Holiday firms have realised for years that they can make a fast buck by exploiting families and teachers - tied to term time holidays. With holiday companies pushing prices ever-higher, and families struggling to meet the costs, record numbers are taking their children out of school during term time in order to get their hands on a cheaper break.
Figures from Essex authorities have revealed fines for unauthorised absence are up 400%, so what's going on?
Shocking costsDuring the school holidays, the cost of every part of the break goes through the roof - and you can easily spend more than twice the money for a flight, villa or car hire than at quieter times of the year.
Once you start to look at taking a family of four away for a fortnight, and factor in everything, you can easily find yourself on the wrong side of a bill for £3,000 - and who has that kind of cash spare for a couple of weeks in the sun?
The gulf has become so large that hard-pressed families are increasingly taking their children out of school for cut-price term-time breaks. Under the rules, if parents can show there is a good educational reason for the trip, they have good attendance, and they are not taking the children out of school for long, they may be granted permission from the head teacher. However, if they go without permission, they can be fined.
FinesAccording to the BBC, the number of fines in Essex has risen from just 51 in the year to April 2008, to 261 last year. The number of parents taken to court for taking their children out of school has also risen - from one in 2008 to 12 last year.
Figures from LV= show that the trend could be even more widespread. Three in ten (29%) parents plan to take children out of school for a holiday this year. It says that more broadly the number of fines is up 60% in the last year.
This will not be the last we hear about the fines. Penalties for taking children out of school during term-time look set to rise to £60 following proposals published earlier this year. This will double to £120 for those who do not pay within 28 days and the money will be taken from child benefit if not paid by the parents.
However, there's a serious question mark over whether fines are effective. After-all, the LV= figures show that the number taking their children out of school in term time has increased every year since fines were first introduced in 2004.
Selwyn Fernandes, managing director of LV= travel insurance, said "The difference in price for taking a trip during the school holidays and during term-time is huge. It is not surprising that so many parents are willing to risk a fine of £60 when they can save ten times that by holidaying outside of the peak season."
So what's the answer?Instead of hitting parents with fines, there are those who would argue that pressure should be put on travel companies to reduce the cost of school holiday breaks. However, they point out that this is a matter of simple supply and demand - so there is nothing they can do about it.
ABTA argues that school holidays ought to be staggered, so that there is less of a cliff edge for prices. However, there is then the argument that the summer, for example, is a key time of demand around the world, and that the sheer numbers involved mean that staggering holidays would be a drop in the ocean.
Instead, the experts advise that your best weapon in the fight for a bargain break is to be organised. If you can book ahead, package deals will provide special offers, and will often include children free of charge.
If you are planning the break yourself, you should stay on top of when the budget airlines release their flights. If you get in very early, you could cut the cost by £100 each way per person very easily. And if you can stand to book accommodation up to a year in advance, you will have a chance to snap up the bargains before they go.
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