Parents across England will watch eagerly this week as the Supreme Court makes a landmark ruling on term-time holiday fines.
The case pits the Department of Education against 46-year-old Jon Platt, a father from the Isle of Wight who refused to pay a £120 fine for taking his daughter on a week-long trip to Disneyland in Florida, USA. A decision will be made on Thursday, in a ruling expected to have far-reaching consequences for the parents of England’s school-age children.
How did this start?
In 2013 - under the direction of then Secretary of State, Michael Gove - the Department of Education tightened rules around term-time absences, ruling that children could only be taken off school in “exceptional circumstances”, such as a family-member’s funeral. Mr Gove was determined to tackle term-time absences, pointing out that the rate of absence was twice as high in primary schools as in secondaries.
Ministers said the original guidelines written in 2006 were confusing, with many parents mistakenly thinking that they had a right to two weeks of term-time holiday.
What are the rules?
The new rules removed any provision for family holidays, meaning that local councils can now fine parents £60 for taking their child on holiday during term-time without an “exceptional circumstance”. The fine will rise to £120 if left unpaid for 21 days, the rules say.
After 28 days the parent can be prosecuted, at which point they face a £2,500 fine or even a three-month prison sentence (although no parent has yet been jailed). Over 90,000 parents were fined a total of £5.6m for term-time holidays during the 2014-15 academic year, with Lancashire Council issuing the most fines (more than 4,000).
Do these rules apply to all British parents?
No - education is a devolved policy, so the rules only apply in England. Scotland and Northern Ireland have no fines for holidaying parents, although the Scottish government does advise schools to keep term-time absences low. In Wales parents are allowed up to ten days of term-time holiday at the headteacher’s discretion.
Even within England, some councils have wildly differing approaches. A BBC investigation earlier this year found that 35 English councils have changed their policy on term-time absences as a direct result of Platt’s highly-publicised case, with a further five currently reviewing their guidelines.
Since John Platt's case, 28 councils have even withdrawn fines. Whilst Suffolk Council issued more than 6,000 fines during the 2015-16 school year, for example, North Tyneside issued only 108. Richmond-upon-Thames did not issue a single fine.
What are the arguments?
Jon Platt is a 46-year-old father from the Isle of Wight, who took his daughter on a week-long trip to Disney World in Florida in April 2015. Platt refused to pay the £120 fine he was issued by Isle of Wight Council, with the Council subsequently appealing to the High Court, which ruled in Mr Platt’s favour.
Government lawyers appealed to the Supreme Court, which heard arguments in January this year. James Eadie QC, representing the education secretary, argued in court that it would be “absurd” if parents could take holidays when “the sun is out and foreign climes beckon” in a way that “undermined” government policy on term-time absences.
But Clive Sheldon QC, representing Mr Platt, said that with parents at state-funded schools taking 4.1 million days of unauthorised absences in the 2015 autumn term alone, the government’s interpretation of the law would “penalise millions of people”.
What do parents want?
Polls suggest that parents strongly back Mr Platt, with many keen to take advantage of lower term-time travel costs. A poll by Atomik Research last year showed that 84 percent of Brits believe parents should not be criminalised for term-time holidays, with 63 percent of teachers saying the same, according to TES.