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School Penalty Fines and Authorised Absence

Volume 613: debated on Monday 11 July 2016

I beg to move,

That this House has considered e-petition 129698 relating to school penalty fines and authorised absence from school.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hanson, and a privilege again to have the opportunity to debate this subject, which looks like it is simply not going to go away. It is evident that parents from all around the country feel strongly, which is why we get to debate it again. We are here as a result of the online petition titled, “No more school penalty fines and bring back the 10 day authorised absence”, which has received more than 200,000 signatures to date. I am sure that we are all clear on the background, but let me put on the record that the petition states:

“Back in 2013 the government changed the law on taking your children out of school in term time so that now you receive a penalty fine of £60 per child”,

which can increase if the fine is not paid within a certain time.

Before the change in the law, which was passed by way of a statutory instrument and without the impact assessments being considered, headteachers had the discretion to allow up to 10 days off for pupils in special circumstances. That approach was rooted in common sense: teachers know the pupils, know the families they come from and know the communities that they are a part of. Sadly, we now have a Big Brother blanket ban on all family holidays in term time that gives the message that the state knows better than parents what is right for their children.

As we know, the rule was turned on its head by a recent court ruling, which judged that it was unlawful to fine parents for taking their children out of school when their children are regularly attending school. Confusion now reigns. We recently heard from Devon County Council that, until the details of the new law are made clear, it has suspended issuing any new penalty notices and cases to be heard in court will be adjourned. Cornwall Council has apparently been accused of going soft on fining parents. Although I welcome the decisions that these two south-west councils have taken, for the sake of fairness and clarity, schools and parents across England need to know where they stand.

Mr Russell Hobby, the general secretary of the school leaders’ union, the National Association of Headteachers, stated that, as we approach the holiday season, the recent ruling had

“created confusion for schools and parents”

and that

“the system of fines is clearly too blunt an instrument and in many cases it drives a wedge between schools and families.”

Swift action is needed to clarify the position for families, schools and all concerned.

The Minister knows that I care deeply about this—we have discussed and debated it before—partly because of the negative effect on the people of my constituency in Cornwall. I have made that case and spoken about the impact on the tourist industry many times before. I do not intend to repeat those arguments, but I want to address what I believe are some of the key arguments and some of the points that parents up and down the country feel very strongly about. I believe that we need to return to a policy that brings back common sense and a degree of flexibility.

I believe that the policy devalues the place of the family. The Government do not know what is best for my or anyone else’s children. Every child is unique and every family is different. This one-size-fits-all blanket ban does not allow for the uniqueness of every child and every family. It is not the Government’s role to tell parents what is best for their children.

Does my hon. Friend accept that it is the Government’s role to say that education should be compulsory from the age of five to 16?

I thank the Minister for that intervention. Of course I agree with him that we value compulsory education in this country and that it has a very important part to play. However, compulsory education does not happen only in the classroom—it does not mean that children should be stopped from taking a family holiday, which, I would argue, has an equally important role in their upbringing.

One parent who was fined for taking his child to a sporting world championship that a family member was competing in wrote these words to me:

“The notion that a state official can criminally enforce their perspective on which family members are important to a child is very disturbing coming from a democratic government…By focusing on what is an ‘exceptional circumstance’, and trying to eliminate cheap holidays, the law has sent schools down the path of criminally enforcing ethics, family values, the intimate details of children’s lives and relationships, without any qualifications or regard for academics, the wellbeing of the child, or the integrity and dignity of the family structure.”

The hon. Gentleman is doing an excellent job in leading this debate. Does he agree that the policy is far too draconian? I have two young children and the headteacher at their school is excellent and sensible, but that is not always the case. Should parents not be given more credibility in terms of being able to make the right decision for their children?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman. The one-size-fits-all blanket approach is draconian, and often penalises the wrong people and leaves no grounds for the school and headteachers to decide what is best for the individual child.

Just last week I spoke to a primary school headteacher in my constituency and was surprised by what he said:

“The best thing that could happen to some of the children in my school would be for their parents to take them”

on a week’s holiday “even in term time”. That was a headteacher who knows the children at his school, knows the families and the pressures and challenges they face, and knows the community that they are a part of. I challenge the Minister: does he agree with that headteacher? Is there ever a case, a situation or a set of circumstances where the best thing for a child would be to miss a week of school in order to have a holiday with their parents?

I am trying to understand the hon. Gentleman’s arguments and ask for clarification. Is he suggesting that parents should have an absolute right to take their children out for up to 10 days without any reference to the advice of the headteacher, or is he saying that the headteacher or another member of staff should be able to exercise a view on whether that request is authorised?

I will come to that later, but I make the point now that, of course, we are not talking about a free-for-all where parents can just take their children out whenever they like. I am arguing that we should give the discretion back to headteachers, with a degree of flexibility, so that they can decide what is right for each child in each unique set of circumstances and in each family situation, and, taking all matters into consideration, decide what is best for that child, rather than have a blanket ban.

The hon. Gentleman is making a very persuasive case and is concentrating in particular on the family holiday entitlement, but can I bring him to another area? What about when parents have to take children out in exceptional circumstances? There is an absolute lack of clarity about what constitutes exceptional circumstances and there is no consistency. Does he agree that there need to be national guidelines to determine what exceptional circumstances are?

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.

I am listening carefully to the hon. Gentleman’s case. A lot of my constituents—families with grandparents outside the UK in Pakistan, India and Bangladesh—will be encouraged by what he is saying. However, he seems to envisage a difficult role being placed on headteachers. Is he suggesting that any family could take their child out of school for a week or a couple of weeks if that works for them? Should there not be some encouragement for families to keep their children in school if that is at all possible?

Clearly we do not want a free-for-all. I am arguing for discretion to be put back into the hands of headteachers, which was the case before the rule was introduced in 2013. To my observation—I have been a school governor for nearly 20 years—it was working perfectly well. Even in a place such as Cornwall, where there was high demand for taking children away in term-time because parents worked in the tourist sector, there was still conversation and co-operation between the parent and the school. It was not a free-for-all. There was co-operation between parents and schools, and I am asking for the same now.

