Suppose X is the cost of a Mediterranean package holiday during term time, 2X is the price of that same trip during the school holidays, and Y is the fine imposed by local authorities for taking children out of school. Assuming X is greater than Y, which it usually is, what percentage of British parents are likely to take term-time holidays? That figure is now a lot smaller than it once was.
The Isle of Wight magistrate and the High Court had both decided that so long as a child’s overall attendance was deemed satisfactory – with absences not exceeding 10 per cent of the school year – then a parent could take their offspring out of the classroom and onto the beach. But Lady Hale, Deputy President of the Supreme Court, was in head teacher mode when she told Court 1: “Unauthorised absences have a disruptive effect, not only on the education of the individual child, but also on the work of other pupils, and of their teachers.”
Jon Platt, the parent whose term-time trip to Florida was the subject of the case, told me afterwards that he believes her mind was made up even before the evidence was heard. There will be thousands, perhaps millions, of other dismayed parents who are angry at the ruling. But the educational establishment will be breathing a huge sigh of relief at Lady Hale’s conclusion: “Any educational system expects people to keep the rules. Not to do so is unfair to those obedient parents who do keep the rules, whatever the cost or inconvenience to themselves.”
An early response to the ruling, shared on Twitter, captured the public mood: “The only people who will be happy with the judgement are the travel agents #ripoffholidays”.
Oh no, they won’t. The whole travel industry is concerned with the distortions caused by the intense peaks of demand and consequent spikes in pricing. Excess profits are not being made – indeed, most holiday companies are low-margin businesses that lose money for much of the year, and only make a profit during school holidays.
Travel is unlike normal industries. If an ice cream manufacturer detects high demand during a warm summer, it can turn out more vanilla, strawberry and chocolate. But the supply of airline seats, hotel beds and rental cars, in the short term, is fixed.
A petition signed by more than 200,000 people asked the Government to ban travel firms from increasing prices in line with demand: “It’s time to stop the holiday companies cashing in on school holidays and let parents have some guilt-free family time! Enforce action that caps the percentage increase on holiday prices in school holidays,” it said. But the consequence of any such law would be to reduce drastically the availability of travel at any cost, as tour operators pick up their towels and go home.
What the nation needs is a proper discussion about how to smooth out that demand and therefore reduce the surge in prices during school holidays. Different parts of the country could shift the holidays by a week or two – for example, Cornwall, where many parents are involved in the tourist industry, could start its summer holidays a week later and extend the break into September, by which time many of the customers have gone home.
Other local authorities could reward parents and teachers by subtracting a week from Easter or summer holidays and bolting it on to the late May half-term, giving a chance for a fabulous trip at a perfect time in the Mediterranean.
Meanwhile, parents can deploy one or two tricks to save: I take my family on Monday-to-Friday holidays, which is exactly what I am doing next week to Italy. It tends to be around half the cost of a Saturday-to-Saturday trip.
Anyone living in northern England or southern Scotland can take advantage of the different school holiday dates on either side of the border.
And if you’re heading for the Spanish Costas in August, get a cheap flight to Madrid instead and carry on by train. For example, Monarch airlines from Birmingham to Malaga at half term for a week costs £1,260 for a family of four; to Madrid, it’s £812, which leaves hundreds of pounds for the high-speed train and even a free city break in the Spanish capital.
Back to those annoying maths at the start. My apologies if they brought back memories of schoolroom algebra; indeed, I may even have taught you those sums: long ago and far away, I used to be a maths teacher. I would not have relished the prospect of explaining simultaneous equations to a class of teenagers, then teaching the same lesson again a fortnight later when their pals return from Walt Disney World.
It sounds harsh for Jon Platt and thousands of other parents who have been taking their kids out of school for reasons of budget or practicality, but from an educational perspective, the Supreme Court got the right answer.