Unauthorised pupil absences have soared to a record high thanks to parents taking children out of school for term-time holidays – despite a sharp rise in the number of families hit with fines.
More than one in six pupils (17.6 per cent) missed at least half a day of lessons in 2017-18 for a holiday, up from 16.9 per cent the previous year, Department for Education (DfE) statistics show.
That helped push the unauthorised absence rate in all schools in England to 1.4 per cent, its highest since records began.
Term-time holidays taken without permission have been increasing over the past decade, as parents defy the threat of fines to avoid higher prices for travel and accommodation during school breaks.
The number of penalty notices issued last year jumped 75 per cent, from 149,300 to 260,877, with family holidays the most common reason behind their issue.
The figures come after father Jon Platt lost a high-profile case at the Supreme Court in April 2017 over taking his daughter to Disney World, Florida, during term time without permission.
He had initially won a High Court case in May 2016, and previous figures suggest many parents decided to take term-time holidays on the basis of the ruling.
The DfE data also suggests rising truancy has contributed to the increased unauthorised absence rate, as more than half of all unauthorised absences are as a result of persistent absentees.
One in nine pupils (11.2 per cent) are classified as persistently absent – where they miss 10 per cent of more of their possible teaching sessions – compared to 10.8 per cent the year before.
Ahead of the figures being published, education secretary Damian Hinds defended the school exclusions system and suggested truancy had a more explicit link to knife crime.
He said a “much bigger concern” than expulsions are those who are “persistently absent”, which includes pupils who skip school or are off sick long term.
His comments come after London mayor Sadiq Khan and police and crime commissioners wrote to the prime minister warning that a “broken” school exclusion system was contributing to the issue.
Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, said requests for time off during term time could only be authorised in exceptional circumstances.
But he added: “However, the system of fines is clearly too blunt an instrument and in many cases it drives a wedge between schools and families.
“The real problem is holiday pricing. Neither parents nor schools set the prices of holidays.”
Cllr Anntoinette Bramble, chair of the Local Government Association’s Children and Young People Board, said: “Ensuring every child has a good school attendance is of paramount concern for everyone working with children, including councils.
“Parents and carers have a legal responsibility to make sure children attend school regularly while schools will monitor attendance and raise any concerns with councils.
“If required, councils will support headteachers to take any action they feel necessary to address any issues with pupil attendance, including fining parents for unauthorised absences.”
A DfE spokesperson said: “The education secretary has made clear, persistent absence from school is a society-wide challenge that we all need to work together to resolve – and while significant progress has been made, today’s data shows that has now plateaued.
“High-quality education and pastoral care will make a real difference to children’s life chances, and that’s particularly important for those who are most vulnerable, but clearly key initiatives will only work if children are present.
“That’s why the rules on term-time absences are clear: no child should be taken out of school without good reason. We have put headteachers back in control by supporting them – and local authorities – to use their powers to deal with unauthorised absence.”