Page last updated at 17:06 GMT, Wednesday, 3 February 2010

Schools are levying more 'holiday fines' on parents

By Andrew Bomford
BBC News

Passengers in the departure area at Schiphol Airport
Families are being urged not to take holidays during term-time

More parents are being fined for taking their children on holiday during term time without permission, figures obtained by the BBC suggest.

The 20 largest local authorities in England say the number of fines levied so far this academic year is up by 10%.

In Liverpool the number is up 50% to 116 fines in the autumn term compared to 77 for the same period last year.

Over 18,000 penalty notices were issued in England in the school year 2007-8. Scotland and Wales do not use fines.

"We see some families taking holidays two or three times a year," said Ron Collinson, Liverpool's chief attendance officer.

Mr Collinson says the loss of lessons is "highly disruptive" for pupils.

"They always seem to take them at key times for the schools, when we're trying to settle them into new environments or they even take them at times that coincide with exams."

£50 fine

Another local factor in Liverpool is the battle between low-cost airlines offering deals from the city's John Lennon Airport.

Parents complain that flights and holidays are far more expensive outside term time and this can dwarf the cost of a fine.

In England, parents can be fined £50 per child if it is paid within 28 days, rising to £100 or a court appearance afterwards.

But schools are given discretion to agree up to 10 days holiday a year, only if they feel there are exceptional reasons involved.

Some parents just pay the fine and factor it into the cost of the holiday
Head teacher, Julia Tinsley

Some schools take a carrot and stick approach, agreeing to requests for holidays if a child's attendance for the rest of the school year is above 95%.

This is the approach taken at Holly Lodge Girls College in Liverpool. But some parents still ignore the rules.

"Some parents just pay the fine and factor it into the cost of the holiday," said head teacher Julia Tinsley.

But she said sometimes parents do have good reasons for taking holidays in term time.

"We have some parents who are in the police force or fire brigade who have no choice about when to take their holiday, so we do have to be sensible about it."

Child's interests

Primary schools tend to take a less rigorous approach, and many shy away from fining parents who tend to have a much closer relationship with the school than at secondary level.

There is also some doubt about the effectiveness of the measure.

"I'm not sure that it has any effect whatsoever," said Phil Daniels, head teacher at Springwood Heath Primary School in Liverpool.

Check-in board at Heathrow Terminal 5
Many families are being lured by cheap flight deals

"Parents know they can save far more than that by taking a holiday in term time.

"It's better to have a good relationship with parents and make them understand that it is not in their child's best interests for them to miss too much school."

According to the Department for Children Schools and Families, 18,291 penalty notices were issued to parents in England in 2007, although the fines can be for a variety of school attendance problems.

The PM programme spoke to one mother who was fined for taking her daughter out of school. She asked to remain anonymous.

"The fine frightened the life out of me," she said, "And I haven't taken her away on holiday since. The problem is that now we can't afford to go on holiday during the summer. It's too expensive."

She said she thought it was wrong to penalise poorer families, but did admit that in her case it has had an effect because her daughter's general attitude has improved tremendously.

"In my case it did work," she said.

"Her attendance has shot right up."

A spokesman for the Department for Children, Schools and Families said: "Missing school for no good reason is totally unacceptable and we make no apology for cracking down on absence, which can have a negative impact on young people's life chances.

"Every single lesson counts, so by taking their children on holidays during term time parents can really disrupt their education.

"It's down to individual heads whether they give parents permission to take their children out of school but we back them in taking a firm line on unauthorised absence."

The figures on penalty fines were collected from the Department for Children Schools and Families by the PM programme , 5pm, Radio 4.

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