School term-time holiday fines for parents 'trebled in two years'
The number of fines given to parents for taking their children on holiday during term time has almost trebled in two years - with tens of thousands handed out last year alone.
An investigation by the Press Association reveals that soaring numbers of families are being penalised, amid concerns that they are being "criminalised".
Figures obtained under the Freedom of Information Act show that in the last academic year alone, at least 50,414 penalty notices were issued due to children being taken out of lessons for trips.
This is up 25% on the year before, when at least 40,218 penalties were given out, and up 173% from the 18,484 fines handed out by local authorities in 2012/13. These figures cover 71 councils that provided data for all three years.
Overall, across 98 councils who responded, 86,010 fines were issued in 2014/15 for pupil absence, either through holiday or truancy.
This is up from 62,204 the year before and 32,512 in 2012/13.
The hikes come in the wake of a Government crackdown on absence, including strict new rules on term-time holidays introduced in England two years ago.
Craig Langman, from Nuneaton, who founded the organisation Parents Want A Say to campaign against fines, said many mums and dads believe they are being made to feel like criminals.
Nearly 230,000 people have signed his petition calling for the fines to be scrapped.
Headteachers said that while there are times when children have to miss school, holidays are not a valid reason.
A breakdown of the figures - which come the week before children across England break up for half-term - show that Lancashire Council handed out the most holiday fines last year at 3,907.
Mr Langman said he took action after being threatened with a fine if he took his son out of school to visit his sick grandfather.
"I was seeing red. I thought, 'how dare they tell me that I can't my child out to see his family?'" he said.
He added: "Nearly a quarter of a million people have signed my petition and are saying they feel they are being made to feel like criminals."
Ministers have argued that missing any amount of school is detrimental to a child's education, but school absence reforms introduced in 2013 have proved controversial, with critics arguing that they have the biggest impact on those who cannot afford high travel costs during school breaks and families with parents that work shifts.
Brian Lightman, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) said: "There will be times when children have to miss school because of problems such as illness and family emergencies.
"Schools are very sympathetic in these cases and will help children catch up with work. However, term time holidays are not a valid reason to miss school."
The future of holiday fines was thrown into question last week when a father won a court battle after refusing to pay a £120 fine for taking his six year-old daughter out of school to go to Disney World, Florida.
The case against Jon Platt, 44, was thrown out at the Isle of Wight Magistrates' Court after he argued the law requires parents to ensure their children attend school "regularly", and did not put restrictions on taking them on holidays in term time.
A Department for Education spokesman said: "It is a myth that missing school even for a short time is harmless to a child's education.
"Our evidence shows missing the equivalent of just one week a year from school can mean a child is significantly less likely to achieve good GCSE grades, having a lasting effect on their life chances."
Lib Dem leader Tim Farron called on the Government to review its position on fines.
"These latest figures show the damaging impact that the Government's policy is having. Punishing parents financially for making individual decisions about their children's education is not the way to improve our education system," he said.
The Local Government Association (LGA), which represents 370 councils across the country, is calling for rules to be changed to give heads greater flexibility to allow parents to take their children on holiday during term time.
The LGA's children's chief Councillor Roy Perry said: "Giving families' time to be on holiday together can have social and emotional benefits which are of lasting value and support to children. It should not be something for which they are unduly punished."
Schools minister Nick Gibb said heads had discretion to allow pupils to be absent in "exceptional circumstances" such as for a funeral, but they would not be allowed to have a holiday on the back of it.
He told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "The rules say you can't take leave from school during term time except in exceptional circumstances.
"The NAHT, the National Association of Head Teachers, had produced some very helpful guidance which says that if the request for permission to be out of school is for something that could easily take place in the school holiday then the head teacher should not give permission and that would include holidays.
"But if it's a funeral or something then the head teacher would be able to give permission to attend the funeral but not then to have an extended holiday on the back of that funeral."
The minister added: "The way to avoid the fine, of course, is to not take your child out of school without the permission of a headteacher. The head teacher does have discretion to exercise when there are issues of compassion, when there are funerals or illness or so on."