 April 2013.  There was no request to debate them.  They passed under a negative resolution – which means that they would pass so long as Parliament did not vote against them.  Parliament would have had an opportunity to discuss the Regulations, had anyone tabled an early-day motion, but nobody did.  There was no discussion and the changes wrought by the Regulations became law by stealth.


The Regulations also amend the procedures for issuing penalty notices to each parent who fails to ensure their child’s regular attendance at school.  The fine is £60 if paid within 21 days; or £120 if paid within 28 days.  These time periods for payment are shorter than previously.  As before, prosecutions may follow if payment is not made (together with other measures outlined in my earlier blog). 


Why is this an issue? 

Primarily due to cost.    Prices sky-rocket during the school holiday periods.  They did a year ago.  They did apparently in the 1960s, when a motion was introduced in the House of Commons expressed thus:  That this House, recognising the need to extend and adjust the holiday period so as to relieve congestion at the peak period, asks Her Majesty’s Government to set up a committee to examine the question urgently with special reference to the educational, tourist trade and transport interests concerned, and the problem of summer time, with the power to recommend early action.”


And nothing has changed…  A Telegraph Travel price checking survey conducted in February 2014 confirmed that parents pay on average between 30% and 40% more for a week’s break during the school holiday period.  A week’s break could be up to 62% more expensive in August than during term time in July.


Beyond cost, the issue affects a smaller cohort of families where parents cannot readily arrange their time off so it falls in step with school holidays.  For example, members of the armed forces and those with particularly specialist professions whose absence would leave vital facilities inadequately staffed.


What’s happening in practice? 

This seems to differ from school to school.  Some appear to be approaching term-time absences to accommodate family holidays in the same way as they were prior to September 2013, on a case-by-case basis.  After all, all that has really changed is that the test is now one of “exceptional” circumstances rather than “special” ones.  To many, this might look like a matter of semantics.


But others appear much more anxious.  In a recent debate by the Commons Backbench Committee (more of which in a moment), an example was cited of a headteacher who wrote in the following terms:  As from 1st September 2013 any holidays during term time will not be authorised, unless there are exceptional circumstances, for which there are set criteria.  This is Government policy…”  This was in response, which was refused, to a request to take a child on holiday for a week, following her diagnosis with a brain tumour. 


The letter from the headteacher in this particular example cited reads into the new law provisions that are not there.  There are not set criteria for authorising term-time holiday absences.  That some headteachers are proceeding under the misapprehension that there are is troubling. 


What’s the solution?

According to Education Secretary Michael Gove, the answer is to stagger term dates.  The logic goes that, if different schools have different term dates, the logjam of demand that causes prices to skyrocket will not occur.  Said Gove last month, There's no need to sacrifice your child's education in order to secure a cheaper holiday,” he said. “Schools now have the freedom to change their term dates in order to allow students and families the opportunity to go on holiday at different times.”  The Education Secretary’s proposal has the support of two of the country's biggest travel associations, ABTA and the Association of Independent Tour Operators (AITO). 


Some parents are adopting a more proactive response.  A petition started by Donna Thresher, an Essex mother, in March 2013 propounds that: “All children who have a good attendance record should be allowed the opportunity to enjoy quality time with their parents on an annual holiday of up to 10 days once per year.


It goes on:  Good parents or parents that work full time should not be criminalised for wanting to enjoy an affordable annual family holiday.”


That petition began life prior to the legislative change in September 2013.  Said Ms Thresher after the new regulations came into force:  The original petition still stands in its own right but we do feel that the change in legislation has impacted the costs even further”.


That petition attracted some 170,000 signatures, significantly more than the 100,000 required to be considered for a debate under the Government’s e-petitions initiative.


Ms Thresher is not alone.  A group called “Parents Want a Say” has a number of e-petitions on its website relating to holidays and term-time absences.


And so it was that the Commons Backbench Committee came to debate the issue on 24 February 2014.  Both the transcript and a video of the debate are available, and make for engaging reading and viewing, respectively.  There appears to be a degree of appetite on the part of many MPs to ensure that the issue is managed with an element of common sense and that headteachers (rather than Parliament) are the final arbiters when it comes to authorising – or not – holidays during school term. 


Particularly outspoken on point is Liberal Democrat MP, John Hemming, who said there had not been enough debate on what was a "big issue".


"The problem is half-terms all tend to be the same, leading to a very big demand for holidays all at the same time,” he said. “And reducing the flexibility of people to take their children out of school adds to that."


What emerges from the debate, and whether any further legislative amendment is tabled, remains to be seen…


Practical Tips

I offered a series of tips in my earlier blog on topic.  To those, I add these three:


  1. Contact your school now to ascertain how it approaches the changes introduced in September 2013 to the question of term-time absences.  Is there a policy ban on any term-time holidays?  Does the school have a view about what might comprise “exceptional circumstances”?
  2. Be vocal!  Many parents have – as the recent Commons Backbench Committee debate shows – already contacted their MPs to highlight how their particular circumstances bring them into conflict with the perception by some headteachers that there is a blanket-ban on term-time absences.  As the petitions of Ms Thresher et al show, a groundswell of support can make politicians sit up and take notice.  And with next year being an election year, there might just be a willingness to be more receptive to this issue than otherwise.  Sign the online petitions.  Write to your MP.  Share your particular experiences.
  3. Shop around and be flexible about where you might want to go.  The Telegraph Travel survey showed that, when different destinations were chosen, the price rises during school holiday periods were far less pronounced.


1 comment:

  1. You fail to mention the removal of the words from the Law " for the purpose of a family holiday"

    To me, this is crucial to the debate. Heads were authorizing correctly, within the Law, rater than "accommodating"

    They had an explicit right in Law to authorize in special circumstances for that very purpose.

    You sort of imply, holidays were slipping through.

    It is fundamental because the DfE deny any restriction on Heads' discretion, and stress just re-iterating existing rules.
    Yet, that explicit right has been removed. I would also say, as a parent I had an explicit right to be granted leave in special circumstances for a family holiday an that right has been removed.

    I think it is wrong to portray that holidays were slipping through.