'Limited scope' to ditch 'absurd' policy to fine parents for unauthorised term-time holidays

It can be substantially cheaper to take family holidays during school term-time with some parents willing to accept a fine
It can be substantially cheaper to take family holidays during school term-time with some parents willing to accept a fine -Credit:Pixabay

A council appears to have admitted defeat after being encouraged to rip up a policy of dishing out fines to some parents who take their children on unauthorised school term-time holidays

Redcar and Cleveland Council began a review of its policy last year after council members voted for a motion which suggested fines weren’t in the public interest and said it should investigate alternative solutions.

A report for the council’s cabinet by assistant director of education Clare Mahoney concluded that the legal position in relation to current arrangements “means there is very limited scope for change”. It said since the motion, in March 2023, the Government had announced a new national framework which would override any changes to policy made locally.

The motion had been proposed by now deputy leader Councillor Carrie Richardson and received cross-party backing from a majority of members on the council.

At a meeting in January independent councillor Craig Hannaway - a former cabinet member - went on to describe the policy as “absurd”, also highlighting the thousands of pounds difference in cost between breaks abroad in and out of term-time.

Cllr Hannway also claimed the policy failed to stop many better-off parents who hardly noticed the fixed penalty notice levied - typically £60 per child per parent if paid within 21 days, which escalates if ignored. He said: “It doesn’t work and only causes antagonism between parents and schools.”

Cllr Richardson had described a “postcode lottery” with some councils failing to issue fines. But Ms Mahoney’s report said this could be to do with anomalies within the reported data and it had not been possible to identify any council who had specifically adopted a policy not to issue fines.

The report said legal advice had been taken and any blanket decision/policy to either direct or advise headteachers to authorise term time holidays, or to cease or suspend the issuing of fixed penalty notices would be unlawful. Ms Mahoney said: “The advice was very clear that, due to a combination of legislation and statutory guidance, an extant policy of not issuing fines for unauthorised holidays would be legally unacceptable.”

Council leader Alec Brown, who had seconded Cllr Richardson's motion, said the council was limited in what it could do, telling the Local Democracy Reporting Service (LDRS): "As a father I do agree with the consensus that children need to be in school during term-time, but I also feel for parents that can't afford the prices of the tourist industry which can go up ten-fold."

The report said consideration had been given to adjusting term-times in Redcar and Cleveland so they were slightly out of line with schools in other areas “thereby leading to cheaper prices during those weeks and potentially helping, to some degree, with the issue of families feeling compelled to take holidays during school time because of their financial circumstances”. But this option had been dismissed as there was no possibility of reaching agreement with all schools, some of which were operated by multi-academy trusts spanning local authority boundaries.

A plane leaving Newcastle Airport
A plane leaving Newcastle Airport -Credit:PA

The report said - without changes to the current policy - headteachers could be reminded about having a consistent approach within their schools and across the borough to issuing fines.

Meanwhile, parents were entitled to speak to headteachers if they felt there were exceptional circumstances to be considered. Publication of two years' worth of term time dates could also be helpful for parents booking holidays well in advance.

In February Schools Minister Damian Hinds wrote to all council directors of children's services about action being taken to improve school attendance. Changes to education regulations will introduce a new national framework in respect of fixed penalty notices intended to “further embed the Government’s ‘support first’ approach whilst strengthening the deterrent for parents where pupils are absent without good reason”.

This will see the introduction of a standard national threshold at which penalty notices will be considered of ten unauthorised sessions within ten school weeks in place of existing local authority by local authority thresholds. There will also be expectation on schools/local authorities that support will be considered before any penalty notice with a notice to improve to be issued in cases where support would be more appropriate, but has not been engaged with.

The changes will also increase the amount of the penalty from £120 to £160 if paid within 28 days, reduced to £80 (instead of £60) when paid within 21 days. A parent will be also be limited to two fines in respect of an individual child within three years.

Last year the LDRS spoke to parents living in Redcar who said the price of some holidays in term-time was “extortionate” and they felt penalised. One parent said those not abusing the system should be entitled to take a family holiday when they want without being fined and it was a time to bond and for children to learn new life skills.

Figures published by the Department for Education show that in the 2022/23 academic year a total of 5,300 fines were issued to parents of Teesside school pupils for unauthorised term-time holidays with Redcar and Cleveland having a lower rate than both Middlesbrough and Stockton.