THIS week it was revealed that there could be changes to school term times.

As from September 2015 the local authorities will no longer set school holidays and instead schools will set them themselves.

This led to NASUWT, the largest teaching union in the UK, raising concerns that it could cause issues for parents with children in different schools with different term dates.

It is understood that Chesil Education Partnership, which represents Weymouth and Portland schools, wants to change term dates to include a shorter summer break and has been in talks with the Dorchester Area Schools Partnership.

The partnership has said the changes would be positive with a fixed Easter break and shorter autumn term, and that schools were working together to align term dates. The cost of a family holiday during school holidays has long been an issue for parents and they now risk being fined if they take their children out of school during term time. Tara Cox looks at the dilemma facing parents:

FINING parents for taking Dorset children out of school for term-time holidays has been labelled the ‘very last resort’ in tackling poor school attendance by Dorset County Council.

Parents of schoolchildren in Dorset are being reminded of Government changes to the rules concerning family holidays during term-time.

Headteachers no longer have the power to grant authorised leave to pupils, meaning parents may face a fine if they take a holiday during the school term.

If children have an unauthorised absence due to a family holiday, parents could be fined £60 or – if they don’t pay the penalty and are prosecuted – could have to pay up to £1,000.

However, Dorset County Council told the Echo that no fines have been issued so far to parents in Dorset under the new government initiative.

Instead, the council say all other solutions to absence problems will be sought before issuing fines for parents.

Cllr Toni Coombs, Dorset County Council member for education, pictured, said: “We’re working in partnership with schools to support families where there is an underlying issue with poor attendance.

“Penalty notices are just one tool that we can use to improve pupils attendance at school.

“Every case is looked at individually and the appropriate action taken for the circumstances.

“Fines are the last resort and we will try to find a solution to the issues first.”

The cost of a holiday is often lower during term time, with companies responding to higher demand by rising prices during school breaks.

However, the Education Act states that parents and carers must ensure that their children of school age receive suitable education, for example full-time schooling.

Under existing legislation, parents or carers commit an offence if a child fails to attend regularly and absences are unauthorised by the school, possibly resulting in prosecution under section 444 of the Education Act 1996.

Cllr Coombs also urged parents to think twice before booking a holiday during term time.

She said: “You may think that the time your children miss from school because of a holiday doesn’t affect their education, but a child who has 10 days of holiday each year of their school life will miss 24 weeks – that’s nearly a whole school year.

“I understand that family holidays are generally cheaper during term time, but a child gets only one chance at education, so I encourage parents to do their very best not to take their children out of school unless they really have to.”

A penalty notice or fine is an alternative to prosecution which does not require an appearance in court while still seeking to secure an improvement in attendance.

Dorset County Council considers that regular attendance is of such importance that penalty notices may be used where unauthorised absence occurs.

This might include truancy sweeps, inappropriate parent condoned absence, holidays in term time without prior school permission, late arrivals or other situations.

Those who pay the penalty notice in full within 21 days it is £60, or £120 within 28 days.

If the notice remains unpaid then the council will commence proceedings in the Magistrates’ Court, which could result in a £2,500 fine.

Vicky Prior, chairman of the Chesil Education Partnership, pictured right, said an introduction letter for parents that goes out each school year highlights the importance of good school attendance in improving a young person’s success.

The letter also states that it is essential for children and young people to form regular attendance habits at school from an early age, and that good attendance is maintained throughout their school life.

The CEP is a partnership of all 22 schools and colleges in Weymouth and Portland.

It was formed in 2004 with a vision to create a positive and genuine culture of cooperation among the educational establishments to ensure the highest educational outcomes for all children and young people in the area.

Mrs Prior told the Echo: “Attendance is an important issue for many schools within Chesil, with some having it identified as an area for improvement by Ofsted.

“The Chesil Education Partnership works with schools to promote good attendance for all pupils, and have an agreed protocol of how attendance matters will handled by all schools.

“The protocol clearly sets out the expectations for parents and the possible consequences of low attendance rates.

“While all schools want to work closely with parents and support them wherever possible, we are also duty bound to ensure that pupil attendance is good.”

Schools within the Chesil Education Partnership have agreed the following: No Leave of Absence will be granted during term time, except in exceptional circumstances.

The schools in the Chesil Education Partnership will monitor the attendance of our pupils and work closely with the Locality Early Intervention Teams to support children and young people whose attendance levels are causing concern.

Whilst we understand that children do become ill on occasions, children who lose a lot of time at school can suffer in the long term from significant gaps in their learning.

Schools have the right to request evidence of illness and will do so if a child builds up considerable absence through illness over a period of time.

If a child’s health continues to affect their education schools are obliged to make a referral to the School Medical Officer to ensure that all that can be done is being done.

If your child is ill it is the responsibility of the parent/carer to ensure that they inform the school. Chesil Education Partnership schools all operate a targeted ‘First Day Call’ system, which means they will contact you to ask why your child is not in school and when they are expected to return.

It is important that pupils are in school on time. Good punctuality is not only important in obtaining maximum benefit from education, it is also a key skill for adult life.

Lateness is monitored by schools in the Chesil Education Partnership and contributes to absence rates.

Because we recognise the importance of education and value good attendance, all schools in the Chesil Education Partnership celebrate good attendance.

The Echo posed the question on our Facebook page asking what parents and residents in Dorset thought of the government initiative to fine parents for taking children out of school for term-time holidays.

We asked whether they thought it was a good idea or made things worse for those already struggling financially.

Here are just some of the comments: Weymouth resident Terri Bex said: “No parent should not be fined for taking kids out of school for holidays, sometimes this is the only quality time they get to spend with both parents who are normally at work just to break even.”

Local farmer Mark Goringe said: “During the summer holidays we’re harvesting, so if we want to take kids on holiday we don’t have any choice but to take them out of school – it’s not ideal but why should the kids suffer a way of life?”

Emma Oldershaw said she took her six-year-old son on holiday and was told this was acceptable if he links his trip to educational research.

Bridport resident Shane Affleck said: “As a chef and a parent I find it really hard to take kids away because of this rule – last summer I was working 100 hours a week and couldn’t get term time off.”

Weymouth mother Emma Waller added: “I used to take my three children out of school in March or April to Devon cliffs, which was only £150 for a week.

“I'm now looking at over £500 and I can’t afford it.”

Rebecca Fane said her parents ran a shop in West Bay meaning family holidays during school holidays were ‘impossible’.

She said: “I took work with me on holidays, didn’t go in exam years and made sure I didn’t fall behind.

“I also got experiences of countries, a closer bond with my family and an awareness of the world.”