Head Lines with Jonny Mitchell: I didn’t want to be a head to issue fines

Thornhill Community Academy’s straight-talking headteacher Jonny Mitchell showed the world what life in the classroom is really like in the award-winning TV documentary series Educating Yorkshire.

Monday, 3rd November 2014, 11:30 am
HEAD LINES Jonny Mitchell.

Now he writes exclusively for us:

It was perhaps opportune when I wrote about ‘Holiday Heads’ last week, now that the Department for Education has issued new guidelines about children being taken out of school, and helping heads to interpret exceptional circumstances.

Essentially, though, nothing has really changed. Even under the old guidelines, which were much more draconian, most heads wouldn’t dream of preventing a child attending a family funeral or taking part in a life-enriching educational event outside normal school. Or, for that matter, visiting a very sick relative where opportunities to do so are limited under normal circumstances.

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But there is more which needs to be done about the cost of holidays during peak periods so that we don’t have the clamour during term-time for children to be taken out for one or two weeks. There was talk some time ago of holiday companies receiving incentives to lower their prices so that more families, especially those for whom money is tight, could benefit from peak season holidays at a lower cost. But nothing seems to have happened.

It’s all very well banging on about education being precious and how losing weeks here and there will have serious repercussions on achievement (and it is true, by and large), but until there is an appetite at Government level to eradicate some of the inequalities around pricing structures, nothing will be done, and the system of apply, be refused, receive a warning, go anyway, get fined would appear to be here for the duration.

I hate issuing fines. It’s not why I became a head. It’s not as if the money it raises comes into school anyway. I could easily, in principle, just say “fine, off you go” and not bother fining. But this still means that schools will be working in opposition – some children have siblings in other schools, and they may have a more relaxed or a more stringent policy on fines. In any case, £60 per parent per child (family of five with three kids: £360) is often taken as a hit, when the actual cost of changing to a peak time might be thousands. I can see why parents do it, and I have to empathise.

Then there’s the complete misunderstanding by some that everybody can take holidays outside term-time. There are loads of people who have set patterns, agreed often well in advance – should they really be held to ransom financially? Some companies offer additional payments to their staff to allow them to afford expensive holidays more easily, but a small undertaking doesn’t necessarily have that flexibility. It’s all about economics. Unfortunately. Holidays have come a long way since the Billy Butlin era!

Various teaching bodies have spoken out about these issues, and all make very principled stands, which I agree with. Teachers are bound to agree with it, though, aren’t they – they have to go during the school holidays (with a few exceptions – see last week!). But it really is ludicrous that a week in early September can cost, for instance, £1,000 for a family of four, whereas the same period in July or August can be up to eight times that amount. I couldn’t believe it a few years ago when a two-day trip to Center Parcs (other outdoor activity-based centres are available), barely 40 miles away, was going to cost the best part of £1,500 over the Easter weekend.

I don’t, you might be surprised to learn, have an answer. But I do feel, with the seemingly tenuous portfolios held by some government ministers in some cases, that having a Minister for Having a Right Good Think About What Needs To Happen would be a good idea.

If it brings the cost down by even 20 per cent it would be a start.