Local authorities issued a total of 68,438 fines for unauthorised absences from school for family holidays between 1 September 2015 and 31 July 2016, according to Freedom of Information Act responses sent to ITV’s ‘Tonight’ programme.
The high number of fines suggests the financial penalty is not deterring many parents from taking their children out of school for holidays.
Mum Natasha Najm and her two sons Harrison, nine, and Logan, five, are going to Egypt on holiday two days before their school breaks up for the end of term.
“The cost of holidays is an issue because we do run to a budget and whenever we look at holidays that occur in the six weeks of the summer holidays we simply can’t afford it,” she told the programme.
“We’re saving approximately a thousand pounds so I don’t think twice about booking a holiday in term time because of the risk of a fine, because I know that if I have to pay a fixed penalty it will be significantly cheaper.”
The actual number of fines issued may be substantially higher than ITV’s figures suggest, as 50 of the 152 local education bodies in England failed to respond to ITV’s information request before production ended.
The total number of parents who paid their fines is not known.
A separate poll of 2,000 parents of school age children carried out by OnePoll for the programme found more than half (55%) of parents have either taken, or would be willing to take their children out of school for a holiday during term time.
Two thirds (66%) said the reason they’d consider a term-time break is due to the increased costs during the school holidays.
There’s no sign that the travel industry will be dropping prices in the school holidays anytime soon.
Victoria Bacon from ABTA, which represents British travel agents, said: “The challenge we have, is that we have a very short window of school holidays in this country and clearly if you’ve got lots of people all wanting to buy a holiday at the same time then the prices of those holidays go up.”
Department for Education guidelines say headteachers can only grant an authorised holiday in term in exceptional circumstances.
Yet mum Debbie Proudler says that wording tripped up her family. She booked a holiday to Sharm El Sheikh last year, meaning her son would have to take four days off school.
“My understanding of our school is that you can have four consecutive days, but once you hit the fifth consecutive day that’s when the head refers you for a fine,” she explained.
But a terror attack meant her travel agents switched their flights and destination, meaning her son had to miss one more day of school. Proudler said she and her husband were fined £60 each by Dudley Council.
“The wording of the letter that we received, I was quite horrified at,” she said.
“We were being branded as criminals because of circumstances that have happened out of our control.
“It’s hard to accept. I can’t see how they can’t consider possible terrorist action as exceptional circumstances. What could come any higher on a list?”
Proudler’s son’s headteacher, Nikki Miller of Blanford Mere Primary School said: “Good attendance is vital for an all-round education, the rules are set by government and apply to all schools and as it’s government policy we will continue to enforce this requirement.”
Dudley Council added: “The rules around absence are set nationally. In this case the school has applied its own policy and procedures and authorising holidays is at the head teacher’s discretion.”
There seems to be quite a marked a variation between the way schools across the country apply the rules.
At Parkfield Community School in Birmingham, headteacher Hazel Pulley has a zero tolerance policy.
“Parents often come to me and feel that they have a right to a holiday in school time and that really concerns me because we should be looking at the rights of the child,” she said.
“You know...children lose so much. Our seven-year-olds, five out of eight of the children who had holidays didn’t reach the level that was expected, nationally, in maths and writing.
“Equally the 11-year-olds, four out of six of those children, who went on holiday didn’t achieve in maths and English.”
However at Springfield Primary School in Derby, very few fines have been issued, as head David Blackwell explains.
“We try and understand where parents are coming from, which is often around cost, is often around being able to get time off work,” he said.
“Whilst, at the same time, we strongly recommend parents take their children during school holidays.”
Freedom of Information requests made by Tonight reveal that in two authorities with a similar number of schools and pupils there is a huge variation in the number of fines given out for term-time holidays.
Newcastle LEA issued just 16 fines, but Plymouth LEA issued 1,136.
The Department of Education told the programme: “The rules are perfectly clear - children should not be taken out of school without good reason.
“That is why we have tightened the rules and are supporting schools and local authorities to use their powers to tackle unauthorised absence.
“The evidence shows that every extra day of school missed can affect a pupil’s chances of achieving good GCSEs, which has a lasting effect on their life chances – vindicating our strong stance on attendance.”
‘The Truth About Term Time Holidays: Tonight’ airs on ITV at 7.30pm on Thursday 20 October evening.