Cllr Chris Whitehouse is Chairman of The Whitehouse Consultancy, and Secretary of the Conservative Group on the Isle of Wight Council.
Readers should be in no doubt that I am a fan of Michael Gove. Michael’s record of achievement at the Department for Education is one of which we and he can be proud, and I regret his move at the last reshuffle. By force of personality and sheer determination he shifted the national paradigm, forcing up school standards in a way that has dramatically improved the life chances of the next generation of citizens: we should keep the vacant plinth in Trafalgar Square empty until we are ready to put his statue up there!
But there was one of his policies – fining parents for taking their children out of school during term time – which was more controversial. It led to the assertion that this was a sledgehammer to crack a nut with parents feeling criminalised for exercising a fundamental right to make their own balanced judgements in such situations.
The Whitehouse Consultancy, which I Chair, has entered into a long-term arrangement with leading polling company, ComRes, to test and to measure public attitudes on a range of key issues. Previous polls that we have commissioned have included a look at the BBC Licence Fee, charging for GP appointments, and retrospective tax changes.
Our latest poll looked at attitudes to taking children out of school during term time. The poll, full results of which are here, found that a majority of Britons (55 per cent) believe that parents should be able to take children on holiday for a week if it means a “significant financial saving” for the family.
Support for term time holidays is particularly high among parents with children under 18 (64 per cent).The poll also showed significant levels of support for parents being able to take children out of school for the final two days of term if it enabled families to make a significant financial saving (73 per cent).
The results of the poll follow a number of recent high profile cases of parents challenging fines imposed on them for term-time absences, after Michael Gove tightened rules on allowing holidays in term time. Parents are issued with a £120 fixed penalty notice for an unauthorised absence.
Three quarters of Britons (74 per cent) supported the idea of children being allowed time out of school if a trip had “demonstrable educational value”. Taking children out of school for a family bereavement had almost unanimous support (90 per cent), whilst absence for a significant family celebration also had broad support (69 per cent).
Clearly, Michael was right to seek to get across loud and clear the message that if children are not in school they may not be being educated (though actually that is not necessarily the case). Attendance rates nationally and in particular black spots have improved significantly as a result of his drive – particularly on the Isle of Wight which had the worst rates in the country and which has now improved dramatically.
But, some parents have a real difficulty with this. Take the Isle of Wight, for example: the main economic activity is tourism and the retail sector catering for those tourists. For many parents living there it is frankly unthinkable that they can take a break during the school holidays since to do so risks them losing their their livelihood at the busiest time of the year.
What is more, recent research shows that families can expect to pay in excess of £1,300 more if they travel during school holidays rather than during term time. Many parents question why they should face additional costs for following the rules, particularly if those costs make holidaying too expensive. The challenge for policy makers and schools must be to ensure that as many families as possible are able to take a holiday, without incurring astronomical costs, but without harming children’s education.
If we are to respect the right of parents, as we should as Conservatives, to make informed choices for their children, then we have to look at ways of putting some flexibility back into the system. We should review this particular policy as soon as possible, not least because the majority of people don’t support the current position.