The risks of taking kids on holiday in term-time
If you have children then the chances are you will face a big dilemma when it comes to booking your summer break: do you pay sky-high prices to go away during the school holidays or risk incurring the headmaster's wrath by flying off in term-time?
It's a question that's debated in thousands of households every year. Not only are the costs involved so much higher during peak times of the year – particularly August and over Christmas – but holiday destinations are also packed to capacity.
Research undertaken by travelsupermarket.com found that 31% of parents would allow their children to miss school to go on holiday, with one-in-five parents admitting that being fined for allowing taking their children out of the classroom wouldn't put them off holidaying outside of half-term, Easter or the summer and Christmas breaks.
And when you consider the additional cost of holidaying when the schools are closed, you can understand why. According to Abbey, foreign holiday packages cost an average of 25% more in mid-August compared to mid-July. This rises to 40% for countries such as Portugal, but even UK resorts can increase in cost by an average of 39%.
“At the moment, every penny counts, and the potential savings families can make by nipping off on holiday a few days before the end of term is too much of a temptation for many parents,” says Bob Atkinson, travel expert at travelsupermarket.com.
Abbey also reports that, once school starts again in September, prices for holidays abroad drop by an average of 32% while UK breaks fall by more than 50%.
This doesn't come as a surprise to Darren Cronian, editor of the campaigning consumer affairs website Travel-rants.com. Angry parents juggling their finances and holiday dates are among his most regular visitors.
"It's a popular 'rant' among consumers that hits my inbox," he says. "They feel hard done by because they are forced to book during the school holidays - unless they want to receive a fine or be prosecuted."
Travel companies, he believes, should do more to help. "In my opinion they take advantage of the situation," he says. "They say it's a part of business – supply and demand. The reason the demand is there because it's forced upon parents to book during July and August when the schools are closed."
That's not fair, argues Frances Tuke, spokesperson for the Association of British Travel Agents. Companies are not simply profiteering – in fact they would prefer to have a steady flow of business throughout the year but this is impossible. "The summer is when the holiday industry makes its money to and this helps compensate for other times of the year when they suffer losses," she explains.
"By making prices cheaper during the quieter times it encourages people who can take holidays to go away so less head off during peak times."
So where does that leave parents? Well the stark choice is to pay the inflated prices or go on holiday during term-time. Even heading off just a couple of days early can make a huge difference to the price paid. But this is where it gets tricky. Parents don't have an automatic right to remove their children from school for holidays, but they can apply for permission, according to the Department for Children, Schools and Families.
Under the Education (Pupil Registration) Regulations 1995, schools have the discretion to grant leave of absence for up to 10 days per school year for such breaks during term time. However, this must be applied for well in advance and the decision to authorise absence for holidays rests entirely with the school.
"Parents need to recognise that even just a couple of days of holiday can have a negative impact on their child's progress," says a spokesperson for the DCFS. "We obviously sympathise with the financial pressures on parents but no holiday is worth harming a child's education."
This means the request can be turned down. Parents who still fly off in defiance of this decision will have their child's absence marked down as 'unauthorised' and may have to pay a hefty price for their stance. Penalties of £50 to £100 can be levied – and if these aren't paid then the fine can rise to £2,500. Prosecution through the courts, which could end up with a jail sentence of three months, are also an option in more extreme cases.
Devon County Council, meanwhile, warns parents on its website that children who are taken out– unauthorised – for four weeks or more may find they lose their place at the school…without any guarantee of getting it back. Government officials insist that such draconian measures are only used as a last resort against parents.
"The action on unauthorised absence is discretionary and according to a Local Authority's code of practice, which means they can choose to issue penalty notices or parents could face prosecution," explained the DCFS spokesperson. "However, this can only be done by Local Authorities. The point is there are a lot of measures to be exhausted before things go this far and all cases are judged on an individual basis."
Despite the risks, the statistics show that plenty of parents do believe it's a risk they need to take in order to either lower the cost of a break or fit in with the holiday dates of other family members.
During the Autumn 2006 and Spring 2007 terms, for example, family holidays accounted for 5.4m lost days, according to the DCFS. Of these, more than 530,000 were unauthorised. And when hard-pressed families can save more than £1,000 on the cost of a break away, the risk of being hit with a fine of up to £100 certainly seems to be a chance worth taking.
Mum-of-three Sue Santoro, 42, has taken her children – twin eight year-old boys Matthew and Daniel, and 10-year-old Alex - out for a couple of days and understands why parents are attracted to term time holidays. "A lot of schools seem to be more sympathetic if it's either end of the term – as long as you avoid exam times," she says.
"You can see where parents are coming from when prices double or treble two or three days into the school holidays. Depending on what you're doing it can sometimes be just as educational as being in the classroom."
So how can you improve your chances of gaining approval from the school?
Your child's head teacher will consider a number of factors in reaching their decision: the time and duration of the leave being requested; the child's attendance record; and the learning that will be missed during the break.
Schools may be more amenable if you can demonstrate that the trip will be educational. A once-in-a-lifetime trip to the wilds of Kenya, for example, will have more chance of gaining approval than a week's fun at Butlins.
It also makes sense not to go during the first year of a new school and when examinations are due to be sat. The run-up to GCSE exams – both the mocks and the real thing – are best avoided as well. Kayte Williams, holidays channel manager at Travelsupermarket.com, points out that huge savings can be made on the cost of a holiday simply by getting a couple of days off at either the beginning or end of a term.
"It has to be put in proportion depending on the age of the child and what school term they are in," she says. "If they're in the middle of exams then it obviously is not a good idea to take them out. It all comes down to common sense striking a balance."
Even if you decide to stick to the rules there are other ways to save money. First on the agenda is travel insurance. While it's an essential item to pack, it's important not to buy the first one you are offered, according to Peter Gerrard of Moneysupermarket.com.
"Don't automatically buy the policy being offered by your travel agent because you could end up paying five times more," he says. "It's also worth checking to see if your children can be added to the policy free of charge as many insurers allow this."
As well as looking around for the best deals, it's also worth considering an annual policy if you are planning on making more than one trip abroad. Other tips that can save you cash include traveling at unsociable times, opting to leave via one of the regional airports, building your own holiday by booking flights and accommodation separately and just haggling with the tour operators to get the best possible deal.
Taking a close look at the small print of holiday brochures to ensure you're not going to be stung by an array of hidden costs can also make sense. Families over laden with buckets, spades and toys, for example, could end up facing hefty excess luggage charges at the airport, while fees can also be levied in some instances for checking out late on the day of your departure.
This is more usually a feature of car insurance but it can also crop up in contents, mobile phone and pet insurance policies. An excess is the amount of money you have to pay before the insurance company starts paying out. The excess makes up the first part of a claim, so if your excess is £100 and your claim is for £500, you would pay the first £100 and the insurer the remaining £400. Many online insures let you set your own excess, but the lower the excess, the more expensive the premium will be.