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Term-time Leave

Volume 601: debated on Monday 26 October 2015

Mr Speaker has agreed that for this debate members of the public may use handheld electronic devices in the Public Gallery, provided that the devices are on silent. Photographs, however, must not be taken.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered an e-petition relating to term-time leave from school for holiday.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr McCabe. I understand that this is your first time in the Westminster Hall Chair. It is my first time opening a debate here, so hopefully we can learn together.

It is a pleasure to open this debate on a controversial and unpopular policy that has provoked much public interest, as we can see from the number of members of the public present. The debate is the result of an e-petition calling for parents to be allowed to take their children out of school for up to two weeks for a family holiday; it has been signed by more than 120,000 people. I am leading the debate because I am a member of the Petitions Committee, but I also have a keen interest in the issue and have been campaigning about it for the past 12 months or more. I have been contacted by, and have spoken with, hundreds of parents, tourism-related businesses, charities and campaigning organisations about the issue. In my opening statement, I hope accurately to represent the views of all those people, while making it clear that I share those views.

To begin with, I want to make it absolutely clear that I support the aim that children should attend school regularly. Education is vital, but it is not the only important thing in a child’s upbringing. Although I support that aim, I fundamentally disagree that telling parents when they can and cannot take their children on holiday is a job for the state.

During the election campaign, I became increasingly aware of the policy’s detrimental effects; in my view, its wider economic and social impact outweighs the positive effect on school attendance. I represent the constituency of St Austell and Newquay in mid-Cornwall, and the policy’s impacts are especially felt in Cornwall and other places that depend heavily on tourism. I will lay out three main reasons why the policy is wrong and counterproductive and why it needs to be reviewed.

We have heard an awful lot about fairness in politics over the past few years. My first reason is that, sadly, the policy is blatantly unfair to a number of groups. The first group are those unable to take a holiday during school holiday times, including many who work in tourism and other sectors. Many small tourism-related businesses in Cornwall are too busy to allow their staff to take a holiday during the peak holiday season; many are owner-run and have to make money while people are on holiday. People with such work cannot, therefore, afford to close and take a holiday themselves during the season. In fact, the introduction of the policy has made things even worse for tourism businesses because the season is now even more concentrated, into six or seven weeks of the school summer holidays. That places even greater demand on the businesses during the peak season and makes it even more difficult for them to allow staff to take a holiday.

It is not, however, only those who work directly in tourism who are affected; it is also those who work in the public sector in tourism areas. For example, our local police in mid-Cornwall have for many years restricted police officers’ ability to take holiday during the peak season due to the increased demand for policing in the area. The policy effectively tells people who cannot take a holiday during school holiday times that they cannot have a family holiday, and that seems completely unfair.

The policy is also unfair in other ways—on people who cannot afford to pay for a holiday during the peak holiday season, for example. We all know that holidays taken during the peak season, whether in this country or abroad, are out of the reach of many families on low incomes; in fact, many families we would consider to be on middle incomes struggle to pay the peak season prices. There have been calls for the Government to intervene and bring some sort of regulation into the holiday market, but we have to accept that that is incredibly unlikely—we live in a free market economy and prices are set by supply and demand. But surely we can expect the Government not to introduce policies that make the matter worse, and it is worth noting that that is precisely what is happening.

The restriction on term-time holidays has had the unintended—I am sure—consequence of increasing demand during school holidays and pushing prices up during the peak season. Holiday resorts in Cornwall say that because there is greater demand during the peak weeks and they are also losing business during what we call the shoulder weeks, they are having to increase prices in the peak weeks to make up the difference. The cost differential between term-time and school holiday prices is widening. Far from helping the lower-paid to have a holiday, the policy is exacerbating the situation.

Another group that the policy is unfair to are the many families who rely on charities for a holiday. I have been contacted by a number of charities that have for many years taken groups of disadvantaged families on holiday during September. They do it then because prices are lower and they are often able to get a good deal on a holiday park during periods of lower demand.

An example close to my heart is an organisation called Cornwall One Parent Support. I have been involved with the charity right from its beginnings, almost 20 years ago, since when it has provided support for single-parent families, including taking them on a cheap, subsidised holiday in September. It has often taken groups of up to 40 families away for a week. The holiday provides a great opportunity for the parents and children to have a break and experience a holiday they would otherwise never be able to enjoy. However, since the introduction of the policy, the organisation cannot run the holidays in the same way, as the families are prevented from taking their children out of school. The policy is unfair to a great number of families, and sadly it is the lowest paid and most disadvantaged who appear to be losing out.

I also believe that the policy is detrimental to family life. As a matter of principle, I do not believe that it is the role of the state to tell parents when they can take their children on holiday. Every child is unique, and it should be for parents to decide what is right and best for their child. Some parents will decide that the best thing is for their child to be in school at all times; others will decide that the benefit of a family holiday—the experience of travel, new cultures and meeting new people—is more beneficial than being in school for that week. It should be, however, for the parent to make the choice.

It is, of course, the state’s right and responsibility to see that children get a proper education, and we know that being in school clearly leads to that. I do not think that the signatories to the petition are saying that taking children out of school for family holidays is an absolute right, and I wonder whether there might be a compromise to be reached for children in the early years of primary school—reception, year 1 and year 2. Would my hon. Friend suggest that the rules could be relaxed for those years?

I agree with my hon. Friend. The vast majority of parents—if not all of them—want a good education for their children. The issue is not about a competition between education and family; it is that many parents, including me, consider that family holidays and the experiences they bring are part of a child’s education. One of the sadnesses of the policy is that it has pitted school and education against family, when we want them to work together for the benefit of the child and to do what is right and best for that child.

If we view education as just what takes place in the classroom, we rather miss the point; education needs to be about much more than that in a child’s life. The point that my hon. Friend made about flexibility is absolutely right—we need some common-sense flexibility brought into this issue. Parents want their children to be in school regularly, and that is what the Education Act 1996 asks for. Let us not forget that the 1996 Act gives parents the option to home educate, which seems to be a bit of a contradiction given the application of the strict rules that I am discussing.

Many parents have contacted me on this matter. It is a widely held view that a child’s upbringing and education are about more than what happens in the classroom. Clearly, formal schooling is a central and critical part of any child’s education, but it is not the only important element. The breadth and variety of experiences that children can gain from travel can enrich and deepen their view and appreciation of the world. I know that from my own upbringing. The times when I travelled with my parents shaped and developed my understanding of the world in a way that the classroom teacher would never be able to provide.

There is a deeper, more concerning aspect of the policy’s impact on families. The policy sends out the message that being in the classroom is somehow more important than being with their family, which is something I fundamentally cannot support. No matter how good a school or individual teacher is, being in school can never be more important, more valuable or more beneficial in a child’s life than a positive and healthy family situation.

We all know that we are living busier and busier lives these days; the pressure and stresses of daily life put more demands on family life than ever before, so the time that parents have with their children is more precious than ever before. The benefit of that week or two away—away from the pressures of life and the domestic and mundane responsibilities of home—can be an oasis for any family, offering the opportunity to regroup, to refresh their relationships and to strengthen the family bond. I know the cliché is often used, but the quality time parents can spend with their children on a holiday can be one of the most positive things a child can experience in the madness of today’s world.

I just wonder whether the weekend is not an option for families to spend some quality time together. The real danger of allowing parents to take their children out at any point during term is that it interrupts their time at school, in the classroom.

Of course, weekends can play a part, but I again make the point that for many parents, the weekends these days are full of a great deal of activity. That week away, where a family can get away from the pressures of life and concentrate on their time together, is valuable.

On that point, in the broader sense we need to understand that many parents, such as those who work in our health service, work shifts and may have to be present during summer time. Not everyone can have their holiday at the same time, because we need to keep our health service running.

I absolutely agree. Gone are the days when our society was neatly packaged into the week and the weekend. The lines are very much blurred these days.

To reiterate the point, that week or two away from it all as a family cannot be replaced by the odd day here and there that parents may be able to get. If the choice for a family is a holiday during term time or no holiday at all, parents should have every right to decide that a family holiday would be more beneficial for their child than being in school for that week. I know from my many years as a school governor that the single most important factor in any child’s life is a positive and stable relationship with their parents, along with the degree to which their parents are involved in their life and upbringing.

The policy is not only preventing families from taking a holiday together. I have been contacted by dozens of families offering accounts of how their children have missed out on family events as the school would not authorise them to miss a day or two. One family told me how their child missed out on seeing their cousin compete in a sporting world championship as their school said the cousin was not a close enough family member for the child to be allowed to go. A four-year-old was refused permission to attend his grandmother’s 60th birthday celebrations as it would have meant taking the Friday off school to travel. I would welcome clarification from the Minister. My understanding of the 1996 Act is that there is no requirement to put children in school until after their fifth birthday. If a child is in school before their fifth birthday, do the strict rules apply to them?

