MPs debate cost of going away during school holidays
- 24 February 2014
- From the section Education & Family
MPs have suggested "staggering" school term dates and giving teachers more discretion on absences during a debate on the cost of holidays.
The debate was sparked by a petition which calls for price caps to stop holiday firms "cashing in" on the school holidays.
No MP backed price regulation during the Westminster Hall debate, and the government also rejected the idea.
But term staggering and more power for schools received widespread support.
Liberal Democrat MP John Hemming, who requested the debate, said the issue was a "considerable concern" to many people.
He said price capping was not a "practical solution", and a plan to suspend Airport Passenger Duty in the school summer holidays was "not a flyer".
A rule change which came into effect last September means head teachers can only grant time off in "exceptional circumstances".
Previously parents could be allowed to take their children out of school for 10 days per academic year.
Mr Hemming, who is MP for Birmingham Yardley, said one possible solution to the prices problem was to go "back towards" that system - but "not necessarily as far" as 10 days.
Leeds East Labour MP George Mudie said the change had been "smuggled through" Parliament, and called on Education Secretary Michael Gove to show humility "for once in his life" and undo the change.
North East Derbyshire MP Natascha Engel, also of Labour, gave the example of a girl with a brain tumour whose school had "cited government legislation" in refusing to grant her time off for a holiday.
She said the head teacher had "no choice", and said schools must be given "far greater discretion".
But consumer affairs minister Jenny Willott said: "The government has not said that no absence is possible.
"It has given head teachers the discretion to make that call and we also haven't specified what constitutes exceptional circumstances as we think individual cases need to be considered individually."
On pupils going on holiday during term time, she said the change in September was simply a "clarification" to remove the "misconception" that parents were allowed to take their children out of school for 10 days a year.
She said she was "very sympathetic" to people who struggled to afford them in peak season.
"But they should not be at the expense of a child's education, and school attendance throughout the school year does remain absolutely critical," she said.
She also said children missing school could have a negative impact not just on them, but also on fellow pupils and teachers.
Ms Willott said staggering holiday dates could "help bring prices down" and she understood why people wanted the government to organise dates which varied from area to area.
But she said local authorities currently decided term dates, and by 2015 all schools would have the power already given to free schools and academies to set their own dates.
One MP suggested the government should take a "leadership role" in co-ordinating dates, but Ms Willott said this "should be dealt with locally".
On the petition's proposal of price capping, she said the travel business was one of the most competitive industries in the UK, and this had led it to be "innovative" and "responsive" to customers' needs.
"The government is not convinced higher prices in school holidays are as a result of market abuse by the holiday industry, but rather they reflect the market forces in a very competitive sector," she said.
The e-petition which sparked the debate - signed by more than 168,000 people - calls on the government to "enforce action that caps the percentage increase on holiday prices in school holidays", but the debate did not focus on that suggestion as no MP supported it.
"Nobody in this country decides the price of a hotel room in Spain," said East Hampshire Conservative MP Damian Hinds.
It would be "inconceivable" for the government to attempt to cap prices, he said, adding that some European holidays may no longer be made available to UK customers if prices were controlled.
Mr Hinds, who said he had worked in the hotel industry for 10 years, said staggering holidays could have some effect but demand was not only driven by the school holidays.
He said August would still have the best weather - and "Christmas is Christmas".
Also in the debate, Mr Hemming raised the question of what "pressure" Ofsted puts on schools over term-time absences, and he said the Education Select Committee should consider creating regions to stagger term dates.
But the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills dealt with the petition, so no one from the Department for Education was present. Ms Willott said she would pass on MPs' comments.
Closing the debate, Mr Hemming said: "There are some issues that need to be sorted out. and let's get on with it."