As the NAHT says, we are driving a wedge between the family and the school, which is damaging to, rather than supportive and encouraging of, children’s education. We are creating tensions between the school and the family, which has to be detrimental to the child’s education.

I have a constituency case in which a mother and the child’s father, from whom the mother had separated, were fined. The mother’s husband was also fined but he has no parental control at all. In that case, three people were fined. Does the hon. Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double) agree that there is a fundamental lack of transparency, fairness and consistency in how the fines are being applied, and that headteacher involvement would start to address some of those ridiculous situations?

The hon. Lady makes a good point. One problem with the policy is that it is being applied inconsistently by different local authorities. Since I stuck my head above the parapet on the issue, hundreds of parents have contacted me with many different stories about how the policy is being applied. The case mentioned by the hon. Lady is a good example of inconsistency, as three parents have been fined for the same child. Greater clarity is needed. I agree that the answer is to give discretion back to headteachers and let them make the decision.

Many headteachers up and down the country are asking for their discretion back because they understand the tensions that the policy causes between schools and families. One of the most important things in a child’s education is that their parents are engaged with their education, which means having a good positive relationship with the school. That is far more important than what school a child attends or even how many days they are at school. If there is a positive, co-operative relationship between the parents and the school, the child will usually do well at school. Where tension is created, the relationship is damaged, which has to be detrimental to the child’s education.

I have a letter from the Minister—I took the matter up with the county council, as the education authority—who says:

“Individual local authorities determine the circumstances in which parents can be fined”.

But staff at the local authority tell me that they have no involvement, that schools only apply the fines and that the Government set the policy. We really are in a mess and we need greater clarity to even begin to understand how the system is working.

Again the hon. Lady makes a good point, and one that I have come across as I have tried to follow the chain of responsibility. I have met with headteachers, Ofsted and local authority leaders, and there is a lack of clarity about who is responsible—it is a vicious circle. Sadly, that comes down to the ruling and the situation with the Department for Education, which made the blanket ban, and that is the very point that I am challenging.

The policy undermines the place of family and devalues the importance of family holidays in any child’s upbringing. The policy does not enjoy broad support: parents hate it; many headteachers I talk to dislike it hugely and want it to be changed; and even the Local Government Association does not support it. David Simmonds from the LGA said:

“The increase in fines reflected tighter enforcement by schools that are under pressure from Ofsted to meet attendance targets, as well as a rising school population”.

He called for more flexibility in the rules to allow heads to take account of family circumstances where absence is unavoidable. He said that heads

“should be trusted to make decisions about a child’s absence from school without being forced to issue fines and start prosecutions in situations where they believe the absence is reasonable.”

That is a common-sense approach.

I am sure that we all want a good education for all children in this country, but that is not what we are debating. The Government are trying to reduce truancy, which is a persistent problem for a very small number of students, but this blanket approach is not the way to achieve that; it is a blunt instrument hitting the wrong people. There is a big difference between truancy and parents who simply want to be able to spend a holiday with their children. It should be noted that children who are persistently absent are less likely than other children to go on a family holiday. Before the regulations were introduced, authorised family holidays accounted for 7.5% of all absences from primary schools, dropping to 2.5% of all absences from secondary schools, but absence for family holidays was lower, at 1.9%, for persistently absent pupils, compared with 8.2% for other pupils. The policy is focusing on the wrong families; it is hitting the wrong people.

Given that holidays outside term time are much more expensive, does my hon. Friend accept that children who are restricted from taking time to go on holiday, which can be educational and enriching, tend to be socially deprived and from impoverished backgrounds? We are limiting their life chances with this policy.

My hon. Friend makes a good point. We are hitting the wrong people with this policy. The children of families who, because of the economics and the price, can afford to take them on holiday only during term time are possibly the ones who need such holidays the most in order to enrich their experience of the world, to strengthen their family relationships and to expand their knowledge and appreciation of the world, but they are the ones who are being excluded from such highly valuable experiences by this policy.

By stating that a family holiday is not a valid reason for an authorised absence from school, we are not addressing the real issue of persistent truancy. The assumption that absence is the main cause of falling attainment is just that—an assumption that has no evidence to support it. Stephen Gorard, professor of education at Durham University, has said:

“There is an association between the proportion of absence and the aggregate level of attainment of students who’ve had that level of absence but it would be wrong to assume that it was necessarily causal. We don’t know that the absences are the reason for the lower attainment. They could both be indicators of something else such as background characteristics and of course it’s also possible that children who aren’t doing well at school after a time begin to drift away and perhaps take time off. It could be that the causal mechanism is the other way around.”

This policy cannot be considered in isolation. We cannot just take a narrow approach that says, “This is the way to ensure that children attend school regularly,” without considering the wider impact on other aspects of family life and society.

I thank my hon. Friend for pursuing this good cause. Does he agree that the policy has an adverse impact on NHS services? The population of areas such as Cornwall increases significantly during the summer holiday months, which places extra pressure on health services at the very time when medical staff are forced to take their holiday.

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point on an issue I am only too aware of. In Cornwall, and I suspect in other parts of the country, families are forced to take their holiday just at the time when we need more NHS staff. Hospitals and other services struggle to maintain staffing levels for that very reason. The Government need to take a joined-up approach and consider the impact not only on the Department for Education but on other organisations, such as the NHS.

We are still waiting for the Government’s response to the recent court ruling, and it would be helpful if the Minister could provide an update today. If, as he has previously stated, his intention is to reinforce the rule, can he confirm that that will require primary legislation, as the court indicated? If so, will he confirm that the process will include a full impact assessment of both the economic and the social impacts and that the family test will be rigorously applied? Will he confirm that he will consult widely not only with schools but with family groups and the tourism industry?

