Naughty parents, term-time holidays & what’s going wrong

parent and child leaving school by bikeriderlondon via Shutterstock

Picture: Bikeriderlondon via Shutterstock

There’s a telling word in the judgment handed down today by the UK Supreme Court about parents, children and term-time absences. The Court ruled in favour of education authorities in their appeal against a father who refused to pay a fine after taking his daughter on holiday during the term.

The ruling in effect upholds not just fines for parents who take their children out of school without permission (to be given only in “exceptional circumstances” according to the ban) but community sentences and jail if fines aren’t paid.

Is it all down to naughty parents?

In announcing the decision — which hinged on issues like the interpretation of “attend regularly” — the deputy president of the Court, Lady Hall, remarked on the disruptive influence of absent children. Going on to say:

‘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. Not to do so is unfair to those obedient parents who do keep the rules, whatever the costs or inconvenience to themselves.’ (Emphasis mine. Source: The Guardian)

That use of the word “obedient” says it all.

This isn’t about involving or acknowledging parents and their role in schools and educating their children. This isn’t about acknowledging that for many families because of work, farflung relatives or special educational/leisure opportunities outside of the classroom. This is about a change that was brought in Michael Gove in 2013 to crack down on term-time absences in state schools, taking the approvals process out of the hands of individuals and creating a blanket ban. This is “rules are rules” and the people who break them are naughty.

How to handle term-time absence requests is no longer at the discretion of parents, teachers and administrators (the schools have to abide by the rules of the ban and its definition of “exceptional”). The opinions of the very people who will know if a few days absence will adversely affect the child are out. A hard-and-fast rule is in.

The real motivations?

It’s hard not to be cynical about the motivations for councils and the Education Department. First, there has been a “surge in fines” according to the Guardian — 20,000 fines 2015 alone. One can appreciate how the revenue these fines generate might contribute to the pugnacious defense of them. 

So far, 553 people have served community sentences and 8 have gone to jail. To jail! With this ruling, we could see that rise.

There’s little solace in the Court’s defense against this. 

‘The answer in such cases is a sensible prosecution policy. In some cases, of which this is one, this can involve the use of fixed-penalty notices, which recognise that a person should not have behaved in this way but spare him a criminal conviction,’ Lady Hale said.

‘Don’t worry, you may not be prosecuted,’ seems to be the message. You just have to rely on whoever is in charge to be “sensible”.

But this bizarre punitive stance is less about ensuring children’s educations or even fines. It’s about the state grappling with its mission and the people it’s supposed to serve.

What schools really need

Every day we hear about the infrastructure of schools crumbling, about playing fields being sold off even a new anti-obesity campaign launches. Schools budgets are being cut, with some schools asking parents for donations or even hiring fundraisers to help fill shortfalls

Every few years it seems there are new initiatives meant to sort out our schools problem, from trying to force all schools to become academies (whoops! No, we’re not doing that anymore) to revamping the types of tests kids take to debating the return of grammar schools. 

Schools need money, resources and clear curriculums. They need to be able to train, remunerate and keep good teachers. They need to be able to officially recognise that children are at different levels and have different needs. Parents need schools that involve them and also acknowledge what modern life and modern families are like (and the fact that 3 months of summer childcare is challenging for anyone with a job). 

It’s a lot easier for the government to focus its attention on something contained, like term-time holidays, instead of a system and problems that are crying out for real leadership. 

What are kids really missing?

I’ll leave you with this final thought: The Department of Education insists that these missing days are absolutely vital to children, that every minute lost to the classroom sends a child down the wrong path. “The evidence shows every extra day of school missed can affect a pupil’s chances of achieving good GCSEs, which has a lasting effect on their life chances,” says a spokesperson in the Guardian article.

You have to be in school to learn the lessons, no doubt about it. But any parent whose child has spent the last few days before a school break watching movies in class or enjoying “free play” will be wondering to which GCSEs (with the newly introduced 1-9 I Level grading system!) these lessons apply. 


What do you think? Do you think the term-time ban is a good idea or do you disagree with the ruling? Tell us in the comments!


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  1. Lorraine Bailey
    06 April 2017 / 22:44

    I believe in giving my kids a good education but there are lots of other factors involved when booking a holiday.Cost is one, if both parents can get the same weeks off work is another,climate of the country you want to visit is another ,it maybe too hot or too cold for little ones in July and maybe better to go in January.If you want to go skiing you are limited to a few months a year.It may be a case that you would prefer to go at a quieter time , especially to places like Florida where queues can be horrendous in school holidays for little ones.I feel a little flexibility and understanding is needed .Life is short ,and all of us want to give our kids the best childhood possible.

  2. 07 April 2017 / 22:40

    I was utterly shocked by the ruling! Having home-schooled my children in the past, I remember reading a lot in my early days of homeschooling to try to understand the impact it would have on their lives and the evidence I kept coming across suggested that even for an ‘unschooling’ style of home-school (i.e. very little formal academic type work), until the age of 14 there is little or no difference in long-term outcomes for those children i.e. whether it affects their GCSE results, whether they go onto university etc. I found that really reassuring – and even though we did a mix of ‘academic’ learning and lots of outings and child-led activities, my sons re-entered the education system one on a parr with his peers and the other miles ahead of his peers so even those 3 years out of school certainly did no harm. Now they are back at school, we have to consider the types of holidays we take carefully as my son with ASD struggles with really busy places and so he inevitably misses out on certain types of holiday that we cannot go on during school holidays where we used to be able to when we could take them term-time.

  3. Dan
    11 April 2017 / 15:03

    Surely the whole motivation of taking children out of school in term times is simply because holiday prices in the school holidays are beyond a rip-off?

    It’s the holiday companies that need to be tackled here. It’s just going to create a situation where only the most affluent of families will be able to travel abroad – or they will have to take out loans in order to do so.

    I know petitions have been started about this before, but let’s not lose sight of why parents consider taking their children out of school in the first place. If holiday prices were better regulated (and we all know that that won’t happen, really), then surely this wouldn’t happen in the first place?

    We need to stop bashing parents and get to the route of the problem!

  4. 18 April 2017 / 11:25

    Whilst schools may need better investment, it is clear in the present climate that they are not likely to get the financial input they need, but as you point out children develop at differing times, both educationally and emotionally, surely arranging classes yearly, through constant monitoring would be the way forward, then both their educational and emotional needs can be better catered for, ensuring the best chance of each individuals development, also encouraging and including parents to participate in the schools life and environment will make valuable relationships, ensuring workable ties between home and school life, this would in time, we are sure would save money by reducing poor behaviour, leading to more teaching time, less behaviour exhibited at school, from problems originating in the home.