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Term time skiing

Every skiing family knows that February half term is the single most expensive week of any ski season. The snow conditions are usually fantastic but it is also the time when tour operators cash in on our desire to enjoy a mountain holiday. So is there ever any justification to take your children out of school to go skiing? Ben Moore reports.

Is there ever any justification to take your children out of school to go on a family skiing holiday?

Taking a family on a skiing holiday is an expensive operation and during the peak school holidays, it becomes even more so.  If you were able to book the week before or week after February half term, for example, you could bag yourself a saving of 50 percent or more – so it is very tempting therefore to take your child or children out of school for a family skiing holiday.


The law is pretty clear on this issue: the Government says you should not normally take your child on holiday in term time, because it can be disruptive to both your child’s learning and to the school. In fact there are key factors schools will consider if an application is made for a term-time ski holiday:


     * The time of year for the proposed trip;

     * If it is close to any exam dates;

     * Your child’s overall attendance record;

     * Any holidays already taken in the school year;

     * The age and stage of education of your child;

     * The ability of your child to catch up the work they have missed.


And it is worth remembering you could be issued with a penalty notice if your child is absent from school without permission. The penalty is £50, rising to £100 if not paid within 28 days. And ultimately you can be prosecuted.


This issue is close to the heart of one dad – Chris Thompson – who also happens to be the boss of family ski tour operator Ski Famille. This season he was granted permission to take his own daughter out of school in the week before February half term to head out to the Alps, and he has created a template letter to help other parents.


The letter explains there is a real educational value to a trip to the mountains, explaining that children are frequently allowed time away from school to pursue a passion for football and rugby, and snow sports should be treated the same.


It also says that children will come back from being in the mountain environment motivated and excited, having experienced a different culture and been introduced to the value of learning a second language.


“On a skiing holiday, children are not vegging out on a beach. It is a holiday that fires the imagination of children and adds valuable experience to their lives. After 11 years old it may be difficult to justify, but it’s not as if the children are going to the beach to splash around and build sandcastles,” says Chris Thompson.


“Parents need to approach the issue in a constructive way. There is no way I condone unauthorised absence from school, so you need to take an early approach and do a sales job on your head teacher.


“Fewer schools now organise ski trips, so there is less chance for children to experience this within school parameters. So there should be give and take for families who want their children to experience skiing."


The National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) says schools are set "acceptable attendance thresholds" by the government and that over time these thresholds have continually increased. So whether authorised or unauthorised, a child's total absence is used to monitor attendance figures. Clearly this means there is pressure on head teachers to meet these threshold targets.


"Head teachers may grant leave of absence for the purpose of family holidays during term time, but they are not obliged to do so," says Jan Myles from the NAHT.


"There is no prescription on what constitutes special circumstances. It is left for the school to decide on a case by case basis. But is it not for the providers of holidays to make concessions to families limited by the school holiday period?"


So is the solution that tour operators do not jack up prices during the school holidays, which hit families hardest?


While Thompson – a dad and tour operator – has some sympathy, he admits it would be unworkable as a business model: “I’d love to sell at an average price each week of the season, but tour operators pricing is driven by supply and demand. Some of our chalets are empty for the week immediately after half term, so as a business you have to get revenue from the premium weeks.”


The Independent’s senior travel editor Simon Calder suggests while the current situation is painful for families, the alternative would be worse. “Many package holidays, including skiing holidays, are sold at a loss a lot of the time. So while it is true that prices during school holidays can be 50-100 percent higher and this is not a comfortable state of affairs, it is the reality of the situation. If the pricing changed then the whole business model would unravel and we would have fewer holidays and ski operators to choose from,” says Calder.