Along with families across the country, I hope that the Minister will now choose a different response. The petition calls for 10 days of authorised leave each year for a family holiday, but I am not sure whether that is necessarily the correct approach. The right approach is to return the decision to the discretion of headteachers, who should be allowed to make the decision based on their knowledge of the children and families involved. Headteachers should be given the flexibility to decide, in co-operation with parents, what is right and best for the children in their school. Once again, I ask the Minister to reconsider the Government’s position on this issue, to recognise the very real concerns of parents and to accept that this policy was rushed through without the consultation and assessment that it should have had. Take this opportunity, in light of the recent court ruling, to think again. Accept that truancy and persistent absence are different from a family holiday. Repeal this ruling and return flexibility and common sense. Allow families who want nothing more than to spend a week on holiday with their children the right to do so without the fear of being made into criminals.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hanson. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double) on securing this important debate. We are both south-west MPs, and this issue has particular resonance and significance in a region where tourism is an incredibly important part of the economy. I thank the Minister for being here and for meeting me to discuss a particular case. The meeting was useful, and I will mention more details of the case in a moment. I know he is listening, and I know he is open to some of our suggestions.

I am sure I speak for my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay when I say that we seek to be helpful. We are not seeking to cause problems, to rebel for the sake of it or to make a nuisance. All south-west MPs and Members from all areas of the country are being contacted by many thousands of worried parents and headteachers about their real concerns with the current position, and it is incumbent on us to inform the Minister and the Government of those concerns. I do not seek to create difficulty; I merely seek to raise an issue that many of my constituents, and I am sure many constituents of right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House, have raised.

I have a great deal of sympathy with some of the hon. Gentleman’s points, but will he concede that headteachers are also expressing concern that the current uncertainty, as well as the change requested by the petition, could make it more difficult for them to encourage good attendance, which they believe is important for the good achievement and progress of their pupils?

I will discuss the specifics of the petition in a moment, but as I said in my opening remarks, it is not just parents but headteachers who are contacting us to express concerns about the status quo.

It is important to point out that nobody here, including my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay, is arguing that education should not be compulsory. Of course it should. Nobody is arguing, either, that parents should have an automatic right to decide that they want to take their children out of school for a set number of days a year.

That goes exactly to the point made by the hon. Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood). Like my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay, I do not agree with the headline of the petition, which mentions bringing back the 10 days of authorised absence. We could argue for some time about whether it ever existed in the first place, but I do not support that idea. I do not believe that parents should expect an automatic right to a certain number of absence days a year, or that a headteacher should expect to approve them. I want common sense. I want the responsibility to go back to individual headteachers and individual parents, so that they decide what is right for individual children in individual cases. I keep using the word “individual” deliberately, because we cannot have a one-size-fits-all policy that seeks to impose a centrally decided rule on all children in all circumstances. We need the common sense of individual discretion back in the system.

Does my hon. Friend accept that the policy must be applied on a case-by-case basis, and that more trust in and respect for our teachers and parents is necessary? If requests were considered case by case, headteachers could consider the age and stage of the child, their needs and their other absences throughout the year.

My hon. Friend makes an important point. I do not know whether she saw my remarks in advance, but I was coming on to say that what I want is a world where we recognise that the best people to make decisions for children in individual cases are their parents and their headteacher. Those are the people who should be making such decisions, and they need the discretion to do so.

Now, however, everyone is confused by the vacuum created following the Isle of Wight court case. As my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay suggested, we need some certainty from the Minister—I am sure that he will be able to provide it—about the Government’s position on the court case, which has left people concerned. In particular, the fear among headteachers to whom I have spoken is that under the existing regulations, if they authorise absences from their school, they will be penalised when Ofsted comes and looks at their absence statistics. Headteachers are rightly worried about the implications of that for the rest of their school.

We need a clear indication from the Minister that when headteachers decide that they wish to authorise an absence in individual circumstances, Ofsted will not count it against the absence figures for their school as a whole. Headteachers need the certainty that if they feel it is right to make a particular decision in the case of a particular child, they can do so without being penalised from above.

My hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay mentioned the situation in Devon. Due to the uncertainty brought on by the Isle of Wight case, Devon County Council has now suspended all actions against parents, some of whom have been summonsed to court or made a first appearance before magistrates. That is absolutely the right thing to do in the circumstances, but I am afraid it merely adds to the sense of confusion.

One case that hon. Members may have seen reported widely in the national media at about the same time as the Isle of Wight case was that of my constituents Edward and Hazel Short. Mr and Mrs Short have two daughters, Nicole and Lauren, aged 16 and 15 respectively. Nicole and Lauren have represented England at volleyball. They are budding national athletes. This piece of paper in front of me—which is from the Daily Mirror, just to prove that there is absolutely no political bias in my choice of media—describes Nicole and Lauren as

“being hailed as stars of the future.”

This is their story: Nicole and Lauren were invited on a three-week training session. Two of the weeks coincided with school term time, and six and a half days’ absence from school would have been required. Their headteacher decided that he was not in a position to authorise their absence, and a fixed penalty notice of £60 was issued. Mr and Mrs Short decided not to pay it, and the next thing they knew, Devon County Council summonsed them to appear in court. They appeared before north Devon magistrates. They still did not accept the fine, and said that they would fight their case all the way.

Devon County Council then summonsed Mr and Mrs Short further to appear in court this month. When the finding in the Isle of Wight case went against the Government, as my hon. Friend said, Devon County Council decided that Mr and Mrs Short’s case, and a number of others with which it was currently dealing in the same way, would be suspended and no further action would be taken.

My understanding is that headteachers have the authority to allow a request for leave during term time in exceptional circumstances. Is the hon. Gentleman aware of why the headteacher, knowing that those young people had the potential to represent their country, did not consider the circumstances exceptional?

It is a perfectly reasonable question. I tried to answer it in advance by saying that there is always a concern about what Ofsted’s view will be when it considers absences on the school roll across the board. All headteachers are extremely concerned that if they authorise such an absence, it will count against them when their overall absence statistics are considered.

Let me be clear: I have no criticism whatever of the school or the headteacher for the decision that they made. They felt that they had no choice but to do so; that is the point. The issue of choice is fundamental. Parents and headteachers should, in exceptional circumstances, have the freedom and choice to allow absence. That is what they are currently being denied, and in my view that cannot be right.

