Scotland: record numbers taking unauthorised school holidays

CREDIT: This story was first seen in The Sunday Herald

Almost one million school days were lost last year in Scotland because pupils took unauthorised holidays – the highest figures on record, The Sunday Herald reports..

Official data showed more than 910,000 days were lost, with many parents taking their children out of school in term time in order to get cheaper holidays.

The number was around 250,000 days more than the previous year.

Highlighting the figures, Scottish Labour said the problem could make it harder for the SNP government to achieve its goal of closing the attainment gap between rich and poor pupils.

In 2005/06, around 0.4% of school days were lost to unauthorised holidays, but by 2016/17 this had risen to 0.7%.

Unexplained absences, including truancy, also nearly doubled over the period, accounting for 0.7% and 1.5% of lost days in 2005/06 and 2016/17 respectively.

With 685,000 pupils enrolled, unexplained absence amounted to 1.95m days last year.

Labour said the figures pointed to a cost of living problem, with parents pulling children out of school to save potentially hundreds of pounds on holiday travel.

There are no automatic fines for parents in Scotland who take children on holiday during term-time, although the government advises schools should not normally give a family permission to do so.

In cases of persistent absence, councils can issue attendance enforcement orders which can form the basis for a prosecution in Sheriff Court, and ultimately a fine or imprisonment.

Last year the UK Supreme Court ruled against Jon Platt from the Isle of Wight after he appealed a £120 fine for taking his daughter out of primary school to go on holiday.

He had claimed the penalty for the unauthorised trip to Florida meant the state was “taking the rights away from parents”, but the judges said the school had the final say.

The case made it clear that parents in England can be fine for their child missing school without the agreement of the headteacher expect for family illness or bereavement.

Fines start at £60, double to £120 if not paid within a month, and can hit £2500.

In May 2016, a Westminster petition to allow parents a fortnight holiday allowance during term time attracted more than 200,000 signatures, but ministers refused to grant it.

Last year the travel money firm FairFX found some flights increased nine-fold in price during the English half-term in February, with some holidays costing thousands of pounds extra.

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Iain Gray, Scottish Labour spokesperson on education, said: “These figures should be a cause of concern for any government that wants to close the attainment gap in our classrooms.

“A huge amount of school days are being lost.

“Policy makers in the Scottish Government should be asking themselves why there has been such a sharp increase in these unauthorised absences and the knock-on effect that will have on young people getting the skills they need.

“We know the pressures families fall under as the Christmas and summer holidays approach – airlines hike up the price of flights forcing families to choose between the last week of school or being able to afford a holiday or travel to see loved ones.”

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “Although only around 0.7 per cent of half day sessions were lost to unauthorised holiday absences in 2016/17, it is important that schools and parents continue to do all they can to ensure good attendance to maintain children’s attainment.

“We will continue to support local authorities, schools and parents to do all they can to ensure good attendance in addition to our considerable investment in raising attainment.”

Meanwhile, the Scottish Liberal Democrats attacked the provision of child mental health services, citing new data obtained under freedom of information law.

MSP Alex Cole-Hamilton said children had collectively waited 1.2m days beyond the 18-week waiting time target for treatment since it was introduced in 2014.

The worst performance was in NHS Lothian, where children waited 206,000 days beyond the target last year alone, while in NHS Grampian just a third of children were seen on time.

Mr Cole-Hamilton said the scale of the breaches was “appalling”, adding: “These are vulnerable children, coping with issues from eating orders and depression to bullying and anxiety. It’s time ministers accepted there is a crisis in mental health.”

Mental Health Minister Maureen Watt said she was “disappointed” that health boards had not hit the 90 per cent target of seeing children within 18 weeks. and said the draft budget would increase spending on mental health.

“We are determined to reduce waiting times,” she said.

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