School Penalty Fines and Authorised Absence — [Mr David Hanson in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 4:57 pm on 11th July 2016.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Peter Heaton-Jones Peter Heaton-Jones Conservative, North Devon 4:57 pm, 11th July 2016

It is a perfectly reasonable question. I tried to answer it in advance by saying that there is always a concern about what Ofsted’s view will be when it considers absences on the school roll across the board. All headteachers are extremely concerned that if they authorise such an absence, it will count against them when their overall absence statistics are considered.

Let me be clear: I have no criticism whatever of the school or the headteacher for the decision that they made. They felt that they had no choice but to do so; that is the point. The issue of choice is fundamental. Parents and headteachers should, in exceptional circumstances, have the freedom and choice to allow absence. That is what they are currently being denied, and in my view that cannot be right.

I raise that case in particular not only because it is in my constituency but because it specifically did not involve giving the children a holiday; that was not the purpose of the absence request. Yet it is absolutely the case that in Devon, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay and many other constituencies, the tourism sector plays a vital role in the local economy, and it is being badly affected by the current situation. By some measures, one in six jobs in my constituency depend either directly or indirectly on the tourism sector. It is a vital driver of the local economy, and many families in my constituency work in it.

Not only does the current situation create the problem that many families are unable to take advantage of cheaper holidays during term time, but for the many hundreds—indeed, probably thousands—of families who work in the tourism sector in my constituency, there is no way that they can go away during the school holidays. That is the time when they run their family businesses, so they are impeded in their ability to take their children away. I am afraid that by not helping them do so, we are not helping the holiday business.

I have read the transcript of a previous discussion in the main Chamber between my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay and the Minister. The point was made that we need the Government to think carefully about changing the regulations, due to their effect on the tourism industry. I hope the Minister will not mind my quoting him. He said:

“I do not believe that we should be returning to the Dickensian world where the needs of industry and commerce take precedence over the education of children.”

No one is suggesting that. No one is suggesting that children should be allowed to be taken away from school to satisfy the wishes of a few small businesses. This is a bigger issue than that. In the same discussion, he also said:

“I doubt that the Cornish tourism industry will be best pleased by his”— my hon. Friend’s—

“assertion that tourism in Cornwall is dependent on truanting children for its survival.”—[Official Report, 19 May 2016; Vol. 611, c. 139-40.]

The Cornish tourism industry is not, and I am delighted to say that the Devon tourism industry is not. In particular, the north Devon tourism industry is not; that is the best place to spend a holiday.

The point is that we are talking not about truanting children but about the right of parents and teachers to agree, in a few cases, that it is appropriate in the circumstances for children to be taken out of school for a family holiday if they might otherwise miss out on one. That is the point. Families and children are missing out on a family holiday through no fault of their own and face the risk of being dragged before the courts or fined substantial amounts of money. Headteachers feel that they are having taken away from them the right to make individual decisions in individual circumstances.

Perhaps another result of this debate will be that holiday companies, airlines and those that offer package holidays take a long hard look at themselves. They should not be charging such vastly inflated prices during school holidays. I shall cite one example, which I raised the last time we debated this subject. I think you were in the Chair for at least some of that sitting, Mr Hanson; forgive me for outlining this particular circumstance again, but it tells the story rather well. A package holiday to Spain for a family of two adults and two children beginning on 14 July would have cost £1,300. The same holiday, with identical flights and accommodation, beginning just two weeks later when the school holidays had begun, would have cost £2,000. That is a 60% mark-up. It would not be allowed in any other retail business, and we should not put up with it. It is not just the Government who I ask, respectfully, to think again about where we are; the holiday industry needs to take a long, hard look at itself as well.