The debate was sparked by a petition which calls for price caps to stop holiday firms “cashing in” on the school holidays. No MP backed price regulation during the Westminster Hall debate, and the government also rejected the idea, but term staggering and more power for schools received widespread support.
Liberal Democrat MP John Hemming, who requested the debate, said the issue was a “considerable concern” to many people. He said price capping was not a “practical solution”, and a plan to suspend Airport Passenger Duty in the school summer holidays was “not a flyer”.
A rule change which came into effect last September means head teachers can only grant time off in “exceptional circumstances”. Previously parents could be allowed to take their children out of school for 10 days per academic year.
Mr Hemming, who is MP for Birmingham Yardley, said one possible solution to the prices problem was to go “back towards” that system – but “not necessarily as far” as 10 days.
Consumer Affairs Minister Jenny Willott said, “The government has not said that no absence is possible. It has given head teachers the discretion to make that call and we also haven’t specified what constitutes exceptional circumstances as we think individual cases need to be considered individually.”
On pupils going on holiday during term time, she said the change in September was simply a “clarification” to remove the “misconception” that parents were allowed to take their children out of school for 10 days a year.
She said, “I am very sympathetic to people who struggled to afford them in peak season, but they should not be at the expense of a child’s education, and school attendance throughout the school year does remain absolutely critical. Children missing school could have a negative impact not just on them, but also on fellow pupils and teachers.
“Staggering holiday dates could help bring prices down and I understand why people wanted the government to organise dates which varied from area to area. However, local authorities currently decide term dates, and by 2015 all schools will have the power already given to free schools and academies to set their own dates.”
On the petition’s proposal of price capping, she said the travel business was one of the most competitive industries in the UK, and this had led it to be “innovative” and “responsive” to customers’ needs.
“The government is not convinced higher prices in school holidays are as a result of market abuse by the holiday industry, but rather they reflect the market forces in a very competitive sector,” she said.
The e-petition which sparked the debate, signed by more than 168,000 people, calls on the government to “enforce action that caps the percentage increase on holiday prices in school holidays”, but the debate did not focus on that suggestion as no MP supported it.
Damian Hinds, MP for East Hampshire, said, “Nobody in this country decides the price of a hotel room in Spain. It would be inconceivable for the government to attempt to cap prices and some European holidays may no longer be made available to UK customers if prices were controlled.”
Mr Hinds, who said he had worked in the hotel industry for 10 years, also said, “Staggering holidays could have some effect but demand was not only driven by the school holidays, but August would still have the best weather and Christmas is Christmas.”