The thorny issue of whether parents should be able to take children out of school for term-time holidays is back in the news. The case of Jon Platt, who took his primary school aged daughter on a week's holiday, without the head teacher's permission reached the Supreme Court this week. Mr Platt was fined £60 which increased to £120 with non-payment, after which he faced prosecution. In a case brought by the Isle of Wight council, the Supreme Court ruled against Mr Platt, who had won earlier legal battles. The court rejected his argument that despite missing a week of school for a holiday, his daughter had regularly attended over the course of the year, with an attendance rate of over 92%. The judges did not accept this interpretation and said parents would have to comply with the rules set by schools and education authorities.
The Platt case has echoes of James and Dana Haymore who in 2014, were refused permission to take one of their children out of primary school for a family reunion in America intended to commemorate Mrs Haymore's grandfather who had died. The Haymore case was dropped. The current rules prohibiting parents from taking children out of school unless circumstances are "exceptional" have been in place since 2013, with then Education Secretary Michael Gove wanting to crack down on holiday absences. Prior to this, head teachers had the discretion to allow up to 10 days authorised absence from school. This is still the case in Wales and in Scotland there are no fines for parents who take their children on holiday in term-time. Similarly, in Northern Ireland term-time holidays are considered as an unauthorised absence but parents are not fined. The rules do not apply to parents who educate their children privately.
This is an issue with strong feelings and sensible arguments on both sides. The Department of Education cites evidence which indicates that every extra day of school missed can affect a pupil's chances of achieving good GCSEs, which in turn has a lasting effect on their life chances. The National Union of Teachers, however, has suggested there are important cultural and social benefits to going on holiday and that this should not become the preserve of the middle classes. Since the rules were changed, numerous polls have indicated how unpopular the blanket ban is with parents. A YouGov poll found that 58% of people think parents should be permitted to take their children on holiday during term time. This figure is up from 53% in 2014. The Local Government Association has said families often struggle with the high cost of trips outside term-time and has called for a common sense approach.
No child should be denied an education and in the face of yet more, austere, Conservative cuts, our schools face an uncertain and vulnerable future. A recent report by the Education Policy Institute found all schools in England were likely to face real-term cuts to funding by 2019-20, with about half facing a reduction per pupil of 6-11%, in line with the Government's proposed funding formula and the Prime Minister has been warned she faces a revolt by Conservative MPs over the slashed budgets.
So I can't help feeling that the ban on term-time holidays doesn't get to the heart of the real problems. It's hard to disagree with the argument that consistent, lengthy periods of absence from school are detrimental to a child's education. But a blanket term-time holiday ban doesn't address the deeper and more complex social problems that contribute to some children repeatedly missing school. If anything, it distracts attention from this more difficult and multi-layered issue and from the funding cuts schools face. And the ban does, disproportionately affect parents on lower incomes and those with family abroad. As the current debate around rights for EU nationals post-Brexit highlights, plenty of children in the UK have a parent who is not a British citizen and are therefore more likely to have grandparents, cousins, aunties and uncles to visit abroad.
And is prosecuting parents - criminalising them - for taking their children out of school for holidays, weddings and funerals really the best use of court time and public money? When children have disagreements with friends, as parents and educators we encourage them to work it out together. We try to empower them to use common sense in everyday situations. When it comes to term-time absences, surely teachers and parents should be allowed the discretion to do the same?