Whispers from Westminster

19th February 2016 at 00:00
Let’s take a break from term-time holiday fines

Imagine that you were an economics teacher (statistically, a few of you will be). You’ve set your class this task: you can purchase a service on one day for £888 or you can purchase it the following week for £1,550. If you buy it for the lower price, you also have to pay a fine of £120. Which do you do? This is a no-brainer – you purchase it on the first day, pay the fine, and still bank a huge saving.

Now imagine this saving applied to about 90 per cent of cases. Your class would conclude that this fine would have zero impact on shifting purchasing decisions.

So at the end of this half-term week, in which many families will have gone away, let’s talk about fining parents who take holidays in term time. It doesn’t work, does it?

The figures I’ve cited above are the prices for an identical stay at a UK holiday park for sequential weeks. The only difference is that the second one is in the summer holidays.

I get why schools are irritated when children aren’t there to learn. I get that it’s disruptive. And I get why the government thinks it’s helping schools by imposing national fines, rather than leaving it to heads’ discretion. But it doesn’t work.

First, it doesn’t change the financial calculation: 90 per cent of term-time holidays are still cheaper even with the fine (£60 per child per week). Even if the fine were doubled, it would be cheaper 14 per cent of the time. The fine would have to treble before we reached parity.

Second, it places more pressure on heads, because they are seen as being the enforcers for this policy, and, ultimately, the ones who report parents to the authorities.

And third, it’s unpopular: 166,000 people secured a parliamentary debate last year in protest at high prices, and 55 per cent of adults think that term-time holidays can be justified on cost grounds (with 33 per cent against).

There has been a huge expansion in fines – more than 86,000 in 2014-15, up from 32,000 in 2012-13. So the system is being used. But the numbers also show it isn’t working.

Now, before my fellow columnist Tom Bennett starts pounding on me for tacitly endorsing middle-class versions of poor pupil behaviour, I’m not. I wouldn’t take my kids out of school in term time. But I can make that choice. I earn more than the median wage, and neither I nor my wife work awkward shift patterns, making that decision easier.

In a rarely used phrase, I agree with both the Local Government Association and the NUT teaching union. This rigid system doesn’t actually do anything except discriminate against the poor. It stops termtime holidays among some, and mildly inconveniences others, all the while making everyone angry. Let’s take a break from this system, please.

Jonathan Simons is a former head of education in the Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit under Gordon Brown and David Cameron

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