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As we strive to achieve “one nation” what is it that divides the rich and poor in our experiences? One difference is whether or not we can afford to go away on holiday.

Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, recently remarked:

“I do worry that we have more billionaires in London than any other city. We had 80 last year and we have 140 this year and they go billionairing around the place, driving late at night in their Maseratis making a terrible racket. As a one nation Mayor I do worry about inequality.”

When I do the school run and chat to my fellow parents there is little concern about whether the number of billionaires in London is 80 or 140. But there is often a problem about finding enough money to take the children on holiday – even for just a week, even within the UK.

So the challenge with equality is levelling up – so that even those on low pay can afford a holiday. Not levelling down – with some reduced quota of billionaires allowed to remain resident in the capital.

Potentially the good news is that from September all schools – not just free schools, voluntary aided schools and academies – will have the freedom to set term dates.

Hitherto most schools had no choice – Section 32 of the Education Act 2002 required the local authority to set term dates for local authority maintained schools.  All maintained schools will still be required to be open for a minimum of 190 days a year – with teachers working another five days for Baker Days which are allocated for “training”.

Some schools have already exercised flexibility. Haberdashers’ Federation of Academies have a two-week break in the autumn term. While the David Young Community Academy in Leeds has a seven term year. This is done for educational reasons – but it must also mean that parents (and teachers) find holidays more affordable.

Holidays cost around 40 per cent more during school holidays.

Some of us have who have been school governors will have heard the indignation at our meetings expressed towards travel companies “profiteering”. Those complaints are muddled. A hotel or country cottage business is just as much “profiteering” by charging very low prices for the end of January – still struggling to find any punters. That is simple economic reality. It is supply and demand.

As AE Housman used to say:

“Three minutes thought would suffice to find this out; but thought is irksome and three minutes is a long time.”

Instead of huffing and puffing about the iniquities of capitalism, the school governors could vary the dates and drastically reduce the temptation of parents to take holidays in term time.

Spare a thought for families in those parts of our country heavily dependent on tourism.

What chance is there for a child in Cornwall to go on holiday? If their half term is at the same time as everyone else’s half term it is tricky – if their parents livelihood is from tourism, as it often is. Even the local police force will – understandably – be reluctant to allow leave at the very time when huge swathes of humanity have descended.

On Thursday there was the following exchange in Parliament:

Steve Double (St Austell and Newquay) (Con): The Secretary of State will be aware of how important the tourism industry is to Cornwall, but is he aware of the damage that the Government’s current rules, which restrict families from taking their children out of school during term time, are having on the Cornish economy? Visit Cornwall estimates that it has cost the Cornish economy about £50 million. Will the Secretary of State be willing to meet me to discuss how we might address this issue and support the Cornish tourism industry?

Mr Whittingdale: I understand the point my hon. Friend makes, although he will appreciate that this is principally a matter for the Secretary of State for Education rather than my own Department. I understand that headteachers are encouraged to be flexible in setting their week, but the fact that children need an education is very important and we should not deprive them of that by changing their ability to go on holiday.

Both Mr Double and Mr Whittingdale make good points. It is important for children not to skip school. But it is also important for them to have family holidays. Is it not also of some educational merit to have a chance to discover different parts of our country and the rest of the planet?

Of course the problem is if you have one child at a primary school and another at a secondary school. (Or a daughter at a girl’s secondary school and a son at a boy’s secondary school….)

I think the answer is for local authorities to suggest – quite rightly it can be only a suggestion – that all schools in their area adopt dates that vary slightly with the national norm.

Obviously I’m not suggesting a change for the 2015/16 academic year. But what about the following academic year?

I think every local authority is proposing that in 2016 the autumn half term should be the week Oct 23rd-27th. Why don’t some encourage all their schools  to have it the week starting October 17th? Or the week starting October 30th?

Or the following summer half term everybody else will be proposing schools designate the week starting May 29th 2017. Why not propose it the week starting June 5th? (When the weather might be slightly better anyway).

It will not be perfect as some children are at schools across LA boundaries. But even this problem could be minimised. Supposing my authority of Hammersmith and Fulham agreed alternative dates with our tri-borough colleagues in Westminster and Kensington and Chelsea? Indeed, for that matter, with Hounslow, Brent and Ealing?

Why doesn’t Cornwall Council should a bit of leadership by proposing different dates? They are advising all their schools to have half term at the same time as schools every where else. What sort of madness is that?

Some might regard this as trivial. They should reflect on their own childhood holiday memories – or lack of them. This is an matter where councillors no longer have power – but they do have influence. They should use it to make a positive difference for those they represent.


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