School’s out before summer

Teachers are bracing themselves for a wave of absenteeism as families make the most of cheap holiday deals before the end of term. Tomorrow, parliament debates whether to keep fining parents who take their kids out of school

Last year the Hedley family took a brief family holiday. It had been a tough few months for the couple and their three young children — Julia Hedley had been diagnosed with breast cancer and her husband, Dave, was keen to give the family time away together to “recharge the batteries”. After three hospital operations, Julia was facing the start of radiation treatment. Dave decided that a five-day vacation in the interval between the last operation and the onset of radiotherapy would give the family some fleeting respite from the stress they had all been under.

“We only went to the Lincolnshire coast for a few days. Every operation my wife had endured had coincided with the school holidays and after the operations she had needed bed rest. This was the first chance to have a bit of a holiday and spend some time together,” says Hedley.

Even though he had emailed the primary school in Nottingham attended by Laila, 9, and Dominic, 10, the eldest of the couple’s three children, to explain the circumstances, the family returned to an upsetting letter from Nottingham city council. It said they would be fined £240 — £60 per child, per parent — for going away in termtime without the permission of the children’s head teacher.

“We had a few days to unwind and then it was all completely destroyed the moment we got back,” he recalls. The 33-year-old construction worker was so upset that he sat down that weekend, hours after their return from the coast, and launched a petition against the tough regulations brought in three years ago by Michael Gove, then education secretary, to clamp down on absenteeism in state schools. He also wrote to the city council to ask for the fines to be quashed, explaining his wife’s situation. By Monday morning the council had caved in and withdrawn the fines — but the petition had “exploded”, as Dave puts it, attracting so many signatures that it has now triggered a debate in the House of Commons, which will be held tomorrow.

“I sat up on Saturday night, hoping to see the petition reach 100 signatures, but by Monday morning more than 100,000 people had signed it,” says Hedley. “I was highly shocked. I am still getting messages from families all over the country wanting to stop this stupid legislation that so many people feel so aggrieved about. It is simply astonishing, the circumstances in which some of these fines are being issued.”

Parents who signed the petition are demanding that head teachers once again be given the discretion to allow parents to take children out of classes for up to 10 days in addition to the statutory school holidays, powers school leaders enjoyed before the 2013 rule change. By contrast, the rules in operation today prohibit parents from allowing their kids to miss even a day’s lessons unless they are sick, or there are truly “exceptional circumstances” such as the funeral of a close family member. Now when children are taken out of class without a head teacher’s permission, schools inform the local council, which can fine families for unauthorised absence. Hundreds have refused to pay the penalty charges, despite the prospect of a criminal prosecution in a magistrates’ court if the fine remains unpaid. If it gets to court, parents face a maximum fine of £2,500 or a jail sentence of up to three months.

Between September 2013 and August 2014, almost 64,000 fines were issued for unauthorised absences, according to local authority data — a 246% increase on 2012/13, when 18,484 fines were handed out.

According to Steve Double, the Tory MP for St Austell and Newquay, who plans to speak out against the fines in this week’s debate, it is one of the government’s most unpopular education policies. Double, who says he has had government ministers privately urge him to oppose it, will reveal that a decade ago he regularly took his two, now adult, sons out of Poltair comprehensive school during termtime for cheap holidays abroad. Holiday prices outside the school vacations can be up to 50% less expensive than in July and August.

“We couldn’t afford to go in August,” he explains. He also took his boys out of class to travel to East Africa to help him build a school paid for from charitable donations, a project his son’s teachers wholeheartedly supported. The MP adds that thousands of his constituents in Cornwall work in the tourist industry during the school holidays and are unable to go away at that time without a loss of income.

Jon Platt’s refusal to pay a £60 fine was upheld by the High CourtRex

“I don’t believe it is the job of the state to tell parents what is right and best for their children in this regard,” Double says. “It’s not fair and it’s not working.”

In what promises to be a lively debate, Nick Gibb, schools minister, is expected forcefully to reiterate his view that “children should not be taken out of school during term except in exceptional circumstances”, stressing that “the evidence shows 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”.

It’s an argument that Double, for one, does not accept. “Nick and I have a bit of a love-hate relationship,” he laughs. “I will be urging the government to think again on this policy.”