I am listening carefully to the powerful speech that my hon. Friend is making. In answer to his question, once a child is registered at a school, he or she is subject to the same rules as children who are of compulsory school age.

I am grateful to the Minister for clarifying that point.

Other parents have told me of children missing out on scores of significant family celebrations. In fact, there seems to be a bit of confusion on what constitutes an exceptional case where headteachers are allowed to grant an authorised absence. Headteachers are being put in the impossible position of having to make choices about children attending family events—quite frankly, those are decisions that parents should be free to make. Headteachers have told me that even when they do exercise their judgement and authorise an absence, they then risk the spectre of Ofsted criticising that decision. Pitting family life against the classroom, as the policy sadly does, is one of its most regrettable aspects.

My hon. Friend makes some valid points that I have also heard in my constituency about the confusion over what constitutes exceptional circumstances, and he gave some good examples. Is he aware that 90% of those surveyed by the National Association of Head Teachers said that they would appreciate clearer guidance from the Government as to what constitutes exceptional circumstances? Perhaps that guidance might help.

I was aware of that survey. It raises the point that if the policy is to be continued—clearly, I hope it will be reviewed—there needs to be much greater clarity for headteachers on what constitutes exceptional circumstances. That especially needs to be applied to Ofsted, because I am hearing from headteachers that when they make a judgment call that they believe they are allowed to make and authorise the absence, those decisions are then queried at best, and perhaps criticised in other cases, by Ofsted. Parents want a constructive relationship with the school, where together they can decide what is right and best for the child.

My final point is on the policy’s economic impact. I was disturbed to learn that no economic impact assessment was made before the policy was introduced. In fact, when the matter was brought before Parliament in March 2013 by way of a statutory instrument, the explanatory note stated:

“An impact assessment has not been provided for this instrument as no impact on businesses or civil society organisations is foreseen.”

Unfortunately, that simply is not the case. The impact of the policy on the tourist industry, particularly in Cornwall, has been significant, as it has elsewhere in the country. Many tourist-related businesses are reporting a significant drop in revenue in the shoulder months of May, June and September, which used to be times when many families would come to towns such as Newquay to stay.

I have been contacted by the Federation of Small Businesses, which has highlighted the concerns of many hoteliers, retailers and businesses that are affected by the six-week period. Has my hon. Friend been contacted by the FSB?

I have not been contacted by the FSB, but I am grateful to the Newquay chamber of commerce, and to its chairman, Rachel Craze, who was the first person to bring this issue to my attention about 12 months ago and has helped me in liaising with businesses in Newquay to understand the significant impact on them. Only last year, Visit Cornwall produced a report on the Cornish economy that stated that Cornwall had lost an estimated £44 million as a result of the policy. Individual businesses have told me that their revenue for June this year was 40% down on what they had previously come to expect. Others have told me that they have had to lay off staff, reduce staff hours and cut back on stock purchases.

A tourist business cannot be run based on having only six or seven weeks’ peak business during the school holidays. For most businesses, the shoulder months make the business viable. Some businesses are faced with the choice of having to stop catering for the family sector and completely shift their focus, or close.

It is also reported that owners of holiday lets are now changing to full residential letting because they simply cannot get enough lettings out of the holiday season. That reduces the capacity of the holiday trade in the peak season, and the knock-on effect is felt by surrounding businesses. The policy is damaging tourism in this country. As it was wrongly stated when the decision was taken that there would be no impact on business, clearly it should now be reviewed.

The policy is unfair; it undermines the place of the family and damages our economy. It is clear to me and many others that it needs to be reviewed. When the Government have been challenged on this matter, their response has been to say that headteachers have discretion. As has already been pointed out, there is a need for much greater clarity. Another suggestion from the Government was to allow schools to stagger their holidays, but I do not believe that would work. We have tried it in Cornwall. In some ways, it makes the matter worse, because if one school changes its holidays and another school nearby does not, and a parent has children in both schools, they simply end up with a childcare problem during a different week. Discussions have taken place on helping schools around the country stagger their holidays, but I do not believe that has come to anything. Perhaps the Minister can confirm where the Government are on that.

The petition calls for the Government to allow flexibility and to allow headteachers to grant up to two weeks’ holiday per school year for a family holiday. We are not talking about a free-for-all or giving parents carte blanche to take their children out as and when they like. We are talking about parents agreeing in conjunction with the school when they believe it is right for them to take a family holiday. Headteachers need to be given flexibility to authorise a holiday. Most parents would accept that there would be times when it would be entirely inappropriate to take a holiday: in years 10 and 11, and perhaps in year 6 as well. There might even be times during the school year when the school could say it was not a good time to be away. We need a constructive relationship between the school and the parents, not the tensions that currently seem to exist.

The vast majority of parents simply want the right to decide for themselves what is right and best for their own children. As I said at the start of my speech, I do not believe it is the role of the state to dictate to parents in the way that is happening, so I simply call on the Minister to review the policy. As no impact assessment was made when the policy was introduced, the Government should carry out an assessment now and consider the impact that it is having on the tourist industry and on family life. We should allow parents the right to bring up their own children in the way they believe is best.

I welcome you to the Chair, Mr McCabe, and I thank my Cornish colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double), for spearheading this debate. He has been instrumental in making the public aware of today’s debate and the general debate in wider circles about allowing children to be taken out of school to go on holiday. As an MP for a key tourist destination, I know how the current policy is detrimental to my constituents and the economy of North Cornwall and of Cornwall as a whole.

There are various reasons why I support calls for allowing children two weeks off in term-time. First, I do not feel it is right for the state to tell parents when they can and cannot take their children on holiday, as my hon. Friend said. As a parent, I would not do anything to negatively affect my child’s education. However, I am also confident that were my child to come out of school for a holiday, she would have a broader understanding of the world and a memorable experience that she could take back and share with her classmates. I am confident that parents in my constituency would not do anything detrimental to their child’s education; they could take them out and the educational trips would be mind-broadening.

When it comes to holidays, headteachers should regain the say over when pupils can go on holiday. The whole point of a headteacher is to run the school and remain accountable to parents, so why are we not giving parents the ability to choose and headteachers the freedom to decide? I can allude to one instance on Padstow ’Obby ’Oss day—a popular day for merriment in Padstow and in Cornwall generally—when a young person was denied leave to go out on a day that is so big for the area. Holidays and days off can be incredibly educational for children. Granted, children do learn a lot when they have high attendance in school, but two weeks’ maximum is a drop in the ocean compared with the total amount of time that they are in school. Headteachers need to be able to use discretionary powers on holidays. A headteacher has a huge understanding of the importance of education for a child.

I have listened carefully to another very good speech. When my hon. Friend says that two weeks is a drop in the ocean, does he mean one two-week break in the whole 11-year or 13-year career of a child, or does he mean a two-week break every year?

I would be flexible on that. We simply need to give parents the ability to take their children out of school at some time during those years. I am not a wealthy man. I cannot afford to take my child away on holiday year after year. If we can give people the ability to save up for holidays and have a week or a couple of weeks in the sun, they will benefit from that. If a child has been out of school for too long because of sickness or holiday, we should allow headteachers to say that it is not appropriate for them to take time out for a holiday, but if someone has high attainment records and has demonstrated that they are prepared to do some educational work when they are on holiday, they should be granted it.

We believe in a free market economy. When demand goes up, prices go up. However, it is wrong to deny families on lower incomes the opportunity to go on holiday simply because of a week’s schooling. Schools need to embrace the fact that children go on holiday. They should encourage children to write diaries, take photographs and bring back souvenirs to show their school friends. Holidays are beneficial not only to them, but to their peers. What better way to learn about the world and its history or geography than to have a person in the classroom to illustrate the area they have been to?

The current policy of not allowing children to go on holiday during school time is also hitting the Cornish economy hard. It has been estimated that the west country has lost £87 million a year, with Cornwall seeing an 8% drop in visitors and revenue down by £44 million in 2014. We need that money to continue to invest in Cornwall’s tourism economy to ensure that people remain in employment. I have many constituents who work in the holiday and tourism industry, and they need to work at the very time when their children are not in school.

Such a restrictive policy means that our tourism sector has to cater for a holiday season that sees huge volumes of people visiting my constituency over six weeks, but outside that time we no longer have huge numbers of people coming down. It is very frustrating and places huge demands on business owners over those six weeks. It also creates problems with the recruitment of seasonal staff and adds to congestion on the roads. A much more flexible approach would be to allow parents to choose to holiday before or after the summer holidays, which, in economic terms, would help us to extend the tourist season.

