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Term-time Holidays

Volume 611: debated on Thursday 19 May 2016

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Education if she will make a statement on the recent decision by the High Court on the right of parents to take their children on holiday during term time.

The High Court oral judgment represents a significant threat to one of the Government’s most important achievements in education in the past six years: improving school attendance. For this reason, the Government will do everything in their power to ensure that headteachers are able to keep children in school.

There is abundant academic evidence showing that time spent in school is one of the single strongest determinants of a pupil’s academic success. At secondary school, even a week off can have a significant impact on a pupil’s GCSE grades. This is unfair to children and potentially damaging to their life chances. That is why we have unashamedly pursued a zero-tolerance policy on unauthorised absence. We have increased the fines issued to parents of pupils with persistent unauthorised absence, placed greater emphasis on school attendance levels in inspection outcomes and, crucially, we have clamped down on the practice of taking term-time holidays. Those measures have been strikingly successful: the number of persistent absentees in this country’s schools has dropped by over 40%, from 433,000 in 2010 to 246,000 in 2015, and some 4 million fewer days are lost due to unauthorised absence compared with 2012-2013. Overall absence rates have followed a significant downward trend from 6.5% in the academic year ending in 2007 to 4.6% in the academic year ending in 2015.

These are not just statistics. They mean that pupils are spending many more hours in school, being taught the knowledge and skills they need to succeed in life. It is for this reason that we amended the 2006 attendance regulations in 2013. Previously headteachers were permitted to grant a family holiday during term time for “special circumstances” of up to 10 days per school year. Of course, the need to take time off school in exceptional circumstances is important, but there are no special circumstances where a 10-day family holiday to Disney World should be allowed to trump the importance of school. The rules must apply to everyone as a matter of social justice. When parents with the income available to take their children out of school go to Florida, it sends a message to everyone that school attendance is not important.

The measure has been welcomed by teachers and schools. Unauthorised absences do not affect just the child who is absent; they damage everyone’s education as teachers find themselves having to play catch-up. Because learning is cumulative, pupils cannot understand the division of fractions if they have not first understood their multiplication. Pupils cannot understand why world war one ended if they do not know why it started, and they cannot enjoy the second half of a novel if they have not read the first half. If a vital block of prerequisite knowledge is missed in April, a pupil’s understanding of the subject will be harmed in May.

The Government understand, however, that many school holidays being taken at roughly the same time leads to a hike in prices. That is precisely the reason that we have given academies the power to set their own term dates in a way that works for their parents and their local communities. Already schools such as Hatcham College in London and the David Young Community Academy in Leeds are doing just that. In areas of the country such as the south-west, where a large number of the local population are employed in the tourist industry, there is nothing to stop schools clubbing together and collectively changing or extending the dates of their summer holidays or doing so as part of a multi-academy trust. In fact, this Government would encourage them to do so.

I am about to conclude, Mr Speaker.

We are awaiting the written judgment from the High Court and will outline our next steps in due course. The House should be assured that we will seek to take whatever measures are necessary to give schools and local authorities the power and clarity to ensure that children attend school when they should.

I thank the Minister for his answer. However, there is another aspect to the policy which, sadly, has been ignored up till now—the economic impact of the policy on tourist areas, particularly in Cornwall. In 2014 a published report indicated that the tourist industry in Cornwall had lost £50 million as a result.

With respect to the Minister, there is no prospect of social mobility for a family if the parents lose their job or have their hours cut because of the downturn in the tourism industry and the way that that affects their jobs. Is it not the case that only 8% of school absenteeism is a result of family holidays? There is no drop-off in the attainment of those children. Family holidays are good for children. They widen their knowledge of the world and expose them to new experiences, and children whose family take them on a holiday often perform better as a direct result.

Will the Minister please look at the matter again? If he is going to bring forward measures to tighten the rules or strengthen them, can he assure the House that there will be a full debate in this Chamber, that the changes to the rules will not be made through secondary legislation, that this time a full impact assessment will be carried out that includes the economic impact on tourism-related industries, that the family test will be applied to the measures, and that a full public consultation will take place that considers the impact on all stakeholders—not just education, but the wider society and families especially?

Before 2013 authorised family holidays made up between 5% and 6% of pupil absences. That figure dropped to 2.3% in 2013-14 and to 1.2% in 2014-15. With the greatest respect to my hon. Friend, 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. His constituency of St Austell and Newquay, in the beautiful county of Cornwall, has a hugely successful and thriving tourism industry that generates about £2 billion of income for the UK economy. I doubt that the Cornish tourism industry will be best pleased by his assertion that tourism in Cornwall is dependent on truanting children for its survival.

Another week, another crisis for the Department for Education: Ministers really do need to get a grip. Their obsession with school structures means that they focus on the wrong issues and fail to deal with the bread-and-butter issues that matter to parents.

All the evidence shows that regular attendance at school is crucial to ensuring that children fulfil their potential, and 100% attendance records should be the ambition of all children in all schools. However, this problem is of the Government’s own making. When changing the guidance to headteachers back in 2013, they should have carried out a full impact assessment much earlier and acted to address concerns. Back in the autumn, the hon. Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double) led a Westminster Hall debate on the 50,000-strong petition on this subject. The Government said then that they would look at the concerns raised, so they have known that this ruling was coming for a long time—they could have clarified the law and they have not.

