MPs debate 'draconian' fines over term-time holidays
MPs have argued for "draconian" rules on school absences to be changed, after a father was fined for taking his children on holiday as a treat while their mother had cancer treatment.
The fine was later cancelled but Dave Hedley started a petition against the policy, to help other parents.
The issue was debated by MPs after the petition attracted 200,000 signatures.
Schools Minister Nick Gibb accepted there was confusion following a recent High Court victory against a fine.
However, Mr Gibb said parents could still be fined for taking their children on holiday out of term-time - and confirmed the Department for Education would fund an appeal against the recent judgment.
"Although the government are disappointed with the High Court judgment on school attendance, we are clear that children's attendance at school is non-negotiable, and we will take the necessary steps to secure that principle," he said during the Westminster Hall debate.
Father's campaign against 'disgusting' fines
- Dave Hedley and his wife were fined £240 after taking a trip to the Lincolnshire coast with their three children
- Mr Hedley had been made redundant and his wife had been diagnosed with breast cancer, so his mother gave them the trip as a surprise
"We managed to get away for a surprise break the week after the Easter holidays," said Mr Hedley, from Stapleford in Nottinghamshire.
"We had no way of informing the school apart from via email but it was the one week we had in between my wife's operations and her radiotherapy starting."
- The parents were fined for taking two of their children out of school - £60 per parent, per child
- Mr Hedley wants the system to revert back to how it was before September 2013, when head teachers could grant leave of absence of up to 10 days in "special circumstances"
- The fine was later lifted, but Mr Hedley said waiting for this to happen added to the family's stress
"As my wife was undertaking radiotherapy at the time I just found this utterly disgusting," he said.
"The more I looked into it the more I decided that something had to be done to end the process."
Steve Double, the Conservative MP for St Austell and Newquay, led the debate on Monday and said the policy is "draconian".
"We are discriminating against those on low incomes by saying that if they cannot afford the high prices charged during the school holidays, they do not deserve a family holiday," he said.
Holidays 'best thing' for children
He said parents who work in tourism, and many public sector workers such as those in the NHS, are not allowed to take time off during school holidays.
He argued the policy "denies the value of a holiday to a child's development and education" and called for discretion to be put back in the hands of head teachers.
"Just last week I spoke to a primary school head teacher in my constituency and was surprised by what he said 'The best thing that could happen to some of the children in my school would be for their parents to take them on a week's holiday, even in term-time'," he said.
'High Court judgment has created uncertainty'
- In May the High Court ruled that Jon Platt did not have to pay a £120 fine to Isle of Wight Council after he took his daughter to Florida
- Magistrates had previously ruled he had no case to answer as his daughter had attended school regularly overall
- Isle of Wight Council therefore asked the High Court to clarify whether a seven-day absence amounted to a child failing to attend regularly, and the High Court judges dismissed the council's challenge
- A BBC investigation has found that ten councils in England have dropped cases against other parents following Mr Platt's court victory, six had suspended issuing fines and 11 were reviewing their policies
- However, Isle of Wight Council has been told it can apply to challenge the decision, and Schools Minister Nick Gibb has said the Department for Education will fund this.
"I recognise that the High Court judgment has created uncertainty for parents, schools and local authorities," Mr Gibb said during Monday's debate.
"Given its importance, it is essential that the matter is clarified, which is why we decided to support Isle of Wight Council's request for permission to appeal to the Supreme Court, and why I wrote to all schools and local authorities in England to make it clear that the High Court judgment does not establish that a pupil's attendance above 90% is regarded as regular attendance."
Other MPs supported Mr Double's arguments.
Rosie Cooper, Labour MP for West Lancashire, said there is a "fundamental lack of transparency, fairness and consistency in how the fines are being applied".
Michelle Donelan, Conservative MP for Chippenham, said that the children who are restricted from taking time to go on holiday "tend to be socially deprived and from impoverished backgrounds".
Derek Thomas, Conservative MP for St Ives, said the policy has an adverse impact on NHS services.
"The population of areas such as Cornwall increases significantly during the summer holiday months, which places extra pressure on health services at the very time when medical staff are forced to take their holiday," he said.