I raise that case in particular not only because it is in my constituency but because it specifically did not involve giving the children a holiday; that was not the purpose of the absence request. Yet it is absolutely the case that in Devon, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay and many other constituencies, the tourism sector plays a vital role in the local economy, and it is being badly affected by the current situation. By some measures, one in six jobs in my constituency depend either directly or indirectly on the tourism sector. It is a vital driver of the local economy, and many families in my constituency work in it.

Not only does the current situation create the problem that many families are unable to take advantage of cheaper holidays during term time, but for the many hundreds—indeed, probably thousands—of families who work in the tourism sector in my constituency, there is no way that they can go away during the school holidays. That is the time when they run their family businesses, so they are impeded in their ability to take their children away. I am afraid that by not helping them do so, we are not helping the holiday business.

I have read the transcript of a previous discussion in the main Chamber between my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay and the Minister. The point was made that we need the Government to think carefully about changing the regulations, due to their effect on the tourism industry. I hope the Minister will not mind my quoting him. He said:

“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.”

No one is suggesting that. No one is suggesting that children should be allowed to be taken away from school to satisfy the wishes of a few small businesses. This is a bigger issue than that. In the same discussion, he also said:

“I doubt that the Cornish tourism industry will be best pleased by his”—

my hon. Friend’s—

“assertion that tourism in Cornwall is dependent on truanting children for its survival.”—[Official Report, 19 May 2016; Vol. 611, c. 139-40.]

The Cornish tourism industry is not, and I am delighted to say that the Devon tourism industry is not. In particular, the north Devon tourism industry is not; that is the best place to spend a holiday.

The point is that we are talking not about truanting children but about the right of parents and teachers to agree, in a few cases, that it is appropriate in the circumstances for children to be taken out of school for a family holiday if they might otherwise miss out on one. That is the point. Families and children are missing out on a family holiday through no fault of their own and face the risk of being dragged before the courts or fined substantial amounts of money. Headteachers feel that they are having taken away from them the right to make individual decisions in individual circumstances.

Perhaps another result of this debate will be that holiday companies, airlines and those that offer package holidays take a long hard look at themselves. They should not be charging such vastly inflated prices during school holidays. I shall cite one example, which I raised the last time we debated this subject. I think you were in the Chair for at least some of that sitting, Mr Hanson; forgive me for outlining this particular circumstance again, but it tells the story rather well. A package holiday to Spain for a family of two adults and two children beginning on 14 July would have cost £1,300. The same holiday, with identical flights and accommodation, beginning just two weeks later when the school holidays had begun, would have cost £2,000. That is a 60% mark-up. It would not be allowed in any other retail business, and we should not put up with it. It is not just the Government who I ask, respectfully, to think again about where we are; the holiday industry needs to take a long, hard look at itself as well.

Does my hon. Friend agree that part of the problem with holiday prices is that many tourist resorts, especially in places such as Cornwall, are forced to try to make enough money during the six or seven weeks of the school summer holidays to cover their overheads for the whole year? They have to put up their prices because numbers have dropped so much that they can no longer recover the revenue they used to make during the shoulder months of June and September. All their revenue is focused on such a small time period that they inevitably have to put up prices.

Absolutely. Many businesses in such resorts find themselves in that position. That feeds back into the point I made earlier: because the season is now so focused, families who run tourism businesses in my constituency and that of my hon. Friend have no choice. There is no way they can possibly go on holiday during the school holidays, so they have to request to take their children out of school, otherwise they will not be able to enjoy a holiday.

It is absolutely right that the Government have a duty to ensure that children have full academic attendance and a full school record. I am not arguing with that, but there must be some carrot and some stick. My fear is that, with the 2013 guidelines, the balance has shifted rather too much towards the stick approach, which I do not think is valuable or helpful.

Let me go off script for a moment. I am a bit of an old-fashioned Tory sort of boy, and I like less government. I like smaller government. I like government that does not just sit in Westminster bringing a clunking fist down rather hard on parents, families and working people who are just trying to do the right thing. I have an uneasy sense that the current regulation and policy are on the wrong side of that. I passionately believe that, as a Conservative Government, we should be helping hard-working people who occasionally have no choice but to take their children out of school. As in the case of my constituents, Mr and Mrs Short, they might do so not for a holiday but for a perfectly reasonable sporting endeavour. I am not sure how we have reached the point where, as a Government, we are saying, “We, centrally, know better than you.”

This debate boils down to two phrases: “in special circumstances” and “in exceptional circumstances”. It is about the difference between the words “special” and “exceptional”, so the way my hon. Friend is describing matters exaggerates the issue. Even he believes that headteachers should grant term-time holidays not in all circumstances but in special circumstances. The Government believe that they should be granted only in exceptional circumstances.

I thank the Minister for his views. I shall simply say this: at the moment, we are in a mess. Teachers, headteachers, schools and parents do not know where they stand. I take his point, which is perfectly reasonable. I do not agree that I am exaggerating the situation, though, because I have been on the receiving end—as I am sure other hon. Members have—of hundreds of emails, letters and phone calls from parents and headteachers who are deeply worried about the position in which they now find themselves. That is not an exaggeration.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that when a family go to Pakistan to visit family members and there is an unexpected death in the family in Pakistan, that is an exceptional circumstance? That family were fined on their return. If that is not an exceptional circumstance, what is?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. The Minister said that this debate boils down to the definition of “exceptional circumstances”; under any definition, what the hon. Gentleman has just described would be exceptional.

It is absolutely right that the Government have a duty to ensure that parents send their children to school and that children have a full academic record, but my fear is that the 2013 guidelines put us in a field of unintended consequences. They are having a serious effect on many families in my constituency and further afield whose only crime is to want to take a holiday when they can, or to take their children away based on some other perfectly reasonable grounds or exceptional circumstances. The guidance is well intended, but I fear that, in the lack of flexibility that is being applied to its interpretation in some quarters, it is having unintended consequences. Otherwise innocent parents, who simply want the best for their children and are the right people to know what is best for them, are being criminalised. I hope I can work with the Minister, co-operatively, to put things right.

