Ellen Widdup’s escape to the country

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I HAD a bit of a dilemma last week.

It started when my husband went to book flights for a week away in Spain. The dates needed to fall in the half-term holiday and fit around a family wedding.

My children have been abroad only once before. When it comes to holidays we have always opted for the easier – and cheaper – option of the staycation; which, until we moved here a year ago from London, was spent in Suffolk.

Their excitement at the prospect of an aeroplane journey and week in the sun was palpable.

They sat drawing pictures of beaches as my husband trawled through websites comparing British Airways’ prices with easyJet and Iberia.

“This can’t be right,” he muttered, his fingers bashing the keyboard.

“The tickets would cost us £2,000 less if we alter the dates a little and tag three days to the end of our trip.”

He was right. Tickets for four during half- term were £2,830, compared to £786 mid-week through to the following Wednesday.

And so we were left with a decision to make. Not go at all or join the ranks of middle class parents who take their kids out of school during term time.

Before I continue, I must point out that I’m not advocating truancy. In fact, I strive for 100% attendance and have even been known to drag my daughter to school when she is ill, promising to return every few hours to administer antibiotics.

Having said that, it took me less than 48 hours of deliberation before I was back in touch with the travel agent and booking the cheaper flights.

And I discovered, thanks to a report only days later, I am far from alone.

The survey, by Direct Line Travel Insurance, found that some 55% of British parents are happy for their child to miss school so that they can save money on a holiday.

Nearly half (43%) then admitted they had no idea what the school’s policy was on such absence.

The law is pretty clear on the matter, actually. You are not supposed to do it.

Technically, parents can take children out of school for up to 10 days a year, but this is at the discretion of the headteacher and agreed to only in “exceptional circumstances”.

Some schools are pretty relaxed about it and will grant permission if the child has an otherwise good attendance rate and is not struggling academically. Others are more draconian.

Parents can be fined up to £100 for truancy, but in reality most headteachers are reluctant to press that particular nuclear button.

That said, is it wise to take children out of school, even if you are given the green light?

Former teacher and behavioural expert Charlie Taylor, who was commissioned by the Department of Education last year to look into the issue, thinks not.

He says taking term-time holiday has a detrimental impact on a child’s education.

In fact, he was so adamant about the issue he suggested automatic fines were introduced: a notion which was dropped after a parental backlash.

And thank goodness for that, because I beg to differ with Mr Taylor.

For starters, I cannot see how my daughter’s chances of getting into university could be ruined by missing three days of class.

I might not be so flippant if she were studying for her GCSEs or A-levels, but she is five years old.

I actually think she would benefit hugely from a week exploring Barcelona. She is already starting to learn some conversational Spanish to practise when we are there. On top of this, I think it’s vital that families spend quality time together.

And the truth is that a huge amount of parents are time-stretched and cash-poor.

The only way they can afford to enjoy a holiday and introduce their children to the cultural delights of foreign lands is to break the rules.

Finally, we can all do the sums. A £100 penalty (£50 if you pay within 28 days) is a drop in the ocean compared with the savings of a term-time vacation.

Which brings me to the travel companies at the heart of the matter.

It is an indisputable fact that if you travel during the school holidays you pay considerably more than if you travel during term time.

The holiday companies argue that it’s a simple question of supply and demand in a free market.

More people want to go away in the school holidays, and there is a finite number of aircraft seats, hotel beds, apartments and villas to go round.

In the past the Office of Fair Trading has looked into the whole issue but didn’t think that the travel companies had a case to answer.

They don’t, really. But they might change their tune if the Government gave the whole issue a dramatic re-think.

After all, it seems very unfair that the idea of appealing to the headteacher for special dispensation is not consistent throughout schools.

Maybe, instead, every child should be allowed five days off a year, granted without jumping through the hoops of authorisation and the guilt of law-breaking.

It’s not enough time off to have a detrimental impact on learning; it would mean parents could access cheaper deals by being flexible on dates; the Department of Education could prevent a vast number of unauthorised absences by fining anyone who went over their allocated days; and travel companies would be forced to look at restructuring their prices because the demand would not be so great at peak times.

But as sensible a suggestion as I think this is, it is not about to happen any time soon. So in the meantime I’m afraid I shall be joining the other skiving families on the sun loungers and trying to cover up my guilty conscience with a nice golden tan.

Please email me at EllenWiddup@journalist.com or find me on Twitter @EllenWiddup.

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