In case you missed Friday afternoon’s breaking news, there was a landmark ruling in the High Court that struck a chord for parents, headteachers and the Department for Education.
The highest court in the country acquitted a father of failing to pay fines for taking his daughter on an unauthorised term time holiday. Magistrates informed Isle of Wight councillors, who had brought the case, that the child had attended school regularly and a seven day consecutive absence failed to demonstrate otherwise.
That’s the background. But why are we talking about this?
I was asked to comment on the day’s events, both before and after the ruling, from a travel industry perspective. The crux of the questioning? What’s the travel industry playing at hiking prices so significantly during school holiday periods.
Like it or lump it (and I’m a parent too), this is business. When supply outweighs demand, prices go up.
Call it advantageous. Call it greedy. Call it tactical back-covering to pay for quieter periods in the year. But find me a business that doesn’t increase it prices when there’s a timely and relevant opportunity to maximise a peak in demand...
Time for an analogy or two
When I was talking to Danny Kelly on BBC Radio WM, he talked about the butcher with the last turkey on Christmas Eve. I borrowed that analogy for my slot on the BBC News Channel to simply demonstrate that the travel sector is not alone in its practices.
Can you find many restaurants that charge the same for Christmas Day lunch as they do the rest of the year? And what about supermarket ‘express’ and ‘metro’ stores – they openly admit their prices are more expensive than in their larger stores. They blame logistics, but if the store wasn’t there the community would have to travel to grab that must-have ingredient for tonight’s supper. We call that demand – the price you pay for having access to a corner shop at all.
Why such a hot topic now?
Landmark court case aside, this only rears its head as a topic for debate because in 2013 the rules changed. Until then parents had 10 days discretionary leave to take their kids out of school during term time. Since then tens of thousands of parents have been fined between £60 and £120 for taking their children out of school for an absence of at least five consecutive days.
Is the travel industry to blame?
Given such a recent rule change, it’s funny (or not) how many commentators on this seem to forget how things used to be. Yet they don’t seem to recall that the travel industry has always had peak season pricing.
Ad infinitum, it has been more expensive to travel during school holiday periods. I remember, back in my studious childhood days, being geekily fascinated by a hotel tariff table. Its peaks and troughs, and how wonderful it would be to come here twice a year if we could only come at cheaper times of the year. Not to be.
Anne Longfield, the Children’s Commissioner for England, called for the travel industry to do something while talking on the BBC Breakfast sofa on Saturday morning. But then she can’t be expected to say anything else. Although I’m inclined (as a parent) to interpret her remit with rather more discretion: “promote and protect children’s right to make life better for children and young people in England.”
Should the travel industry find its moral compass?
The challenge presented to parents who have school age children and wish to take a holiday, is that of school holiday period price hikes on accommodation and flights.
Should the travel industry be allowed to inflict holiday price hikes? Should parents be allowed to take children out of school for holidays? What is defined as ‘exceptional circumstances’? How do you manage ‘discretion’? And what is the purpose of a fine if it doesn’t sufficiently deter unauthorised absences?
Without wishing to be drawn on the debate that naturally leads towards the topics of school performance, tests and league tables, let’s just remember that the travel industry is a marketplace: the arena of commercial dealings.
What happens next?
The Department for Education’s response to the ruling said that a child’s school attendance was “non-negotiable”. So we’ll likely see an attempt to legislate the matter.
I said on air today that this was a landmark day for parents and a landmark day for the DfE, but that it was unlikely to make waves in the travel sector. And I stand by that.
Dragging the travel industry across hot coals just doesn’t fit. It’s too easy a response from the pedagogues. And this is a matter that needs an objective eye if a sensible solution is to be achieved.
Peak season pricing is going nowhere. Criminalising parents for affording their children a holiday is daft. Maybe there’ll be a compromise on discretionary leave once more. With hindsight, 10 days seems excessive, wouldn’t five be enough…?