I shall make just a couple of brief remarks. First, I should say that I have not been contacted by individual parents wanting to express concerns, although I note that hundreds of them have signed the petition. I have a great deal of sympathy with parents, particularly those on low incomes, who want to give their children the opportunity to go on holiday and cannot afford to do so during peak periods when, as has been stated, the costs of some holidays are exceptionally high. I have, though, been contacted by the portfolio holder for schools at Nottingham City Council, and I have discussed the matter with a headteacher at one of my local schools. It is important to bring their representations to the Minister, even though I fear that many of my constituents will not thank me for doing so.

I understand that good attendance is vital to good educational attainment, which Nottingham City Council has been working hard to improve. The Minister will be aware that our city needs to make improvements and is very committed to doing so. The local authority has been working very hard to improve school attendance, which has involved fining parents for unauthorised absences when they take their children out of school without permission. I know that many parents will see that as very harsh and as a large stick; I myself do not like the idea that parents face fines. However, I understand the need to encourage parents to realise that getting their children to school on a regular basis, so that they do not miss time in the classroom, is exceedingly important.

The judgment in the Isle of Wight case has created huge uncertainty. Perhaps the most important issue for local authorities and headteachers is to have a degree of certainty and I hope that the Minister can tell us what he intends to do to provide it.

Sam Webster, who is the portfolio holder for education, employment and skills at Nottingham City Council and therefore responsible for schools, has said that it is

“worth noting that 90% attendance”—

which is the attendance rate in some of our schools—

“is not good and is the equivalent of a child having a day off every 2 weeks.”

I think that those of us who are parents appreciate that if our child had a day off school every two weeks, that would have an impact on their educational attainment, no matter how valuable the experience that they may be having in their time off school.

Last year, Nottingham City Council was the most improved local authority in terms of school attendance and I hope that the Minister welcomes that. However, the current uncertainty could see the good progress that has been made being lost. Councillor Webster’s call is

“for Government to act urgently to give greater clarity and ideally bring forward a change to the wording of the legislation.”

I hope that when the Minister sums up, he will respond to that concern, which has been raised by the portfolio holder responsible for schools in Nottingham.

The second point I will make was initially made to me by Giles Civil, the headteacher at Highbank Primary and Nursery School in Clifton, which is in my constituency. Giles has been the headteacher there for a couple of years now. It is a challenging school, which did not have great standards before his arrival and consequently progress has been challenging. Nevertheless, the school, which has fewer than 300 pupils, has managed to raise pupil attendance from 92%, the rate when Giles arrived there two years ago, to 94.8% last year. Obviously, there is still significant room for progress. Giles said to me that

“A school year is 190 days”,

but he also pointed out that for his school:

“total unauthorised absence for this year…is 939 days.”

As he explained, that is the equivalent of “4.9 school years.”

Giles feels that it is a real slog to raise achievement and that school attendance is absolutely vital. However, he also feels that the change has taken away his stick, if you like, and that it is important there is clarity on this issue, because he wants to raise attendance at his school and he is working in a number of ways to do so. Therefore, it is necessary to get some clarity from the Government.

As I say, I do not like the idea that parents are being fined, and the opportunity to take children away on holiday is really vital. I hope that the Government can consider how they can make holidays more affordable for parents and I also hope that the holiday industry will listen, as the hon. Member for North Devon (Peter Heaton-Jones) said, and consider the impact that the current situation is having. Nevertheless, attendance is important and headteachers and local education authorities obviously need to be given clarity and some power or some guidance that allows them to improve attendance, as the current situation has created unnecessary uncertainty.

This is the first time that I have served under your chairmanship, Mr Hanson, and it is a pleasure to do so.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double) for securing this debate. As you know, Mr Hanson, the debate arises from an e-petition about fining parents who take children on holiday during term time that was signed by almost 200,000 people. One person keenly involved in this debate is my constituent, Mr Jonathan Platt. He is currently being taken to the Supreme Court for refusing to pay a fine because he took his daughter on holiday. This situation troubles me considerably. Even after taking the holiday in question into account, Mr Platt’s daughter’s attendance was good and because of that the Isle of Wight’s magistrates court decided that there was no case to answer.

Could my hon. Friend define what he means by “good” in that circumstance, and will he confirm that it is the level that the hon. Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood) referred to as one day a fortnight?

No. Mr Platt used the term “good” to describe his child attending school all-year round except for a fortnight, which is not the same as one day a fortnight, and there was no evidence from any quarter to question that description.

Isle of Wight Council wanted a different interpretation of the law and so it took Mr Platt’s case to the High Court. The High Court found that it was not acceptable for the authority

“to criminalise every unauthorised holiday by the simple device of alleging…that there has been no regular attendance in a period limited to the absence on holiday.”

The judgment said that regular attendance must be measured over a longer period of time, and Mr Platt’s daughter’s attendance record was satisfactory in that respect.

The High Court’s judgment did not find favour with either Isle of Wight Council or the Department for Education. The Department has now provided the council with funding and legal support to take the case to the Supreme Court. Mr Platt is being given no such help; he is fighting this battle using private resources and not public money. The state is throwing the book at him for daring to stand up to the authorities and being found right—not once, but twice. So this is a real David and Goliath situation.

I am a former teacher and both my parents were teachers, too, so I understand the importance and value of education. I have experienced at first hand the difficulties of teaching a class where not all the children are in the classroom full-time. However, I have also seen the immense value of family holidays, in educational and other terms.

I have listened to the Government’s argument about the relationship between attendance and attainment. It exists, but it is not a simple picture. As the latest research from the Department itself says:

“There are a range of pupil, school, parental and societal characteristics that are likely to affect attainment in varying degrees.”

It is the interplay of factors that cannot be judged in Whitehall. Schools can collaborate with parents to ensure that a child’s education will be enriched by a family holiday and of course the child can be set work to be completed while they are away.

However, if the headteacher cannot justify that the holiday is being taken in “exceptional circumstances”, then parents can be criminalised under legislation introduced by statutory instrument in 2013. For many years, parents have been legally responsible for their child’s regular attendance at school, and headteachers are accountable for the performance of their school and their pupils. So it should be headteachers, working with parents, who decide whether or not to allow a family holiday, or any other kind of absence, after taking into account all the individual circumstances.

