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Striking a balance between education and family life

OFTEN, it is significantly cheaper for families to holiday during term time and for many lower income families, having to holiday outside of term time can mean holidaying at all is impossible.

In 2006, guidelines were issued (the Education (Pupil Registration) (England) Regulations 2006) which enabled head teachers to permit family holidays lasting for up to 10 days during term time in special circumstances. In exceptional circumstances, leaves of absence longer than ten days could be granted.

 The government was concerned that these guidelines had led to parents mistakenly believing that they were entitled to two weeks’ holiday as a right, and that schools were finding it problematic to tell them otherwise.

In 2012 Michael Gove, the then-Education Secretary, said that more needed to be done to discourage parents from taking their children away on holiday during term time. Mr Gove noted in particular that such absences from primary school were double those at secondary school, and was concerned that pupils being absent from lessons impairs their ability and progress.

This led to the regulations being amended in September 2013 to say that head teachers could not permit absences during term time unless there were exceptional circumstances. These new regulations also changed the way parents could be fined for removing their children from school during term time.

In 2006, parents could be fined £60 for an unauthorised absence, which doubled if it was not paid within 28 days. The 2013 regulations allowed parents only 21 days in which to make payment before the fine doubled. According to local authority data, almost 64,000 fines were issued in respect of unauthorised absences between September 2013 and August 2014.

Many people will recall that this policy change was not popular. Many parents argued that if holidays were booked well in advance and not at a crucial time of the school year, they should be allowed to be taken during term time.

Even the National Union of Teachers criticised the policy change, saying that there are many things which going on holiday can teach a child which school cannot; for instance cultural or social benefits.

In 2015, Jon Platt took his daughter on holiday to Florida during term time and was issued with a fine. He appealed the fine, arguing that since his daughter maintained a 90% attendance record, even after having gone on this term time holiday, he had not breached s.444 of the Education Act; namely that parents should ensure their children attend school “regularly”.

The local authority appealed this decision to the High Court, which accepted Mr Platt’s argument. That case reaches the Supreme Court this week, where judges will be asked to consider what constitutes a “regular attendance record”.

The BBC has collected date which shows that 35 of 108 councils have changed their policy on issuing fines as a direct result of Mr Platt’s case, with a further five councils reviewing their policies. The fact that different councils have such varied policies means there arguably needs to be some consensus as to what constitutes an absence worthy of a fine.

So why does the Supreme Court’s decision matter?

The government is disappointed with the High Court’s decision, mainly because it considers the evidence to be clear that each day of school which is missed decreases the pupil’s chance of obtaining good grades.

The government is looking to the Supreme Court to reverse the High Court’s decision so that ministers are validated in their belief that children should be in school as close to 100% of the time as possible, and that no absence – unless for exceptional reasons – can be as important as being in school.

The Supreme Court’s decision will be helpful to head teachers and local authorities because it will provide much needed and clearer guidance to them in dealing with absences. Clarification of the approach taken will stop the current approach from being so arbitrary and varied from local authority to local authority.

On the ground, head teachers need to feel supported by clear guidelines to which they can refer parents.

For parents, the Supreme Court’s decision will help them to know where they stand and what is and is not acceptable. It is likely hoped by parents that the decision will reflect that blanket rules do not work and that a common sense approach should be taken in each case.

However, this could prove difficult for schools and local authorities to administer, if each case has to be reviewed individually.

Ultimately, someone has to decide when a child should be in school and when it is acceptable for them not to be.

For some children, the state is more responsible than the parent when it comes to making that decision. For other children, their parents know better what would best benefit the child than does the state.

Thankfully, the government cares about the education of the children in its ward and it is important to be grateful that the state does value education so highly.

Hopefully the Supreme Court’s decision will reconcile the state and parents to a point where the value of education and the value of family life and experiences other than school can be balanced.


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