For many parents, there is a desire to take their children away for at least one annual holiday, often abroad. But with the disproportionate cost of doing so during the school holidays, particularly in the summer, many parents chose to take their kids out for a week during term time. Now the government has introduced strict guidelines for schools about taking kids out of class and can result in fines and even jail times. So can you take kids out for holidays during school term?
What are the Laws?
England, Scotland and Wales all have their own set of rules that are broadly similar but with differences.
The rules in England changed in September 2013 at which point head teachers in England no longer have the ability to approve discretionary absences for up to 10 days for family holidays when they judged it to be ‘special circumstances’. Instead, the new rules introduce a far tougher level to qualify for exceptional circumstances and allow absence only for events such as family member funerals.
According to the Education Act of 1996, parents and carers have the legal responsibility to ensure their kids attend school unless they are home schooling them. Under this act, parents have no legal right to take their kids out of school for a holiday.
The reasoning behind this is that poor attendance can have a massive effect on children and those who attend school regularly as nearly four times as likely to achieve at least five or more good GCSE grades. The other issue is that the absence rate is monitored by the DfE and Ofsted and affect school placement in league tables.
In Wales, head teachers have the discretionary power to authorise leave for family holidays during term time if parents seek permission. Unless there are exceptional circumstances, this is no more than 10 days. Teachers consider the time of the year of the trip, the length and the purpose of the holiday as well as the impact on learning, the circumstances of the family and the parents’ wishes. They also look at the overall attendance record of the child as well as any test or exam dates.
If the teacher decides against the absence and the time off is still taken, this is classed as ‘unauthorised absence’ and penalty notices are issued for regular unauthorised absence. These penalty notices can only be issued if in compliance with the Code of Conduct for the local authority the school falls within. The purpose of this Code is to ensure that powers are consistently and fairly applied across a local authority area. The local authority is responsible for the creation and management of this code based on local needs.
One such example is the Caerphilly council. Their policy is that to take holidays during term time, parents must apply in writing explaining the circumstances. Schools then consider the absence and only agree in exceptional circumstances. It will be regarded as unauthorised if it goes ahead after the schools have declined the proposal and the school inform the council to issue notices. As of May 2015, no fixed penalties have been requested by schools in the council area.
Another example is Powys Council whose policy states that if children are absence for more than 10 school sessions, or five days, then they will face a fine if their attendance has fallen below 90%. This is £60 rising to £120 if not paid in 28 days. Head teachers are advised against authorising time off for holidays but it is entirely discretionary. Since implementation until May 2015, there had been five penalty notices issued.
In Scotland, schools do not normally give authorisation for parents to take their kids out of schools for family holidays. If this is done without permission, it is classed as an unauthorised absence and the education authority has to decide what it does. Time off may be allowed if there has been a family bereavement and time together is needed or for a holiday when the restrictions of a parent’s job means no other time could be used (such as armed or emergency services).
If the matter is recorded as unauthorised absence, councils can issue sanctions to parents. These include referring them to the children’s panel, issuing attendance orders and even prosecution. An attendance order is designed to ensure children regularly attend school and parents that break it face a fine or even a prison term. If a parent cannot improve a child’s attendance this can be referred to Social Work or a voluntary agency as well as the Children’s Reporter.
In England, the fine for taking kids out of school without the school’s permission is a maximum amount of £60 per pupil, per parent. If the fine isn’t pair within seven days, this amount doubles. If parents refuse to pay the fine, they can face court action and an increased fine of up to £2500 as well as a maximum jail sentence of three months.
Wales operates a similar fining system if a penalty is requested from the school under their Code of Conduct. Typically, the fine is £60 rising to £120 after 28 days but within 42 days. If this isn’t paid then a court order can be issued and if found guilty could face fines in the region of £2500 and a jail term up to three months.
Scotland currently does not have a fining system in the way that England does. However if an Attendance order is issued and parents do not comply with this, they can face a fine up to £1000 and possible a jail term.
Recent News Stories
With such a controversial and important issue, there are frequently items in the newspapers regarding this subject. These also highlight the stark differences in approach between the different parts of the UK.
