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Butlin’s accused of ‘undermining’ school absence fight

Butlin’s has been accused of “undermining” schools’ work to boost attendance by advertising “term-time breaks” as “great-value getaways” for families with a “hard-to-please teen on your hands”.

The holiday firm offers four-night “showtime term-time midweek breaks” from just £13 per person, much cheaper than rates during school holidays.

While some activities are aimed at pre-school youngsters – such as one featuring cartoon character Peppa Pig – others featuring Optimus Prime, a robot from Transformers, seem to be targeted at older children.

Posing as a parent, we asked the firm if the holidays were suitable for school-aged children. A customer care representative said that “all breaks are suitable for all ages”.

‘Undermines schools’

Ministers are pushing hard for schools to improve their attendance rates, which are much lower than before Covid. Persistent absence rates are nearly double those in 2019.

David Whitehead, chief executive of Our Community Multi Academy Trust in Kent, said schools were working hard to “combat non-attendance for all pupils – which takes time, resources and staffing capacity.

“They continue to work hard to make school ‘the place to be’ and encourage parents to take responsibility in getting their children in to learn, spend time with their friends and be part of the community.

“However, companies actively encouraging term-time breaks completely undermine this messaging and effort, and in turn can create more hostility and the breaking down of the home-school agreement on the ground.”

Butlin’s website advertises term-time breaks, stating: “Whether you’ve got an always-on-the-go tot or a hard-to-please teen on your hands (or both!), these great-value getaways are just the ticket when it comes to family fun.”

The page does cover weekend breaks as well as midweek stays. Some parts of England also have two-week half terms, meaning the breaks could fall in holidays.

‘It doesn’t ring of civic-mindedness’

But Warren Carratt, chief executive at Nexus MAT and adviser on the DfE’s attendance action alliance, said the “marketing of targeted holiday offers specific to term-time doesn’t ring of civic-mindedness, and risks creating a greater distance between families and education. 

“There are many signatories to the social contract, and those operating in the private sector shouldn’t be exempt from that duty.

Warren Carratt

Offering to alleviate the pressure on family finances in this way – at the cost of a child’s education – feels inescapably exploitative.”

According to the Butlin’s website, a “silver room” in Skegness starts from £69 for a four-night break in June. The same room during May half-term costs more than £299.

Parents can seek permission for an authorised holiday in term-time if there are “exceptional circumstances”.

Authorised holiday rates have stayed at 0.1 per cent for years but unauthorised absence rates rose from 0.4 to 0.5 per cent in 2022-23.

Fines of £60, or £120 if not paid within 21 days, can be issued for term-time holidays taken without permission. But saving on a term-time holiday often eclipses that cost.

‘Chance the fine’

Comments in a Butlin’s Skegness Facebook group include one parent saying they have been “naughty” by taking their child out of school for a holiday, or telling others to “chance the fine”.

Carratt said it would be “far more responsible for holiday companies and resorts to consider lowering their prices in the school holidays”.

Whitehead suggested he would like someone to “hold these companies to account”.

A Butlin’s spokesperson said: “We specifically call out term-time to avoid any confusion.”

The company aims to “help families enjoy a holiday at incredible value regardless of the Butlin’s break”.

But they added: “We’re always reviewing and updating our marketing material, so will take any feedback on-board for future content.”

Meanwhile, the main picture on Center Parcs’s “midweek breaks” page was of an adult and toddler, but the page also had pictures of what looked like school-aged children enjoying activities.

A spokesperson said they “absolutely do not encourage families to take their children out of school to visit us”. They have since replaced images of school-aged children.

A four-night stay at its Sherwood Forest “executive lodge” for two adults and one child costs £649 in mid-June. The same stay costs £1,399 during May-half term.

Breaks are “priced according to demand”, the spokesperson added.

Parkdean Resorts’ midweek breaks webpage invites you to “take your toddlers” on breaks for “couples or families looking to save money”.

Its marketing video appears to show school-aged children but a spokesperson said it does not encourage families to take children out of school.

Haven’s “midweek breaks” are advertised for “young families” with “tot-friendly activities”.

A Department for Education spokesperson said there are 175 days a year when pupils are not expected to be in school: “Holidays should be around school breaks to avoid taking children out of school during term-time.”

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