Parents need time out. They want to go away and make memories with their children. Why should we deny people that for the sake of a few days off school? Ultimately, I support the calls being made by fellow MPs and the 120,000 people who signed the online petition. Parents should be allowed to take their children out of school and go on holiday. I hope that the Minister understands my views and will consider changing the policy.

I congratulate the hon. Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double) on securing this important debate, which is not entirely about tourism in Cornwall—it goes much wider than that.

I declare an interest. I never took any of my four children out of school during term time. That probably had something to do with the fact that I was a teacher. My employer would have regarded it rather dimly.

There is a legitimate debate to be had about how much time a pupil needs to spend in school and how valuable that time is. In life, there is always a trade-off between quantity and quality. The Minister can point to the fact that the Chinese spend more time in school than we do and make progress rapidly. We reach the same point, but they get to it somewhat earlier. University technical colleges have longer school days and their pupils make more rapid progress, although I do not know whether they get further in the long run. Against that we can set the example of the great public schools of England, which sometimes have ridiculously long summer holidays. If a pupil is in the cricket team, they are hardly in during the summer term anyway. Their results appear to be quite commendable, so we cannot draw general conclusions.

I am rather sad at the general perception that it is ultimately damaging to take children out of school at all times and on all occasions, except in very exceptional circumstances, which certainly do not include holidays. Most parents accept that school is valuable and important and want their child to be there. If they put in a request to take their child out for a time, they do so reluctantly. The Government struggle with this, but I think most parents are reasonably good judges of their own child’s interests and that most requests are put in only at the margins of the school year. These days, pretty much all parents juggle their working life with school time. If their children are at multiple schools with holidays at different times, they find the task formidable.

What is to be done if a parent feels that it would be desirable and not too damaging if their child was out of school during term time? I suggest that the answer for the school and for parents is simply to allow flexibility, which was the generally agreed answer until quite recently. There are exceptional circumstances, which will sometimes involve holidays or other events of family importance. That, however, does not appear to be the view of the Department for Education and Ofsted, which seem to take the rather Gradgrind approach that a child should never miss an hour in school, otherwise the consequences might be fatal.

As I said, I was a teacher. I have not taught for 14 years now, but I had a fairly long teaching career. I have to say that not every hour in school is that educational. Towards the end of the summer term, when exams are done and people are tired, and when the days are hot and the pupils sleepy and looking forward to the summer, one cannot always say that time in school is absolutely precious and could never be forfeited under any circumstances. Equally, most holidays are educationally very productive. After all, that is why so many schools organise holidays. Strangely enough, they sometimes start such holidays towards the end of school time because they recognise the benefits they bring to pupils.

Children improve on holidays. They certainly improve faster on holiday than they do in the last few weeks of school. I recently had the benefit of taking all five of my grandchildren on a holiday to France for two weeks. We did not go around museums, nor did I lecture them about things such as French literature or test their maths, but they came back far more developed after two weeks away than they had after the previous term. I could actually see the difference. They are small children and the development that took place was there for all to see.

The Minister will undoubtedly say that there is an anxiety that for some children there will be some sort of tail-off in the summer. There is a tail-off among certain groups because of the long summer holidays, which some people see as something of an anachronism. Real holidays, subject to the headteacher deciding that that is what is taking place, are life-enhancing and educational. How would we distinguish between real holidays and school-shirking or lesson-skipping, which the Minister would legitimately fear? I do not have a clear answer to that, but I am certain that if we want to make that sort of judgment, it should be done not through the DFE or Ofsted, but based on local information. Local schools should be allowed to make their decisions. We certainly must not poison the relationship between the school, the parents and the child by imposing fines.

A common-sense solution is being urged, through the petition and eloquently by the Members who have spoken so far. I hope that the Minister, having seen some of the errors that the Government have made through their Gradgrind approach, will review the legislation and commend a more sensible regime to schools.

I thank my fellow Cornish MP, my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double), for introducing the debate so well.

I fully understand the Government’s intention behind the legislation on taking children out of school during term time. I am sure that every Member present and throughout the House understands the need to address absence from school and to reassure people that the education of their children in school is hugely important. I am glad to live in a country where education is free, good and easily accessible. We do not want to do anything to undermine that value and the priority given to education. It is fantastic that our children have the opportunity to go to school and learn and grow into young people who are able to enter the world of work.

I also understand how children being absent and not taking part in their normal class or group at school can affect the learning of the whole class and its progress over the school year. We are not trying to undermine the Government’s intention to support schools in dealing with absence, and we recognise the contribution that children make to their class. Nevertheless, we are asking for change.

I too am a Cornish MP, and we have seen a huge problem in Cornwall. Part of the problem is how the legislation is interpreted. I have two small children in school. They have cousins of a very similar age, but their schools interpret the law differently. My children’s school is very strict. I have to confess that I took them out of school without permission so that we could go to a family wedding. I needed to take them out on the Thursday to travel to a Friday wedding, and we were not permitted to do that. My children’s cousins’ school, however, regularly allows holidays and provides educational material for the parents to use while they are away. That different interpretation causes tension among schools and among families. Whatever the Government choose to do after this debate, they should provide clear guidelines to schools about their intention for the legislation.

I think something has been lost. Before the legislation and guidance on school holidays were introduced, schools worked very well on this matter. I took my son on holiday for a week away from school, and the school provided a stuffed toy—if I remember correctly, it was an elephant called Elmer, although I may be wrong about that. We were encouraged to take Elmer to different places during the holiday, take photos and send postcards back from Elmer. When my child went back to school, he was able to talk about the experience. The class discussed where Elmer had been and learned important and interesting things about each visit he made. That has been lost, because that can no longer happen.

I am glad that we have a former teacher here who is able to confirm that in parts of the school year, learning—certainly formal learning—drops off. I have done a lot of school assemblies and been involved with schools for probably 20 years, and I have often been frustrated, because there used to be a time in the school year, often after the SATs finished, when formal education changed and parents could take advantage of it to take their children on holiday. That is no longer allowed, yet some schools still have a more informal attitude towards teaching in the latter weeks of the summer term. There are good reasons for that, but it is a shame that parents are not allowed to take their children out of school during that time.

I am concerned because, although the Conservative party does not want to intrude on families—we often say that families know best—I believe that this legislation does so. Some families in Cornwall, as we have heard, are not able to take their children on holiday during peak school holiday time because of their jobs. They may work in the public services or run business that rely heavily on the school holidays for their income. By introducing this legislation, we have intruded on those families and told them that they are not able to take their children on holiday.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Neil Carmichael), who has left the Chamber now, spoke about weekend holidays, but that would not work in Cornwall because families would spend the whole weekend stuck on the A30, which would be a completely inappropriate and unfortunate way of spending their holiday. I therefore do not accept the argument that weekends can be used to go on holiday; that would not work. I have to travel for longer than any other MP to get here on a Monday, and we cannot assume that weekends are an alternative.

As my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay said, the cost of taking a holiday during the school holidays is prohibitive for many families. Like my hon. Friend, my constituency neighbour, I come from one of the poorest areas in the country. Our average wage is considerably less than the national average.

That brings me on to the disruption to business. Businesses in my constituency have closed since the legislation was introduced because the owners are no longer able to run them all year round. The business they get in the summer, at half-term and even at Christmas is not enough for them to continue their work, so they have had to close their business and lay people off as a result. The impact on our local economy is considerable, and I am sad that the Government were unable to look at that before they introduced the current advice.

Last summer was phenomenal for the holiday industry in Cornwall. We had more visitors than we have had for many years. Our summer season has been compressed into the six-week school holiday period, and I do not know how long the holiday industry will survive in Cornwall, because the A30 was gridlocked pretty much continuously every day. If I travelled to Cornwall, using the precious holiday I have with my children, and got stuck on the A30, I do not know whether I would choose to do that again next year and the year after. The situation indirectly affects the potential of Cornwall’s tourism businesses, because if people cannot go on holiday to Cornwall because of the increased traffic on the roads, they will choose to go elsewhere. The holiday companies that cannot operate during the summer will close, and the businesses that rely on the summer trade will lose business and may not be able to continue.

I urge the Government to look carefully at this issue. We are not asking for parents to be able to compromise their child’s learning. We are asking the Government to look at the impact that this measure has on our tourism and family life. We seek an agreement that would allow holiday to be taken outside holiday time in a way that contributes to the child’s learning. We are asking the Government to relax the legislation, not to backtrack on their good efforts to address habitual absenteeism. It is very important that we address the issue of parents who regularly take their children out of school for no good reason; we recognise that that has a detrimental effect on the classroom. However, we ask the Government to recognise that parents are able to complement their child’s education with a school holiday. We need a change in the law, and schools need clear guidelines and absolute clarity about the Government’s approach. All schools need to use the same guidelines for their children.

