A new penalty regime means parents could be fined hundreds of pounds for taking their children out of school for a family holiday. But given the cost of peak-season breaks, is this fair?
Taking your children away during the school holidays is rarely cheap, with increased demand typically leading to a big rise in prices.
But new rules that have just been introduced in England mean that parents who plan family breaks during term time – when holiday costs tend to be significantly lower – now face fines.
Families who opt for term-time travel and holidays could even face possible legal action.
Court battle over term-time holiday
Last month, Stewart and Natasha Sutherland from Telford in Shropshire lost a court battle after challenging a term-time holiday fine of £720.
They took their three children on a week-long trip to Greece last September, just weeks after the rules were changed.
Schools in England and Wales have long been able, in theory, to impose fines on parents who take their children out of school without authorisation.
But until September 2013, head teachers had been able to grant families up to 10 days of leave every year in "special circumstances".
New term-time holiday fines introduced
In practice, this meant that many schools allowed up to two weeks of term-time holidays a year.
This academic year, however, the Department for Education (DfE) has told heads in England that leave should only be granted in "exceptional circumstances".
This would cover a family member's funeral, for example, but not a week in Tenerife.
Ministers say poor attendance can have a "hugely damaging effect".
Fines can be as much as £60 per parent per child for each leave of absence. In the Sutherland family case, the couple were charged £120 for each of their three children.
Mumsnet: 'Some families can only afford term-time break'
But the initial £360 fine was doubled to £720 as it was not paid within 21 days.
Justine Roberts, CEO of parenting website Mumsnet, says: "Parents would no doubt rather not take their children out of school.
"But the only way many families can afford a holiday is to go in term time because holiday companies ratchet up the prices in school holidays to such an extent.
"Now some schools are fining families for term-time absence, even that option is closed off."
Some local authorities in Wales are following England's lead by introducing fines.
The schools & councils opting out of fines
Elsewhere in the UK, schools are more likely to mark a term-time holiday as an "unauthorised absence" on the pupil's attendance record, but not impose financial penalties.
But some parts of England have refused to implement the DfE guidance.
Leeds City Council, for example, says that parents who take their children out of school for a week or less will not be fined.
In general, however, fines can be imposed, and holidays authorised, at each school's discretion.
James Butler, acting assistant head at Christ's Secondary School in Richmond, south-west London, says his school has the right to fine parents but does not exercise it.
Teacher: 'Rules apply to all of us'
"In reality, we judge this on a case-by-case basis, but where it is an issue it is generally with those least likely to be able to pay a fine," he says.
"I do have some sympathy with parents, but we all have to play by the same rules," he adds.
"The real problem is where a company might not authorise annual leave during the school holidays because this is when most parents request it."
Clearly many people feel ripped off by the soaring cost of many overseas breaks booked at Easter or during the summer holidays.
A petition calling on the government to limit how much extra travel firms can charge at these times has received more than 165,000 signatures in support.
How to cut the cost of holidays
But a spokesman for the Department for Business has responded, saying: "Price rises in peak periods are a reflection of the international competition holiday companies face."
Oonagh Shiel from Cheapflights.co.uk says that parents therefore need to do all they can to minimise the cost of trips during school holidays.
"Our advice is to do your research and book as far in advance as possible – particularly if your heart is set on two weeks on the Algarve in the second half of August," she says.
"Many holiday companies offer free child places, early-booking discounts and free kids' clubs so it's worth snapping up a deal as soon as you see them advertised.
"That might even be October for the following July or August."
What do you think?
Are fines for parents who take their children on term-time family holidays fair?
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