This ruling is the worst of both worlds. It puts parents and headteachers in a very difficult position and is not in the best interests of children. By and large, the system up to 2012, with heads having a small amount of discretion, was working well. Parents and headteachers had a clear signal that children should be in school. It is right that headteachers who know their parents and school community well, and are accountable for their children and school, should have appropriate discretion. Will the Minister pledge to work with all interested parties across this House and outside this House to clarify the law in the interests of pupils, schools and parents? We pledge to work with him on that.

The reality is that Ministers have been asleep at the wheel, focusing on the wrong issues when we have teacher shortages and problems in primary assessment. It is time for them to take their head out of the sand and deal with these fundamental issues rather than fixating on school types at the expense of raising school standards. Will the Minister do that now?

I listened carefully to the hon. Gentleman, but I do feel that he is not on the same side as us with regard to raising school standards. Improving school attendance is absolutely key to raising academic standards. Under the previous Labour Government, it became accepted wisdom that parents could take their children out of school for term-time holidays for up to 10 days a year. Those numbers were causing an issue for us. We had to address the problem that we inherited from the previous Labour Government—[Interruption.]

Order. The Minister of State is going about his duty in the conscientious way that we have come to expect. A significant number of young children are observing our proceedings this morning, and I rather doubt they will be greatly impressed by the Front-Bench deputies on each side of the House conducting a kind of verbal tug of war from which each of them should desist, partly in consideration of the children and partly out of respect for the Minister of State, from whom we should hear.

I am most grateful to you, Mr Speaker.

Under the previous Labour Government it had become accepted wisdom that parents could take their children out of school for term-time holidays for up to 10 days a year. We had to address that popular perception, and that is why the regulations were changed in 2013. In 2012, 32.7 million pupil days were lost owing to authorised absences. That figure has fallen to 28.6 million in 2014-15—that is, some 4 million fewer pupil school days lost as a consequence of the changes to the 2013 regulations. That is a huge success, and I wish that the hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin) would support the change.

Does the Minister agree that taking children out of school to come to the mother of all Parliaments to learn about our democracy is one thing, but taking them to Orlando, Florida is another? I welcome the rigour that he has brought to the subject of education, moving away from the “playways” type of Labour approach. Does he agree that if this country is going to succeed, it needs to take education seriously?

My hon. and learned Friend is absolutely right. This is about social justice. When parents with income take their children out of school to go to Florida, that sends a message to everyone that school attendance is not important. There is no circumstance in which a trip to Disney World can be regarded as educational.

I am very fond of the Minister and have always thought that he has a touch of the Dickens novel about him. Is it not a very serious and fundamental problem that we still squeeze the summer holidays into a six-week period, during which British Airways charges the earth to go anywhere and Center Parcs trebles its rates? We need to tackle that very serious problem, for everyone’s benefit. I have constituents who face great pressure from the Muslim community, especially from Pakistan, to take their children out, and they are the very children who have been suffering. I am on the side of being tough, but let us look at the issue in a more fundamental way.

The hon. Gentleman, for whom I have huge admiration for his work as the former chair of the Education Committee, is right. We need to look at these issues in a more fundamental way. That is why we have given academies the freedom to set their term dates. I say to the hon. Gentleman and, indeed, to my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double) that they should be helping to co-ordinate schools so that they set different term dates that help their own tourism industries.

Does the Minister agree that educational attainment is directly correlated to attendance and that narrowing the attainment gap and raising standards must be a priority for any Government who care about the future of our children?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. There is ample evidence that even taking a few days off school can have a serious effect on a child’s education, particularly in those secondary school years leading up to GCSE, but also in primary education, where the pattern of attendance is set. Charlie Taylor, our behavioural expert in the last Parliament, took the view that it is more important to set the precedent in primary school, so that when children enter secondary school they are already in the habit of attending school every day.

The Government underline the importance of giving heads autonomy, which I support in almost all cases, perhaps with the exception of the unacceptable opt-outs in relation to sex education. On term-time absences, does the Minister agree that some holidays or attendance at, for instance, family funerals abroad can be informative, educational or necessary, and that heads should have the autonomy and discretion to decide whether, in those exceptional circumstances, children should be allowed term-time absences? Should not the law reflect that?

The right hon. Gentleman accurately reflects the law as it stands: headteachers do have the discretion to grant term-time absence in exceptional circumstances, including funerals, which he cited. However, a term-time holiday to take advantage of lower prices would not be regarded as an exceptional circumstance.

Following on the same theme, the Government have been consistent in saying that they believe that schools should have more freedom from the state in making decisions. Does the Minister believe that schools should not have such freedoms in this particular case, or have the schools asked him to relieve them of them? Whatever the rights and wrongs of the particular issue, it is clearly inconsistent with the Government’s belief in giving school’s greater freedoms.

