Family holidays during term-time accounted for 2.5 million lost school days in the first four months of this school year. Only illness was a greater cause of absence, but most of these holidays were taken with the school's approval: three-quarters were authorised by heads. But should schools be doing more to discourage term-time holidays?
National guidelines permit schools to grant up to 10 days' term-time holiday for each pupil, providing there are "special reasons" to do so. But what is a "special reason"? A family wedding? A grand tour of European art galleries? A too-good-to-miss deal with Ryanair or easyJet?
In the end, it comes down to the views of individual heads. Some take a hard-line, arguing that allowing time off sends a message that school is unimportant. Others are more sympathetic, pointing out that families who holiday in term time are usually motivated by economic necessity, not contempt for learning.
Kathryn Coiffait, headteacher at the Gates Primary School in Bolton, understands the problems families can face, having once had to request permission to take her own child out of school because term dates in the neighbouring authority did not match her own. She takes a reasoned approach and judges all requests against school policy.
"We ask parents to try their very best to take holidays out of term time, but we know this isn't always possible," she says. "However, we only authorise absence for children whose attendance is 92 per cent or better, and never during test periods or at the beginning of the school year."
Statistics show that term-time holidays are twice as common at primary level as secondary, suggesting parents see time off as more acceptable for younger children. "It is a mistake to think that way," says Mrs Coiffait.
"Primary school lays the foundations and it is not always easy to catch up. Tagging an extra week on to an existing holiday means children can be away from school a long time and forget important things."
Working closely with parents and having a clear policy is important. Otherwise you risk term-time holidays becoming an epidemic. "In some schools they account for 30-40 per cent of all absences," says attendance expert Professor Ken Reid of Swansea Metropolitan University.
That kind of situation puts pressure on teachers who have to set work for children or help them to catch up. "I have taught in schools where it has been out of hand," says supply teacher Claire Jerath. "The week before half-term you might have a quarter of the class away - it becomes difficult to motivate those who are left."
Unfortunately, if parents are determined to take their children on holiday, it is difficult to stop them. Professor Reid says that the number of parents fined for taking their children away without permission has doubled in the past three years, while a recent survey by Teletext Holidays found that 46 per cent of parents were prepared to take their children out of school to get cheaper holidays. And among those who had already done so, one in six had lied about the reason for the absence.
With Ofsted scrutinising schools' absence figures, some heads admit that there is pressure to authorise holidays if they think a refusal will be ignored.
"Sometimes you know that parents have already made up their minds," says one secondary head. "At least if you give permission it goes down as an authorised absence, not an unauthorised one."
Professor Reid acknowledges the problem. He believes that holiday absences should be recorded separately from other absence statistics - a policy being introduced in Wales from September. "That way schools aren't punished for something beyond their control," he argues. "As long as holidays are cheaper in term time, there will always be parents looking to save money."
WHAT TO DO
- Do not allow holidays at key times of the academic year.
- Set out a clear policy - and stick to it. If you make exceptions, word will get around.
- Make term-time holidays dependent on a good overall attendance record.
- Parents should apply for permission in writing. Reply promptly giving reasons for your decision.