On 1 September 2013, the Education (Pupil Registration)(Amendment) Regulations 2013 came into force, which established for local authorities, maintained schools and academies, that leave of absence during term time should only be granted in “exceptional circumstances”.  Furthermore, it removed references to “family holidays” as justification for authorising a child’s absence from school during term-time.

This replaced the previous 2006 regulations which enabled headteachers to authorise absence of up to 10 school days per year in “special circumstances”.  The Department for Education have indicated that this change in policy is because “it is a Government priority” to improve school attendance, with family holidays being the second most common reason for term-time absences.

To help support this change in policy, the Education (Penalty Notices)(England)(Amendment) Regulations 2013 have been introduced to enable a maintained school or academy to levy a £60 penalty, rising to £120 if not paid within 21 days, against a parent for the failure to secure their child’s attendance at school, e.g. by taking the child on holiday during term-time.

The practical application of this new policy has faced substantial criticism, with reports that it is being applied harshly and inconsistently and is an additional administrative burden for schools and academies.  In addition, calls have been made for exceptions to be introduced in relation to specific sections of society.  For example, the armed services where it is difficult for parents to arrange holidays around both tours of duty and school holidays.  Another example which has been raised are those areas where many parents are employed by a single employer, operating fixed holiday dates.

Local authority data shows that in the 10 local authorities where the number of fines increased the most, the number of fines went up by an average of 73% in 2013/14  compared to 2012/13. 

National Association of Head Teachers (“NAHT”)

In order to address the perceived inconsistency in the application of the new policy, NAHT published guidance for headteachers in October 2014 which seeks to clarify what is meant by “exceptional circumstances”.  NAHT concluded that the fundamental elements of an “exceptional circumstance” would be those that are:

  • Rare;
  • Significant;
  • Unavoidable; and
  • Short

The guidance also provides a series of examples which are intended to illustrate how the policy should be applied, however it makes clear that “absence during term time for holidays is...not considered an exceptional circumstance”.  It also addressed complaints raised by many parents by stating that bereavements of immediate family members should be considered “exceptional circumstances”.  However, leave should only be granted for the funeral ceremony and not extended leave.

A novel proposal in the guidance suggests that where local authorities have a substantial number of persons employed by a single employer with fixed a holiday period, the local authority may wish to consider varying term-dates to accommodate those patterns, as a way of parents avoiding penalties under the policy.  This proposal would also be relevant to multi-academy trusts in a similar position.  It should be noted, however, that such proposals have previously been met with controversy.  It has been identified in the media that varying term dates can create difficulties for families where their children attend school in different local authorities.  This can create a situation whereby one child’s school holidays may not necessarily coincide with another’s.  Any variation of term dates would have to be implemented carefully and with appropriate consultation.  Campaign group Parents Want A Say, chaired by John Hemming MP, who sought to challenge the new Regulations before the Courts in May 2014, have welcomed the guidance.  The Group have, however, stated that “we still have a long way to go”.

It is not yet clear how this guidance will be applied in practice and it is unlikely to appease those that consider the outright ban on holidays in term-time to be draconian.   The DfE has confirmed that it has no plans to revisit the policy.