A parent has lost a landmark case in the Supreme Court that he should be allowed to take his daughter on holiday during term-time, with parents now required to stick with a school’s own rules.
The Supreme Court has upheld a council’s right to fine Jon Platt, a parent who took his daughter out of school to go on holiday to Florida in April 2015.
The decision overrules the High Court decision and Isle of Wight magistrate’s court, which both ruled in Platt’s favour, and will be a boon for the government, which insisted pupils should not be able to be withdrawn from school without permission.
Ruling has backed the country’s schools
Platt had argued that because his daughter still had a 90.3 per cent attendance record at her Isle of Wight school, even when she returned from their seven-day holiday to Disneyland, he had not broken rules requiring his child have “regular attendance” at school.
But judges ruled that regular attendance at school had to follow the rules of the school. It means parents who take their children out of school for a holiday can be fined or prosecuted if they don’t get permission from the headteacher.
Under section 444(1) of the Education Act 1996, a parent is guilty of a criminal offence if a child of school age “fails to attend regularly” at a school where they are a registered pupil.
The Supreme Court decision by five justices, who ruled unanimously against Platt, centred around the exact meaning of “regularly.”
Parents must follow schools’ rules
They found that attending “regularly” must mean in accordance with the rules set by the school or the “appropriate authorities” such as a council.
Other possible meanings of “regularly”, such as attending “sufficiently often” or at “evenly spaced intervals”, were found to be too vague.
Following the decision, if a headteacher now registers a pupil as having an unauthorised absence, a parent can no longer argue as Platt did that their child’s attendance record has been regular enough to avoid a fine.
Platt had originally asked for permission from his daughter’s school to take her on holiday and been refused, but had taken her anyway. He refused to pay a £60 fine and then a following £120 fine.
His argument that his daughter had attended regularly, and so he should not face a fine or criminal offence, was upheld by the Isle of Wight magistrate’s court and High Court last year.
The courts also expressed concern that parents could be needlessly criminalised for removing their child from school for a few days.
But the Supreme Court said minor discretions should be dealt with sensibly, with parents able to avoid a criminal prosecution if they pay a fine.
Lady Hale, deputy president of the Supreme Court, emphasised that the case did not stipulate the exact rules around absence, but left the matter to the “appropriate authorities”.
Nick Gibb, schools minister (pictured right), and Justine Greening, education secretary, had supported the council taking the case higher to the Supreme Court. The Department for Education have covered the council’s costs of the case.
It is thought that Platt and his wife, Sally, will now face the full £120 fine, or even potentially up to three months’ in prison, unless they can prove a statutory exemption took their daughter out of school. Platt, speaking outside the court, said he had “no intention” of pleading guilty to the offence.
The three statutory exemptions that would allow a pupil to be taken out of school during term-time are sickness, being provided with no transport if the pupil is too far from a school, and a recognised religious observance.
Ruling ‘removes uncertainty’ for schools
Mark Lehain, founder of Bedford Free School and member of Parents and Teachers for Excellence’s advisory council, said the ruling has “backed the country’s schools”.
“Schools insist on 100 per cent attendance not because they want to restrict family holidays, but because any amount of time off means children missing out on key parts of the education they are entitled to, affecting their life chances further down the line. It also places additional burdens on already hard working teachers and support staff.”
But Platt (pictured top) said schools need to think “very carefully” about what their rules should be, and that heads should build in some flexibility. “Some have policies that mean that every day missed is a criminal offence.”
A DfE spokesperson said the court unanimously agreed with its position that “no child should be taken out of school without good reason”.
“As before, headteachers have the ability to decide when exceptional circumstances allow for a child to be absent but today’s ruling removes the uncertainty for schools and local authorities that was created by the previous judgment.”
Department officials will now examine the judgment before updating schools and councils about what the ruling means for them “as soon as possible”.