Pupils in Scotland missed nearly a million days of education during term time in the past year – the highest total on record – because of unauthorised holidays.
The startling figures from Scottish Labour have revealed that 910,272 school days were lost to unauthorised holidays.
A total of 0.7 per cent of school sessions were missed in 2016-17, up from 0.5 per cent in 2014-15.
Iain Gray, Scottish Labour’s education spokesman, said many cash-strapped parents believed taking their children out of school during term time was the only way to avoid premium travel prices, with airlines choosing to hike costs during the school holidays.
Figures released last year by travel currency website FairFX comparing prices in June and July with those in August found every holiday cost more in August. The average August holiday cost £905 more than in July and £1,310 more than in June.
Schools in Scotland do not normally give families permission for term-time holidays. The education authority can issue attendance orders under section 38 of the Education (Scotland) Act 1980. Non-compliance can form the basis of a prosecution in the Sheriff Court, leading to a fine or imprisonment for a guilty finding.
Mr Gray said the record rate of unauthorised holidays was having a detrimental effect on attempts to close the attainment gap in Scotland’s schools and should ring alarm bells for the government.
Research has also revealed that when all forms of unauthorised absence from schools are taken into account, including truancy, the Scottish figure reaches almost two million days.
The attainment gap in Scottish education has been highlighted by a number of reports including the three-yearly Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) benchmark survey.
Last year’s report, measuring reading, mathematics and science, showed a decline in standards.
Mr Gray said: “These figures should be a cause of concern for any government that wants to close the attainment gap in our classrooms. A huge amount of school days are being lost.
“Policy-makers in the Scottish Government should be asking themselves why there has been such a sharp increase in these unauthorised absences and the knock-on affect that will have on young people getting the skills they need.
“We know the pressures families fall under as the Christmas and summer holidays approach. Airlines hike up the price of flights, forcing families to choose between the last week of school or being able to afford a holiday or travel to see loved ones.”
Jim Thewliss, general secretary of professional body School Leaders Scotland, said parents taking their children out of school for unauthorised term-time holidays could also negatively affect others in the class.
“There is also a disadvantage to others in the class with teachers having to concentrate attention on the pupils who were away so they can try to catch up,” he said.
Mr Thewliss added: “It’s just not the case that there’s a ‘wind-down’ to the end of term. New course work starts at the beginning of June and if a pupil misses that, it is not going to do them any good.
“Parents getting a cheap flight the week before the term ends is nothing new, but the volume of cut-price flights has exacerbated the problem.
“Parents book these holidays not just in the summer, but in October and February too – virtually throughout the year.
“It makes closing the attainment gap more difficult and is not fair on young people. There are learning benefits from continuity and if that is broken, pupils’ education will be damaged.”
Scottish Conservative education spokeswoman Liz Smith said schools and parents needed to have a discussion about what was expected of them to ensure children’s education did not suffer.
“These statistics show a very worrying increase in days missed most especially at a time when schools are struggling to raise attainment,” she said.
“There are clearly instances when pupils have to be off school for very good reasons, but that should not include unauthorised holidays.
“Parents and teachers need to work together to help families understand their responsibilities.”
A Scottish Government spokesman said: “Although only around 0.7 per cent of half day sessions were lost to unauthorised holiday absences in 2016-17, it is important that schools and parents continue to do all they can to ensure good attendance to maintain children’s attainment.”