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Parents cannot authorise absences; only schools can do this. Head teachers have discretion to grant leave during school term time, but this is not an automatic entitlement. The law governing such leave of absences was tightened up from September 2013.
Under the new regulations, head teachers may not grant leave of absence during term-time unless there are exceptional circumstances.
Department for Education guidance summarises the legal powers and duties that govern school attendance, and explains how they apply to local authorities, head teachers, school staff, governing bodies, pupils and parents. The Frequently Asked Questions section states:
Can a parent take their child on holiday during term time?
Head teachers should only authorise leave of absence in exceptional circumstances. If a head teacher grants a leave request, it will be for the head teacher to determine the length of time that the child can be away from school. Leave is unlikely, however, to be granted for the purposes of a family holiday as a norm.
The impact of the Supreme Court judgment
On 6 April 2017, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled against Jon Platt, a father from the Isle of Wight who had refused to pay a fine for taking his daughter out of school for a holiday during term-time.
Previously, in May 2016, the High Court had ruled in favour of Mr Platt, who refused to pay a £120 fine for taking his daughter on holiday to Disney World in April 2015, causing her to miss seven days of lessons, despite her school having refused permission for her absence.
Following an initial ruling by magistrates in Mr Platt’s favour, the Isle of Wight Council appealed the case to the High Court.
The Department for Education provided support to the Isle of Wight Council in their subsequent appeal to the Supreme Court against the High Court judgment. The appeal was heard in January 2017.
As a result of the judgment, the existing rules remain in place.
What fines can be made?
The imposition of penalty notices (fines) for unauthorised absence from school is not new; however, the rules on enforcing fines were also tightened up from September 2013. Since then, the amount of time a parent has to pay a fine has been reduced to allow swifter enforcement of unpaid notices.
- Parents now have to pay £60 within 21 days
- This will rise to £120 if paid within 22 to 28 days of the notice being issued
- If the fine is not paid the parent can be prosecuted. Both parents may be fined for the same absence
Penalty notices can only be issued by a head teacher or someone authorised by them (a deputy or assistant head authorised by the head teacher), a local authority officer or the police. Penalty notices can be issued to each parent liable for the attendance offence or offences.
Can parents appeal a fine?
No. There is no right of appeal against a penalty notice.
What if parents refuse to pay?
If parents refuse to pay, the local authority must decide either to prosecute for the original offence to which the notice applies, or withdraw the notice.
What if a local authority decides to prosecute?
Local authorities have the power to prosecute parents who fail to ensure their child’s regular attendance at a school (section 444 of the Education Act 1996).
Section 444 has two separate but linked offences:
- Section 444(1): where a parent fails to secure the child’s regular attendance; and
- Section 444(1A) where a parent knows that the child is failing to attend school regularly, and fails to ensure the child does so.
These offences also apply if a local authority or governing body has arranged alternative provision for a child (i.e. education outside of mainstream settings).
There are statutory defences for parents to use under the 1996 Act: these relate to “reasonable justifications” for an absence, such as illnesses and the observation of religious holidays.
If parents are found guilty of the section 444 (1) offence, a court can apply a level 3 fine of up to £1,000.
If they are found guilty of the section 444 (1A) offence, the fine is at level 4, up to £2,500. The court can also sentence them to imprisonment for up to three months.
Any constituent facing a prosecution would need to seek professional legal advice.
What happens to the money paid in fines?
Local authorities must use the money received to administer the penalty notice system, with any excess money being paid to the Secretary of State.
Was more leeway available in the past?
Yes. Prior to the changes in 2013, head teachers could grant a leave of absence for the purpose of a family holiday during term time in “special circumstances” of up to ten school days per year.
What are the rules in other parts of the UK?
In Scotland, the legislation governing school holidays is worded in similar terms. In terms of Section 25(1) of The Education (Scotland) Act 1980, an offence occurs where a child of school age “fails without reasonable excuse to attend regularly at the said school”.
In 2007 the Scottish Government published Included, Engaged and Involved Part 1: Attendance in Scottish Schools which advises the following on holidays during term time:
[…] family holidays should not be recorded as authorised absence, except in exceptional domestic circumstances, where a family needs time together to recover from distress, or where a parent’s employment is of a nature where school-holiday leave cannot be accommodated (e.g. armed services). It is for local authorities and schools to judge when these circumstances apply and authorise absence, accordingly.
It also says:
It is for schools and education authorities to judge what sanctions, if any, they may wish to apply to unauthorised absence due to holidays.
Scottish Office guidance on school attendance was formerly that up to two weeks of family holiday could be regarded as an authorised absence, where attendance was otherwise good.
In January 2017, Welsh Education Minister Huw Lewis wrote to councils following a petition by parents to say that it was wrong to tell head teachers to ban all term-time leave.
According to his reading of the 2010 regulations, head teachers in Wales have a discretionary power to authorise leave for a family holiday during term time where parents seek permission.
Parents can be fined if their child’s absence from school is unauthorised.
The Welsh Government’s 2010 guidance (PDF 400 KB) explains that:
Parents should not normally take pupils on holidays in term time and parents must apply for the leave in advance of taking it. Each request for holiday absence should be considered individually, taking account of: the age of the child; the time of year proposed for the trip; its nature and parental wishes; the overall attendance pattern of the pupil; the child’s stage of education and progress; and whether circumstances warrant it. Schools should invite parents to discuss any proposed holiday in term time.
Schools can only agree to absence for a family holiday if they believe there are special circumstances which warrant it. They can only agree to absence of more than 10 school days in a school year if they believe there are exceptional circumstances.
The Northern Irish Executive recommends that parents should avoid taking their children on holiday during term time. It advises that the majority of family holidays taken during term time will be categorised as an unauthorised absence.
Only in very exceptional circumstances will a school agree to such a holiday, such as when it may be judged too important for the well-being and cohesion of the family, following serious or terminal illness, bereavement, or another traumatic event. Only school principals are empowered to agree to, and permit, such an absence.
Parents cannot be fined for unauthorised absences, but if a child’s attendance drops below 85% they could be referred to the Education Welfare Service.
- Department for Education, School attendance: parental responsibility measures
- Department for Education, School attendance: Departmental advice for maintained schools, academies, independent schools and local authorities
- Research Briefing: Holidays during school term time (England)
- The Education (Pupil Registration) (England) (Amendment) Regulations 2013
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