Until we see the full judgement in the recent case we won’t know what the judges in the High Court were thinking when they seemed to deemed it ‘reasonable’ for a parent to be able to take a child on holiday for a week during school term-time.
It is worth recalling that the overarching responsibility of parents is to see that their children receive an education when they are of compulsory school-age (there is a grey area for young people between the ages of 16-18 that will need clarification at some point.)
For young people between 5-16 the law says:
Duty of parents to secure education of children of compulsory school age.
The parent of every child of compulsory school age shall cause him to receive efficient full-time education suitable—
(a)to his age, ability and aptitude, and
(b)to any special educational needs he may have,
either by regular attendance at school or otherwise
The issue turns on the definition of ‘regular attendance.’ If the parent, as most do, hands over the responsibility to the State, what is the nature of the contract between the parent and the State? The State agrees to provide the child with 190 days of schooling per year. It is accepted that children may be off sick and there may be other reasons for a child not to be present, but these will require ‘leave’ to be absent.
In the 1990s two things happened, Ofsted started reporting regularly on attendance levels at schools and the State wanted to drive up standards of education that were thought to be falling. As a result, the law was tightened to ensure regular attendance, with two defences; ‘sickness or unavoidable cause’ or ’with leave’. Historically, schools could grant up to 10 days leave, but that right was removed over time.
The government explained the basis for this change in relation to family holidays in the background to the secondary legislation making the change.
The 2006 Regulations refer to parents applying for family holiday in “special circumstances” and to schools having discretion to grant up to ten school days of holiday per year. Many parents and some schools have interpreted this law as an automatic entitlement to an annual two-week term time holiday. The Education (Pupil Registration) (England) (Amendment) Regulations 2013 amend the 2006 Regulations to clarify that leave of absence during term time shall not be granted unless there are “exceptional circumstances”.
They further explained that;
For pupils to benefit from education and achieve their full potential they must attend school regularly. School attendance data from 2010/11 showed that 90 per cent of pupils with an absence rate of less than 4 per cent achieved 5 or more A*- C grades at GCSE or equivalent. In primary schools, 4 out of 5 pupils with an absence rate of less than 4 per cent achieved level 4 or above in both English and mathematics.
As Oxfordshire County Council’s document on the subject for parents notes;
90% attendance means that your child is absent from lessons for the equivalent of one half day per week.
So how draconian should the State be? Personally, I think in the first year of schooling when routines are being set and key topics may be being learnt for the first time every effort should be made to attend and taking time out may not be helpful either for the child or their classmates if it disrupts the teaching. As a rule of thumb after that I think where pupils are rarely or never off sick, the guidelines in the old 10-day rule probably provided a sensible rule of thumb for head teachers. After all, some parents cannot take holidays during school holiday period because of the nature of their jobs. However, if a child has missed a lot of time through sickness, taking time off turning term-time that year for a holiday isn’t a good idea and I would expect a head teacher to refuse ‘leave’.
Essentially, the legislation should encourage parents to make the most of the education on offer for their children without seriously affecting either their education or that of their classmates.
My parents only ever took me out of school for one week at the start of my third year in junior school and I never really understood the work on fractions that was introduced during that week. Had it been the last week of the summer term it might have been a different matter.
However, what is clear is that major changes to legislation really ought to be part of primary legislation and not created by secondary legislation and Ministerial fiat. Had that been the case here, Parliament could have discussed in committee what it meant by the phrase ‘attend school regularly’ and the acceptable reasons not to do so.
Perhaps, as a result of this parent’s action it will now have a chance to do so. They might also ask whether if the State isn’t able to fulfil its part of the contract it should make up the missing days? Lord Denning did discuss this in Meade v Haringey in 1979 at the end of the Winter of Discontent, but it never came to trial and a decision.