Landmark ruling on the Isle of Wight case: An opinion

Published: Thursday, 06 April 2017

Ben Whitney gives his take on the recent Supreme Court ruling.

"This case is all about the meaning of the word “regularly” when describing the attendance of a child at school." Lady Hale.

Isle of Wight Council v Platt

So now we know.

‘Regular’ attendance at school means every single session the school is open, unless the headteacher has authorised the child to be absent. (That gives the parent an immediate defence).

Two key questions, however, remain:

  1. Under what circumstances is it reasonable for schools to allow some absence as ‘authorised’? It is not true that any absence will necessarily affect that child’s eventual outcomes. It depends on the underlying reasons.
  2. And when should local authorities take legal action if no authorisation has been given? They do not have to do it every time.

Lack of clarity

Things are really no clearer than when all this started. Each headteacher still has to decide. They have to know the law — many don’t — and apply it fairly. Each local authority still has to determine its own policy and threshold. This variation is what irritates many parents. It feels like a lottery. The Court accepted that schools can take different stances. Some LAs have issued thousands of penalty fines, some virtually none.

Alternative consequences

I am still of the view that the Government made a mistake in making prosecution the required response if the parent chooses not to pay. That dramatically raises the stakes, (though parents cannot be sent to prison, as some claim, if the action is under s.444(1)).

It has brought parents into the Court system whose children’s absence would never have been seen as sufficiently problematic in the past. This is what has caused the resentment, as much as the penalty fines themselves. Maybe some other consequence of non-payment would be more appropriate, but parents must have some right of appeal.

Avoiding conflict

Penalties may have been imposed unfairly, or when the ‘exceptional’ criteria have not been properly considered. There certainly seem to have been some examples which are wholly unreasonable.

I hope local authorities will now show restraint, as some always have, and not see the Supreme Court ruling as an excuse to go over the top. Legal action should only ever be the right thing to do in that particular set of circumstances. Any automatic process is bound to lead to anomalies. Schools and parents need to work together in the best interests of children. Conflict rarely makes things better.

What now?

No doubt more parents will now opt out of the school system to home educate, as they have every right to do. Those who can afford it will choose the private sector where LAs will leave them alone. Some may decide to take even more days off each time because they may as well be hung for a sheep as for a lamb. Some may refuse to pay and hope to clog up the Magistrates Courts as a result. Most will pay up and go anyway.

None of this will necessarily improve the educational or other outcomes for children. That should be the only focus, not improving the figures for Ofsted or fining as many parents as possible, just because we can.

About the author

Ben Whitney is an independent education welfare consultant and trainer, with over 20 years’ experience in attendance management for two local authorities. He is the author of several books on both attendance and child protection. More information on his current training and consultancy services can be found at www.ben-whitney.org.uk.

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