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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 5:53 pm on 11th July 2016.

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Photo of Nick Gibb Nick Gibb Minister of State (Education) 5:53 pm, 11th July 2016

It is a pleasure to serve once again under your chairmanship, Mr Hanson. I welcome the response to the debate from Angela Rayner. I predicted that she would make a formidable shadow Secretary of State, despite the odd circumstances of her appointment, and today she has reconfirmed my view. I welcome her support for the Government’s policy, particularly her support for the Government’s attitude to attendance. She clearly shares our concern that attendance is key.

The hon. Lady raised the example of a diagnosis of cancer as not being regarded as exceptional. I refer her and other Members taking part in the debate to the National Association of Head Teachers advice and guidance, which, at point 10, states:

“Families may need time together to recover from trauma or crisis.”

A cancer diagnosis is therefore regarded as an exceptional circumstance, and attending hospital or illness is of course a reason to authorise absence.

I thank my hon. Friend Steve Double for leading this important debate. The subject is close to his heart—we debated the issues fairly recently on 19 May and also in an urgent question that he raised on the Floor of the House. The debate gives me the opportunity to restate the Government’s position on school attendance for parents, schools and local authorities, particularly as I know some parents and schools have been confused by the recent High Court judgment in the Isle of Wight term-time holiday case. I hope I can fulfil the request from the hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne to provide clarity on that. I am grateful to my hon. Friend Peter Heaton-Jones for his constructive approach and to other hon. Members who have taken part in the debate.

The e-petition states:

“No more school penalty fines and bring back the 10 day authorised absence.”

My hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay referred to the 200,000 people who signed the petition. We take that very seriously, but it is a small proportion of the parents of 8.4 million school-age children in this country. My hon. Friend the Member for North Devon said that he does not agree with the part of the petition that refers to bringing back the 10-day authorised absence—nor does my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay, nor the Government today and nor the Government in 2013.

In 2013, the Government clarified the law to address what was a widespread misconception that parents were entitled to take their children on holiday during term time. No such entitlement has ever existed in law. Teachers and schools support the increased clarity. As anyone who works in schools knows, education is cumulative, and unauthorised absences have a significantly adverse effect on the child who is absent as they miss vital stepping stones towards understanding curriculum content. Unauthorised absences also damage the education of the rest of the class as teachers have to spend time trying to help the absent pupils catch up when they return. The Government clarified the law to ensure that headteachers retained the discretion to authorise a leave of absence by considering the merits of each request and deciding whether it qualifies as an exceptional circumstance. Children should not miss school unless the circumstances are genuinely exceptional.

I refer my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon to point 3 of the NAHT guidance:

“If an event can reasonably be scheduled outside of term time then it would not be normal to authorise absence.”

The converse is that, if an event cannot reasonably be scheduled outside of term time, such as a championship or a sporting event of high significance to the child or indeed to the country, then of course it would fall within point 3 of the guidance, although it is ultimately a matter for the discretion of the headteacher.

The regulatory changes that we introduced in 2013 have been very successful. Since their introduction, as the hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne said, the rate of absence due to term-time holidays has decreased by more than a third. The number of persistent absentees in England’s schools has dropped by more than 40%, from 433,000 in the academic year 2009-10 to 246,000 in 2014-15. Some 6.8 million days were lost due to authorised and unauthorised term-time holiday absence in the 2012-13 academic year. That fell to 4.1 million days in 2014-15—a drop of 2.7 million days—meaning more children sitting in more classrooms for more hours. That has been driven particularly by a drop in absence due to authorised term-time holidays, with only 3.4% of pupils missing at least one session due to authorised term-time holidays in 2014-15, down from 15.1% in 2012-13.

My hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay correctly cited statistics that showed that the rate of agreed term-time holidays is lower for persistent absentees than for other pupils: 0.5% due to family holidays by persistent absentees versus 1.9% for other pupils. However, the situation is reversed for unauthorised term-time holidays: 0.6% of all possible sessions missed for persistent absentees versus 0.3% for other pupils.

[Steve McCabe in the Chair]

The Government acknowledge that family holidays can be enriching experiences, but the school year is designed to give families numerous opportunities to enjoy holidays without having to disrupt children’s education. Parents should plan their holidays around school breaks and avoid seeking permission from schools to take their children out of school during term time unless there are exceptional circumstances. I recognise that the cost of holidays is a frustration that many parents share, and I certainly encourage travel operators to do what they can to provide value for money to families, but ultimately, in a competitive market in which British businesses are in competition with others across the globe, it is for those businesses to decide their prices based on demand across the year.

Tourism is a key industry that supports almost one in 10 jobs in the United Kingdom. That is why the Government are encouraging more visitors to discover more of our country, as set out in the five-point plan that the Prime Minister announced in July 2015. Holiday sales in the UK continue to be buoyant, suggesting that there is sufficient supply and strong demand. There were more than 124 million overnight domestic trips in Britain in 2015—a 9% rise on 2014 and the highest figure since 2012. The amount spent was also up 9% to £25 billion, a record £19.6 billion of which was spent in England.

If parents and schools want different term dates so they can take holidays at less busy periods, we encourage them to discuss that with their local authority. The authority to change term dates sits with academies, voluntary-aided schools and local authorities. Decisions about term dates are best taken locally, especially where the local industry—for example, tourism—creates a compelling reason to set term dates that differ from those of the rest of the country.

As of January 2016, about 81% of secondary and 41% of primary schools, educating 57% of all mainstream registered pupils, have the responsibility for their own term and holiday dates. That includes all academies and free schools, and other schools where the governing body is the employer of staff, such as foundation or voluntary-aided schools. Some of those schools have led the way in making innovative changes in the interests of pupils and parents.