News: the school holiday showdown

'Every Lesson Counts' was supposed to stem the tide of children travelling during term time by offering cheap deals during the breaks. But is the initiative really working? Mark MacKenzie reports
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The Independent Travel

Negative publicity about alleged sex offenders being appointed to teaching posts has given Ruth Kelly's Department for Education and Skills a rough ride in recent weeks. But the department headed by the MP for Bolton West hopes to gain positive coverage for its attempts to find a solution to the great summer holiday conundrum.

At this time of year, as parents pore over holiday brochures with a sense of longing and bank statements with a sense of dread, just how do you take the family abroad during the school holidays without getting fleeced? The solution, according to the department, is Every Lesson Counts, the scheme launched in November in response to what the Government claims is a growing culture of "holiday truancy", taking breaks during term-time to avoid exorbitant peak-season price hikes.

The initiative, in collaboration with the Association of British Travel Agents (Abta) and the Federation of Tour Operators, claims to ease the financial burden by offering parents bona fide peak-season deals.

But when the packages were made available to the public on the scheme's official website, the bargains weren't quite as advertised. One newspaper, for example, highlighted a peak-season family holiday to Tenerife costing £1,722.60. The same holiday taken a week earlier (during term-time) cost only £1,473.60. A 10-night stay in Orlando was offered at £2,125. Booking outside of the scheme with a different operator, the same trip could be had for £459 less. And when there did appear to be genuine savings there were often expensive caveats. A two-week trip to Mauritius, which included seven nights' accommodation free of charge, seemed a steal. The catch? A price tag just shy of £6,000.

A recent poll commissioned by family travel specialist found that as many as 78 per cent of parents felt peak-season increases left them with little choice but to go away during term-time, a pressure understood by parent organisations. "[The scheme] generated great headlines but in reality it has done little to help parents," said Margaret Morrissey of the National Confederation of Parent Teacher Associations (NCPTA). "Offering one child free if you can afford to take three others to Florida in August is fine, but it's hardly realistic."

One way the NCPTA believes the travel industry might offset greater discounts to parents during peak season would be to charge more for holidays during term-time. "We'd liked to have seen a more balanced approach to holidays throughout the year," said Ms Morrissey. "If that's not plausible you have to come clean."

Which, according to Abta, the industry isn't. "The reality of supply and demand means that when demand is higher prices will be higher," says Keith Betton, Abta's head of corporate affairs. "If you try to buck the system it just doesn't work. Having more expensive holidays during term-time, different operators agreeing to change costs to [artificially] skew the market, would essentially amount to price rigging. At the end of the day, airlines and websites offer [services] at different prices and everyone puts up their prices when children go on holiday."

Mr Betton believes the press reaction has been disingenuous, conveniently ignoring the basic rules of commerce. "We're not claiming they're earth-shattering deals but they're the deals that are available," he says. Of the 30 or so deals currently on Abta's website, few offer savings of more than 5 per cent. "The alternative is we don't bother, which wouldn't been very helpful," he adds. "If you're [booking for] the first week of January, it's hard to make comparisons because everybody's giving you money just to walk through the door.

"In October, when it is less competitive, our website is one way of finding a good deal."

So who's right: the operators who claim merely to be obeying market forces, or parents following economic guidelines of their own? The answer, probably, is both. As for who's to blame, that's easy. Step forward the Secretary of State for Education.