MPs support calls for staggered school holidays

MPs support calls for staggered school holidaysBy Phil Davies

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 signed by 168,000 consumers, which calls for price caps to stop travel firms “cashing in” on school holidays.

No MP backed price regulation during yesterday’s Westminster debate, and the government also rejected the idea.

But term staggering – an option favoured by many in the trade – 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 headteachers can only grant time off in “exceptional circumstances”.

Previously parents were allowed to take their children out of school for 10 days per academic year.

Hemming, 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.

But consumer affairs minister Jenny Willott said: “The government has not said that no absence is possible.

“It has given headteachers 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 entitled to take their children out of school for 10 days a year.

Willott was “very sympathetic” to people who struggled to afford holidays 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 added.

She also said children missing school could have a negative impact not just on them, but also on fellow pupils and teachers, because they have to catch up when they return.

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 next year 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 Willott said this “should be dealt with locally”.

On the petition’s proposal of price capping, she said the travel sector 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 called 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.

Meanwhile almost three quarters of teachers do not think parents should be fined for taking children out of school during term-time for a family holiday, a poll has found.

The OnePoll survey for ITV Daybreak found 71% of teachers disagreed with parents being forced to pay £60 per child for an unauthorised absence.

A further 66% of teachers said they did not think taking primary school children out of the classroom for a family holiday had a detrimental effect on their learning.

Education secretary Michael Gove told ITV yesterday that parents “should not take children out of school during the school term”.

Instead, he said varying term dates across schools would help families benefit from off-peak travel prices.

Sourced from Travel Weekly

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