Council seeks clarification from High Court on term-time holiday fines
Parents rebel against astronomical holiday price hikes and excessive school proceduresWhen Jonathan Platt from the Isle of Wight took his six-year old daughter to Disney World during term-time, he was prosecuted under the Education Act of 1996. The Isle of Wight Magistrates court threw out the case - triggering widespread cheers from parent campaigners.
Platt had successfully argued that he had indeed ensured that his daughter attended school regularly, despite the unauthorised absence.
Today, the Isle of Wight council is seeking clarification from the High Court on this highly controversial area of law, which asks that children must maintain a regular attendance at school. The question is what constitutes 'regular attendance'.
Solicitor Julie Robertson from Simpson Millar has represented numerous parents who have refused to succumb to extortionate holiday prices during peak school holidays - opting instead to risk the fine by taking their children away during term-time.
She says: "Prosecutions brought under the Education Act of 1996 increasingly provoke uproar from parents, and clarification is desperately needed regarding what actually constitutes 'regular attendance'. The majority of prosecutions are triggered by parents taking children on holiday during term-time without asking the head teacher for permission first.
"Until just a few years ago, head teachers could grant up to ten school days of leave each year to a child, at their discretion - even longer in exceptional circumstances. But the Education (Pupil Registration)(England)(Amendment) Regulations removed this discretion. Now, parents must fill in an application to the head teacher and exceptional circumstances must apply before children can lawfully be taken on term-time holidays. For some parents, this is a step too far and they are taking matters into their own hands - factoring the cost of the fine into their holiday budgets.
"The parents I have represented are outraged when they are fined for taking their children, who otherwise have exemplary attendance records, on a short term-time holiday. The fact that head teachers can refuse a request even for children who have a perfect attendance record seems absurd."
Under the law, parents have a duty to ensure that their child gets a full-time education which meets their needs. "Parents are obliged to ensure that their children attend school regularly. But this concept is not clearly defined in case law or laid out in any statutory provision. So as it stands, the local authority must prove beyond doubt that a parent has failed to secure regular attendance - taking into account the child's academic attendance record as a whole. In the past, I have found local authorities a little quick to issue fines without having considered the child's academic record first.
"Depending on the seriousness of the offence, parents who are convicted face anything from a fixed £60 penalty up to a £2500 fine or three months imprisonment. For many parents, this is both excessive and unwarranted."
THE LAW AND PUNISHMENT
There are 2 offences of failing to secure regular attendance. The less serious offence (s444(1)) is where a parent fails to secure regular attendance at school of a registered pupil. This offence is one of strict liability which means that no intention is required in order to prove the offence. The more serious offence is where a parent knowingly fails to secure regular attendance. To succeed here, the prosecution must prove beyond reasonable doubt that the parent knows that their child is failing to attend regularly and fails to cause them to do so.
A parent charged with either offence under section 444 of the Education Act 1996 has a statutory defence if they can prove that their child was:
- Absent with leave (this means leave granted by any person authorised to do so by the governing body of the school i.e. the head teacher)
- Prevented from attending by reason of sickness or any unavoidable cause
- absent on any day exclusively set apart for religious observance by the religious body to which the parents belong
- absent because the school at which the child is a registered pupil is not within walking distance (defined as two miles for children under 8 and three miles for children of 8 years and above) of the child’s home, and no suitable arrangements have been made by the Local Authority
Platt made headlines again this winter when he was issued with a £60 fine for taking his daughter to Lapland during term-time.