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the National Association of Head Teachers surveyed its members, and 90% said that they would welcome additional guidance?

That has already been discussed, but the hon. Lady is absolutely right to bring it up. The headteacher at my children’s school would love the Government to say, “This is what we want from your school,” and for Ofsted to reflect that in how they judge the school. I believe that an allowance of up to two weeks a year would not be detrimental if, as has been said, it is at a quiet time for formal learning. Children’s holidays should be celebrated and made part of the learning of the child who goes on holiday and of the class, which, the following week, is able to look at where that child and Elmer have been.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr McCabe. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double) for securing this debate and for raising the issue of the petition. I commend my other hon. Friends and hon. Members who have spoken for their thoughtful contributions. There have been a number of contributions, and the issues and arguments appear to me to be as follows.

Several points were made about the guidance given to headteachers on how to implement the regulations. Hon. Members discussed the potential impact on tourism and the seasonality of work—in Cornwall, in particular, but also in other areas of the country with a tourist trade. Hon. Members mentioned the potential impact on public sector workers who may have their leave cancelled during those periods. Although that is certainly true during the summer holiday period, other holiday periods are available to public sector workers—I speak from experience. Hon. Members also spoke about the issue of affordability and the effect that inflated holiday prices during school holidays can have on certain families.

I want to talk about the educational case that underpins the current regulations. Although there are clearly concerns about the regulations, I will talk about why they are in place and outline some of the issues at stake. Fundamentally, they are about doing the right thing by children. There is clear evidence that absence from school is detrimental to school performance and leads to lower levels of attainment. Absence data from the academic year 2012-13 and previous years indicate that pupils with no absence from school during key stage 4 were nearly three times as likely to achieve five A*, A, B or C grades at GCSE. Even a small amount of absence from school can reduce performance. Indeed, 44% of children with no absence at key stage 4 achieve the English baccalaureate, which is the gold standard package of GCSE qualifications including English, maths and science. That figure falls by a quarter to 31.7% for pupils who miss up to 14 days of lessons over the two years that they study for their GCSEs—that equates to about one week per year.

There is therefore clear and well-established evidence that missing lessons equals lower achievement in schools, and that is why the policy is in place. The policy is well intended and is there to ensure that all children have a good education.

The hon. Gentleman is talking about absence generically, but the evidence clearly includes two sorts of absence: the occasional absence, which people talk about and has extenuating circumstances, such as holiday absence; and systematic, regular absence. Do the data show any difference? The data will show clearly—I am only guessing; he may correct me if I am wrong—that children who are underperforming because of absence are not those who are taking the odd week off in exceptional circumstances because their parents have asked, but children who are repeatedly absent for one reason or another throughout the term and the year.

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. The data are generic—we know that there is a link between absence rates for all reasons and lower attainment at school. Of course we would expect pupils who are missing school regularly and not turning up for reasons such as truancy to do less well at school than those who attend regularly—there is other evidence to support that. That is the hon. Gentleman’s point, but my understanding of the data is that, generally, higher rates of absence equal lower levels of attainment.

When putting regulations in place—perfect ones are difficult, but they are there for the right reasons—we need to look at something the Minister alluded to in an intervention on my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay. Were we to facilitate routinely two weeks of holiday for pupils during term time, over a pupil’s school career that would represent about 24 weeks of extra holiday in school time—almost half a year of extra holiday and of lost learning time being facilitated by law. That is not something that anyone ought to want to facilitate in Government regulation. Such a situation would clearly be detrimental to a child’s development, future life chances and chances at school.

Regulations are difficult to make, but there is a reason why they are in place. We have failed to discuss the level of discretion available to headteachers at the moment and I will come on to that. It is right to have given discretion to headteachers, who may look at the circumstances involved, but there might be an issue to do with refreshing some of the guidance. Perhaps the Minister will talk about that in his response.

The background to the legislation is that parents are not now able directly to authorise absence themselves; they must do so with facilitation from the headteacher. The initial framework of the regulations was put in place by the then Labour Government in 2006 and changed by the coalition Government in 2013. Under the new regulations, headteachers may not grant leave of absence during term time unless there are exceptional circumstances.

The matter is therefore one for the headteacher. A fine for an unauthorised absence is possible, but discretion has been given to the headteacher to look at the circumstances, and they have done so in a number of cases. Clearly, in our increasingly multicultural country—something we celebrate—different religions have certain celebrations at different times of the year. Certain schools and headteachers recognise that and use those exceptional circumstances of religious celebration to exercise their discretion.

We need to look at what we want in regulation—a duty that is in effect permissive, allowing such absence, or one that allows the headteacher to look at the circumstances, making it the rule that leave should not be given without exceptional circumstances. A permissive duty would in effect allow an extra half year of holiday and missed school in pupils’ lives, so the legislation has probably come down on the right side of the argument: in support of the headteacher’s having discretion.

I appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s point about a permissive duty and the responsibilities held by headteachers. Is there not also a substantial argument to support headteachers’ being given guidelines to allow for consistency, as the hon. Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas) mentioned? Should there not be an enhanced framework to support those headteachers to make such decisions and to make things a bit clearer across the board?

I completely agree. The hon. Lady mentioned earlier how a number of headteachers are confused about what circumstances they may consider exceptional. My hon. Friends have made similar points. Given a survey of teachers that indicates concerns about how to act and how to interpret the regulations, there is clearly something that to be said for the need to refresh the guidance so that teachers have clearer guidelines. I am sure that the Minister will address that in his remarks.

Councillor Roy Perry, chairman of the Local Government Association’s children and young people’s board, said:

“The current rules tie families to set holiday periods.”

He added that the system does not easily define what

“would class as a special occasion”,

and does not take

“into account a parent’s work life”—

a point made earlier in the debate. I believe that headteachers would benefit from clearer understanding and guidance to inform their decision on exceptional circumstances.

The other issue raised in the debate was about having staggered school holidays, which touches on a number of matters, including the business concerns. The regulations apply to England, but I was recently fortunate enough to visit Scotland, where there are clear differences in school holidays between neighbouring areas—for example, Fife had a longer October break than Edinburgh. Such flexibility might be desirable and deal with some of the concerns. That needs to be looked at.

Making legislation and regulations can be difficult. The balance is on the right side in this case, which is not actively to facilitate school-time absence, but to make it an exception, although guidance could do with being looked at. The answer might lie in clearer guidance, or in a degree of staggered school holidays. Clearly and fundamentally, we need to look after the children. Better guidance for headteachers would be better not only for the headteachers themselves, but for parents, in enabling them to understand the benefits of the policy. The policy is designed to help children receive a good education and to provide them with the best possible start in life.

I echo the gratitude expressed to my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double) for introducing a debate that carries the British public with it. There is considerable support for his opinion among my constituents —the issue cropped up regularly on doorsteps during the election and has reached me subsequently in correspondence and in surgeries.

The existing situation is simply not fair. The changes in September allow headteachers to have discretion over emergency circumstances, but the term is subjective, so different schools judge those circumstances differently. One family in my constituency who had been through a traumatic time requested two weeks away together to get over their personal loss. They were not given that. In fact, they were fined, despite the fact that they promised, and did, keep up with their children’s primary school education while away. In other areas, I hear of cases where children were granted permission in similar circumstances. That seems unjust; it seems that in effect we have created a postcode lottery situation.

I have two primary concerns. First, why is so much money and administration being used to fine those parents who are not really neglecting their children’s education or enabling truancy? Should we not be targeting those resources on those actually abusing the system and damaging their children’s education and chances?

Secondly, the policy punishes servicemen such as those who work at MOD Corsham. They often work inflexibly and can be deployed during school holiday time; their leave periods may not align with the school holidays. It also punishes the hard-working families whom we were elected to represent, especially those on low incomes who simply cannot afford to go away during the holidays.

The Department stated that it is not denying any family a holiday, but the reality is different, because poorer families are denied that chance. For what? To stop them from travelling? We must not underestimate the value of travel. Different places, cultures, customs, activities and people all enrich and enhance a child’s education. They also enable children to be more tolerant and help produce well rounded individuals. We must ask ourselves whether that is also an educational objective. The issue is not just about grades.

I question the key argument the Department gave in its formal response to the petition, which was that taking children out of school during term time lowers attainment levels. That is true, but the figures used in the response were based on children who were absent for 15% to 20% of the time, or primary schoolchildren absent for 31 days. The petition does not suggest 15% to 20% absence; it discusses a period of just two weeks.

The figures indicate that less than two weeks’ absence can affect GCSE students, so surely it would be best to introduce changes just for primary schoolchildren. That would ensure that no time was taken during exam periods and when work is harder to catch up on. Primary school work can be done easily while away—it is easier to keep up. I do not suggest that children should be allowed to take two weeks off without parents ensuring that they keep up to date with their work, but I would like to see a much more flexible system.

