MILLIONS of school days are being lost as children are taken on term-time holidays, leaving heads who crack down on the problem with inflated unauthorised absence figures.
A truancy sweep in the Manchester area uncovered a family about to go on holiday who had telephoned the school from the airport to say their child was sick and unable to attend lessons.
Last year around 50,000 school days were lost to term-time holidays in Tameside, just one of the Greater Manchester education authorities.
The example of the airport call and the Tameside figures came to light at a recent meeting of the Association of Education Welfare Management's executive. Its members plan to raise the issue at their annual conference in May.They want to lobby ministers, headteachers and the travel industry over what they feel is a growing problem.
Last week, Education Secretary Estelle Morris called on parents to take more responsibility for their children's attendance and behaviour, endorsing similar comments made by Mike Tomlinson, the chief inspector.
His annual report for the Office for Standards in Education revealed that 80 per cent of absences were condoned by parents.
Tameside has been campaigning locally to highlight the educational implications of absence, and its rates are better than the national averages. But Cherry Platt, its principal education welfare officer, found one 950-pupil secondary lost more than 2,000 days to holidays. Another recorded 764 lost half-days around the time of GCSE exams.
"The Government needs to give us a lead. This problem is growing. Exams and education are the only way pupils are going to get choices. If you take them out of school, you are not doing them any favours," she said.
St Mary's Church of England primary in Droylsden, Tameside, has a strict policy of marking term-time holiday absence as unauthorised unless parents cannot go any other time because of work commitments.
The policy, backed up in letters home and the prospectus, has helped reduce the figure, but head Ian Spencer reckons term-time holidays still make up at least half of the school's total absence rate.
"Parents tend to go for the cheaper option, which is understandable but not helpful, because pupils miss whole sections of work - particularly with numeracy and literacy being divided into small segments," he said.
"We are pretty strict about it, although it does mean our unauthorised absence figures go up. It might look better to authorise (holiday) absence, but it doesn't send out the right messages."
Sean Tipton, a spokesman for the Association of British Travel Agents, said a six-term year could give parents more choice about the times of the year they take children on holiday.
But the commercial facts of life mean holidays will remain cheaper during term-time until LEAs stagger holiday dates, he warned.
"If you have more people going away at the same time, then prices rise - it's classic supply and demand."