The government will look to change the law on term-time holidays, after the high court backed a father who took his daughter to Disney World during the school term and refused to pay the fine.
The ruling opens the door to other parents taking their children out of school for holidays, and raises difficult questions for local authorities, and for headteachers striving to meet government attendance targets.
In response to today’s decision, the Department for Education (DfE) is looking to change the relevant legislation.
A source said: “We will look at the judgment in detail but are clear children’s attendance at school is non-negotiable so we will now look to change the law.”
However the Local Government Association (LGA) stressed the need for a “sensible solution” for families to be able to spend time together, and said it should not require a “family tragedy” for children to be granted leave during term-time.
Jon Platt took his seven-year-old daughter on a family holiday to the theme park in Florida last April, which resulted in her missing six days of school.
Isle of Wight council issued him with a £60 fine, which was doubled to £120 after he refused to pay.
In October, magistrates ruled there was no case to answer, shortly before he was due to face trial.
Platt argued that his daughter’s school attendance did not contravene section 444 of the Education Act, which requires that parents ensure their children attend school “regularly”.
But the local authority appealed against the decision at the High Court in London. Today, Lord Justice Lloyd Jones and Mrs Justice Thirlwall dismissed the council’s challenge, ruling that the magistrates had not “erred in law” when reaching their decision.
The two High Court judges ruled that the magistrates were entitled to take into account the “wider picture” of the child’s attendance record outside of the dates she was absent during the holiday.
After the ruling, Mr Platt said outside court: “I am obviously hugely relieved. I know that there was an awful lot riding on this – not just for me but for hundreds of other parents.”
Earlier, Mr Platt said the court case had cost him £13,000, which he described as “money well spent”, since he was fighting the principle that he should not be criminalised for taking his child out of school.
A DfE spokesperson said: “We are disappointed with the High Court judgment. The evidence is clear that every extra day of school missed can affect a pupil’s chance of gaining good GCSEs, which has a lasting effect on their life chances.
“We are confident our policy to reduce school absence is clear and correct.?
“We will examine today’s judgement in detail but are clear that children’s attendance at school is non-negotiable so we will now look to change the legislation. We also plan to strengthen statutory guidance to schools and local authorities.”
An LGA spokesperson said: “It shouldn’t be that a tragedy has to befall a family for a child to get leave during term-time. There are many more joyous and positive occasions in life when consideration should be given to granting leave requests, such as a wedding or perhaps a sporting event involving a family member. These can have social and emotional benefits which are of lasting value and support to young people.
“And there are just times when a family should be able to come together to celebrate without worrying about prosecution or being fined.
“Blanket bans do not work and as today’s High Court ruling shows, it’s a system that is not always enforceable. We want to work with the Government to find a sensible solution whereby every family has the option to spend time together.
“While councils fully support the Department for Education’s stance on every child being in school every day, there are occasions when parental requests should be given individual consideration and a common sense approach applied.”
A government spokesperson stressed that today’s high court ruling should not affect the way headteachers currently make decisions on absences.
The government’s current attendance target for primary and secondary schools is 95 per cent.
Heads are required to classify absences as authorised or unauthorised, and since September 2013 are only allowed to authorise them in “exceptional circumstances”.
Headteachers cannot issue fines, but attendance information is passed to the local authority, which is also the fining authority.
Malcolm Trobe, interim general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “Pupils are expected to attend school as close to 100 per cent of the time as possible and they should not miss school to go on holiday.
“This is because even short periods of attendance can have a detrimental impact on their education so consistent attendance is absolutely vital. We are a nation which values education and school attendance is part of that commitment.
“The current rules do give discretion to head teachers in exceptional circumstances and whilst there has been some rise in Fixed Penalty Notices in recent years the vast majority of parents are fully onside and recognise the importance of high attendance.”
The National Association of Head Teachers has previously issued advice on what constitutes an authorised absence, but did not wish to comment on the current court ruling until the government issued further advice.