Before being elected to this House, I ran the Grant Maintained Schools Foundation and I am proud that this Government have taken forward the principle that we worked so hard to promote—greater autonomy and decision making in schools. So I find it incomprehensible why, on this particular issue, the Government insist that they know better than headteachers what is best for individual children.

There is a misconception that prior to 2013 parents had a right to take their children out of school for up to 10 days for a holiday. That was never the case. Headteachers were able to agree to a child being absent on a family holiday in “special circumstances”. It has been said, including by my right hon. Friend the Minister for Schools himself during a debate last October, that the 2013 amendments “clarified” the situation, but I disagree. A change from “special circumstances” to “exceptional circumstances” is a material difference, and it has given rise to markedly different approaches from local education authorities.

We now have a postcode lottery that determines whether a parent is prosecuted. For example, I understand that in the west country Cornwall has issued four “school fines” in the last three years, but Devon, which is just next door, has issued 1,386 such fines in the last year alone. The variation is great even among just primary schools on my island. In one school, the parents of 176 pupils received fines over three years, while another school did not issue any fines at all. That cannot have been the Government’s intention—or, if it was, they are not explaining it well.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the rules that are applied in many local authorities at the moment discriminate against those who simply cannot afford a family holiday during the school holidays? Does he also agree that quality of life, particularly in childhood, is just as important as, and can enhance, the quality of education?

I agree with both those points and I hope that I make them myself.

It has been said that before 2013 some headteachers felt pressurised into authorising family holidays. I have been a Member of this House for 15 years and I have never had a headteacher say that to me, but it does sound as though it happens occasionally. I believe, however, that the introduction of the holiday fines by statutory instrument in 2013 was like using a cannon to try to kill a fly. The fines are inappropriate and unworkable, and have widespread damaging consequences.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to point out the inconsistency that we have between districts. On his point about the fines, Bradford is joint second regarding the number of fines administered and it has high levels of deprivation. Does he agree that the amount of the fine—for the average family with three children it is £360, which then doubles to £720—is so grave that in some low-income families it has a negative impact, ultimately, on the children themselves?

That is something that headteachers should be aware of. Either Bradford is dictating to headteachers that they must do certain things, or it is the Department for Education’s decisions being interpreted in that way. The headteachers do have the authority, and they can say no.

I have great respect for the Minister for Schools. He has achieved some great things during his time in post, but I urge him to consider the outcome of this battle between David and Goliath and, even now, find another way forward, such as scrapping the school fines introduced in 2013 and trusting headteachers to do their job. If he will not do that, can he please tell us today what he will do if the Supreme Court agrees with the magistrates and the High Court and upholds their view—and mine—that an unauthorised family holiday does not necessarily allow the state to criminalise parents who otherwise ensure a child’s regular school attendance?

Finally, I would like to say that my constituent, Mr Platt, wished to be here for the debate but his daughter is taking part in her school sports day. As a responsible parent, who recognises that a wide range of experiences contributes to a good education, he has put attending the sports day ahead of being here today. He sends his apologies.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hanson. I find myself yet again commenting on English education and looking at it with a different set of eyes, which I hope some Members throughout the Chamber will benefit from.

It is obvious from the debate that this is a difficult problem that is not easily solved. There is no blanket ban in Scotland, and no automatic fines for parents who take their children out of school without authorisation. Local authorities judge how to treat unauthorised absences. The hon. Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double) made a passionate and informed speech, and as he said, the subject is not going to go away—almost 200,000 people have signed a petition on this difficult ongoing issue.

Parents need to know where they stand, and swift action is needed because of the Isle of Wight decision, which the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr Turner) referred to. The hon. Member for St Austell and Newquay said that we need common sense, and as I listened to the hon. Member for North Devon (Peter Heaton-Jones) it became more and more apparent that swift action is needed. They both have constituencies with tourism issues, and the regulations cause conflict for those who work in the tourism industry and those who support it.

Another important point is that it is sometimes not a holiday that is being considered but a trip that would make people better at their sport—volleyball, in the case that was mentioned. Andy Murray would not have got to where he was yesterday had he not been given leave at various times to attend tennis camps and pursue his sporting prowess. It seems unfair that regions in England treat unauthorised absences in such different ways, as can be seen from the number of fines that are issued in schools in the Isle of Wight and across Devon and Cornwall. The Minister should be able to respond to that situation and consider it with a bit more care.

The main point I have taken from the debate is that headteachers should be given back discretion, because they best know their own pupils and what works for them. That might well help the hon. Member for Bradford East (Imran Hussain), who is no longer in his place. One of his interventions regarded family bereavements causing people to go to Pakistan with their children, and those families then coming back to face horrendous fines.

Does the hon. Lady agree that it sounds like the problem is with headteachers’ confidence to use their discretion, rather than with their not having that discretion, which exists at the moment to consider exceptional circumstances?

I definitely agree with the hon. Lady. I find it strange that in the system in England, which is so different from the one in Scotland, authority is devolved away from local authorities and down to schools.

It is important that we listen to the almost 200,000 people who signed the petition, because this is a real-life issue for them and their families. Of course educational attainment is important, and of course there are links to attendance—as a former lecturer in a further education college, I can vouch for that—but when headteachers authorise absences for good reasons and teachers know about those reasons, they can provide homework and catch-up sessions, so students can generally catch up. I very much take on board what the hon. Member for Isle of Wight said: a two-week absence should be seen as a 14-day absence across the whole school year. If a student is attending regularly, a one or two-week holiday might not make much different to their attainment.

It is not acceptable to criminalise parents for taking holidays. Parents know what is best for their children, and in that regard I suppose I should declare an interest having, a long while ago, taken my children out of school for a family holiday. I could not have gone away later because I was pregnant with my third child and wanted him to be born in Scotland, not in Scarborough, which was where we were headed.

It is absolutely essential that we, including the Minister, take on board the fact that there is a real difficulty across the UK, not just in England, as parents do their level best to provide for their children in what are, for many, cash-strapped times. We have heard examples of how much additional money is needed to go on holiday in term time. A spokesman for the National Parent Forum of Scotland has said:

“We all know how important family time is, particularly when money is short. But we’d encourage parents to avoid taking their children out of school during term time, as it does impact on their learning.

