School absences soar as parents take children on holiday during term time to save money

Over the past year, one in 25 children in England was taken out of school for an unauthorised holiday

Simon Calder
Travel Correspondent
Friday 15 December 2023 16:22 GMT
Families pay through the nose to go away in school holidays
Families pay through the nose to go away in school holidays (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Last year one in 25 children at school in England was taken out of school for a holiday – resulting in a fine for parents. More than 350,000 penalty notices were issued for unauthorised absences. That figure has more than trebled in the past six years.

Until 2013, head teachers in England were able to grant up to two weeks a year for family holidays in “special circumstances”. But the then-Education Secretary Michael Gove cracked down on parents taking children out of school during term-time. Since then, a fixed-penalty fine of £60 has been imposed for unauthorised absences.

A primary head teacher in Greater Manchester, Darren Morgan, told BBC Breakfast that the soaring number of absences for holidays “is a mindset issue”.

He said that the problem has worsened since the Covid pandemic – when children were off school and accessing remote learning,

“That’s the argument parents make. It’s worked for them previously, so they consider that they could do some remote learning while they’re off [on holiday].”

Do some parents see paying fines as worthwhile because of the enormous savings that can be made?

These are the key questions and answers.

How much do term-time and school holiday prices differ?

As parents of school-age children know to their considerable cost, taking a family trip abroad during the school holidays typically costs hundreds of pounds more.

From Bristol to Crete, consider a Tui package holiday departing on 20 July 2024 – the first day of the summer holidays for many schools. A week, staying at the Tasmania Village in Elounda, costs £2,548 for a family of four.

Travelling a week earlier (as families with children at private schools can do) saves £239.

At the other end of the summer holidays, the later you can travel, the better. From Manchester to Benidorm, a Jet2 package holiday for a family of four costs £2,028 if you depart on 24 August for a week staying in the Avenida apartments. One week later, the price for an identical trip falls by £372. But most Manchester schools return on 2 September 2024.

The most extreme differences are found on popular ski flights – especially on the benchmark route, London Gatwick to Geneva, gateway to the French Alps. These are the cheapest and most expensive return flights on easyJet departing on successive Saturdays in February for a week:

  • 10 February (half-term for most schools): cheapest £361, most expensive £1,115
  • 17 February: cheapest £82, most expensive £248.

The half-term flights are over four times the price, whether you consider the cheapest or priciest.

Does the same apply on long-haul trips?

Oh yes. London Heathrow to Orlando on Virgin Atlantic on the last Saturday of June is £558 return; on the last day of July it’s £976. That is a rise of 75 per cent.

How can the holiday companies possibly justify those soaring prices?

Travel is unlike most industries. For example, a brewer or ice-cream manufacturer can respond to a warm summer by increasing production. But capacity in the travel industry – the supply of airline seats, hotel beds and rental cars – is largely fixed over the course of a season.

A typical holiday firm or leisure airline might trade at a loss for most of the year, but can more than make up for the shortfall when the schools are out. Since most schools have similar holidays, demand surges when term ends. The prices are as high as they are simply because people are prepared to pay them

Wasn’t there a big fuss about this a while ago?

Yes, repeated petitions to parliament – including one with 171,000 signatures – have asked the government to limit holiday price increases outside term time.

The government replied: “In a competitive market it is for business to decide the market worth of their products and to price accordingly. In the holiday market there is fierce competition for custom.

“Price rises in peak periods are a reflection of the international competition holiday companies face for hotel accommodation and other services in destinations which are popular with consumers from many other countries and where there are limits to capacity.

“These consumers also wish to holiday during these peak periods. We are advised also that holiday companies must seek to make a reasonable profit during the peak periods so that they are able to operate throughout the year when demand and therefore prices and profits are lower.”

What does the children’s commissioner say?

Dame Rachel de Souza, children’s commissioner for England, called on holiday companies “to do more to help low-income families”. She told BBC Breakfast: “We need to really be saying, come on holiday companies – step up, be fairer to children with families in your pricing because we don’t want children missing that really important education.

“Every day matters, and children tell me all the time they want to be in school, families tell me they want their children to be in school and school is a really good thing.

“If you miss school during term time, it has a real impact on your outcomes. Only 50 per cent of children who went on holiday, missing a week’s school in year 10 or 11, actually got five good grades.

“In the long-term your education is worth so much more than a week in the sun.”

Is the travel industry listening?

Any legal attempt to force travel firms to charge the same price throughout the year (or season) would lead to a calamitous decline in the number of available holidays.

A spokesperson for Abta, the travel association, said: “The prices of holidays are determined by supply and demand within the global travel market.

“Many travel companies offer free child places for early bookers and lower fares for children.

“If holidaymakers can be flexible about their travel arrangements, for example selecting a holiday with different departure or destination airport or departing on a different day of the week, they may also find cheaper deals.”

Are there alternatives to taking kids out of school?

Yes, particularly if you live in the north of England or southern Scotland. At the end of June Scots can head south to Manchester or Newcastle to grab a bargain, because English kids are still in school.

It reverses in the last couple of weeks in August, when it’s worth people in northern England crossing the border to Glasgow, Prestwick or Edinburgh.

Longer term, is there a way around it?

Assigning different holiday dates region by region can help. That is standard practice in France during winter and spring holidays. Locations are grouped into Zones A, B and C, which helps spread demand and lower peak prices.

The travel industry would be generally happy with a school holiday schedule that kept demand flat across a season, but there is no chance of that happening in the forseeable future.

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