Term-time holidays: Parents can be prosecuted for taking children out of school without permission, Supreme Court rules

Harry Yorke

Parents who take their children out of school without permission to go holiday can be prosecuted, the Supreme Court has ruled, as a father lost a landmark legal battle over taking his daughter to Disney World during term-time.

Delivering their verdict on Thursday morning, the judges ruled that Jon Platt, a businessman from the Isle of Wight who took his six-year-old daughter on a seven-day family trip to Florida in April 2015, should have paid a £120 fine for his daughter’s unauthorised absence.

The judges said he had shown a “blatant disregard of school rules” and that his approach had been a “slap in the face” to parents who play by the rules.

It means that parents who take their children out of school on holiday - even if their child has regular attendance - can be prosecuted if they do not receive permission from the head teacher.

Jon Platt and his wife Sally outside the Supreme Court in central London on Thursday morning Credit: Stefan Rousseau/PA

Speaking in Parliament Square after the ruling, Mr Platt apologised to his wife for his stubbornness and “this lunacy”, adding that he was "not at all surprised" by the verdict.

However, he said that he felt the decision was “outrageous” and “shocking”, as he warned parents with outstanding fines to pay them or face “ending up here in two years time”.

Mr platt added that the decision represented a victory for the Department of Education, and symbolised the “state” wrestling parents’ rights over their children’s welfare away from them.

He now faces legal costs of more than £10,000  and could be fined a maximum penalty of £1,000 if he is found guilty when the case is reexamined at the Isle of Wight Magistrates’ Court later this year.

Reading out the court’s verdict, Lady Hale, Deputy President of the Supreme Court, said:

“The Supreme Court unanimously allows the Council’s appeal, declaring that the word ‘regularly’ means ‘in accordance with the rules prescribed by the school.’

“It  follows that the appeal must be allowed. It would not be fair to parents such as the mother in this case who have paid the fixed penalty simply to make a declaration as to the meaning of the word “regularly in this context.

“The case will be returned to the magistrates’ court with a direction to proceed as if the submission of no case to answer had been rejected.

“The father will be guilty of the offence unless he can establish one of the statutory exceptions. But the eventual outcome of the case will be a matter for the magistrates to decide.”

The council prosecuted Mr Platt after he refused to pay a £120 penalty. Local magistrates found there was no case to answer, and the authority then took its case to the High Court in London.

But two judges upheld the magistrates' decision and declared that Mr Platt was not acting unlawfully because his daughter had a good overall attendance record of over 90 per cent.

They said the magistrates were entitled to take into account the "wider picture" of the child's attendance record outside of the dates she was absent on the holiday. The decision caused a surge in term-time bookings all over England.

Term time holidays

The Supreme Court judgment said that unauthorised term-time holidays were a “slap in the face to those obedient parents who do keep the rules, whatever the cost or inconvenience to themselves”.

The ruling will be seen as a victory for the Department of Education (DfE), which has cracked down on the practice since 2013, when the former education secretary, Michael Gove, vowed to curb unauthorised absences at primary schools.

Jon Platt said schools now need to think 'very carefully' about absence rules Credit: Stefan Rousseau/PA

Thursday's announcement came after it emerged that more than 100 parents are being prosecuted per school day for taking their children out of classes without permission.

According to the latest statistics provided by the Ministry of Justice, the number of people taken to court for unauthorised absences has surged by nearly two thirds in just four years, with nearly 20,000 people now prosecuted annually.

Government's response to landmark ruling

A Department for Education spokesman said: “We are pleased the Supreme Court unanimously agreed with our position – that no child should be taken out of school without good reason.

"As before, headteachers have the ability to decide when exceptional circumstances allow for a child to be absent but today’s ruling removes the uncertainty for schools and local authorities that was created by the previous judgment.

“The evidence shows every extra day of school missed can affect a pupil’s chances of achieving good GCSEs, which has a lasting effect on their life chances.

“We will examine the judgment carefully and will update schools and local authorities as soon as possible so they are clear what the judgment means for them.”

Father: This is the state taking away parents' rights

Speaking after the ruling was given, Mr Platt said he was "not at all surprised" at the judgment.

He said: "I'm pleased that they acknowledged the judgment doesn't go on to say what the school rules should be. Schools need to think very carefully about what these rules should be.

"Some have policies that mean that every day missed is a criminal offence."

He added that schools need to build in some flexibility to "attenuate the shocking outcome of this case".

Jon Platt outside the Supreme Court on Thursday Credit: Dan Kitwood/Getty

Mr Platt warned other parents to pay any outstanding fines or "face ending up here in two years time", adding that the decision represented the "state" wrestling the duty of care for children away from their parents. 

"The issue is no longer about term-time holidays," he said. "It is about the state taking the rights of parents away from making decisions about their children. 

"Many of you thought, as I did in 2015 when I took my daughter on holiday, that it would be grossly unfair to retrospectively criminalise me. That was very nearly the case." 