It would be helpful if holiday companies did not increase their prices so much during school holidays.”

Perhaps the Government should look at that issue.

On that point, we heard earlier about the difference in the price of holidays in and out of term time—a 60% increase, I think. When my family looked at holidays this year we found that the exact same holiday, going from the same airport, with the same room, departing three and a half hours later, was £2,400 more expensive. The prices were £3,700 and £6,100. That is a 62% increase in the space of three hours, let alone three weeks or three months. My hon. Friend is absolutely correct in what she is saying about the holiday companies.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We have all been in such circumstances, so perhaps the Government should review how much holidays cost in and out of term time and see whether anything can be done to average prices out across the year. In Scotland, we have struggled for many years with higher holiday and flight costs than England, even to the United States. It costs much more to fly to Miami from Glasgow than it does from London, yet Glasgow is much closer to Miami than London. It is an ongoing issue.

The UK Government should not leave cost increases to the market, but should look at the problem in much more depth. We should remember that although attendance is important, so is understanding why parents lie and are prepared to pay fines to secure holidays at a more reasonable cost or to go on holiday at a time that suits their circumstances. I hope the Minister will take on board what Members from all parts of the House have said and look again at what has been described as a blanket ban across England that reduces the role of teachers, who understand the students under their care.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hanson. Many Members have spoken in this important and relevant debate, which, as the hon. Member for North Devon (Peter Heaton-Jones) said, has revealed that the Government have got it all in a bit of a mess. Nearly 200,000 signatures on the petition is not to be sniffed at, and those concerns deserve to be heard, and heard they have been in the many contributions Members have made.

The current situation is confused and confusing, as the hon. Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double) outlined in his opening remarks. The only thing that is clear is that the Government acted with the best of intentions in 2013 when they changed the legislation. As their answer to the online petition reveals, they did so to try and correct the

“widespread misconception that parents were entitled to take their children on holiday during term-time.”

The Government argue that such a misconception had taken hold because headteachers had previously been allowed to grant up to 10 days’ leave for special circumstances.

The Government decided to come down hard. The result, as their response to the petition illustrates, has been fairly decisive: the number of persistent absentees is down by up to 40%; 6 million fewer school days have been lost; and pupils are missing fewer days at school today than they did in 2010 and are therefore receiving less interruption to their education. There are other results: £5.6 million was paid out by the public in fines last year, which was a 267% increase; 90,000 parents have been fined; and a High Court case has been lost, with possible Supreme Court hearings looming. Parents have no real certainty on where they stand. No wonder there is confusion, but let me make it clear that the Opposition support the Government’s attitude to school attendance. All the evidence shows that regular attendance at school helps ensure our children reach their full potential and can make their way in the world as adults. Indeed, education is the only available path out of the poverty and low aspiration that affects too many of our young people these days.

The hon. Member for North Devon made it absolutely clear that he is seeking to be helpful and that parents, teachers and heads across the country have expressed real concerns. As he stated—I agree with him—we need common sense and clarity, especially around the reaction of Ofsted. I hope the Minister will clarify that important point in his response. Despite the hon. Member for North Devon being an old-fashioned Tory guy, I am pleased and reassured that the Conservatives have clarified that they do not intend to go back to Dickensian times and stick kids up chimneys.

My hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood) made some excellent points on how good education is vital for good attainment. She reminded us of the huge effort made by Nottingham City Council and many councils up and down the country to ensure that we have high attendance. They are worried that all their hard work could be lost without urgent clarity from the Government regarding the recent case.

The hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr Turner) expressed concerns about a case in his constituency and made a point on what “regular attendance” means. I hope Mr Platt’s daughter has had a good sports day and that she may represent us in the Olympics in the future.

School brings consistency and routine. Every day of school missed can affect a pupil’s chances of developing as well as their classmates, of passing their exams and of gaining good qualifications with which to build their young lives. Seven million parents know the benefits of regular attendance. After all, schools are in session for just 190 out of 365 days a year.

The problem is that the hon. Lady is talking generally, but we are talking individually. If she can, she needs to explain the proposal for individual heads, not for the 7 million pupils in the whole country.

I make it absolutely clear—Members have already done so—that headteachers have discretion where there are exceptional circumstances. Headteachers have the power and discretion to sanction absences. The difficulty is the definition of exceptional circumstances, as we heard in some of the contributions. According to the proposer of the petition, a cancer diagnosis apparently does not constitute exceptional circumstances, which is deeply regrettable. I sincerely hope that that incident is as rare as parents taking their children on unauthorised absences.

Does the hon. Lady agree that it is preposterous to say, in an era when we trust so much responsibility day in, day out to our headteachers and teachers to look after children and ensure that their wellbeing is safeguarded and their educational needs are met, that we cannot trust those very same people to make a decision or call whether an absence is in the child’s best interests, based on their age, stage of education and other absences throughout the year? Does it not perhaps go so far as to patronise the teaching professions?

We have to weigh that against the evidence that says that every day lost through a child’s absence can have a significant impact on their education. The Government’s response has to be to set guidelines, but headteachers and the community of course have an obligation as part of that. That is still within the remit and powers of the current legislation.

The hon. Lady makes the point that every day a child is absent from school affects its education, but the reason for the absence should be taken into consideration. If the child is absent but participating in something that is fundamentally going to be good for their wellbeing and development as a person, that could be beneficial to their overall education and not necessarily always detrimental.

The hon. Gentleman makes a compelling case. There are various reasons why children could be absent from school. From today’s contributions, one of the compelling reasons why people have said they would like to be able to take their children out of school is the motivation of parents to take their children on a family holiday. I completely understand and sympathise with that situation. I have been a parent for many years, and prior to coming to this House, I was on a low income. I understand and feel their frustration at the rise in cost—in some instances it is an increase of as much as 150%. That makes most holidays unaffordable for most hard-working families.

Like other Members, I want the Minister to tell us what talks are under way to work with the travel industry to try to mitigate the cost of holidays for families who have already withstood austerity and are living on the breadline.

