Supply and demand - it's a bitch

Pity Mr. Cookson who wants to take his kids to Center Parcs during the school holiday and is paying 40% extra for the privilege:

Posting a screengrab of the online booking form showing the price leaping from £699 to £999 in consecutive weeks, he wrote: 'For exactly the same villa the week before the school holiday, it's £300 cheaper!
'Do you get anything extra? NO. Same villa, end of.'
He is of course, completely right at the same time as being completely wrong. Center Parcs has been running for about 20 years and has great data on how demand fluctuates over the year. They've built the optimum number of villas to serve customers year-round; the marginal cost of an occupied villa for a week probably isn't huge, but the construction cost and maintenance probably is, and they have constrained space. They want to get the place as full as possible, and will hence increase the daily occupancy cost to a point where 99.9% or so of villas are occupied. The one or two families who will pay £969 but not £999 will be the unlucky ones.

Center Parcs put a good spin on this:

'We reduce our prices significantly during off-peak periods to reflect the lower demand at these times,' a spokesman said.
I like that: they reduced their prices off-peak, rather than increasing the prices during peak. The spokesman clearly is earning his pay.

Mr. Cookson is of course complaining to precisely the wrong people. If he wants to fix the problem, he shouldn't be talking to Center Parcs - there's no way in hell that they're going to sacrifice £300 times five holiday weeks times a few hundred villas times five sites just to get a small amount of good publicity. There are two ways to reduce the cost; the most feasible approach is to make different schools stagger the vacation weeks. Do this on a per-district basis so you don't have the problem of different vacations for kids in the same family of different ages, and randomise the choice for each district, and you've halved the effect of the holiday surge. Now you're still going to pay a premium for Center Parcs during the two weeks, but it should reduce demand and hence price - maybe £840 instead of £999 for the week. ABTA reports that Germany uses this approach, which is eminently sensible.

The more effective approach is to remove this stupid restriction in state schools that children cannot take holidays during term at all. Give each child in primary education a couple of weeks per year to take off with no penalty, and a week per year in secondary education, then price a couple of additional weeks by a sane amount - say, £15 per day per child.

Of course, this will cause all the businesses catering to families to lose money since they can no longer charge a hefty premium for those vacation weeks; demand might increase a little for the average non-vacation week, but I suspect they'll still lose overall.

Let's contrast this with a post on the subject by the Guardian's education editor Richard Adams:

Is it really that big a problem?
Yes. According to Bradford metropolitan council, between September 2012 and Easter 2013 more than 41,000 days of education were lost owing to parents in the city taking their children out of school for holidays during term time.
How many pupils in Bradford? The population of the city is about 520,000. If we assume (very conservatively) that about 10% of the population is between 5 and 16, that's 52,000 students. So that's less than 1 day of education per student per year - I assume that after Easter the marginal cost compared to waiting for the summer holidays means that not many more days are taken. That statistic is stupid - they are clearly not putting it in context because it is so small.
Does a week make that much difference?
A child who takes a week's extra holiday each year at school will have missed at least 70 days – or the equivalent of more than three months of teaching – by the end of their time at school.
Wow, 70 days. That's quite the statistic. 5 days per year implies 14 years, so they are including students from age 4 through to the end of A-levels. Schools have to be open for at least 190 days (38 weeks) per year so that's 2660 days over 14 years. A child taking a week's extra holiday per year is missing less than 3% of the school week.

If schools really thought that 1 week of school made such a marginal difference, they'd be paying for supply teachers to cover the 2-3 inset days per year which affect all pupils. At 2 inset days per year, 104,000 days of education are lost to parents in Bradford as a result of inset days.

Any long-term solutions?
Parents could accept that their child's classroom education is far more important than a week in Europe, no matter how many museums they visit. That's especially true for young children: the evidence is unanimous that early-years education is vital for future attainment.
Really? I can believe that having a year of education for a 5 year old, compared to having no education, has some benefit - still, many countries don't start formal education for children until a year later than Britain does. But missing a week of sounding out words, painting and listening to stories compared to travel, hearing and learning words in a foreign language, trying new foods, seeing different sights and meeting new friends doesn't seem to be to be the slam-dunk that Richard Adams suggests.

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