The Supreme Court has unanimously ruled against Jon Platt, a father who refused to pay a fine for taking his daughter out of school for a holiday during term-time. The judgment strengthens the controversial penalty notice system in England, under which parents may be fined for taking their child out of school without authorisation.

Critics of the system highlight the high cost of holidays outside term-time, and the impact on tourism in the UK. The Government has maintained that ensuring school attendance is key to raising children’s attainment.

Isle of Wight v. Platt and ‘regular’ school attendance

On 13 May 2016, the High Court ruled in favour of Jon Platt, a father from the Isle of Wight who had refused to pay a £120 fine for taking his daughter on holiday during term time. Mr Platt took his daughter to Disney World in April 2015, causing her to miss seven days of lessons, despite her school having refused permission for her absence.

Parents are responsible for ensuring their children receive an education. Under section 444 of the Education Act 1996, parents are guilty of an offence if their child “fails to attend regularly” at the school where they are registered. The Act doesn’t define ‘regularly’. Mr Platt argued that the holiday didn’t break this rule as his daughter had a good school attendance record for the rest of the year.

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.

Today’s Supreme Court ruling centred on the Court’s view that the word ‘regularly’ means ‘in accordance with the rules prescribed by the school’. Contrary definitions were rejected as inappropriate or too vague for purpose.

Fines for school absence

Parents cannot authorise absence. Only schools can do this. Head teachers have discretion to grant leave during school term-time, but this is not an automatic entitlement.

Penalty notices – fines – for school absence 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.

The penalty for an unauthorised absence from school is £60, rising to £120 if it is not paid within 28 days.

Fines are pursued as an alternative to prosecution. If a parent refuses to pay, they can be prosecuted.

Tightening the rules

Fines for school absence are not new. In 2013, the Coalition Government tightened the existing rules to remove references to family holidays and extended leave, as well as removing a statutory threshold of ten school days. Previously, 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.

Since the changes, head teachers may not grant a leave of absence during term-time unless there are exceptional circumstances.

Are any absences for family holidays allowed?

‘Exceptional circumstances’ are not defined in guidance from the Department for Education, although it’s made clear that family holidays are “unlikely” to be considered as exceptional.

Guidance for its members from the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) states that absences should be authorised if they’re “rare, significant, unavoidable and short,” and couldn’t reasonably be scheduled outside of term-time. Family holidays are, as a consequence, “not considered an exceptional circumstance.”

What are the concerns?

The increased restrictions on term-time holidays have proved controversial. A petition arguing for the introduction of an allowance for up to two weeks’ term-time leave from school for holidays was submitted to Parliament in summer 2015, and received over 120,000 signatures. The petition raised the potential educational value of holidays, as well as the impact on poorer parents of increased prices outside of term-time.

Russell Hobby, General Secretary of the NAHT, has stated that the system of fines is “too blunt an instrument” for its intended purpose.

Concerns have also been raised about the impact on tourism, such as by Steve Double, the MP for St Austell and Newquay, reflecting concerns about the impact on the tourism industry in Cornwall.

The High Court judgment has also prompted reluctance on the part of some councils, including Kent and Derbyshire, to enforce fines.

Do absences harm a child’s education?

In March 2016, the Department for Education published attainment statistics which included the Department’s conclusion that every extra day of school missed was associated with a lower attainment outcome.

This impact, and whether the impact of missing days of school can be measured in this way, has however been questioned.

What happens now?

The appeal’s success means that any potential relaxation of the rules on term-time holidays is unlikely to take place. Parents who are fined and refuse to pay will not be able to rely on their child’s general attendance record in defence, should the local authority decide to prosecute. Mr Platt’s case is being returned to the magistrate’s court.

The decision to authorise absence from school remains with head teachers.

We publish regular briefings on education policy and statistics available online.

Image: Stephanie Chapman; Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC by 2.0)