Why the term-time holidays case shouldn’t have gone to court

Can you put a price on education? This week’s Supreme Court hearing, on whether parents should be penalised for taking their children on holiday during term time, looks like a tough call for anyone who believes in both the sanctity of education and the rights of parents.

Jon Platt, the father at the centre of the case, removed his daughter from school without permission for a family holiday to Disney World. Platt claimed he did this to avoid peak pricing during school holidays. But even an off-peak trip to Disney is beyond the means of most families. Shelling out on legal costs to prove that you’re being squeezed financially? It doesn’t add up.

That’s why Platt and his supporters have tried to present this as a case of the state attacking parental rights. On the surface, it’s a convincing argument. But it doesn’t hold. Up until now, unauthorised absences have largely been a matter of headteacher discretion, and this week’s judgement has reaffirmed why this should continue. Cases like Platt’s should be a negotiation between schools and parents. By fighting this action, both parties have been seeking to make it a matter of law. And this will only contribute to the disconnect between schools and parents.

Those running schools today are getting younger. They’re less experienced, less likely to have their own children and increasingly bureaucratic in nature. They are more disconnected from the lives of ordinary parents than ever before. What’s more, while they might get agitated by term-time holidays, they’re hardly precious about eating into school time in other ways. They’re more than willing to sacrifice lesson time for assemblies on healthy eating, not talking to strangers online and looking out for racial abuse on the playground, but are unwilling to show a bit of give and take when it comes to holidays.

The unintended consequence of the Platt case will be to further estrange headteachers from parents. It feeds the impression that schools and parents are not working together, but competing for control over children. School authorities must stop presuming to know better than parents, and parents must celebrate, not disavow, heads who take their job seriously. Both parties must try to work out together what schools are for and what’s best for children. These questions can’t be resolved in the courts.

Gareth Sturdy is a physics teacher in London and organiser of the Institute of Ideas Education Forum.

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