One poll taken by the ITV program Tonight in April 2014 showed that by that stage, already 20% of parents spoken to have been fined by their school for unauthorised absence. The poll of 1000 families showed the highest numbers were in the east and the West Midlands, where more than one in three had received a penalty notice. Parents also noted that schools are becoming tougher on absences with 73% saying schools are stricter and just 17% planning to take their children out of school in the following year. However, the vast majority also added that they did not believe their child’s education would suffer by missing school for a family holiday.
By August 2015, the figures had continued to increase. Press Association figures showed that in England there were 16,430 parents prosecuted for failing to ensure their children attended school, the equivalent to 86 cases for each day of the school year. This is an increase of 25% on 2013, when 13,128 were taken to court. Of those taken to court, 75% were found guilty, itself an increase of nearly a quarter on the previous year. The amount of fines handed out also increase by 30% with 9,214 parents being issued with a fine and the average amount was £172. It also showed that 18 parents were given prison sentences in 2014, an increase from seven the previous year.
Yet despite the fines, research by The Economist in 2014 still found that in 90% of cases it was cheaper to take the kids out of school and pay the fine promptly than it was to take them on the same holiday during the school break.
One family from Sheffield are facing total fines in excess of £126,000 for taking their children on holiday during term time in 2014. The local council has issued 2,103 penalty notices in the school year from 2014-15 for removing children for a vacation and another 345 are still be processed. This is an increase from 1,196 the previous year.
The authority say that many of the parents are choosing to accept the fines as it is the only way they can go on a holiday as a family. They are also calling on the government to put pressure on holiday companies to make prices during the school holidays more reasonable.
The council also issued 73 notices for irregular attendance, an increase of 50% on the previous year. According to their figures, since the introduction of the new fine system, there have been around 200,000 fewer pupils missing time at school than there was five years ago.
The local newspaper, The Enfield Independent, used the Freedom of Information act in August this year to study the numbers for their area and found more than 120 occasions where parents had been fined. Spread over just 21 different schools, there had been 125 fines between 2011 and 2015. There was also a significant increase from 2010 to 2012, from one fine to 36 over that period. Eldon Junior School in Edmonton had the highest ratio of fines, with 22 issued over four years but no details have been released as to how much these fines cost. This is because schools are able to set their own fine amounts.
A spokesman for the council said that there were 46,179 pupils in the Enfield school population and the percentage of those fined is still very small. They also insist that this is a last resort and is only taken when all other options available have been exhausted.
Doncaster also saw an increase in the number of parents fined in 2014-15, reported in the Doncaster Freepress. A total of 3,378 parents were handed fines from the council for their children’s absence following the chance in rules regarding family holidays.
One parent, who had been fined over £300 for taking such a holiday, is defiant and insists he will do it again. Tim Mettam took his three children from Balby Carr Community Academy for a family holiday to Florida at Christmas and returned to a £360 fine. They had gone to see an uncle following a series of family bereavements and stresses but the school deemed this not good enough to authorise the absence. They checked the difference in holiday price and found that for two weeks’ vacation during the school holidays, the cost would be £10,300 while taking three weeks during term time was just £3000. Even adding the fine, they were significantly better off. Prior to the holiday, the children had a 100% attendance record and attended after school clubs to pick up what they had lost. Tim appealed but lost and is paying the fine over a five-month period.
One family have said that they are being penalised by their local council for still being married following both parents receiving fines for taking kids out for a holiday. Cassie and Ian Cadd from Sunnyside have been fined £120 each for taking their four children to Minorca for a week but are adamant that the fine should be per couple. They added that despite the fine, they were still £500 better off due to the cost of the holiday. Their children’s absence was over 98% before the holiday.
When the council was questioned about the matter, they said they were following the Department for Education guidance for non-approved holidays that states ‘where there is more than one person liable for the offence, a separate penalty notice may be issued to each person, regardless of whether they live together or not’.
Parents in the Welsh county have reacted angrily to the news that their local authority plans to follow the Welsh government policy of fining them £60 for taking kids out of school on unauthorised absences for 10 days or more.
One mum said that while she understands that children need to go to school, it should be her right to decide whether her children attend or not and that the government should not dictate to people what they should be doing. She also pointed out that their family of five would find it extremely difficult to have a holiday during school breaks as the cost is around 50% more. She added that it penalises parents wanting to give their children a well-deserved break but cannot afford school holiday prices.