To make our education system less rigid and more understanding would enhance the relationship with parents. Education relies on parents and guardians—in fact, they are vital. The current law creates a “them and us” mentality, which is the polar opposite of the ethos of “from school to home”, a partnership between parents and teachers. There needs to be much more trust and flexibility. We can introduce a change that is logical and fair, which could be just for primary school level. However, what we must not do is continue with a system that punishes hard-working families and alienates parents.

We must not also forget that this concept can easily be blown out of proportion. We are talking about two weeks to offer children, especially those from poorer backgrounds, an opportunity to have time with their families and be enriched.

The hon. Lady made a good point about 15% to 20% absence. Is she familiar with the DFE report that said:

“The proportions of pupils achieving the expected level stay relatively similar for increasing levels of absence due to authorised family holidays, religious observance and study leave”?

In other words, leave makes precious little difference when we are not talking about 15% to 20% absence.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that. We need further studies on the value of travel and family time. We need to look at the reason for absence.

We must not blow the petition out of proportion. It is only about two weeks’ absence. That is two weeks to offer children, especially from poorer backgrounds, the opportunity to have time with their family and be enriched. As a member of the party that stands for hard-working families and opportunities, I see that proposal as not only the best thing to do, but the right thing to do.

It is a pleasure to give my first Westminster Hall speech under your chairmanship, Mr McCabe. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double) for taking the lead in the debate. The fact that the e-petition has been signed by more than 120,000 people shows the strength of feeling on this subject and the success of the e-petition experiment.

Although I fully support the intent and gist of the e-petition, I have a little concern about its wording, like other hon. Members. To allow all pupils two weeks off would cause chaos and disruption in our schools. I am concerned, as was mentioned earlier, that that could be interpreted as giving a carte blanche entitlement of two weeks off to all parents across the country no matter what the circumstances. I suspect—this is the feeling I have got from the debate—that we are really asking for flexibility, and for headteachers to be given the discretion to decide.

Hon. Members have also mentioned the lack of clarity about exceptional circumstances versus special circumstances, and I think we all agree that further guidance would be appreciated. I am sure we are all interested to hear what the Minister will say about that later on.

The reason why the tighter rules were implemented in the first place was to tackle the burgeoning problem of truancy, partly caused by the persistent and deliberate flouting of the previous rules by a small minority of parents. Truancy was allowed to get completely out of control—so much so that, between autumn 2009 and spring 2010, pupils missed 46 million days of school. That was clearly not acceptable, which is why I support tight regulation, but there is a need for greater flexibility and local discretion when parents truly have no other options.

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Chippenham (Michelle Donelan), I have heard cases of people who work in the armed forces, and it will be no surprise to colleagues who represent constituencies in the south-west that I am concerned about the tourism sector in particular. The situation does not just affect coastal towns and the south-west. I represent Mid Worcestershire, with no coast whatever, where this is an issue as well.

Support for the tourism industry is pivotal, because it is a hugely undervalued sector. Since 2010, one in three new jobs has been in the hospitality, leisure and tourism sector. Tourism contributes £127 billion to our economy and employs more than 3 million people, and that number is growing. This issue will therefore inevitably get bigger, because as more people work in the sector, more people will be affected. It is no exaggeration to say that those who work in the sector are among the hardest-working people in the country, and that is never more the case than during the school holidays, and particularly the summer break.

According to a 2014 study by the Centre for Economics and Business Research, proportionately more people are self-employed in the travel and tourism sector than in the economy as a whole. Many of those people are small business owners running bed and breakfasts, restaurants and shops, and of course many of them will have families.

It goes without saying, therefore, that we would not expect those who work in the holiday industry to go on holiday during their busiest time of the year—we would not expect accountants to go away in the run-up to the tax return deadline in April, a florist to take time off before Valentine’s day or anyone in the retail sector to take a break in December. In most cases, those who run businesses in the tourism sector simply cannot have holidays in late July and August, at Easter, during most half-terms or at Christmas.

It just so happens that the tourism sector’s busiest time is almost every other sector’s downtime. Many who work in the tourism sector are therefore not able to take a family holiday during official school holiday times. They are effectively penalised simply because of their choice to work in that sector. I therefore sincerely hope that flexibility and common sense will prevail. I look forward to the Minister’s response.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr McCabe. I congratulate my right hon. Friend—[Interruption.] I was pre-empting the obvious result of what is happening today. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double) on securing the debate. I agree with a vast amount of what he said, and I suspect that the only thing we will disagree on is my view that North Devon is clearly the best place to spend a holiday.

There is a serious issue prompting me to speak in the debate, and it concerns the importance of the tourism sector in my constituency. On some measures, one in six of all jobs in my constituency depend directly or indirectly on the tourism sector. It is a vital driver of the local economy, and many families work in it. It is out of the question for them to take their family vacation in the school holidays. It is their busiest time; they have to be at work. The introduction of the new guidance in 2013 meant that many of my constituents faced a double whammy—not only their business but their family life is suffering.

That is not just my point of view. I have received, as many colleagues have, a number of emails and letters from constituents who share those concerns. I shall quote a small sample, because they say better than I could what the unintended consequences of the 2013 guidance notes are. One constituent writes:

“I operate a small bed and breakfast business in Woolacombe”—

which is a great place to spend a holiday. He says:

“To date, this year is proving a disaster (with the exception of the school holidays); our family rooms are being left unoccupied …Something needs to be done! Please air the views of the thousands of small operators, in the forthcoming…debate.”

Another correspondent writes:

“We feel strongly the negative effect this legislation has had on our seasonal business in Mortehoe”—

another fantastic place in North Devon in which to spend a holiday. They say:

“Our season is shorter and therefore harder to earn enough for the winter months. Also as parents we are penalised in high costs of…holiday charging by travel companies”

during school holidays. Another constituent writes that

“as a seasonal business”,

the regulations have had

“a negative impact on us; overall we have not been as busy whilst at the same time our peak busy periods have been more frantic, due to many more…bookings, making it harder to staff, manage and run a seasonal business…This has meant a reduction in profits and a reduction in staffing.”

Put bluntly, the guidelines are harming employment in North Devon’s vital tourism sector.

I want to quote a few sentences from a final, longer email, from a gentleman who says that he is writing because he runs

“an outdoor pursuits company which relies on the tourism industry”

and because he is the

“father of a 7 year old, who would like to spend more quality time with her Dad.”

He says that the situation has had

“a major effect on myself, my colleagues and lots of my friends that work in the emergency services…we are really struggling to spend time with our children”,

and the guidance only makes things worse. That is a small sample of the emails and letters I have received, and I am sure that colleagues will have had much the same.

I am sure that, as others have said, the intent of the 2013 guidance was good. Of course we should encourage parents to ensure that their children attend school, but I question some of the assumptions that led to the issuing of the guidelines. To delve further, I have dug out the 2013 explanatory memorandum. Much is made of the guidance and advice received by a respected adviser, Charlie Taylor. He was then the Government adviser on school behaviour, and he issued guidance in 2012. The explanatory memorandum to the Education (Pupil Registration) (England) (Amendment) Regulations 2013 and the Education (Penalty Notices) (England) (Amendment) Regulations 2013 said:

“Charlie Taylor noted that if children are taken away for a two-week holiday every year and have an average number of days off for sickness and appointments, then by the time they leave school at sixteen”—

across their whole academic career—

“they will have missed a year of school.”

It is never the intention of any parent who takes their child away to do the same thing year after year for all 13 years of their child’s academic career. That advice is unfairly burdening parents with a view that they simply do not take. If the Government made their 2013 decision on the basis of it, I ask them to look at it again. I do not think any parent intends to take their child away for that length of time every year.

The word “flexibility” has been mentioned, and there has also been mention of interpretation. That is what it all comes down to. Schools and parents have been misguided in interpreting the arrangements to mean that there is no flexibility. Clearly, there is an intention of flexibility in the guidelines. I am sure the Minister will confirm that it was not intended that schools, teachers, headteachers and local education authorities should be told there was no flexibility at all. We need to get the message across to them and to governing bodies; I was a school governor myself. They need to understand that they have flexibility, which is built into the system but which they do not take advantage of at the moment.

Would my hon. Friend add Ofsted to that list? I believe that part of the problem is that at times Ofsted takes a much more legalistic view of the guidance than headteachers do.

My hon. Friend makes his point powerfully, and I am sure the Minister will have taken note.

