PUPILS in Oxfordshire skipped tens of thousands of school days in just two terms, following a spike in forbidden term-time holidays.

New Government figures reveal soaring levels of unauthorised absence in the county, sparking concerns about children taking a 'backwards step' in their education.

Pupils missed a total of 80,546 days in the autumn and spring terms of the last academic year – up from 70,163 in the same period of the previous year.

The number of days lost due to unauthorised holiday rocketed from 20,281 to 24,021 in the same period.

Authorised absences tend to only relate to illness, or circumstances such as funerals or religious observation.

Sheenagh Broadbent, head of St Christopher's CE School in Cowley, said: "I talk to parents at length about how their child's education is going to suffer if they're away, particularly if English is not their first language and they are away from speaking it.

"It's a backwards step."

Of 272 Oxfordshire state-funded primary and secondary schools in the Department for Education's statistics, 359-pupil primary school St Christopher's by far had the most days missed for unauthorised holidays, at 464.

Mrs Broadbent said: "This is not people going on traditional holidays, but people going back to their home countries.

"For many, that's a long way. They value education but flights are expensive and they will go when they can afford to.

"It sounds like an awful lot but it's probably only a few families, with two or three children in the school.

"If it's for a wedding or funeral we will authorise a couple of days, but obviously if you're going to Brazil or Pakistan it's a long journey for two days."

Schools can ask Oxfordshire County Council to fine parents for taking children out of class for holidays, but Mrs Broadbent said this rarely deters repeat offenders.

In 2015/16 85 parents in the county were issued with fines.

A better incentive, she said, is that children are taken off the school's roll if they have been away without permission for more than 20 school days.

Campaigners nationally have called for more lenience about holidays, but the Supreme Court backed the current ban in April, when a father tried to fight his council fine.

Chilton mother Eleanor Woodley is taking her six-year-old daughter Phoebe abroad in May, along with her fiancé and 15-month-old son Jasper.

She will miss seven school days from St Edmund's Catholic Primary School in Abingdon during the 10-day trip to Spain.

Receptionist Miss Woodley, 27, said: "Our holiday would have been an extra £2,500 if we had taken it in the summer holidays.

"I don't believe it will make a difference to her education.

"You need to start worrying if children are constantly late or off sick or going on holidays regularly.

"Parents should be allowed an amount of days to take their children out: 10 days is 10 days in the grand scheme of things, and it's primary school.

"If they want to give me homework for her to do there, I'm happy to do that.

"Going away is good education for them.

"I feel like children need those experiences."

The school with the most absences overall was UTC Oxfordshire in Didcot, where 8.1 per cent of all sessions were missed due to absence – almost double the national average of 4.5 per cent.

It also had the highest rate of unauthorised absences, with 3.2 per cent of sessions (half-days) missed, compared to 1.1 per cent nationally, but barely any were due to holiday.

The majority was due to lateness.

Owain Johns, principal of the 181-pupil college, said: "Our catchment area is much larger than other schools so students come from further afield. A number of students get here a little bit later."

Mr Johns said the 14-19 year-old age range might also skew comparisons, as younger pupils often have better attendance.

He said fining and taking parents to court would be 'counterproductive''.

Second-highest in Oxfordshire for unauthorised absences was New Hinksey CE Primary School in Oxford, where 2.6 per cent of sessions were missed.

Charlotte Haynes, head of the 140-pupil school off Abingdon Road, said: "We do have a high proportion of international families who return home for visits, very often in term time...sometimes for three or four weeks."

She also said that during those terms 10 traveller children were enrolled, and made up for more than half the unauthorised absences.

The picture in Oxfordshire reflects the national trend, which saw a rise in unauthorised absences as well as term-time holidays.

Oxfordshire County Council's cabinet member for education Hilary Hibbert-Biles said: "School attendance is vital to children's attainment. Where levels of unauthorised or persistent absence are high, that is always a cause for concern."

She stressed that this was only an issue with a 'minority' of Oxfordshire schools.