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Government hits back after High Court ruling on term-time holidays

Published 19/05/2016

Nick Gibb said the ruling represented a
Nick Gibb said the ruling represented a "significant threat" to the Government's drive to keep children in school

The Government will do "everything in its power" to stop children being taken out of school for unauthorised term-time holidays after a High Court ruled in favour of a father who took his daughter to Florida, a minister said.

Earlier this month the High Court backed Jon Platt after he refused to pay a fine for taking his daughter out of school without permission.

Schools minister Nick Gibb said the ruling represented a "significant threat" to the Government's drive to keep children in school.

Meanwhile he warned that the UK must not return to a "Dickensian world where the needs of industry and commerce" trump the need to educate amid fears that the current system of school holidays hurts the tourism industry.

Mr Platt was fined by Isle of Wight Council after he took his family on the holiday, which included a visit to Walt Disney World, without the permission of his child's school.

The father's legal victory has raised the prospect of more parents challenging the fines issued by schools.

Responding to an urgent question in the Commons, Mr Gibb said: "The High Court oral judgment represents a significant threat to one of the Government's most important achievements in education over the last six years: improving school attendance.

"For this reason the Government will do everything in its power to ensure head teachers are able to keep children in school."

At the moment parents can get permission from a head teacher for a term-time absence, but only in "exceptional circumstances" like the death of a relative.

Mr Gibb said the desire to go on holiday to Disney World does not meet such a threshold.

He said: "The need to take time off school in exceptional circumstances is important but there are no special circumstances where a 10-day family holiday to Disney World should be allowed to trump the importance of school.

"The rules must and should apply to everyone. This is about social justice."

The rules on permitted absences have drawn the ire of parents because of the increased cost of booking a trip during the official school holidays.

But Steve Double, the Tory MP for St Austell and Newquay who was granted the urgent question on the subject, raised a different concern.

He said: "There is another aspect to this policy that sadly today has been ignored and that is the economic impact that this policy is having on tourist areas, particularly in Cornwall.

"In 2014 a report published indicated that the tourist industry in Cornwall had lost £50 million as a result."

Mr Double urged the Government to look at the issue again as he said that "only 8% of school absenteeism is as a result of family holidays".

He also suggested that a family holiday during term time does not impact on a child's attainment and "family holidays are actually good for children".

But Mr Gibb rejected the idea that term-time holidays do not hurt a child's education, telling MPs that "you can't understand why World War One ended if you don't know why it started" as he hit out at Mr Double's concerns relating to the tourism industry.

He said: "I do not believe that we should be returning to the Dickensian world where the needs of industry and commerce take precedence over the education of children."

Mr Gibb said the Government will outline its "next steps" on potentially strengthening the law relating to term-time absences once it receives the High Court's written judgment.

"But the House should be assured that we will seek to take whatever measures are necessary to give schools and local authorities the power and clarity to ensure that children attend school when they should," he said.

He also stressed that schools have the power to set their own term dates.

Shadow schools minister Nic Dakin said the High Court ruling has created the "worst of both worlds", with parents and headteachers in a "very difficult position".

He stressed the Government had created the problem itself by removing the discretion afforded to headteachers on term-time holidays and pledged to work with ministers to clarify the rules.

Mr Dakin said they could have resolved the issue earlier as it has been debated in Parliament since autumn.

"So they have known this ruling has been coming for a long time, they could have clarified the law and they haven't," he said.

"This ruling is now the worst of both worlds - it puts parents and headteachers in a very difficult position and is not in the best interests of children.

"By and large the system up to 2012 - with heads having a small amount of discretion - was working well.

"Parents and headteachers had a clear signal that children should be in school.

"It's right that headteachers who know their parents and school community well and are accountable for their children and school should have appropriate discretion."

Mr Dakin added: "The reality is that ministers have been asleep at the wheel, focusing on the wrong issues when we've got teacher shortages and we've got problems in primary assessment and it's time for the ministers to take their heads out of the sand and deal with these fundamental issues rather than (be) fixated on school types at the expense of raising school standards."

Labour's Barry Sheerman said Muslims in his constituency are put under "great pressure" to take their children out of school for holidays during term time.

The Huddersfield MP called for a fundamental reform of the rules.

He said: "Isn't it a fact that this is a very serious fundamental problem that we still squeeze the summer holidays into about a six-week period when British Airways charge the Earth to go anywhere, Center Parcs will treble their rates - it's a very serious problem that we should tackle for everyone's benefit.

"I'm on the side of being tough, I have constituents with great pressure from the Muslim community, especially from Pakistan, to take their children out and they are the very children that have been suffering.

"So I am on the side of being tough but let's look at this in a more fundamental way please."

Labour's Andrew Gwynne said the court ruling has put schools in limbo and urged Mr Gibb to state whether it takes precedence over the Government's own rules.

The Denton and Reddish MP said: "You must acknowledge the limbo that schools now find themselves in where headteachers know precisely what the regulations say but they also know what the High Court ruling is.

"So can you clarify for the benefit of the headteachers who might be listening in on this statement what you think should take precedence - is it the High Court judgment or is it the rulings as they stand?

"And if it's the High Court judgment, how quickly is the Government going to come to this House to reassert what it wants in terms of the judgment?"

Mr Gibb said the Government was awaiting the written ruling from the High Court.

Tory Philip Davies suggested that schools themselves may have asked for ministers to take control of the issue as the rules are at odds with the Government's aim of giving schools more freedom.

The Shipley MP said: "The Government has been very consistent in saying that schools should have more freedom from the state in making decisions.

"Do you believe that in this particular case you don't believe that schools should have those freedoms or is it that the schools have asked him to relieve them of these particular freedoms in this case?

"Because whatever the rights and wrongs of the particular issue, it's clearly inconsistent with the Government's belief in giving schools greater freedoms."

Mr Gibb said this was about the freedom of individuals rather than schools.

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