School Penalty Fines and Authorised Absence — [Mr David Hanson in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 5:23 pm on 11th July 2016.

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Photo of Andrew Turner Andrew Turner Conservative, Isle of Wight 5:23 pm, 11th July 2016

No. Mr Platt used the term “good” to describe his child attending school all-year round except for a fortnight, which is not the same as one day a fortnight, and there was no evidence from any quarter to question that description.

Isle of Wight Council wanted a different interpretation of the law and so it took Mr Platt’s case to the High Court. The High Court found that it was not acceptable for the authority

“to criminalise every unauthorised holiday by the simple device of alleging…that there has been no regular attendance in a period limited to the absence on holiday.”

The judgment said that regular attendance must be measured over a longer period of time, and Mr Platt’s daughter’s attendance record was satisfactory in that respect.

The High Court’s judgment did not find favour with either Isle of Wight Council or the Department for Education. The Department has now provided the council with funding and legal support to take the case to the Supreme Court. Mr Platt is being given no such help; he is fighting this battle using private resources and not public money. The state is throwing the book at him for daring to stand up to the authorities and being found right—not once, but twice. So this is a real David and Goliath situation.

I am a former teacher and both my parents were teachers, too, so I understand the importance and value of education. I have experienced at first hand the difficulties of teaching a class where not all the children are in the classroom full-time. However, I have also seen the immense value of family holidays, in educational and other terms.

I have listened to the Government’s argument about the relationship between attendance and attainment. It exists, but it is not a simple picture. As the latest research from the Department itself says:

“There are a range of pupil, school, parental and societal characteristics that are likely to affect attainment in varying degrees.”

It is the interplay of factors that cannot be judged in Whitehall. Schools can collaborate with parents to ensure that a child’s education will be enriched by a family holiday and of course the child can be set work to be completed while they are away.

However, if the headteacher cannot justify that the holiday is being taken in “exceptional circumstances”, then parents can be criminalised under legislation introduced by statutory instrument in 2013. For many years, parents have been legally responsible for their child’s regular attendance at school, and headteachers are accountable for the performance of their school and their pupils. So it should be headteachers, working with parents, who decide whether or not to allow a family holiday, or any other kind of absence, after taking into account all the individual circumstances.

Before being elected to this House, I ran the Grant Maintained Schools Foundation and I am proud that this Government have taken forward the principle that we worked so hard to promote—greater autonomy and decision making in schools. So I find it incomprehensible why, on this particular issue, the Government insist that they know better than headteachers what is best for individual children.

There is a misconception that prior to 2013 parents had a right to take their children out of school for up to 10 days for a holiday. That was never the case. Headteachers were able to agree to a child being absent on a family holiday in “special circumstances”. It has been said, including by my right hon. Friend the Minister for Schools himself during a debate last October, that the 2013 amendments “clarified” the situation, but I disagree. A change from “special circumstances” to “exceptional circumstances” is a material difference, and it has given rise to markedly different approaches from local education authorities.

We now have a postcode lottery that determines whether a parent is prosecuted. For example, I understand that in the west country Cornwall has issued four “school fines” in the last three years, but Devon, which is just next door, has issued 1,386 such fines in the last year alone. The variation is great even among just primary schools on my island. In one school, the parents of 176 pupils received fines over three years, while another school did not issue any fines at all. That cannot have been the Government’s intention—or, if it was, they are not explaining it well.