When Stewart and Natasha Sutherland were slapped with a £1,000 fine and costs this week for taking their children out of school for a holiday in Greece, legions of parents quickly jumped to their defence, blaming the extortionate cost of travel in the school holidays for leaving families with no choice but to allow their kids to truant.
The Sutherlands appeared before Telford magistrates on Wednesday for failing to pay a £720 penalty charge after they holidayed just days after a change in the rules on schools authorising absence for family vacations.
Mr Sutherland said his work as a guard for the Ministry of Defence made it difficult for him to take time off at the same time as his three children's holidays, and that the trip was booked and paid for before he was warned of the possibility of a fine.
The case has highlighted what a contentious subject term-time holidays are. As a single parent to a 10-year-old son, I know only too well the cost of holidaying during high season, but I cut my cloak according to my cloth – if I can't afford a price-hiked fortnight in the sun mid-August, then I lower my expectations. And does my child care if we're sunning ourselves in the Med or camping in a soggy field in Devon? Not a bit. What he would care about, however, is having to catch up on one or two weeks of his school work, or miss out on entire topics altogether as a result of being absent.
But I am seemingly in the minority in thinking that children should not miss school for family breaks. In a poll conducted by Travelzoo, the online travel firm, and the My Family Club website, 50 per cent of parents admitted to having taken their children out of school to avoid high season prices. Travelzoo estimates that the cost of a package deal during the school holidays is generally 40 per cent higher than during term time.
The company's managing director, Richard Singer, has launched a campaign to persuade the Government to consider suspending or reducing Airport Passenger Duty (APD) during the six weeks of the school summer holidays. He argues that this would cut the cost of a family of four's travel by around £350. Singer is also calling for school headteachers to have more flexibility in authorising term-time leave, for example by applying the rules only to children aged 11 and above when, he says "attendance is more crucial".
While many parents back his calls (some 33,000 have signed his petition feeling, perhaps, that cash-strapped parents are the ones most likely to take their children away during school terms and are thus most likely to be fined what they can ill afford), the general stance from headteachers is that the legislation – that leave is "unlikely to be granted for the purposes of a family holiday" – is there for a reason.
Heather Forse, a spokesperson for the National Association of Headteachers, said the organisation had every sympathy with parents struggling to cope with the cost of holidays in peak times but the presumption had to be that education came first. "Pupils need consistency to keep up with their studies," Ms Forse says, "and a week out every so often can be problematic further down the line."
But will the Sutherland case do anything to make other parents think twice about pulling their children out of school? It seems not. "I am a firm believer in the university of life and the fact that, whatever they learn, seeing the world completely trumps what they're being taught in a classroom," Shona Vann, a mum of four, tells me. "I have lied to schools – I once took my son out for a week and claimed he had a chest infection. I then had to conceal his suntan with foundation when he went back."
That travel is of enormous educational value to children is, of course, undeniable, but what are parents teaching their offspring by taking them out of school, breaking the rules and lying? If the coffers don't stretch to a week abroad outside term time, I think I'll stick to a tent in the wet and windy West Country.Reuse content