Teaching union leaders today warned the changes to the rules on pupils taking holidays during term-time was causing “real problems” for some schools.
With the prices of breaks rocketing during school holidays, hundreds of parents have chosen to take their kids out of lessons to save – in some cases – thousands of pounds.
And 972 parents were hit with penalty notices in the first three months of the new academic year for unauthorised pupil absences.
Although the figures reflect all unauthorised leave, the fact that they have increased dramatically is believed to be due to tough new rules on holidays during term time.
Headteachers have always been able to grant leave in certain circumstances, including for holidays.
But in September 2013, the Government introduced new guidelines which reduced this discretion to the extent that headteachers can now only grant leave “in exceptional circumstances” – and they must be able to justify the decision.
Schools have been stopped from allowing children 10 days of leave a year for family breaks in ‘special circumstances’ and if parents take their children out of school without the school’s permission or take their children out after permission has been denied, they could be given a penalty notice fine of £60 per child.
The phrase ‘special circumstances’ is a bone of contention with schools and parents alike.
The National Association of Headteachers object to the plan when it was first mooted because they said it would put undue pressure on headteachers, faced with deciding what was “exceptional” and what wasn’t.
Tony Roberts, membership secretary for Lancashire said: “It is causing heads hassle and it is causing real problems with some heads saying it is not within their remit, then parents give them grief.
“Most heads are going to adhere to the rules because they have to. A lot would like a little more leeway because there are occasions, for instance with single parent families or delicate domestic situations where they desperately need a break and the head knows that.
“There is also another bone of contention, in that heads are concerned about festivals like Eid or, particularly with Muslim families, where weddings and other events take place abroad.
“If the heads give permission then Ofsted will come in and take them to task.”
Mr Roberts added: “While we support the idea that children should be in school, we will support it because it is the law and we have no option. There is very little choice.
“I think two weeks off school is damaging but a lot of heads, with hand on heart, would look at the circumstances and think it is justified and that is what upsets them”.
Several schools across South Ribble and Chorley have adjusted their calendars to incorporate a two-week break in May as it became evident more parents were taking their main holiday then.
County Coun Matthew Tomlinson, cabinet member for children, young people and schools at LCC, said good attendance should be a priority.
He added: “These are national guidelines which were brought in by the Department for Education last September and they strictly limit the circumstances in which schools can grant holiday leave.
“The decision whether to issue a penalty notice rests with the head of each school, and the role of the county council is purely to provide support and administration.”
One Preston mother-of-two said she saved £600 by taking her daughter out of school for a week after the term break.
The young mum, from Preston, who asked not to be named, said: “We are going away with another family whose school is off for two weeks in May.
“I have paid £2,000 for a holiday to Tenerife for a week, all inclusive. The cost went up £600 if we went the week before, which is the school holiday. So I am taking my five-year-old out for one week when they go back after the end of term break.
“I am not happy about it, but I told the school and they came back saying that, while they couldn’t condone it, they accepted the reasons.
“ I was really nervous about it because my daughter is in her first year at school and I don’t want her to be treated differently.
“ Yes, my child is going to miss a week’s education because I can’t afford to pay an extra £600.
“That is out of my hands and I think something needs to be done about the situation.
“The cost of the fine is considerably less than the £600 extra on the holiday.”