Saturday 22 July 2017

Comment: Why families shouldn't face fines for taking holidays during term-time

Jon Platt arrives at the Supreme Court in central London with his wife Sally for their much-anticipated legal case on an unauthorised holiday during school term time. Photo: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire
Jon Platt arrives at the Supreme Court in central London with his wife Sally for their much-anticipated legal case on an unauthorised holiday during school term time. Photo: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire

Heidi Scrimgeour

There are many things I wish I'd known before I became a mother but one I didn't anticipate at all is just how much I'd miss my freedom - not to party like the child-free, you understand, but simply to book a holiday whenever I felt like it.

I didn't appreciate that once babies came along my days of taking advantage of last-minute deals to the sun were numbered, and I never factored in that having to run my holiday plans past a headteacher would make me feel quite so hemmed in.

So you'll understand why my heart sank at the news that the UK's Supreme Court has this week upheld a ban on parents taking their children out of school for family holidays during term time.

The UK's highest court enforced a fine imposed on father Jon Platt for taking his daughter out of school on an unauthorised holiday in 2015.

Of all the things to waste time and money prosecuting parents for, this seems almost laughable. It's absurd that parents can be criminalised for taking their children away on holiday at the most affordable time in the season.

Thankfully in Northern Ireland, where I live with my husband and our three children, parents aren't slapped with fines for taking their children out of school for holidays during term - but the absences are unauthorised nonetheless.

I understand the concerns that underlie the ban on term-time holidays. There would be chaos in our classrooms if parents could whisk their children off on whistle-stop tours around the world on a whimsy. Teachers shouldn't be expected to cope with that.

But let's get real. How many parents would abuse a system which, for example, granted a window of time at the beginning and end of every term in which to take children on holiday when flights are cheaper and warm climates a few degrees more child-friendly?

If we must be slaves to the school calendar for the long years of our children's school days, something should be done to combat the extortionate costs that come with taking your children on holiday during the school term. It's plain wrong that families are forced to pay over the odds for flights and other travel costs during the school holidays.

I appreciate that schools can't be seen to encourage anything which might disrupt a child's education, and that tackling the problem of truancy in schools is made more complicated if they issue carte blanche to parents to swan off to sunnier climes whenever they wish. But the ban on term-time holidays is Draconian and out of touch with the pressures of modern family life.

I'm not daft enough to suggest that spending a week meeting Mickey Mouse and all his mates is exactly educational, but there's no denying that travel broadens the mind. To deny families the chance to travel at the only point in the year that most of us can afford to, is to grossly overlook the impact that experiencing other cultures and cuisines can have during one's formative years.

As a child I was fortunate enough to travel widely - from summers in Switzerland to Christmas in California - and those trips are some of the most meaningful memories from my childhood. In contrast, I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of things I can recall from all those hours spent sitting in a stuffy classroom.

Penalising parents (and making kids feel like pariahs) for taking time out during term for a family holiday is madness. A blanket ban on term-time holidays completely overlooks the fact that a day or two on holiday can do far more for a child's long-term wellbeing than the DVD-watching and board game-playing that goes on in the average classroom during the last week of term anyway.

I probably shouldn't admit this in print, but my kids were exploring the diamond museum in Bruges and watching a play in London's West End on days that they should have been in school this term, and they'll miss the first day of term this September because a week's holiday in France is a fraction of the price if you book for the last week of August instead of in time to get back for the first day of school.

Will those missed days of school have a lasting deleterious impact on my children? Of course not; it'll pale into insignificance alongside the lifelong memories that they'll make while we're adventuring together en famille. Post-Brexit, I feel more determined than ever to expose my children to parts of the world that we can only reach if we travel during term-time.

If it comes to it, I'd happily pay a fine for the convenience of booking flights and accommodation at the more affordable end of the season in order to travel with my children.

I am certain we'll never have regrets when it comes to taking a few days off school here and there to see the world while my kids are young. If anything, I only regret that I didn't travel more when my children were smaller, before school term schedules ran our lives.

Irish Independent

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