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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 4:30 pm on 11th July 2016.

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Photo of Steve Double Steve Double Conservative, St Austell and Newquay 4:30 pm, 11th July 2016

I suspect the Minister will say that guidelines have been provided, but in my experience, most headteachers say that, even when they follow the guidelines and exercise their discretion in saying what exceptional circumstances apply, they get criticised for exercising it when there is an Ofsted inspection. There seems to be a lack of consistency, which is why I argue for putting the discretion back in the hands of headteachers. Give them the freedom—they know the pupils and the families, so let them decide what is best for their pupils.

The Government have made great claims about the importance of the family and the value of a strong stable family to a child’s life and, indeed, to the wider community. I wholeheartedly support that, but it is sad that the family test was not in place when the rule was introduced in 2013. If it were, what would the outcome have been? I take the view that the family test would severely challenge the policy because of its impact on families’ lives. We live in a time when we are getting busier and busier. Time together as families is more precious than ever, so holidays together play an even more important part in the life of many families. It is clear to most people that time away is time to strengthen family relationships and time for parents to focus on their children. The value of that is immeasurable.

The simple fact is that, for many families, the choice is either a holiday during term time or no family holiday at all. For some people, that is due to their work situation—it is just not possible for many parents to take time off during school holidays. That is particularly true in my constituency, where people work in the tourist industry, but it is also true for many public sector workers in the NHS, the police and other sectors. For other families, it is simply a case of economics. A holiday during the peak season can be two or three times the price of a holiday during term time. For many families, it is just not affordable to take a holiday in the peak season. The Family Holiday Association reports that about 7 million families in the UK are simply unable to afford a week’s holiday.

It is easy for MPs, Government Ministers and education officers, who earn more than five times the salary of the average person in my constituency and, indeed, people in many other parts of the country, to say that people should only take a holiday out of term time. As someone suggested to me recently, the problem does not affect those in private education, as private schools have longer school holidays anyway. I am sorry to say that the situation simply shows that we do not understand the reality of life for many families. It is not a case of just looking for a cheap holiday. For many families, it is the only holiday they can afford, so it is a matter of a term-time holiday or no holiday.

We are discriminating against those on low incomes by saying that if they cannot afford the high prices charged during the school holidays, they do not deserve a family holiday. The policy is making the situation worse. By focusing all demand on the few weeks of school holidays, the rules of supply and demand mean that the prices go up during those weeks, and the drop in demand during term times means that the prices go down in those weeks. The differential between a term-time week and a school holiday week is widening. The message from the Government to our children is quite simple—that time in the classroom is more important than time away with their parents. Quite frankly, that is wrong.

My second point is that the policy denies the value of a holiday to a child’s development and education. Education does not take place only in the classroom. Although no one would deny the importance of children learning maths, English and the other core subjects, we should also accept that there are other equally important aspects of any child’s education. Education should be about preparing our children for life, work, being a good citizen and playing their part in the world. It is not just about passing exams. The opportunity to travel—to other countries or to other parts of this country—can and does play a valuable part in any child’s upbringing.