Holidays in term time: the parents’ guide
Are school attendance rules the same throughout the UK?
No. The school attendance rules set out in the Education Act are applicable to English state schools.
- Private / independent schools are free to set their own attendance rules
- In Wales headteachers may authorise absences in certain circumstances, though unauthorised absences can be penalised with fines; each local authority interprets the rules differently
- In Scotland Local Education Authorities (LEAs) can issue attendance orders to parents and failure to give appropriate reasons for absence from school can result in fines
- In Northern Ireland parents aren't fined for unauthorised absences but can be referred to the Education Welfare Service.
Who’s in charge of term and school holiday dates?
The Department for Education (DfE) states that schools must open for 190 pupil days per year, plus five INSET (teacher training) days. Schools can also have up to three occasional days per year (where the school is closed to pupils for reasons other than staff training, such as for religious festivals) as long as they don’t eat into the 190 statutory pupil days.
For maintained primary schools, term dates are set by the local authority, in consultation with schools, neighbouring authorities and groups representing teachers and other staff, such as unions. You can usually access term dates for the current and next academic year through your school’s website or your local council's school term information.
Why are there differences in term dates between schools?
Because local authorities set their own term dates, there are often slight differences between schools in different areas – although the fact that neighbouring local authorities consult with each other means the dates tend to be broadly similar, give or take a few days, nationwide.
Within a local authority area, the differences often come about through INSET days. Schools are generally free to decide the timings of their own INSET days; some will add them onto a school holiday, while others scatter them throughout the school year.
Academies can set their own term dates independently, which can lead to more significant differences between schools: some, for example, have seven shorter terms rather than three long ones.
What are authorised and unauthorised absences?
Authorised absences are those where the school gives permission for a child to be away in advance, or accepts the explanation offered afterwards. These include being absent due to illness, a funeral, a medical appointment or a religious observance.
Unauthorised absences are not approved by the school, and typically include holidays and outings, or absences with no explanation.
A school with lots of unauthorised absence is likely to come under scrutiny from both Ofsted and the local authority. Parents also have a legal responsibility concerning their children’s attendance, and local authorities can bring legal action against families where attendance levels cause concern.
So can we take a term-time holiday?
Since September 2013, legislation concerning term-time holidays has changed.
Previously, schools were allowed to grant leave for family holidays of up to 10 days per year, and of over 10 days in ‘exceptional circumstances’, at the head teacher’s discretion. Now, however, head teachers can’t grant any authorised absence during term-time, unless in exceptional circumstances. Those circumstances are up to the head, but essentially, term-time holidays will no longer be authorised.
Schools and local authorities can ask for evidence of exceptional circumstances such as weddings or funerals, and for evidence of illness if children are off sick.
The statutory ten-day threshold for term-time absence has also been removed; now, if a head teacher grants authorised leave, he or she will determine for how long.
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What happens if we do take our child out of school?
If your request for leave is unauthorised and you still choose to take your child out of school for a holiday or another reason, you may be issued with an offer to pay a fixed penalty of £60 per child per parent, rising to £120 per child per parent if not paid within 21 days. If the penalty is unpaid after 28 days, court proceedings for the offence of “truancy” can be initiated.
The decision over whether to issue a Truancy Penalty Notice rests with the head teacher, although in some areas local authorities issue them automatically. The local authority (and not the individual school) impose the penalty and receive the money. Every local authority is likely to interpret the regulations about children who have been absent without authorisation slightly differently, so you should check with your child's school and local authority for precise details.
During the 2014/2015 academic year, 98 Local Education Authorities issued 50,414 Truancy Penalty Notices for children being taken out of school for term-time holidays.
Thinking of ignoring fines from the local authority? Parents who decide not to pay a Truancy Penalty Notice could be prosecuted for the offence of failure to ensure a child attends school regularly. A successful prosecution could lead to a criminal record, a very large fine or even jail time: in 2015 19,920 people taken to court for failing to ensure that a child went to school and 75% were found guilty. In total 77% of those found guilty were given fines, eight people were jailed and 553 were given community sentences.
What will happen with term-time holidays in the future?
Under a new DfE bill, state schools will be able to choose their own term dates independently of the local authority: for example, introducing shorter terms, or reducing the summer holiday to four weeks and increasing half-term holidays to two weeks. The plans may help parents who are currently unable to afford peak school holiday travel, but issues could arise for families with children in different schools.
Term-time holidays: further information
The pressure group Parents Want A Say campaigns for the abolition of the attendance policy rules which came into force on 1 September 2013.
The Facebook group Against School Holiday Fines offers advice and support on term-time holiday rules.
In May 2016, a father who refused to pay a fine for taking his children out of school for a holiday was taken to court by the local authority and won his case but that decision was overturned by the supreme court and he was ordered to pay the fine on 6 April 2017. This means that the law banning parents from taking their children out of school for family holidays during term time hasn't changed; if you decide to go ahead, you must be prepared to pay the fine or be taken to court.
Please note: unfortunately TheSchoolRun is unable to give legal advice or comment on individual term-time holiday disputes. This article offers information that is correct, to the best of our knowledge, and will be updated regularly.