Stewart and Natasha Sutherland are probably feeling hard-done by today. The Shropshire couple are having to pay £993 in fines and costs for taking their three children out of school during term-time to go on holiday last September. “The people who make these laws and policies don’t live in the real world,” Mr Sutherland protested.
That may be the case, but most parents seem to find it easy enough to stick to these laws and policies, so is he suggesting that he and his wife shouldn’t have to? The reason why they’re having to pay so much – it could have been £2,000 – is that they’d refused to pay the initial penalty of £360, which makes you wonder what they thought was going to happen if they didn’t stump up straight away.
It’s possible to have some sympathy with them – Mr Sutherland said his job as a Ministry of Defence guard makes it difficult to get time off when he wants, and it was their first family holiday for five years. In further mitigation he said the holiday, to the Greek island of Rhodes, had been booked a year before the law changed last September and schools were told they could only let children stay away in term-time in exceptional circumstances. But as a general principle the law is surely a good one – and if it’s good in principle it’s good in practice.
As far as the Sutherlands are concerned, it might further be argued that it was only a week’s holiday, and it was near the beginning of the academic year, so their childrens’ education is unlikely to have suffered much. And it could be said that the right kind of holiday might be more educational than a week listening to teachers banging on (perhaps the Sutherland brood should have been brought to court and tested on Greek history and culture). On Radio 5 Live this morning two highly experienced teachers spoke about it: one said yes, childrens’ education might well suffer from a week’s absence; the other one said that was rubbish. So who knows?
Also germane to the issue is the scandalous pumping-up of prices during school hols by travel firms. Another voice on Radio 5 Live this morning was a representative of the holiday industry who shrugged her shoulders – I’m sure she did, even if it was on the radio – and said it’s simply a case of supply and demand. So that’s OK, then: the poor travel companies’ hands are tied by the fact that they’re greedy, grabbing capitalist pigs. The government should surely be putting pressure on them – legislating, even – to ensure they don’t profit from the fact that parents are bound by the law.
Perhaps schools should be allowed to set their own holidays, and have more of them, but shorter. That way vacations would be staggered and the travel industry wouldn’t know when to put their prices up. And perhaps there should be a mechanism for parents to plead their cases – being able to take only one family holiday in five years would surely help make a convincing case.
But you can’t blame schools for putting their foot down when attendance records are part of Ofsted inspections. And with respect to the Sutherlands, who were doing what they thought was right, the law’s the law, and it’s not a bad one. I imagine that after this case most families will think very hard indeed about swanning off during term-time.