A turning point in parents’ highly charged battle with education ministers came earlier this year when judges in the High Court backed magistrates sitting in the Isle of Wight who had thrown out a case against Jon Platt, a businessman. Platt, whose older children attend private schools, had refused to pay a £60 fine — later raised to £120 — for taking his six-year-old daughter to Disney World in termtime. His lawyer successfully argued in magistrates’ court that the child’s unauthorised seven-day absence from a state school on the island did not mean that she failed to attend lessons on a regular basis. The decision was upheld in the High Court on appeal.

“I was prosecuted under section 444 of the Education Act — failure to ensure regular attendance of a child at school. My argument was that, just because she was not at school when she was on holiday, that was not a criminal offence. Before the holiday she had 100% attendance. By the end it was still in the high 90s,” says Platt, whose case was backed by the campaign group Parents Want a Say. “The magistrates agreed I had no case to answer.”

He says he has spent £13,000 on legal fees and is advising dozens of families who have written to him with similar stories.“I am divorced from the mother of my two daughters. I only have 50/50 custody of them. The consequence of me deciding I cannot live with their mum is I lose half their life. That is harsh. So I want to do fantastic things with them. We went to Florida with them. This January I took them away on holiday again, this time to Lapland.

“The Department for Education’s argument seems to be that it is a criminal offence to take your child out of school for even half a day without the head teacher’s permission. There are times when, as a parent, it is the right thing to do to take your child out of school. The divorce was stressful for my children. There were times when they were too distressed to go to school. I should not have the threat of criminal sanctions hanging over me when I am trying to make the best decisions for my children.”

Platt’s victory has thrown into disarray the enforcement of the ban on termtime holidays. Some councils have withdrawn fines and prosecutions; others have hired expensive lawyers and sought gagging orders that prevent children’s identities being revealed by reporters covering court cases. Local councils now appear to be taking a variety of approaches to unauthorised absenteeism. The government’s own website invites parents to check with their own local authority if and when they may face a fine for the non-attendance of a child.

Every operation my wife had endured had coincided with the school holidays. This was the first chance for a bit of a break

“It’s become a postcode lottery, so that where you live determines whether or not you will be fined if you need to take your child out of lessons for a good reason,” says Platt. “And that’s even more unfair.” Since the High Court decision, several councils have decided to suspend all fines for termtime absence. The leader of Brighton council has written to the education secretary, Nicky Morgan, asking her to scrap the rules. One of the families against whom court proceedings were dropped after Jon Platt’s High Court victory are the Lewises, also on the Isle of Wight. Charlotte Lewis took her two teenage children out of school last year for a holiday in Egypt. Isabel, 13, is autistic and attends a special-needs school, and one reason Lewis wanted to book a break during termtime was so that the family could stay in a resort near a water park that would not be overcrowded, because Isabel finds a mass of people stressful.

On the family’s return from holiday, they moved house. By the time a summons to attend court for non-payment of a fine levied for the absence of both Isabel and Cameron, her 15-year-old brother, arrived at their new address, the costs had mounted to nearly £800 per child. The case was adjourned pending the outcome of the Isle of Wight council’s appeal to the High Court against Jon Platt’s victory in the magistrates’ court. When the High Court found in Platt’s favour, the council dropped the case against the Lewises. “I was so relieved,” says Charlotte. “The costs were just climbing all the time. It just felt wrong that I was being penalised for doing what I felt to be in my daughter’s best interests.”

The government, however, is now backing a further legal appeal against Platt’s victory. It has agreed to underwrite the costs of the Isle of Wight council appealing the High Court’s judgment to the Supreme Court later this year. “We know the recent High Court judgment has created some uncertainty for parents, which is why it is essential that the ruling is clarified through an appeal,” says Gibb. As The Sunday Times Magazine went to press, Platt was waiting to hear whether the council had won the right to take the case to the Supreme Court, the highest court in the land.

In the past three years, dozens of cases of families who opposed the new rules have appeared in the press. Some have told heartbreaking stories that have aroused national sympathy. In 2014, The Sunday Times reported on the case of Maxine Ingrouille-Kidd, the mother of Curtis, a blind quadriplegic teenager with cerebral palsy from Somerset who had been given only a few years to live. Ingrouille-Kidd was threatened with a fine and prosecution if she withdrew her 13-year-old son from school during termtime for a family cruise to celebrate her silver wedding anniversary.

“It’s the thought that I might be committing a crime that upsets me. I am a law-abiding citizen and this has been very stressful,” Ingrouille-Kidd said at the time.

