While these students may be called “interns” you have taken them on as paid employees so they have all the same rights and responsibilities as your other employees. As with anything to do with employee entitlements, the starting place is the contract.
Look to see if your contracts specify anything about the right to take time off for exams, as paid or unpaid leave, or if you allow paid study leave which would include sitting exams. Similarly, if your contract allows for time off to attend college then these exams are likely to fall within the scope of that clause, giving them the right to that time off. However, unless your contract gives a specific right to have this time off on a paid basis, if they want to be paid for this they will have to use up some of their annual leave entitlement.
As you have taken these employees on knowing they were students and would have exams it would be unreasonable to refuse to allow them to take this time off but you can make it clear that anyone wishing to have the time off as paid leave would need to apply for leave in accordance with your normal holiday request procedure. You may need to make allowances, though, in respect of the number of people you will allow to have time off at the same time to accommodate these requests.
As a reasonable employer you would be expected to allow these employees to have this time off as unpaid leave. However, the students should still be able to give you plenty of notice as to when these exams are to allow you to arrange staffing accordingly. Ask them to complete a holiday request and specify whether or not they want the leave to be paid or unpaid. This will help to avoid any disputes later.
Depending on what days you are open, and what days these students normally work for you, you have an additional option that you may be able to consider, namely giving them the choice of swapping their working days so that their exams fall on a non-work day. This allows your employee the time off, ensures that you still get the work out of them that you would normally get that week, and allows the employee to save their holidays for another time so that they can actually use them to rest.
For any further clarification, please call our 24 Hour Advice Service on 0844 892 2772.