Updated: Apr 20, 2020
The case of Jon Platt, the father, who lost his case about term time holidays in April 2017 raises a number of interesting questions.
With regard to term-time holidays, I have considerable sympathy for families where parents work in tourism related industries who find it particularly difficult to take time off during school holidays, as this is when they are busiest. Further, I appreciate that there are those who need to take term-time holidays for particular family reasons. Equally, it could be argued that a child would learn a lot from a trip to the Pyramids or to see the art of Ancient Rome. The value of family time and commitments should not be underestimated. But all this remains at the discretion of Head Teachers, though Head Teachers’ discretion is inhibited increasingly by the pressures of OFSTED and league tables that record attendance.
We have to be honest that the direct impact on learning of a short term-time holiday is often limited. There is evidence that one longer absence (a week) is less disruptive to learning than constantly missed single days. None of this is disputed on the individual level. But when it is multiplied to whole classes or schools, it becomes a different matter. The thought of teaching a class with children in and out like yo-yos, when you are constantly trying to catch up those who have been on holiday on what they have missed is something that would push most teachers over the edge.
However, as Lady Hale said, there is a more fundamental issue:
‘If one pupil can be taken out whenever it suits the parent, then so can others … Any educational system expects people to keep the rules.’
Tom Bennett’s recent report Creating a Culture identifies that successful schools depend on highly consistent working practices and high levels of staff and parental commitment to the school’s vision and strategies. Taking children out of school during term time communicates to the school, and more importantly to the child, that the rules do not apply to them. Moreover, that their parent does not fully support and engage with the school. It is this implicit message that has the impact on the child’s learning.
Jon Platt sees this in terms of the rights of the parent, over the requirement of the school to educate the child saying:
‘The issue is no longer, if it ever was, about term-time holidays, it is about the state taking away the rights of parents.’
But the ‘rights of parents’ come with responsibilities. There are times when the state needs to take away the rights of the parent to protect the child. These are listed in the 1989 Children’s Act and subsequent legislation and guidance. It is summarised in the dictum:
‘The welfare of the child is paramount.’
I am not clear where Mr Platt would draw the line on the rights of parents and the requirement for school attendance. I am certain that his view is based on his belief that he is a good parent and able to make reasonable and appropriate decisions for his child. There are few parents who set out to be bad parents and to make poor decisions for their child. Those who send their children to unregistered schools believe that these provide the best education for their child. Yet many of these schools are judged as detrimental to the children attending them and possibly, where there is evidence of political or religious indoctrination, to be harmful to the wider public under the PREVENT strategy. Even so, the majority of parents involved believe they are doing their best for their children and would argue it is their right to educate their child in this way.
There are further questions about the responsibility for regular school attendance (Education Act 1996: Section 44). I would personally argue Jon Platt’s daughter’s attendance at 92.3% is not good enough. This is something that has been reflected in the many Child Protection Conferences I have attended, where the target set for these vulnerable families is 95% plus attendance. It should be remembered that this level of attendance is still allowing the child to miss half a day’s school every fortnight- a level of attendance few employers would regard as reasonable or regular. When we are considering non-attendance at school we need to think very carefully why we regard it as different to ‘no shows’ for medical appointments. The current campaign to list children who ‘Did not attend’ to medical appointments as ‘was not brought’ instead, has some interesting and relevant points to make here. We would all question the decision making of a parent who does not take their child to a medical appointment, but it is, for many, socially acceptable to allow them to miss school. Key to children’s engagement in education is the support of their parents.
In cases where there are safeguarding concerns, school attendance is seen as a key indicator whether a family is engaging with services and working to improve the situation for their children, or not. I am not sure why the expectations should be different for families subject to Child Protection Plans and those who can afford trips to Florida in school time?
Parental responsibility is about supporting a child to engage in society and preparing them for a role in it. By exercising their right to remove a child from school without good reasons (e.g. holiday prices are cheaper!) a parent models a set of priorities that undermines the value of education and tells their child they do not need to follow the rules of society. We need to question which come first; the rights of the parent or the rights of the child to an education. Whatever conclusion we reach the villain of the piece remains holiday companies who hike their prices excessively during school holidays and so place a financial incentive on parents for their children to miss school.