PARENTS who pull their children out of school for forbidden holidays can now expect a fine, as a council takes a harder approach to punishment.

New Department for Education figures show that the number of school days missed due to term-time trips has increased once again in Oxfordshire, from 48,998 sessions (half days) in 2017-18, to 54,622 in 2018-19.

The figures only account for the autumn and spring terms so do not include summer, perhaps when more families are likely to take children on holiday.

Despite schools urging parents to confine their holidays to the six-week summer break or half terms, many are still flouting the rules.

In response to the rise, Oxfordshire County Council has apparently vowed to use its power to issue more £60 penalties, without first giving a warning.

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A letter published by East Oxford Primary School this term warns parents: "The council’s procedures have been amended.

"On the first occasion on which parents have taken holidays in the past, this has been dealt with by a warning.

"Oxfordshire [County Council] have indicated to us that, in the majority of cases, they now intend to proceed straight to a fine and/or legal action."

Headteachers and the authority have previously shied away from financial punishment, favouring a written agreement called a parental contract.

In 2017-18 the number of truancy fines issued in Oxfordshire was 176 - a spike from 78 in 2016-17, but still the lowest of any authority in the South East.

At a meeting earlier this year, county councillor and former headteacher Michael Waine said Oxfordshire 'is one of the few authorities that adopt a warning letter prior to penalty notices.'

Parents can be hit with a £60 fine for truancy, doubling to £120 after 21 days.

Failure to pay can result in prosecution in court, with fines of up to £2,500 or a three-month prison sentence.

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In 2017-18, 28 Oxfordshire parents were prosecuted in court for failure to pay.

Risinghurst academic Alison Kahn, an anthropologist, said she sometimes takes her two primary-age sons out of school to join her on work trips to India.

She said: "A lot of people call us the Durrells because of our intrepid adventures, but they also say that's probably the best way to bring them up - responsibly, but progressively.

"This isn't us being frivolous – we are giving them all the things the school can't give them.

"We can't afford to give them a private education, so instead we offer them opportunities for language and travel through the jobs we trained to do."

Dr Kahn, whose husband also travels with work, said absence should be assessed on a case-by-case basis.

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She said: "Our children are grade A students, because we make sure they are. If you're taking your children out, you're responsible for making sure they keep up.

"Of course you must try to keep your children in school as much as possible, but education has to be more progressive."

She said as well as the expense of going away during the holidays, in some countries the climate does not allow that – for example, clashing with monsoon season in India.

Dr Kahn said schools have been understanding and she has not yet been issued a fine.

She added: "We couldn't afford to be fined. That would be spiteful and totally ignorant to the situation.

"When woman have children their earning ability goes down drastically – that's happened to me, because I can't go far and when I need to work, my children have to come with me.

"It's irresponsible to condemn women for wanting to pursue a career."

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Headteachers who have spoken to the Oxford Mail previously, particularly in more culturally diverse schools, say many absences are because of pupils visiting family abroad.

Even if a school authorises one or two days for an event such as a family funeral, it is often not feasible to fly long-haul just for those days.

One Oxford Mail reader, commenting on Facebook today, said: "Both me and my husband had a fine back in June because we took our daughter to America for a family wedding and to see an aunt for the last time.

"The school would not authorise it. It's disgusting under those circumstances."

In an Oxford Mail poll in April, 69 per cent of 567 readers said term-time holidays should be allowed.

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In the newsletter sent to parents, East Oxford Primary School said: "We do not want to be in a position to have to issue these [fines] against our own families, but equally understand and agree with the principle that your child must be in school, and we do need to report any absences to Oxfordshire [council].

"Each school day is carefully planned and each lesson informs a wider programme of learning - every lesson really does count."

The majority of unauthorised holiday absences in the two terms, accounting for 37,989 missed sessions, were at primary schools as opposed to secondary.

For a further 10,071 sessions, pupils were marked absent due to authorised holiday that headteachers had allowed.