I hope that one other result of airing the issue today will be that holiday companies will be shamed into not charging such vastly inflated prices during school holidays. I have done a little work and will cite just one example of what has been widely reported in the media. A package holiday to Spain for a family of two adults and two children cost £1,300 if it began on 14 July; but if the same holiday—with identical flights and accommodation— began just two weeks later, when the school holidays had begun, it was a shade under £2,000. That is a 60% mark-up. That would not be allowed in any other retail business, and up with that we should not put.

There is one other reason why I am very pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay secured the debate, and it has been mentioned before: in my view, the best people to decide what is best for children are not the Government, politicians or MPs. They are the parents. If the parents decide that it will do their child good to take them out of school for a few days to go on a family holiday, they should be given the right to do so without being penalised.

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

On resuming—

[Mr David Hanson in the Chair]

Mr Hanson, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the remainder of the debate. That was a quick reshuffle.

Before the Division bell rang, I was talking about the belief that the best people to decide what is best for children are not politicians, Ministers or Members of Parliament, but parents. I fundamentally agree with that, but there must be a compact—a deal—between parents and teachers. Teachers also have an extraordinarily important part to play in this equation. Many headteachers get the point that I and many hon. Members on both sides of the debate have been making, which is that some flexibility is already built into the system, but for some reason, many people do not realise that they are able to make flexible decisions, or they just need the certainty of an assurance.

I was very pleased to welcome to Westminster, 10 days ago, a group of children from a primary school in my constituency. I had this discussion with the headteacher, and she absolutely got it; she said to me that she uses the flexibility that she has, which is built into the system, to allow children to have authorised absences from school for a few days at a time for a good, worthwhile and valuable family holiday. She is one headteacher who does that, and I would be very pleased to work with the Minister, in whatever way would be appropriate, to make sure that all headteachers of all schools understand the situation. Through no fault of their own, there is unfortunately a gulf in some headteachers’ understanding of what they are allowed to do at the moment.

I want to work to ensure that all teachers understand the true position, because teachers in North Devon, and indeed throughout our country, do absolutely fantastic work. I do not want to do anything to make their life any more difficult than it already is, and I understand the arguments about lesson planning and teaching having to be changed as a result of some children taking time off, so we need to work together on this one. However, let us ensure—I am sure that the Minister will address this point—that headteachers know that they have the flexibility.

It is absolutely right, of course, that the Government have a duty to encourage parents to ensure that their children have full academic attendance and a full school record, but it is a matter of how that is enforced. There must be some carrot and some stick, and 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.

I conclude by saying that I am sure the regulations were well intended. My fear is that there are unintended consequences that perhaps could not have been foreseen at the time—although we could argue that maybe they should have been—and they are having a serious impact on families in North Devon, whose only crime is to want to take a holiday when they can, at a reasonable price, because they believe it will be good for their children in the long run and because they want to have quality time with their children. It is a well intended piece of guidance, but I fear that in its interpretation, and in the lack of flexibility that is being applied to its interpretation in some quarters, it is having unintended consequences. I hope I can work on that with the Minister to try to put it right.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the rest of this debate, Mr Hanson. I also thank the hon. Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double) for introducing the debate; excellent points have been made throughout it.

The petition was brought about as a result of regulations that were first laid before Parliament on 4 April 2013. They went through Parliament on the nod, but fortunately constituents have a mechanism through which they can express concerns. Once again, we have to commend the e-petition process for bringing constituents closer to the workings of Parliament. It is a far cry from the modern processes in Holyrood—but I will leave the intricate details of modernising this House’s parliamentary procedures to more experienced Members.

Making sure pupils are included, engaged and involved in their education is fundamental to achievement and attainment in school, and ultimately to the economic prosperity of both the child and the nation. It is important that schools and parents continue to do all they can to ensure good attendance. We know that the impact of non-attendance at school and non-engagement with learning significantly increases the likelihood of young people leaving school and not going on to further education, employment or training.

I appreciate the concerns that many parents have about the rising costs of package holidays as soon as schools shut down for the summer. That is why the Scottish Government back the lowering and eventual scrapping of air passenger duty; it will benefit thousands of families across Scotland and allow cheaper holidays during school holidays. However, it is not only the tour operators who capitalise on the sudden demand created by a six-week window to spend time with our children; suddenly, we see the cost of car hire, holiday parks and recreational facilities all jump for the holiday. As we have heard, we must recognise that modern living is complex. The value of a family holiday should not be underestimated, whether taken at home or abroad.

In our busy modern world, families need to make a concerted effort to make time for one another. The days of workplaces closing down for trades fortnights are long gone, and many families shuffle shift patterns and annual leave to cover school runs and the various school holidays. Many mums and dads are like ships that pass in the night, juggling work commitments and childcare. Cost is not always the main factor when parents are making decisions about withdrawing their child from school for some family time. As has been mentioned, it should be noted that holidays can sometimes in themselves be a learning experience. The categorisation of most term-time holidays as unauthorised absence has been a contentious issue for some families. If we have no control over the pricing decisions of holiday companies or flight operators, our main focus must be to encourage parents and pupils to recognise the value of learning and the pitfalls of disrupting learning for the pupil, the rest of the class and the teacher.

It is for schools and education authorities to judge what sanctions, if any, they wish to apply to unauthorised absence due to holidays. I hope that common sense would prevail in those circumstances. Family holidays should not be recorded as authorised absence except in exceptional domestic circumstances, where a family needs time together to recover from distress or where the nature of a parent’s employment means that school holiday leave cannot be accommodated—for example, when parents are in the armed services or, indeed, when parents spend their weekdays here in Parliament, where English school holidays are accommodated but Scottish school holidays are not.

The Scottish Government are not keen on parents taking children out of school during term time. Their attendance guidelines say that schools will not normally give permission unless there are exceptional circumstances. In Scotland, local authorities hold the power to act against parents. As has been mentioned, regional variations can work. It should be for local authorities and schools to judge when those circumstances apply and authorise absence accordingly. It is a concern that in the last academic year alone, more than 50,000 penalty notices were issued in England because of children being taken out of lessons for trips. The areas with the highest number of penalty notices include some of the most deprived in the country. We need to ask ourselves this question: do we really want to be causing additional hardship to struggling families who merely seek a better work-life balance?

It is a pleasure to serve for the first time in a debate under your chairmanship, Mr Hanson. This has been a lively, interesting, timely and useful debate. First, I thank the campaigners and petitioners whose efforts led to this debate in Westminster Hall today. People feel passionately about this issue, and it is right and proper that we spend time thinking through how best to respond to the heartfelt concerns of people who feel that the current Government’s policy on term-time holidays has been detrimental to their family life or their relationship with their children’s school.

I know from personal experience of running a college that there is a strong relationship between attendance and achievement. That is why education maintenance allowances were so transformational in impacting on students’ performance; they incentivised attendance and thereby transformed attainment. It should go without saying that all children should aim for 100% attendance and that any absence from school is to be regretted and therefore discouraged. That is why I applaud all those children up and down the land who are achieving high levels of attendance and why headteachers and their teams should be congratulated on the work that they do day in, day out to encourage and celebrate high levels of attendance.

However, this is not a simple issue. Would that it were. It is rather complicated. That is why it is helpful that we are having this debate today. A pretty tough approach to attendance was in place up to September 2013. That gave headteachers the discretion to allow up to 10 days’ absence from school if they felt that the circumstances warranted it. I have not seen any evidence to demonstrate that headteachers were failing to use that discretion effectively. After all, headteachers are pretty hard-headed individuals who are well aware of the relationship between attendance and achievement. They know the families and parents of their pupils better than any Secretary of State and are capable of using discretion sensibly. They are accountable to their communities through published results and Ofsted inspections. It is not in their interests to abuse the discretion entrusted to them. The hon. Member for North Cornwall (Scott Mann) was right to underline in his contribution the importance of headteachers in this decision-making process.

There was a very useful and interesting exchange between the hon. Members for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter) and for Southport (John Pugh) on the relationship between types of absence and impacts on achievement—how the impact on achievement depends on the type of absence. The hon. Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich is undoubtedly right to say that there is a relationship between longer periods of absence and an impact on performance. However, the hon. Member for Southport was right to remind us of the evidence published by the Department for Education in 2011. That analysis of performance at key stage 2 concluded that the likelihood of pupils achieving the expected key stage 2 level differs greatly not only according to the amount of absence accrued, but according to the different reasons behind the absences. The proportions of pupils achieving the expected level stay relatively similar for increasing levels of absence due to authorised family holidays, religious observances and study leave. However, long-term absences due to exclusions or illnesses tend to be associated with significantly lower proportions of pupils achieving the expected level.

The policy existing up to 2013 appears to have changed, as the hon. Member for North Devon (Peter Heaton-Jones) said in his helpful contribution, after work by the Government’s expert adviser on behaviour in his review of attendance. However, that review looks primarily into the issues around serious and persistent absence, does not appear to have drawn on evidence from parents or children themselves and contains no reference to academic sources.