Some of the most hotly contested cases involve parents who came to Britain from elsewhere and believe that their children’s right to maintain close links with their extended family abroad is more important than missing the odd day of school. The American-born James Haymore, a banker at JP Morgan, and his wife, Dana, faced a court summons in 2014 after taking their son, who was excelling academically, out of Chancellor Park Primary School in Chelmsford, Essex, for six days to attend a memorial service for a relative in California. Haymore refused to pay the fine, arguing that the decision to prosecute was a breach of the Human Rights Act and his children’s right to a family life. After one appearance by the couple at magistrates’ court, the case was dropped by Essex county council. The family were overwhelmed with messages of support on social media, and have since returned to America.

Many parents feel the same way as the refusenik Clare McLeary, 32, a police call handler who was refused permission to take her son, Riley, out of his Shrewsbury primary school to attend her beach wedding to her fiancé, Andy, in Cornwall in 2014. She withdrew him anyway. “He will always remember our wedding. Will he remember the three days he didn’t go to school? I very much doubt it,” she said.

Clare McLeary took her son out of school for her Cornish weddingames dadzitis/newsteam

Even parents who take young children out of primary schools for additional educational experiences have been threatened with fines. Earlier this year Karin Siemund, 47, a languages teacher, and her partner, Mike Watts, were told they would be fined £120 per child for taking Cameron, 11, and Jens, 9, out of school to spend time in a German classroom so they could learn their mother tongue. The children’s school, Exwick Heights Primary, had twice previously allowed such a trip, but the headmistress was reluctant to authorise another during Cameron’s Sats year, a decision upheld by the school’s governors.

The unauthorised absence was reported to Devon county council and the family received a letter saying they would be fined, as their children had failed to attend school regularly between January 25 and February 26. Siemund appealed, arguing that her children’s attendance across the year was 92.7%. Last month the council gave in, withdrawing the penalty notices “in light of the uncertainty surrounding the High Court judgment”, but warned her that it reserved the right to take “legal action in the future if your child fails to attend regularly”.

Over the next fortnight, in the run-up to the end of term, head teachers are bracing themselves for a wave of early departures as families try to make the most of cheaper deals on their holidays. The headmistress of one outstanding and oversubscribed school in Kent is now asking all new parents to sign a contract stating they will not take their children away in termtime. Angela Konarzewski, head of the 540-pupil Fleetdown Primary School in Dartford, told The Sunday Times last year that one boy — who was underachieving — had been taken out for the equivalent of one day a week by his family over the course of a year. When she called the family in, she was told they had also booked a holiday for the autumn term. Another family had requested leave to get married in Mexico.

“That is the tip of the iceberg,” Konarzewski says. “We have high attendance and children are happy coming to school. But last year our attendance dipped below the national average of 95%. The fines just don’t work. We have parents who send their requests for termtime holidays along with a cheque for the fine.”

Others take a softer line. The National Union of Teachers has suggested there are important cultural and social benefits to going on holiday and that holidays abroad should not become the preserve of the middle classes who can afford to travel at peak times, or who send their children to private schools where the ban does not apply. The National Association for Head Teachers has asked the government to work with the travel industry to put an end to the hiking up of fares in the school summer holidays. The Local Government Association (LGA) also says the current law is impractical, and has called for a common-sense approach.

We have parents who send requests for termtime holidays to me along with a cheque for the fine

“Blanket bans do not work,” the LGA said earlier this year. “It shouldn’t be that a tragedy has to befall a family for a child to get leave during termtime . .. there are just times when a family should be able to come together to celebrate without worrying about prosecution or being fined.”

In Wales, meanwhile, the termtime holiday ban has already been shelved after opposition from parents, and power returned to head teachers to use their discretion to decide when to authorise extra leave.

Like many, Steve Double thinks that the current situation is a disaster. “It is hugely unpopular. It pits schools against families, which damages education. We want parents to have a positive relationship with schools, that’s how standards rise,” says Double.

Some MPs privately believe that the ban could become yet another education policy on which ministers will be forced into a U-turn, just as they were on the plan to convert all schools in England into academies.

Perhaps the last word should to go Dave Hedley. As he looks forward to tomorrow’s Commons debate, the father of three says: “No one asked Michael Gove to bring in these rules. They drive a wedge between families and schools by fining parents and denying small children memories that will last the rest of their life. Holidays are educational. Museum visits and trips to the zoo are educational. There are ways of learning that do not just involve reading a book in a classroom. The way these rules are being applied is madness. For once the government needs to listen to what parents are saying.”