He added: "I have absolutely no intention of pleading guilty to this offence when it goes back to the magistrates' court.

"To parents all over England I say this: the legal battle is now over. There is no right of appeal beyond this place. It will be a generation or more before this court revisits this issue, if ever it does.

"You can no longer make the decision to take your children out of school, even for one morning without permission of the state."

Labour: Taking children out of school creates 'chaos'

Speaking on BBC Breakfast on Thursday, shadow education secretary Angela Rayner said removing children from school during term-time would create "chaos" in the classroom.

She said: "I completely understand the difficulties that working parents face - I did myself as a single mum.

"But it's really, really important that we set that principle that actually children should attend school in term-time. There are exceptional circumstances, there is discretion at the moment.

"But if all parents took their children out of school in term-time because it was cheaper to get a holiday that way, then it would be chaos in our schools and it would affect all children."

What is the background to this case?

The High Court ruling in May last year cleared Mr Platt of failing to ensure his daughter attended school regularly, as required by section 444(1) of the Education Act 1996.

Mr Platt's request for permission to take his daughter out of school was refused by her head teacher.

After the holiday, he was issued with a fixed penalty notice, but he did not pay the £60 by the initial deadline, and was sent a further invoice for £120, which he also did not pay.

At a Supreme Court hearing in January, the local authority, backed by the Education Secretary, argued that a child's unauthorised absence from school ''for even a single day, or even half a day'' can amount to a criminal offence.

Jon Platt speaking outside the High Court in May last year  Credit: Matthew Chattle/REX/Shutterstock

But a QC for Mr Platt described the submission as a new and radical interpretation of the law which was absurd and would ''criminalise parents on an unprecedented scale''.

James Eadie QC, for the Education Secretary, argued it would be ''absurd'' if parents could go on holiday with children when ''the sun is out and foreign climes beckon'' in a way that ''undermined'' Government policy on unauthorised absences.

The Government ordered a crackdown on school absences in 2013.

New guidelines were introduced for English schools which only allow heads to permit pupils to miss classes in ''exceptional circumstances''.

Families complain that trips in official holiday periods are up to four times more expensive, and local councils have reported that the number of breaks in term time is increasing.

Term-time school holiday price comparison

The Department for Education has told parents that their children missing just a few days in the classroom can damage GCSE results.

Why is this such an important decision?

The crux of the matter is that five Supreme Court judges were being asked to consider whether or not Mr Platt committed an offence by failing to ensure his daughter "attended school regularly", as required by section 444(1) of the 1996 Education Act.

A key High Court finding was that the magistrates who originally heard the case were legally entitled to take into account the daughter's overall attendance record and not just her lack of "regular attendance" during the Florida holiday period.

At a Supreme Court hearing in January, the Isle of Wight council argued a child's unauthorised absence from school "for even a single day, or even half a day" can amount to a criminal offence.

A QC for Mr Platt, described the submission as a new and radical interpretation of the law which was absurd and would "criminalise parents on an unprecedented scale".

The action was being closely watched by parents across the country.

The High Court ruling led to a surge in term-time holiday bookings, which are expected to fall sharply after Thursday's ruling. Parents may no longer believe it is worth taking them out of lessons to take advantage of cheaper holiday prices.

As the Supreme Court decided in favour of education bosses, it means that schools and local councils could be even tougher on families whose children miss any school without permission.

What are the current rules?

In the autumn of 2013, there was a major crackdown on absence, including term-time holidays.

New rules were brought in, which said head teachers could only grant leave in "exceptional circumstances". Previously, school leaders were able to approve leave of up to 10 days for "special circumstances".

Fines for unauthorised absence were also increased in 2013, with parents now incurring a penalty of £60, rising to £120 if it is not paid within 21 days. anyone who fails to pay within 28 days can face prosecution.

Ministers have argued that children must be in school every day, and that every extra day of school a child misses can affect their GCSE results.

How many children miss school for holidays?

Figures published by the Department for Education last month showed that around a million schoolchildren missed lessons last year after taking family trips during term time.

About one in six pupils in England took at least a half day off for a trip in the 2015/16 academic year with the vast majority doing so without getting permission from the head teacher.

Overall, there were 801,980 pupils in England's state primary, secondary and special schools (11.9 per cent) with one or more sessions (half days) of absence due to unauthorised family holidays, and 223,080 students (3.3 per cent) with at least one missed session due to agreed family breaks.

There are no overall figures on the numbers of parents handed fines for taking children out of school, but figures previously showed that in the 2014/15 academic year, at least 50,414 penalty notices were issued due to children being taken out of lessons for trips.

This was up 25 per cent on the year before, when at least 40,218 penalties were given out, and up 173 per cent from the 18,484 fines handed out by local authorities in 2012/13. These figures cover 71 councils that provided data for all three years.

Should parents be allowed to take their children on term time holidays?