The hon. Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double), whom I commend for getting the debate off to a very good start, made the telling point that when the statutory instrument was considered, the impact assessment basically said that there was no impact, although we have heard in contributions by hon. Members from across the House and particularly from St Ives and other parts of Cornwall and Devon that there is a clear impact that they can observe in their communities and that information on that has been shared with them.

I first became aware of the change in policy and the difficulties that the change was causing when I was contacted by a local primary school headteacher who was concerned about a letter that she had received from North Lincolnshire Council stipulating the following:

“The amendments from this month make it clear that head teachers may not grant any leave of absence during term time unless there are exceptional circumstances. Unfortunately, there is no definition, nor are there any examples provided, in relation to exceptional circumstances. However, the word ‘exceptional’ would imply that leave in term time should be granted only on rare occasions where the head teacher believes this is justified.”

I took the matter up with the then Under-Secretary at the DFE who is now the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. She wrote back to me to say:

“We changed the regulations because it was necessary that we addressed the widespread misconception about term time holidays. Over the years, some schools and parents interpreted the previous law to mean that parents were entitled to two weeks holiday during term time. This led to some pressure on headteachers to grant holidays during term time. This led to some parents booking holidays when it was convenient and putting pressure on headteachers to grant their request to take their children out of school. There was never an entitlement for parents to take their children out of school during term for a holiday, and this has always been at the discretion of the headteacher.”

The hon. Member for Mid Worcestershire (Nigel Huddleston) was right to underline the fact that there should never be any sense of entitlement to time off. Of course that would be completely wrong. However, I have never picked up from headteachers that there was ever any sense of that under the previous regulations; nor have I seen any evidence to support the contention in this letter, which goes on to say:

“Headteachers will retain this discretion to grant leave, but they may only do so in exceptional circumstances. Headteachers must consider each request on its own merits.”

Everything hinges on the interpretation of “exceptional”. Is it exceptional, if parents work in industries in which access to holiday is severely limited—as we have heard, that is the case in the tourism industry in Cornwall and Devon, for example—and does not match the child’s holiday time, for the child to miss some school time to access a family holiday? Is it exceptional to attend the funeral of a family member? Is it exceptional to attend a family wedding? We could go on asking such questions ad nauseam. The Minister is smiling; I am sure that he has thought of even more questions.

It is clear to me that no headteacher worth their salt would encourage children to take time off—quite the opposite. Such a headteacher knows the relationship between attendance and achievement and wants all their children to achieve 100% attendance. The change in rules has meant that headteachers have less discretion than they had, however, and they were initially less confident about how to apply the changed regulations. That has led to an increase in situations in which headteachers and parents have come into conflict, as we all know from our postbags. In some circumstances, it may well have resulted in families being unable to respond to a family situation as constructively as they would have wished. In other circumstances, it has clearly resulted in a rise in truancy with parental support, which is a very bad thing.

Among the 98 councils that responded to a recent survey about the number of fixed penalty notices issued, there has been a rise from 32,512 in 2012-13 to 62,204 in 2013-14 to even more last year. These statistics are of concern, because they represent a growing problem with school attendance that needs to be addressed. Parents being lured into thinking of going on holidays in term time for no other reason than the availability of better deals from holiday companies does not represent a good reason for a headteacher to use any discretion they have, and it is certainly not exceptional circumstances. Any request from parents to take advantage of cheap deals should be firmly rejected under whatever regulations are in place. However, some scrutiny should fall on holiday companies, as hon. Members have said strongly during the debate, to encourage them to look again at their pricing mechanisms. They should not be, inadvertently or otherwise, encouraging truancy.

Schools, parents and children themselves want children to achieve their very best. All the evidence shows a strong relationship between attendance and achievement, but the subject is complex. As the hon. Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Corri Wilson) emphasised in her perceptive contribution, real people lead complicated lives with complicated relationships. Headteachers need the discretion to use their knowledge of children, families and parents to make the right decisions to maximise achievement while supporting families.

Given the high level of concern expressed in the petition and echoed in the debate, it would be helpful if the Education Committee—I saw its Chair, the hon. Member for Stroud (Neil Carmichael), here earlier in the debate—were to undertake a thorough inquiry into the evidence on attendance policy. The Committee could look at how the policy operated prior to September 2013, and at the impact of the changes that were made at that time. As my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Melanie Onn) pointed out, the National Association of Head Teachers surveyed its members on the matter, 90% of whom said that they would welcome more detailed guidance from Government on what constitutes exceptional circumstances. Is the Minister considering developing and issuing such guidance? Does he agree that the recent decision by magistrates has driven a coach and horses through the Government’s approach to term-time holidays and school absence? What conclusions does the Minister draw from that, and what action will he take to remedy the situation?

Finally, we all know how important family holidays are, and it is invidious that price hikes during the school holidays make family holidays unaffordable for many. What has the Minister got to say to holiday companies who put parents in such a difficult position by hiking up prices by thousands of pounds, as we have heard in the debate, during the school holidays?

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the very first time, Mr Hanson. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double) on securing this debate on a subject that is close to his heart. We met in July to discuss these very issues. I also thank the Family Holiday Association and the Parents Union for their briefing on the matter.

I am pleased that this debate gives me the opportunity to set out the Government’s position and to hear other colleagues’ views. We have had an interesting debate, with powerful speeches from my hon. Friends who represent some of the most beautiful parts of the country, including my hon. Friends the Members for Chippenham (Michelle Donelan), for Mid Worcestershire (Nigel Huddleston), for North Cornwall (Scott Mann), for North Devon (Peter Heaton-Jones), for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter) and for Stroud (Neil Carmichael). We also heard from the hon. Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Corri Wilson).

We are talking about an important issue. It is part of our objective of pursuing social justice. All our education reforms are about social justice and about ensuring that every child, whatever their background, benefits from an excellent education, so that they have a chance to succeed in the modern and demanding economy that Britain has become. That is what our behaviour policy is all about. It is what our reforms to the curriculum are all about. It is what our focus on phonics in the early teaching of reading in primary school is all about. It is what ensuring that all children, regardless of their background and regardless of geography, attend school regularly is all about.

I listened carefully to the argument made by my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay about the impact on the tourism industry in Cornwall of our objective of ensuring that all children attend school regularly. I want to start by clarifying what the 2013 regulatory changes actually change. There is a widespread misunderstanding that before 2013, parents were entitled to take their children out of school for a holiday. That was not the case, and it never has been. The amendments to the law in 2013 simply clarify the position. Previously, as the hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin) has said, headteachers were able to grant leave for the purpose of family holiday in “special circumstances” for up to 10 school days per year, and longer in other circumstances. That was, however, being interpreted as a right to take two weeks off every year, which has never been the case. We wanted to clarify the legal position to make it clear that it is not the case that every person has a right to take their child out of school on a term-time holiday. Even before 2013, it was not the case.

I understand that in some areas of the country with seasonal industries, whether agriculture, horticulture or tourism, there are particular challenges. We are currently reforming education in this country to create a school-led system, so that decisions can be made close to home, reflecting local needs. Therefore, schools and local authorities in the south-west have a clear role to play in supporting the tourism industry, without compromising children’s attendance at school.

If parents and schools want different term dates, we encourage them to discuss that with their local authority. Academies, foundation schools, voluntary-aided schools and foundation special schools can, even now, set their own term dates. As of January 2014, some 76% of secondary schools and 35% of primary schools, educating some 52% of all registered pupils, already had responsibility for their own term and holiday dates. That does not have to involve massive restructuring. This year, schools in Reading returned for the autumn term on 8 September, and next year they will close for the summer holiday on 26 July. Similarly, the David Young community academy in Leeds operates seven terms, or blocks. That enables parents to take their children on holiday outside the expensive peak holiday season. Although it is at an early stage, another example of innovation is Visit Cornwall’s development of a proposal for a family enrichment week for early years and primary schools in the spring of each year. It strikes me that Cornwall provides a perfect example of a situation where the local industry should prompt schools and local authorities to change their term dates so that families who work in the tourism industry can take their own holidays outside of the peak season. These examples show that measures can be taken to address the needs of a local tourism industry, while ensuring that children stay in school.

Keeping children in school is crucial for achieving our aim of educational excellence everywhere. Evidence shows that pupils with no absence from school during key stage 2—in primary school—are over four and a half times more likely to reach level 5 or above at the end of primary school than pupils who missed 15% to 20% of school time. The outcomes are similar at key stage 4, where pupils with no absence are nearly three times more likely to achieve five A to C grades in their GCSEs, including English and maths, and around 10 times more likely to achieve the English baccalaureate range of GCSEs than pupils missing between 15% and 20% of school time across key stage 4.

