Avoiding hurricane season and saving £1,500 - how term time holiday fines are still dividing parents and schools

Lynne and Sam Linay, pictured with their daughters, were fined for taking their children out of scho

Lynne and Sam Linay, pictured with their daughters, were fined for taking their children out of school during term time. Picture: Antony Kelly - Credit: copyright ARCHANT 2017

It's a divisive issue which can put cash-strapped parents and hard-working teachers at odds. Lauren Cope and Luke Powell look at whether the penalty system for term time holidays is fair - or working.

For parents fighting to make ends meet, saving thousands of pounds with a break in school time is enticing - even if it results in a court date.

It's as understandable as teachers' frustration at having to help children who are suddenly a fortnight behind their peers to catch up.

Debate over term-time holidays simmers on – pushed into the spotlight in 2015 by a father's high-profile case which made it to the Supreme Court.

Despite the ruling - that parents can be prosecuted for the absences – with decisions left in headteachers' hands and differing council guidelines, it is a system which has been labelled a 'mess'.

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Now, a headteacher in Norfolk says he may consider ignoring the current system, which he says doesn't deter parents.

It comes as Norfolk County Council alters its guidelines to reflect the ruling – advising schools to refer parents for a fixed penalty notice (FPN) on their 10th missed school session.

Andrew and Tracey Buckett with their children Thomas, 10, Jess, 13, and Noah, 7. Picture : ANTONY KE

Andrew and Tracey Buckett with their children Thomas, 10, Jess, 13, and Noah, 7. Picture : ANTONY KELLY - Credit: copyright ARCHANT 2017

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It would mean if a child is off from Monday morning, a referral could be issued at the start of the session on the Friday afternoon - so parents could not take five consecutive days off.

Paul Stanley, headteacher at Taverham Junior School, described the existing system as a 'mess', which fractures parent-teacher relationships and creates more work for staff.

He said he hopes to speak to colleagues at other schools in the Taverham cluster to discuss whether to drop the system.

'The problem I have is that adopting the guidelines consistently, which may seem fair, is actually not when considering the different circumstances of children and families,' he said.

'It takes away human decision-making. We need to have some flexibility rather than a sledgehammer approach of applying guidelines to every case, which is why we may look at whether to embrace the fines system next year.'

He spoke out after unsuccessfully trying to stop a father being fined by the council for an FPN he initially issued.

Taverham Junior School headteacher Paul Stanley. Picture: Antony Kelly

Taverham Junior School headteacher Paul Stanley. Picture: Antony Kelly - Credit: � ARCHANT NORFOLK PHOTOGRAPHI

'There does seem to be a contradiction,' he said. 'You are told that everything is down to the headteacher and that we make the decision [to issue a fine].

'But if you want to review that decision, in light of new evidence, you find you can't. It's a mess.'

Mr Stanley was referring to father-of-three Andrew Buckett, from Drayton, who will appear in court today after taking his three children to Portugal last October, saving £1,500.

While Nightingale Infant School gave him permission, Taverham Junior and High Schools didn't. When Mr Stanley was told Mr Buckett's son has learning difficulties and does not cope well with large crowds or heat, he tried to reverse his referral.

A spokesman for the council said it can only withdraw fines if cases meet a strict criteria, which Mr Buckett's did not.

It is a topic which often splits parents – in a survey on our website asking parents whether they should be able to take children out during term time earlier this year, 72pc of parents – 1,584 – said yes and 28pc, 616, said no.

Picture: Barry Batchelor/PA Wire

Picture: Barry Batchelor/PA Wire - Credit: PA

The council's guidelines have traditionally advised schools to refer parents for a FPN on the 10th missed school session.

With two sessions each day, it means a referral could be issued on the afternoon on the fifth day.

But when Isle of Wight father Jon Platt's case gained the backing of the High Court, the council relaxed its stance, using a measure which – though difficult to compare like for like – meant parents could miss roughly six days before referral.

After the Supreme Court ruling in April, they have reverted back to their previous position - one they say offers more clarity, but one which will come as a blow to parents hoping to escape hiked-up costs.

A spokesman said: 'We want pupils across Norfolk to have an excellent education and we know there is a clear link between school attendance and performance, so being in school is vital.

'Ultimately, it is headteachers who decide whether or not to take action on absences and whether to follow our guidance, which is based on national guidance.

Thorpe St Andrew School principal Ian Clayton. PHOTO BY SIMON FINLAY

Thorpe St Andrew School principal Ian Clayton. PHOTO BY SIMON FINLAY - Credit: SIMON FINLAY

'As the local authority, we can undertake the administrative duty of prosecuting parents on behalf of the school or academy that wishes to take action, including deciding whether to proceed based on the evidence provided by the school.'

Avoiding hurricane season lands family in court

Parents who were taken to court after holidaying in Florida during term time to avoid hurricane season say the system unfairly punishes families.

Lynne and Sam Linay, from Thorpe St Andrew, took two of their three children out of school for a fortnight in October for the three-week break. They were fined by St William's Primary School and Thorpe St Andrew High School, where their daughters go. After fighting the fines, they were taken to court and forced to pay £530.

Mrs Linay said her children have good attendance and they only chose October to miss hurricane season.

She said: 'If you know you are going to go somewhere like that time and time again, then it probably matters less, but this was our only time and I thought it was dangerous in hurricane season. It is frustrating, as parents, to feel like your reasons aren't listened to.'

Ian Clayton, headteacher at Thorpe, and Sarah Shirras, headteacher at St William's, said their policies were clear and uniform.

The council said there was a 'clear link' between school attendance and performance, but it was ultimately headteachers who decide on prosecution.

Holiday costs soar in summer breaks

Holiday firms which hike up prices during school breaks have come under fire, with calls for greater regulation.

We compared all-inclusive family holidays – two adults and two children – in June and July 2018 with those in August, after the school holidays begin, and every one we compared cost more in August.

One in Majorca rose from £672 per person to £991 per person – a 47pc rise.

Another, in Menorca, rose from £731 per person to £1,007 per person – a 37pc increase.

It means the cost of whole trips rises by thousands of pounds – Cyprus for a family of four at the end of next July cost £2,506, compared to £4,252 in August – a leap of 70pc – while a holiday in Rhodes jumped 64pc from £4,326 in June to £7,074 in August.

Travel money firm FairFX released figures in a survey earlier this year showing that flight prices in half term could rise by up to 800pc.

What is the back story?

It was in 2015 that Mr Platt took his daughter to Florida for seven days, and was fined £120.

He refused to pay, arguing she had a strong attendance record, and his case moved through the legal system – getting the backing of magistrates and the High Court but being overturned by Supreme Court judges in April.

It saw council approaches vary – several relaxed their stance after his initial wins, something many believe will now be reversed.

In the autumn term of this school year alone, there were 13,129 days missed for unauthorised holidays in state-funded schools in Norfolk, compared to 13,723 in the previous autumn term.

In Suffolk, the number rose from 11,785 in 2015/16 to 14,295 in 2016/17.

The 2016/17 autumn term came before Mr Platt's Supreme Court loss – so the impact of that will not be known until the next set of statistics are released.

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