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‘I saved £5,000 on my holiday by taking my kids out of school – and paying the fines’

Jonny Lee, pictured with his wife and family, said the decision to go was a 'no brainer'
Jonny Lee, pictured with his wife Katie and family, said the decision to go was a 'no brainer'

In March, Jonny Lee, his wife Katie and their four children went skiing. The family headed to Chamonix, where Lee’s father owns an apartment.

It was not their first skiing trip. But it was the first time Lee was fined for taking his two older children out of their primary school for a week. He handed over £240 in fines, but says it was well worth it for the money he saved.

“It’s a no-brainer,” he laughs. “The flights alone would have been £1,500 more.”

This way, he says, the family got to pick a week where the weather would be good, the snow pristine and the slopes uncluttered. “Yes, the kids missed out on school for a week, but they’re being educated in other ways,” he says. “They’re coming back as more rounded people for it.”

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Lee has no intention of stopping taking his children, two girls and two boys aged between two and eight, out of school to ski. Skiing, he says, is an education in itself – it’s active, it’s outside and his children are learning French to boot. And while he personally wouldn’t take his kids out of school to, say, lie on a beach, he holds no judgment for those who do.

“I know the importance of education, but I sometimes think they’re not going to miss too much if they’re not at school,” he says. “The curriculum isn’t really up to speed in terms of what they can offer our children – running your own business, being entrepreneurial, making money. School doesn’t teach you how to survive or thrive in society after school.”

And besides, he adds, the pandemic revealed school to be something of a moveable feast anyway.

Mr Lee insists his children come back from  skiing holidays 'more rounded'
Mr Lee insists his children come back from skiing holidays 'more rounded'

The Department for Education does not, however, appear to agree with him. Last month, Education Secretary Gillian Keegan announced higher penalties for parents who take their children out of school without permission, with fines increasing from £60 to £80 for school absences from September, rising to £160 from £120 if a child has been absent for more than 21 days. If a fine is not paid after 28 days, a parent can be prosecuted.

Absence rates across the academic year 2023/24 to date stand at 6.4pc in state primary schools (of which 2pc were unauthorised) and 10.6pc in state secondaries (4.6pc unauthorised). In 2022-23, out of a total 399,000 penalty notices, a record 350,000 parents in England were fined for taking their children out of school for unauthorised holidays – 20pc more than in 2018-19, the last full school year before the pandemic.

At the same time, however, holiday costs have soared. According to research from Go Compare, flights to the most popular destinations have risen by 71pc since 2022. For package holidays during school breaks there’s been an 18pc average price increase per person.

Although Lee and his family saved on their latest holiday by staying in the family apartment, there have been other trips, he says, where they have saved around £5,000, once you factor in the cost of accommodation and flights for a family of six. It’s no wonder he’s happy to pay a paltry £240 in exchange. A Go Compare survey found that a fifth of parents would take their children on holiday during term time, or consider doing so, with 38pc claiming the biggest reason for the decision was to save on travel costs.

Many of my friends guiltily admit to taking their kids out of school on the odd occasion, split between the ‘seek permission’ and the ‘beg for forgiveness’ camps. One friend has done it multiple times, is always honest with the school and has never had a fine – although admits to being about to “pull our cheekiest ever and take nine days off in the last 10 school days before holiday, then return for the last day of school.” Another lied and said her child was sick as she didn’t want to get a fine for a four-day absence.

One is doing it for the first time this summer and is planning, having gleaned advice from other parents, to catch the headmistress in the last 30 seconds of drop-off, then follow up with an email at the last moment of the school day before swanning off saying “per our conversation and email”.

“We told the school we were doing it, but after we’d booked as we didn’t want to run the risk of asking permission and being turned down,” says Charlotte Wilson, who spoke using a pseudonym. She went on a skiing holiday with her husband and three children two weeks before the end of the Easter term. “Even the base price of the holiday – we did a package with a catered chalet and flights – was £3,000 cheaper than it would have been two weeks later, and you get those unpaid-for benefits like fewer people in the resort and no queues.”

What swung it for them, she says, was that last year they went during the first week of the Easter holidays, paid a hefty amount and had bad weather and terrible snow.

“You’re paying all that money, and you don’t want your holiday to be rubbish,” she says. “This year, any guilt I felt about it dissipated when we were there.” And, she adds, “we don’t get fined because it’s a private school”.

It’s true that the response you’ll get from a school varies wildly. The official fines system only applies to maintained, i.e. state, schools. Some, particularly at primary level, may not authorise an absence but won’t fine. Others take a harder line; one pastoral manager at an inner city state school – which employs a dedicated attendance officer to chase families up – says that “when parents take their children out of school it has an impact on the rest of the cohort as it can affect the pace of the lesson and outcomes for the class, as well as the individual student. The best thing parents can do is get their children to school every day and on time.”

In the private system, meanwhile, “there is some leeway”, acknowledges one private school teacher friend. It makes less of a difference at prep level, especially if it’s an absence of just one or two days at the end of term, when younger years aren’t learning anything new, although “it is inconvenient for schools, which often plan bigger celebration events like sports day right near the end of term.” Frankly, she admits, “I don’t know if it’s irrecoverable, if the child is average or above.”

The broader problem, she says, is “an expectation to call the shots in a way no one would with another professional. At my school we would get told they [the children] would be going and be asked to produce extra resources before or catch up afterwards. It’s an absolute pain, and becoming more common.”

There are some situations when taking a child out of school ahead of the holidays seems perfectly condonable. Tom and Rowena Giffard have four children, one of whom, Alexander, has Down’s Syndrome and is at a special needs state school. They take him out of school early most summers, taking advantage of the longer holidays their other children have at their private schools, partly for financial reasons but mainly because airports are quieter, resorts less busy and the chances of having a fulfilling family holiday are higher.

Tom and Rowena Giffard photographed at their home near Newbury with their son Alex riding a bicycle
Tom and Rowena Giffard with their son Alexander. Most years they take him out of school before the summer holidays - John Lawrence/TMG

Last summer, for example, the family went to Morzine in France in July, where Alexander was able to build on life skills like swimming with his siblings, watched over safely by resort staff.

“If we’d gone two weeks later we’d have had to employ someone to look after him and that would have been prohibitively expensive,” says Tom. And, he adds, “in the cold light of day, his school’s life is easier if they’ve got one less person to man-mark.”

He’s not worried about fines, he says, but regardless, “the penalty would be worth it for the savings”.

Bad news, then, for Gillian Keegan and her colleagues, who may find that even a higher price to pay won’t deter parents from pulling their kids out of school. After all, when they can save thousands, enjoy a quieter holiday and teach their children things that school can’t, is it really that surprising?

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