When evidence attests to the benefits of good school attendance so clearly, parents have a duty to ensure that their children attend school regularly. No one in the Department for Education says that holidays are not enriching experiences—of course they are—but schools are in session for 190 out of 365 days a year, leaving 175 days in a year in which parents can take their children away on holiday.

My hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall made a thoughtful speech. I listened carefully to what he said, but I do not accept that two weeks in each year of a child’s education is a drop in the ocean. As my hon. Friend the Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich pointed out, even one week away from school in a year can make a significant difference. Some 44% of pupils with no absence achieve the English baccalaureate range of GCSEs, but the figure falls by a quarter to just 31.7% for pupils who miss up to 14 days of lessons over the two years in which they study for their GCSEs. My hon. Friend the Member for North Devon quoted Charlie Taylor, the Government’s expert adviser on behaviour. In his 2012 report “Improving attendance at school”, Charlie Taylor calculated that if children are taken away for a two-week holiday during term time every year and have an average number of days off for sickness and appointments, by the time they leave school at 16 they will have missed a year of school. It is for that reason that I cannot support the request set out in the petition.

My hon. Friend the Member for North Devon said that no parent would use the two weeks of flexible term-time holidays every year, but he cannot guarantee that. We have heard powerful arguments about how important it is for parents to be able to take their children out of school; those arguments apply each and every year to all the pupils that that argument is deemed to affect. Instead, I encourage headteachers to use every measure they can to ensure that children attend school. Charlie Taylor found that the best schools work with parents to improve attendance and offer a wide range of support to help parents to get their children to school. If that is not successful, headteachers can, as a last resort, issue parents with a penalty notice or take them to court.

Criminal prosecution can result in fines of up to £2,500 and possible imprisonment. In 2012-13, about 52,000 penalty notices were issued. The number of prosecutions also increased in that period, but these measures have resulted in significant progress in reducing absence. Now 200,000 fewer pupils regularly miss school compared with five years ago—down from 433,100 in 2010. Overall, the absence rate is down from 6% in 2009 to 4.4% in the 2013-14 academic year, which means that 14.5 million fewer school days were lost to overall absence as a result of the combination of policies that we have introduced over the past five years. Some 3 million school days are lost due to holidays, and that figure is down significantly; 2.3 million more teaching days are happening as a result of clamping down on unauthorised term-time holidays. We should be proud of that if we believe that every child should have the opportunity of a first-rate start in life.

Headteachers continue to have discretion to approve term-time leave, but should only do so in exceptional circumstances. Many of my hon. Friends, including my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas), have called for more guidance. The National Association of Head Teachers published guidance in October, which made it clear that:

“If an event can reasonably be scheduled outside of term time then it would not be normal to authorise absence.”

It went on to say that children may need time away from school to visit a seriously ill relative or to attend the funeral service of a family member. However, term-time holidays and visiting family members abroad are not considered by the NAHT to be exceptional circumstances and it says that they should be scheduled only for holiday periods or outside of school hours.

My hon. Friend the Member for Chippenham raised the example of a family going through very difficult circumstances and wanting time off as a family, a request that was refused by the school. The NAHT guidance says:

“Absences to visit family members are also not normally granted during term time if they could be scheduled for holiday periods or outside school hours. Children may however need time to visit seriously ill relatives.”

I just want to check whether the Minister is commending the NAHT guidance to headteachers as a point of reference? He is drawing good attention to it.

Yes. The whole essence of our education reforms is to hand back more power to the teaching profession. It makes absolute sense for teachers and headteachers to rely on the guidance produced by the NAHT. The introduction to the guidance states:

“Term times are for education. This is the priority. Children and families have 175 days off school to spend time together, including weekends and school holidays.”

That is the NAHT’s view and we think that it is correct.

Will the Minister clarify something? Although, in theory, families have 175 days a year to be together, some people work in tourism or other industries in which they cannot take time off during those times. Would he consider such a situation to be an exceptional case, where headteachers would be right in granting a holiday?

That is a matter for the discretion of the headteacher. In such a situation, I would commend, as the hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin) intimated, looking at the NAHT guidance. If we are talking about a whole industry across a large geographical area, employing many millions of people, the best approach would be to use the term-time flexibilities to change the school term times to take into account the particular industries of that part of the country.

I take on board what the Minister says. Does he remember that he recently wrote to me saying that the Department had consulted educational authorities, which had rejected this idea saying that they thought it was unworkable?

My hon. Friend is a powerful advocate of the case he is making. I have every confidence that he will apply that advocacy locally as well as he is doing in this debate. I hope that he will have more success with the local authority than has been achieved so far.

My hon. Friend the Member for St Ives raised the issue of the cost of holidays. He spoke of the period at the end of the summer term, when teaching might be reduced in some schools. If his argument is that all children should be allowed to be off school during the last two weeks of the summer term, holiday prices, supply and demand would of course be affected by the mass use of that time across the country.

We know that holidays can be important and enriching experiences, but so too is school. Although we recognise the difficulties faced by some parents in taking a holiday at particular times of the year, disrupting their children’s education is not the answer. Pupils need continuity in their education. A good curriculum is planned sequentially, with knowledge building upon knowledge. Missing a step in such a sequence can cause a pupil to fall back, with pupils often finding it hard to catch up. A two-week holiday might mean that a pupil misses out on the lessons in which their teacher explains long division, long multiplication, fractions, Newton’s second law or Ordnance Survey six-figure grid references.

I remind hon. Members that the NAHT guidance makes it clear that there are many circumstances that it would regard as exceptional, such as where children

“need…to visit seriously ill relatives.”

The guidance says that absence for a bereavement of a close family friend is usually considered an exceptional circumstance, as are

“Absences for important religious observances… Schools may wish to take the needs of the families of service personnel into account if they are returning from long operational tours that prevent contact during scheduled holiday time. Schools have a duty to make reasonable adjustments for students with special educational needs”.

Point 10 of the guidance states:

“Families may need time together to recover from trauma or crisis.”

The NAHT guidance lists carefully constructed exceptional circumstances that cover many of the issues raised by hon. Members in this important debate.

We encourage all parents and schools that want different term dates to discuss the matter with their local authority or, in other cases, directly with their children’s schools. If more schools and authorities, such as the David Young community academy or Reading local authority, vary their holiday and term times, access to holidays outside of the more expensive holiday season will become increasingly common for parents.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay, and other hon. Members, for raising the issue of term-time leave. He has raised some important concerns, and I hope he is happy that the Government have heard those concerns, both today and in our previous meetings. I hope he will understand that our overarching objective is to improve the life chances of the most disadvantaged children in this country. I also hope he will accept that many of his objectives can be achieved by using local discretion to set term dates.

I will say a few brief words. First, I thank everyone who signed the public petition that led to this debate—all 120,000 of them. I am grateful for all the encouragement that I have received from many members of the public since saying that I wanted to lead this debate. I thank all the members of the public who came and sat through this debate, particularly those representing Parents Want a Say, the Family Holiday Association and whoever else is here—sorry, but I cannot remember all of them. I am grateful for their interest and support.

I am sure that one thing on which we all agree is that children across our nation should have the very best opportunities in life. Education is clearly at the centre of that, but so are parents. Every parent I know wants the very best for their child. I am disappointed that we do not seem to have persuaded the Minister to reconsider the policy. I still believe that, as well intended as the policy was when it was introduced—I support and agree with the aim of getting as many children into school as possible, and with the social justice motive behind that—the introduction of the measure has had unintended consequences. The impact on our economy and on wider family life was not foreseen.

I have considered some of the proposals for addressing term-time leave. Personally, I do not believe that staggering term times in the way the Minister suggests is the way to achieve that. The feedback I have received from various sources is that many people agree that such a proposal is not workable.

The Minister said towards the end of his contribution that the policy is all about helping disadvantaged children, but the burden of the debate did not suggest that the parents of disadvantaged children are particularly the parents who are having difficulty with the regulation.

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. Unfortunately, by seeking to address one issue, a completely different set of people are being penalised. We have heard that only 8% of unauthorised school absences are for family holidays. The policy therefore affects only a small number of the families involved in the school attendance problem that we have sought to address.

I ask the Department for Education to reconsider the policy in the light of what we now know to be its impact. If the impact had been assessed correctly when the measures were introduced in 2013, and if the family test had been in place—it is unfortunate that the family test came into effect 12 months after the changes were made—a slightly different conclusion might have been reached. However, I will leave that with the Minister. I look forward to an ongoing debate on this issue in the months ahead, and I thank every Member for their support and their contributions to this very good debate.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered an e-petition relating to term-time leave from school for holiday.

Sitting adjourned.