As the May half-term school holidays approach and families are thinking about booking their summer holidays, Nottinghamshire County Council is keen to make clear to parents what the current rules are for taking children out of school during term-time.
Councillor Philip Owen, chairman of the Council’s Children and Young People’s Committee said: “People will have heard a lot in the national media last month when the Supreme Court upheld the ban on parents taking their children out of school for family holidays during term time.
“The decision reinforced the approach we have been adopting with Nottinghamshire schools, but as the case relating to a parent in the Isle of Wight progressed through the Magistrates Court, High Court and then Supreme Court, a number of myths and misunderstandings have sprung up about the rules which we are keen to clarify.”
What the legal decision means in practice is that nothing has changed - head teachers are still usually unable to authorise absence for the purpose of taking a holiday during term time.
It remains the case that they should only authorise a leave of absence in exceptional circumstances, and this approach will only have been strengthened by the Supreme Court’s recent judgement.
The Council uses ‘Education Penalty Notices’ as one means of improving attendance and these also act as a response to taking holidays without head teacher authorisation. Where an absence is unauthorised, a fine is often offered to parents as an alternative to prosecution.
The Council’s group manager for early help services, Laurence Jones continued: “There is evidence of a link between good attendance and good attainment and Nottinghamshire’s overall and persistent absence rates continue to be below or in line with the national picture which is something we are committed to keep improving.
“So parents should only keep a child off school in term-time with the permission of their head teacher and in exceptional circumstances. Children being removed from school for holidays can also disrupt other children’s learning and the smooth running of the school.”
Coun Owen added: “We do understand the predicament that many families find themselves in struggling to afford a holiday when the costs rise so significantly during the school holidays.
“However, the Council’s 2015 decision to reduce the threshold for issuing fines was made to bring our arrangements in line with national government expectations and to support our commitment that pupils should only be absent from school in exceptional circumstances.”
The Department for Education’s Pupil Registration Regulations changed in September 2013 to limit the level of discretion head teachers have to allow holidays in term-time. Prior to this, head teachers had the discretion to agree the leave of absence and to determine whether the circumstances surrounding requests by parents for leave in term time are exceptional.
Many schools, such as academies and free schools, now have the option to structure their term times in the way that they see fit and so holidays may increasingly not follow a uniform pattern across the country which may help equalise costs.
Here’s a quick guide for parents about what the rules are:
Can I take my child out of school for a holiday in term time?
You can only take your child out of school for a holiday or for any other extended period if you get authorisation from the head teacher. The national rules make it clear that a head teacher can only authorise this in exceptional circumstances. The head teacher cannot ‘stop you going’, but can request a penalty notice or prosecution if you do.
The County Council issues a Code of Conduct to schools which has specific guidance on term time holidays. If more than six sessions (equivalent to three days) are marked as unauthorised due to a holiday, the penalty notices will be issued. A maximum of two will be issued in any 12 month period and after that you will be taken to court.
When can I be prosecuted for my child not attending school?
If your child misses a session (a morning or afternoon) at school without authorisation, or if they are persistently late, you could be prosecuted under the Education Act (1996). Prosecution is not the first action we will take and, in many circumstances, the school and local authority will try to work with you to resolve the reasons for the absence. We may also offer an alternative to prosecution by way of a penalty notice.
How much is a penalty notice?
A penalty notice is £60 if paid with 21 days of issue and £120 after that. You must pay within 28 days to avoid being taken to court.
Penalty notices are issued to each parent for each child - for example, if two parents have two children who have had unauthorised absence, then four penalty notices would be issued.
A head teacher can issue a penalty notice or ask the County Council to issue one.
What does an ‘alternative to prosecution’ mean?
It means the County Council believes that there is enough evidence to take you to court for prosecution, but will offer you the chance to pay a penalty notice instead. If you opt not to pay the penalty notice, you will be taken to court. You will only be issued a maximum of two penalty notices in any 12 month period. After that, you will be taken to court.
What happens if I get taken to court?
The court will write to you and ask if you to admit the offence. If you want to plead ‘not guilty’, you will have to say why and provide evidence. There are four defences the court can accept:
The head teacher authorised the non-attendance
The child was sick or there was another unavoidable cause
The child was absent due to an event related to a recognised religious body
The school is not within walking distance (3.2 miles for children aged below 8 and 4.8 miles for older children) and that the local authority has not provided transport or provided the ability to apply for school closer to home.
Whilst you may feel you have other justification for your child’s absence, it is very unlikely to be accepted if it is not one of these defences.
In many cases the magistrate will consider the evidence without the need for you to attend court and will notify you of the outcome. In more serious or complex cases, you may be summonsed to attend court.
What are the maximum penalties if I am found guilty?
There are two offences you could be charged with. The first is used when you have not made a conscious decision to stop your child going to school. This might be used, for example, when your child has left the house and that you believed they were going to school but subsequently they made a choice not to go into school or have left the school part way through the day without permission. You are still liable in these circumstances. If found guilty, you can get a fine of up to £1,000 (per defendant).
If the County Council believes that you wilfully prevented your child from attending school, then a different offence is used with higher penalties. This can be a fine of up to £2,500 per defendant or prison for up to three months.
In some circumstances, you could also be made subject to a Parenting Order and your child to an Education Supervision Order. This can compel you to get specific help or attend certain parenting courses.
Does the County Council make money from penalty notices?
It costs the County Council more to administer penalty notices and to take forward court cases than it receives in income from them. On average it costs close to £180 to administer a £60 penalty notice, largely due to the number which go unpaid and which then need to be taken to court.