The decision by the Supreme Court to find against parent Jon Platt in his battle with his local education authority is both outrageous and debatable. Mr Platt took his daughter on holiday for a week during the school term in 2015 and was arbitrarily fined by Isle of Wight council for doing so. Platt successfully fought the verdict in the high court, yet for reasons best known to themselves, the council decided to take it to a higher authority. Where next, if they had been unsuccessful, one wonders. The European Court of Human Rights? God?
As a parent also fined for removing my children during term I know how Mr Platt feels, even if I didn’t have the time, money or courage to fight our case. We wanted to take our son and daughter to Australia for Christmas a couple of years back, and asked the head of their state school for permission to remove them two weeks early. Even though they had excellent attendance, punctuality and behavioural records he said no; so we did it anyway. We returned to a hefty fine and a stern letter: do it again and social services may be involved. Because obviously having your kids shown bush lore by an Aboriginal and kayaking across shark-infested lagoons won’t provide the same stimulation as putting tea towels on their head for religion-free ‘festive’ plays, will it?
On first reading, the somewhat pompous verdict of the Supreme Court seems fair enough: ‘If one pupil can be taken out whenever it suits the parent, then so can others,’ says assistant president Lady Hale. ‘Any educational system expects people to keep the rules. Not to do so is unfair to those obedient parents who do keep the rules, whatever the costs or inconvenience to themselves.’
On closer reading, however, the verdict is debatable. First, Mr Platt wasn’t fighting for the right to remove his child ‘whenever it suits’ – just for one week, after having a previously excellent attendance record, which before the overturning of powers for head teachers to grant time off in 2013 would have been enough. More worrying for anyone concerned about burgeoning powers of the state is the assertion that ‘any educational system expects people to keep the rules.’ ANY educational system? In other words, no matter how stupid the system may be, parents must obey?
As for the suggestion (sorry Lady Hale, verdict) that any parent who fails to follow the rules is spoiling it for everybody, and especially those obedient parents who never put a foot out of line, that sounds suspiciously like the old teacher’s trick of keeping everyone behind so they dob in the miscreant. The phrase ‘whatever the costs’ appears to find in favour of wealthier parents who can afford to fly off to the Caribbean during the peak season.
If, as Ms Hale implies, parents are ‘inconveniencing’ schools and local authorities by removing children during term, parents are themselves inconvenienced on a regular basis. ‘Teacher training days’, strikes, endless appeals for money, and increasingly, the staggering of holiday times.
Having written a piece for the Times on this very subject, I do understand why head teachers and local education authorities don’t want children absent during term. They can fall behind academically, disrupt the class when they return, and make poverty-stricken teachers jealous. However, our local authority has just posed a more philosophical question with all sorts of legal implications: when does ‘term’ end and ‘holiday’ begin?
Unless you have kids, you cannot imagine how problematic this is. Our daughter, 13, attends secondary school; her brother, 10, is still at primary school. However, our son broke up last Friday (31 March); our daughter doesn’t break up until this Friday (7 April). He goes back on 18 April; she doesn’t return until the following Monday. This means although my wife and I have to entertain at least one child for almost the whole of April, our children only have one week when they are both on holiday together.
What makes it worse is that we had no idea until a month or so ago that this was going to happen. Thankfully, we’d only booked one week’s holiday over Easter and it was the middle week. Otherwise, I suppose we might have been fined for removing one child during ‘term’ even though according to the council website it was ‘holidays’. We are also lucky in that I work from home, and there are two of us. How single working parents cope with staggered holidays is beyond my ken.
By staggering term dates, families are even more restricted in terms of money and time than before. Term dates at other schools in our borough vary by two weeks, meaning siblings potentially have no time together at all – yet parents need to arrange childcare for a month. I have no idea what our local authority were thinking of when they decided to introduce staggered holidays – and without giving parents more notice. Did the wishes of parents come into the equation at all or do we only count when they send out yet more requests for money? (One recent newsletter from our primary school thanked those children who handed over their pocket money to keep the place going). Either way, school holidays have become a nightmare for parents.
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