School governor, disciplinary review committee member, and Head of The Education Team at The Endeavour Partnership LLP, Nick Dent considers the recent decision of the High Court of Justice that Jon Platt has no case to answer for refusing to pay a fine for taking his six-year-old daughter out of school for a family trip to Florida.
Some readers of a certain age will instantly recognise the title of this article as the opening line from the only UK chart-topping hit by Pink Floyd, but those lyrics adopted greater resonance on Friday 13 May 2016 when the High Court of Justice ruled whether single father Jon Platt should pay a fine to Isle of Wight Council for having taken his six-year-old daughter out of school for a family trip to Florida.
Why is taking family holidays in term time in the news?
Rule changes by the Department for Education have made it harder for parents to get a school’s permission to take their children out of class during term time, and so to avoid higher holiday prices in peak season.
What was the change?
Since September 2013, head teachers in England have no longer had the discretion to approve absences of up to 10 days a year for family holidays in “special circumstances”. The new rules introduced tougher criteria of “exceptional circumstances”, restricting it to absences for events such as funerals of family members.
What’s the legal position?
Parents and carers are legally responsible for ensuring their children attend school (other than home schooling). Failure to do so is an offence under section 444 of the Education Act 1996, which says that it is an offence to fail to secure regular attendance at school of a registered pupil. Parents have no legal right to take their children out of school during term time for holidays.
What is the Department for Education’s position?
“Poor attendance at school can have a hugely damaging effect, and children who attend school regularly are nearly four times more likely to achieve five or more good GCSEs than those who are regularly absent.”
What happens to parents who break the rules?
Parents who do not have the school’s permission for their child’s absence face a maximum fine of £60.00 per pupil, per parent. That rises to £120.00 if not paid within seven days. Those who refuse to pay can face court action and, if prosecuted, a fine of up to £2500.00 and a possible jail sentence of up to three months.
Why is it a problem for families?
Peak holiday demand drives up prices for flights and accommodation, and some families argue that term-time holidays are the only way they can afford to take their children on enriching overseas trips.
Why is it a problem for schools?
Pupil absences put up absentee rates – monitored by the DfE and Ofsted – and deprive pupils of valuable classroom teaching time. League tables and competition means schools need their pupils to do their best in exams and at key stages.
Is it really that big a problem?
Yes. According to Bradford Metropolitan Council, between September 2012 and Easter 2013 more than 41000 days of education were lost owing to parents in the city taking their children out of school for holidays during term time. “Children who miss a significant period of time in school miss out on important teaching and learning and this absence can seriously harm the children’s progress and attainment,” the council said.
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.
Is it possible holiday costs will not increase during the school holidays?
Unfortunately for parents and carers, holiday companies usually operate on small profit margins and rely on school holidays to maximise its earnings both for its shareholders and its staff. Rather than profiteering, it is responding to the economic law of supply and demand that allows holiday companies to survive. Any government intervention to cap holiday prices might drastically reduce the availability of travel, and is therefore very unlikely to happen.
What did the High Court of Justice say?
The High Court of Justice was satisfied that the overall attendance of Jon Platt’s daughter was satisfactory, and that he therefore did not have any case to answer. The judgment implies that parents need only demonstrate “regular attendance” of at least 90 per cent of school days. With a typical academic year involving 190 school days, the ruling suggests that 19 days of absence is acceptable – corresponding to almost four weeks.
Will parents be able to reclaim fines that have already been paid?
There is an implication that if a child has an attendance record for at least 90 per cent of the academic year overall, then parents should be able to claim back the penalty for any unauthorised absence. This will, however, only apply to parents or carers whose child has a very good attendance record but if a family takes advantage of a cheaper skiing holiday during term time in February and later that child was absent from school then the claim becomes far more tenuous.
What will happen next?
The government will invariably move quickly to strengthen the law and offer support and guidance to schools and local authorities. Expect there to be reference to the subject in the Queen’s Speech later this week, together with diluted laws for academy conversion and allowing top universities to charge higher fees.
Until then, however, it might be prudent to return to where we started and ponder another line from Another Brick In The Wall:
Hey teachers, leave them kids alone!
Nick Dent is an experienced governor at The King’s Academy in Coulby Newham and has researched and advised on parental responsibility measures for school attendance and behaviour and on section 444 of the Education Act 1996.
He is responsible to the Department of Education and Ofsted for the oversight and strategic management of the school, is Vice-Chair of the Local Governing Body, and is Chair of the Academy Improvement Board.
For further advice on matters of education specialist Paul Bury.