What is the 'Parent Trap'?

30 Jun 2015
Since 2013, Travelzoo has been campaigning against "the Parent Trap" – a toxic combination of soaring flight taxes and inflexible school-holiday policies that forces parents to take their kids on holiday at peak periods when prices rise by up to 40%. Here we provide some background on the campaign so far...

The Parent Trap is a bit like a club packed with millions of reluctant members all sharing the same dilemma; the prospect of peak-price family holidays, the most expensive air tax in the world, plus the risk of fines and court action.

Now here’s a really simple way to tell if you’re part of it: are you a parent or a guardian of a child attending a UK state school, and if so, do you want a family holiday this year? Yes? Then congratulations, you’re in the club.

It used to be the case that head teachers were allowed to grant a few days of discretionary leave. That was until 2013, when the then Education Secretary, Michael Gove, on a mission to crack down on truancy, introduced strict fines for any parent whose child was absent without approved leave.

Approved leave is only be available to kids who are genuinely sick or attending a close family member's funeral. Unapproved leave means parents face £60 penalties per child – so two children means you get a bill for £120. If you don’t pay, you risk court action and possibly jail. Both parents can be fined as well, causing courtroom dramas when parents are separated yet can be fined for their spouse's decision to take the children out of school.

So that's the trap in a nutshell: an outright ban on unauthorised term-time absences, leaving parents of state-school children only allowed to take family holidays when prices are at their highest; a problem exacerbated by Britain having the world’s most expensive air passenger duty (or APD - the tax all passengers have to pay for flying).

And don't think it's an idle threat: between September, 2013, and August, 2014, nearly 64,000 fines were issued in the UK.

Are holiday companies to blame?

An obvious question would be: why do holiday companies charge more during school holidays? Travelzoo's MD, Richard Singer, explains: “Like any business where there is seasonal demand, prices in travel rise and fall. Pointing the finger of blame at UK travel agents is, however, unfair. A high-street travel agency has no ability to set the pricing for a hotel in Spain in July for example. Those prices are set by the hotel and are based on demand from tourists from all over the world – not just the UK. "The reality is that travel is a global industry and UK companies cannot set or restrict pricing. What could help – certainly for UK tourism – is an approach to staggering school holidays whereby large parts of the UK go on holiday at different times. If we extended the summer holiday period to 12 weeks starting in June and ending in September, then there would be a much larger window of opportunity for companies to attract the family market. As a result we could see some reduction in pricing. "Travelzoo is working with the National Association of Head Teachers and the UK travel industry to look at how best to take advantage of new staggering legislation coming in to effect in September, 2015."

State-school families hit hardest

The Parent Trap doesn’t affect everyone the same way. Private schools run different term times to state schools, meaning most of those parents get to book their holidays just outside of peak periods. Here's an example: if you book a flight to Alicante in Spain with easyJet on 16 July (when state schools are still open but private schools have finished for the year), it would cost £139 per person. By 25 July, the price rises to up to £287 per person*.

To be clear, no one at Travelzoo condones unauthorised absences during term time, and we certainly don’t encourage parents to take their children out of school without permission. What we do believe in, though, is getting a fair system in place that gives UK families more access to affordable holidays.

As regards the fines, we believe that a more flexible approach – some discretionary leave for children under 11 with over 90% attendance for example – would put an end to the increasing resentment parents are feeling towards their children’s schools when receiving an outright "no" on all days out of school.

Our biggest win to date has been the abolition of APD for under-12s. Chancellor George Osborne conceded to demands from us, fellow travel companies and various parent groups, and scrapped the tax, meaning from 1 May, 2015, families on short-haul flights would save an average of £12 per child. Next year, it’s being binned for the under-16s too. Is that enough? Not according to our research, which suggests the move will only make a big enough difference for 15%, while a quarter say scrapping it for all the family would be enough to discourage them from lying to get their children out of school for cheaper holidays.

So let’s give that move a C+, but with the caveat that more needs to be done, mainly scrapping APD in its entirety.

What next?

With a general election behind us, and with a relatively new education secretary in place, questions will of course be asked as to whether or not the fines system should be scrapped. But as we watch that space over the next year or so, our eyes will also be fixed on the subject of staggering.

Staggering is a new rule which comes into effect this year; and it means from 1 September, every head teacher at every state school in Britain will be allowed to change their term dates.

Sounds like a disaster waiting to happen? Recent research suggests around 70% of school leaders would consider taking up the option of more frequent, albeit shorter, school holidays with many citing more affordable holidays as the reason for doing so.

During the next few months, as part of our call for a fair system to ensure every family has the right to an affordable holiday, Travelzoo will be attempting to bring various travel leaders, teachers, parents and journalists together to find out. We can’t guarantee it will mean cheaper holidays, but we believe it’s worth finding out.

The Parent Trap by Numbers

  • There are 6.5 million 5-16-year-olds attending state-funded schools in the UK. Of these, there are 3,329 going to secondary schools and 6,788 going to primary school
  • Fines for taking children out of school without permission are £60 per pupil
  • 64,000 fines issued in the UK between September, 2013, and August 2014
  • The average cost of APD for a family of four flying short haul from the UK is £52… long-haul travel will cost an average £276
  • A family of four who take their summer holiday on the Thursday before schools break up (on the following Wednesday) can expect to save an average £700
*Search performed on 25 June, 2015.

Popular pages