I also understand the concern about the level of the fines. If the fine is not paid, the parent can be prosecuted and fined up to £2,500. They can also receive a community order or even be jailed for up to three months, so I share the concerns that many Members have raised.

Following the High Court’s ruling in favour of Mr Jon Platt, the Government have made it clear that they are now considering changing the legislation and strengthening the statutory guidance given to schools and local authorities. We welcome any attempts to clear up any confusion and to remove the doubt and uncertainty about the legal position as we await a final decision on Mr Platt’s case. In the meantime, no one should be in any doubt that parents must ensure their children go to school. This is non-negotiable. Only schools can authorise absence. They have discretion in exceptional circumstances and they will hopefully use that wisely. The vast majority of parents accept that, and they accept that in a decent, law-abiding society, where our children are the country’s most precious asset, sending their children to school is the right thing to do.

It is a pleasure to serve once again under your chairmanship, Mr Hanson. I welcome the response to the debate from the hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (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 the Member for St Austell and Newquay (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 the Member for North Devon (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.

I understand the point that the Minister is making about varying term times, but it presents real difficulties. For instance, a primary school in my constituency that the Prime Minister praised for changing its half-term dates had to revert back after two years because of the pressure on parents with children at other schools that did not change their term dates. It created more problems than it solved.

My hon. Friend raises a real, practical issue about having different term dates in different parts of the country. That is something that the local authority and academies have to take into account when they consider changing term dates to reflect an industry or tourist needs in a particular region. They will have to weigh up the comparative advantage of that inconvenience versus the convenience of the industry that supplies the jobs in that area. That is why the decision needs to be taken locally by people who know how to weigh up those advantages and challenges.

That happened, for example, in Landau Forte Academy in Derby, which has operated on a five-term year since 1992. Eight-week terms are followed by two-week breaks and a four-week summer holiday. The academy feels that a shorter summer holiday is particularly beneficial for pupils from low-income backgrounds, who might not otherwise receive any stimulating activities in the holidays. It takes into account the dates of other local schools to ensure there is always some overlap of holidays. For example, one of its two weeks in October is always half term for other Derby schools.

Bishop Bromscombe School in St Austell, for example, improved school attendance by moving to a two-week May and June half term that allows parents to holiday outside peak times—[Interruption.] I assume that that is the school that my hon. Friend was talking about. It has now reversed that decision. If I had been quicker, I would have omitted that paragraph from my response.[Laughter.] I could, I am sure, cite other examples from around the country of schools that have taken advantage of that freedom.

Our reforms have put teachers in charge of their classrooms and headteachers in charge of their schools. Many measures are available to improve school attendance. Only when all other strategies to improve attendance have failed should sanctions such as penalty notices or prosecution be used. Schools, local authorities and the police have been able to issue penalty notices for unauthorised school absence since September 2004. There were 151,000 penalty notices issued for unauthorised absence in the 2014-15 academic year, up 54% from the 98,000 issued in 2013-14, indicating a continuation of the upward trend since 2009-10. The increase in 2014-15 was greater than the yearly increases prior to 2012-13, but it is lower than the increase of 88% between 2012-13 and 2013-14.

I believe it is right that local authorities and schools are actively addressing pupil absence. The impact of that can be seen in the historical downward trend in the absence figures, which show that, since 2009-10, almost 200,000 fewer pupils are persistently absent.

Although the Government are disappointed with the High Court judgment on school attendance, we are clear that children’s attendance at school is non-negotiable, and we will take the necessary steps to secure that principle. I recognise that the High Court judgment has created uncertainty for parents, schools and local authorities. Given its importance, it is essential that the matter is clarified, which is why we decided to support Isle of Wight Council’s request for permission to appeal to the Supreme Court, and why I wrote to all schools and local authorities in England to make it clear that the High Court judgment does not establish that a pupil’s attendance above 90% is regarded as regular attendance.

Headteachers are responsible for deciding whether there are exceptional circumstances that merit granting a pupil leave of absence. My letter concluded by explaining to local authorities receiving requests for refunds that the decision in the Isle of Wight case does not require them to refund penalties that have already been paid. The Department for Education expects applications for such refunds to be refused.

I agree that 90% does not constitute sufficiently regular attendance. Do the Government intend to amend the current legislation to define the term “regular” to give local authorities and schools the clarity that they are looking for?

The Government will set out our next steps in due course and will make an announcement. In the meantime, as I have said, I have written to local authorities and schools setting out the current position, notwithstanding the Isle of Wight case. We have supported the Isle of Wight’s decision to appeal to the Supreme Court. That is the Government’s position, but we will have more to say about next steps in due course.

The Government’s commitment to reduce overall school absence is part of our ambition to create a world-class education system. That cannot be achieved if children’s education is disrupted due to preventable absences. The evidence is clear: every extra day of school missed can affect a pupil’s chance of gaining good GCSEs, which has a lasting effect on their life chances. That is why we take this issue so seriously.

I thank all right hon. and hon. Members for their contributions to the debate, which has been well informed and clear. I also take the opportunity to thank all the members of the public who signed the petition—nearly 200,000 people—and Dave Hedley from Nottingham, who started it.

We all agree that we want children to attend school regularly and as much as possible. The reasons for persistent absence need to be addressed, but there are clearly a variety of views on whether the existing Government policy is the best way to achieve that.

The Minister made the point that a lot boils down to our view of the difference between “exceptional” and “special”. The more that can be done to make the Government’s view of exceptional circumstances clear, the better, so that we can have real clarity. However, what I pick up from headteachers, as many Members have said, is that the real issue is about Ofsted. Where headteachers exercise their discretion, Ofsted appears to take a different view. Anything that can be done to help Ofsted support headteachers a bit more will, I am sure, be much appreciated.

Personally, I still believe that it is strange for us to trust schools to set their own term dates, as the Minister said, but not to trust headteachers to decide what is right and best for individual pupils. I encourage the Minister to look at the situation again, not only to clarify it but to see whether we can bring more common sense and flexibility into it, allowing headteachers to exercise their discretion. They are the ones who know pupils the best.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered e-petition 129698 relating to penalty fines and authorised absence from school.

Sitting adjourned.