Cllr Chris Whitehouse is Education Spokesman of the Conservative Group on the Isle of Wight Council (Newport West Ward), and Chairman of The Whitehouse Consultancy.
A legal move backed by the Department for Education risks criminalising many thousands of responsible and caring parents – and nobody seems to have noticed.
Occupied as it may be right now considering the Brexit case, the Supreme Court is also being asked to hear an appeal on a very different one, the outcome of which would have a substantial bearing on parents’ rights and freedoms in a way which Conservatives have no business supporting.
A father on the Isle of Wight, Jon Platt, was served a penalty charge notice for taking his daughter out of school for a few days unauthorised leave. He had his own legitimate but private reasons for doing that. He refused to pay the fine, and so was taken to the Magistrates Court. The court looked into the matter and, noting that his daughter had a 95 per cent attendance record for the school year, concluded that there was no case to answer. That attendance level is well within the Isle of Wight Council’s published guidance – that parents may be granted authorised additional term time leave for their children provided that they achieve that level of regular attendance. This decision was in keeping with many other decisions in England and Wales over many years.
The council, bent on what appeared to be a vindictive pursuit of Platt, then appealed the case to the High Court, which again rejected the council’s argument, finding in favour of him. Arguing that clarity in the law is needed (despite a long record of consistent legal rulings) the Department for Education urged the Isle of Wight Council to appeal the matter to the Supreme Court, and agreed to cover the council’s legal expenses arising directly from that case.
The papers submitted to the Supreme Court by the lawyers for the council have now been made available. It has become absolutely clear that the legal case no longer relates only to Platt, but seeks to reinterpret the law in every similar case. The council’s lawyers, with the full written backing of the Department for Education, are now arguing that to be considered a regular attender, a child in school must attend on every single occasion, and that for a parent to fail to ensure that this happens would constitute an offence.
What on earth does Justine Greening think she is doing in permitting the full might of government to be used to crush one individual who has acted responsibly as a parent – and, in so doing, risk criminalising tens of thousands of parents who, from time to time, might feel it appropriate to keep their child off school other than for reasons of illness? Do we, or do we not as the Conservative Party stand for parental rights and choice? Since when did it become a Conservative approach for the state, whether national, regional or local, to come between a responsible parent and his or her judgement about what is best for their child, in sometimes very particular and personal circumstances?
The current guidance issued by the Department for Education in 2015 does not anywhere say (or even hint) that this is its view of the law and, as we have seen earlier, the written guidance provided by the Isle of Wight Council specifically stated that “regular” meant 90-95 per cent attendance. The Government-funded lawyers are mounting a specious case based on a variety of dictionary definitions of the meaning of “regularly”, but this is completely to miss the point, whilst also leaving local education authorities potentially liable for future action for damages.
Platt is as determined as he is stubborn. If the Supreme Court agrees to hear this case and, if it subsequently finds for the Department’s deeply flawed argument, then Platt, who acted on good faith in accordance with written guidance from the Local Education Authority which was in turn based upon the advice of the Department for Education, will find himself retrospectively defined as an offender. At that point, we can reasonably expect that he will sue the council for damages to his reputation. This could be a precedent all around England and Wales. The implications for local education authorities, their finances and their reputations are obviously very serious.
This case, which should never have been brought at either local level or to the High Court, should be withdrawn immediately by the Secretary of State if the flawed advice she has clearly been given is not to do serious and lasting damage to the reputation of the Conservative Party.