The schools themselves will have increased freedoms if they adopt academy status, including over term dates and the curriculum, but there are rules that apply to individuals. There is no freedom for an individual not to educate their children: they either have to attend school or obtain education otherwise. That is the law. This is about the law that applies to parents. We want a society where education is compulsory for all children in our country.

But the Minister must acknowledge the limbo that schools now find themselves in. Headteachers know precisely what the regulations say, but they also know what the High Court ruling was. Will he clarify for the benefit of the headteachers who might be listening what he thinks should take precedent—the High Court judgment or the regulations as they stand? If it is the High Court judgment, how quickly will the Government come back to the House to assert what they want to happen?

We are still waiting to receive the written judgment of the High Court, and as soon as we do we will revert to the hon. Gentleman and the House.

It is irrefutable that good school attendance is essential for both progress and achievement. Does my hon. Friend share my concern that the High Court judgment used a 90% attendance threshold, whereas Ofsted criticises and penalises schools with attendance below 95%?

My hon. Friend makes a good point. A 10% absence rate equates to one day off a fortnight, and I do not think we should encourage that type of attendance record in our schools.

We have heard a lot from the Minister about tackling the symptoms of the problem, but I do not believe enough is being done to tackle the cause, which is companies getting away with charging astronomical prices in holiday time and ordinary prices in term time. When will the Government do something to tackle the rip-off culture that pervades our society?

That issue was examined some years ago, and it was determined that it is not a case of the holiday companies ripping off their consumers. Hotels around the world and in this country simply charge higher rates during the summer months and the peak seasons than they do out of peak, which is a matter of market economics.

Mr Platt is a resident of my island, and it is Isle of Wight Council’s unfathomable decision to take him to court that has brought about the current situation. It seems to me that the legislation is quite clear: it is for the headteacher to decide what constitutes exceptional circumstances. The head is undoubtedly in the best position to take account of the full picture of any request for absence. It is hard to envisage legislation, or even guidance, devised here or in Whitehall, that could properly take account of all possible exceptional circumstances. Do the Government intend to take the decision away from the person who is ultimately responsible for the performance of their school?

My hon. Friend explains the situation accurately. It is for the headteacher to determine whether there are exceptional circumstances so that they can grant authorised absences.

The situation obviously lacks clarity after this judgment, and I was concerned that there was a lack of clarity even before the judgment, which I hoped the Minister might turn his attention to. I had a constituency case in which children were denied the opportunity to go to Spain for the funeral of their Spanish grandmother. Will he consider providing headteachers with greater clarity to ensure that such travel is considered an exceptional circumstance?

I think the situation before the High Court judgment was clear—the headteacher has discretion on whether to grant authorised absence, and can do so only in exceptional circumstances. The National Association of Head Teachers has helpfully produced a two-page guidance note setting out what it believes its members should consider when determining whether an absence should be authorised. It makes it clear that funerals should be regarded as an exceptional circumstance.

People in land-based employment feel frustrated by term times and holidays based in an agrarian past. Does my hon. Friend agree that communities in rural locations often have small village schools that stand to suffer disproportionately in the event of disruption in the classroom due to absences such as he has described?

My hon. Friend makes a very valid point. This is about not just pupils’ education but the challenge presented to teachers as they seek to deliver catch-up lessons for pupils who have been absent. In a small school with small class sizes, that is doubly difficult for teachers.

What assistance and education can the Minister give parents who are deciding whether to take their children out of school? It seems that a minority of parents are making the wrong decision, so can he supply them with any more information on the impact of removing those children from school at the time they choose?

My hon. Friend makes a good point, and we must emphasise evidence that suggests that even small absences from school will have a long-term impact on a child’s education. As I set out in my opening remarks, a lot of education is linear, and children must learn one thing before they learn another. If a teacher is not able to provide a catch-up lesson for that child, they will permanently miss out on a crucial part of their education.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the Government have taken positive steps to reduce the cost of family holidays, and therefore the financial incentive to take term-time absence? By reducing air passenger duty for children’s tickets to zero, last year 4.5 million children under 12 flew tax free, and this year more than 7.5 million of those under 16 will fly tax free.

Although I agree with the thrust of the Government’s response and their determination to raise standards, I have some sympathy with my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double). When a number of schools have a high concentration of parents who work in the tourism industry and on relatively low pay, and when there has not been a significant enough change in the cost of holidays and there is no momentum around changes to term times, a number of factors come together. I urge the Minister to enter into more constructive dialogue about what can be done for regional economies where this issue will have a significant effect.

I am happy to enter into a constructive dialogue with my hon. Friend, and with my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double). We have given academies discretion to set their own term dates, and I urge all hon. Members who represent areas with high levels of tourism to work with their schools, the local authority, and other local authorities, to find a way to set term dates that reflect the needs of their local communities.

My hon. Friend will know that when children are absent from school, it is disruptive to the child who misses school but also to the class when they try to catch up. One experiment currently being tried is to extend the school day by 30 minutes, and extend half term from one week to two weeks in certain areas, to allow parents to take their children on holiday for two weeks. What does the Minister think of that idea?

That is precisely the kind of idea that we hope and expect will come from the discretion that we have granted academies in this country, and many schools are taking advantage of that freedom.