Term-time holiday? Maybe, if you attend an academy

Differing rules on unauthorised leave mean Platt case did not provide clarity
14th April 2017, 12:01am
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Term-time holiday? Maybe, if you attend an academy


“A tax on law-abiding families,” the headlines shrieked, relating parents’ anger that they will not be allowed to take pupils on cheaper term-time holidays.

The issue returned to public consciousness last week following the Supreme Court’s judgment that Jon Platt was wrong to have taken his seven-year-old daughter out of school for a trip to Disney World in Florida.

The Department for Education said the decision meant that “no child should be taken out of school without good reason”. But the situation is much less clear-cut than the coverage suggested.

Many state-funded schools will not have to follow strict rules banning such holidays and have never had to - because they are academies.

That means that 2,121 secondary academies - amounting to 62 per cent of the state secondary sector - and 3,749 primary academies will retain much greater latitude over letting pupils go on holiday because they are not covered by the 2013 law at the heart of the case.

“The rule doesn’t apply to academies and independent schools,” the DfE has since confirmed. “They have their own policies and use their own discretion.”

We have to work with the parents - you’ve got to have empathy for parents and the families

Andy Brown is one of a growing number of academy leaders not bound by the same rules as maintained schools on term-time holidays.

Formerly headteacher of West View Primary School in Hartlepool, and now chief executive of its parent body, the Ad Astra Academy Trust, he has worked with his governors to agree a set of terms under which pupils - many of whom are from deprived backgrounds - can take term-time holidays.

For example, when a family on benefits whose children had strong academic and attendance records wanted to take a holiday, Brown authorised the absence. The family had not previously been on a holiday together.

“Sometimes, a family holiday is probably the best thing for that child,” he says. “We have to work with the parents - you’ve got to have empathy for parents and the families.

“Sometimes they even offer to take work with them, and then you feel guilty - it’s supposed to be a holiday.”

Recent DfE figures show that 801,980 pupils in English state schools missed at least half a day of school for a family holiday during the academic year 2015-16.

High stakes

At least 50,000 fines were given for term-time holidays during the 2014-15 academic year.

In independent schools, which, like academies, are able to exercise discretion in granting term-time leave, it appears to be less of an issue.

Mike Buchanan, the chairman of HMC (the Headmasters and Headmistresses’ Conference) and head of Ashford School in Kent, says that he has very few applications for term-time absence because parents want full value for their fees, which range between £2,975 and £5,600 a term.

“Most of the parents who send their children to private school aren’t poor, but they’re not rich,” he says. “They’re making a conscious decision to buy something because they perceive value in it. And therefore they’re committed to it.”

He is, however, sympathetic to parents who argue that one or two days could determine the affordability of a long-haul flight. When one parent was seconded to South Africa for two weeks during term-time, Buchanan agreed that the children should go along, too.

“Education happens in all sorts of contexts,” he says. “It doesn’t just happen in the classroom, that’s for sure.”

In the state sector, the stakes can be much higher. Legally, parents who are aware that their children are failing to turn up to a maintained school on a regular basis can be sentenced to a term in prison.

Are holidays ‘exceptional circumstances’?

Between 2013 and 2015, 33 parents were jailed as a consequence of their children’s persistent truancy. A lawyer close to the Platt case has advised that, potentially, going on holiday could qualify as persistent truancy.

This would mean that parents could be sent to prison for taking their children on a term-time family holiday.

But the DfE says that this would only happen if a parent was taken to court, found guilty and still refused to pay the fine. “Technically, yes, it’s possible,” a spokesperson says. “Just as you would technically face prison if you didn’t pay a parking fine.”

Geoff Barton, incoming general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, does not think this is an imminent threat: “The idea that somehow we’re going to find ourselves in a position with people put in prison because of holidays is really unlikely.”

Before 2013, maintained-school heads had the authority to grant up to 10 days of leave for “special circumstances” - a catch-all category that could include holiday leave. Since 2013, heads have only been entitled to authorise term-time absence for “exceptional circumstances”.

While the definition of “exceptional” is left up to individual heads, the government and union leaders believe that these circumstances would not include family holidays.

“We’ve made sure that headteachers still have the freedom to consider individual parents’ applications - often something like a bereavement or religious reasons,” the DfE spokesperson says.

Our approach is: ‘could this be rescheduled during term-time?’

Russell Hobby, general secretary of the NAHT heads’ union, offers a similar definition. “There are circumstances where you should grant absence during term-time,” he says. “But they’re not for holidays.

“Our approach is: could this be rescheduled during term-time? Of course you can’t reschedule a funeral, for example, during holidays.”

Barton suggests that this definition should be agreed between headteacher and governors, and then circulated to parents. “More clarity for all of us,” he says. “Then you’re less likely to get into a downward spiral of court cases and legal fees and all the rest of it.”

Many teachers and unions would prefer more flexibility for maintained schools. On hearing the ruling in the Platt case, NUT teaching union general secretary Kevin Courtney said: “This is another example of the government claiming that it’s giving teachers autonomy, but actually them using top-down methods to force behaviour in schools that takes away any real autonomy.”

But even parents who do send their children to academies can be far from certain of success when asking permission for a term-time family trip.

Brown recalls a request from the parents of a Year 6 child who was expected to perform well in his Sats but who they wanted to take abroad during Sats week, when foreign holidays were particularly cheap. Permission was refused, and Brown set up procedures to fine the parents.

“You’ve got to keep the relationship right,” he says. “But you’ve also got to ensure that parents understand the value of education. It’s a balance.”


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