Speaking at the Conservative Party conference in October, Nicky Morgan laid out plans for parents to be able to request that schools provide childcare for the full working day both in term time and holidays. She said that the Conservatives should champion the interests of children and parents and urged schools to take ‘reasonable steps’ to make it happen.
While no firm proposals had been submitted, Morgan envisaged that schools would provide childcare provision beyond the standard 38 weeks, pitching the initiative at working parents who wanted to know that their children will be in a ‘happy and safe environment’. But in a statement issued by the National Union of Head Teachers, General Secretary Russell Hobby urged the Government to ensure that proposals were not mandatory. Warning that the decision on whether to provide such care should be left with the schools themselves, he voiced fears that the decision-making of head teachers would be undermined and that provision would be extremely difficult for many schools already facing staffing and budgetary pressure.
In a separate announcement, David Cameron warned parents who refused to pay truancy fines for their children that the costs would be deducted from the child benefits that they received. Claiming that this was a legitimate way to protect children from the damaging effects of truancy, Cameron defended the proposals, insisting that it was being implemented to ensure that children get “the great start in life that they need”. Fines of up to £120 will be levied against those refusing to pay after 28 days.
But the plans have been heavily criticised, with the NAHT concerned that it will prove damaging to the relationships between schools and families and academics. They warned that it was the poorest and most disadvantaged that would feel the effects of the policy.
The Prime Minister’s announcement preceded the verdict in case of R v Jon Platt, where Mr Platt was unsuccessfully prosecuted for taking his six-year old daughter out of school for a holiday.
Mr Platt had requested authorised absence – his daughter had an attendance record of 93.8% attendance rate the previous academic year – but this was declined by the school in accordance with DfE guidance. He and his daughter nevertheless went to Florida with 15 other family members.
After he refused to pay a £120 fine, Mr Platt was prosecuted by the local authority. However, the court dismissed the case after he successfully argued that section 444 of the Education Act only required him to ensure that his daughter attended school “regularly”, and the legislation itself did not put restrictions on taking them on holidays in term time.
The local authority has appealed to the High Court for clarification of the legal position.
Conservative plans point to an increased emphasis in the role of the school in family life. They want to extend the positive influence that schools bring to bear on children well beyond its traditional scope. However, in redefining the role of the school and the extent of its reach into family life, careful consideration must be given to both proposals to prevent conflicting interests and priorities damaging the important working relationships between schools and families. It seems likely that, if the High Court confirms the interpretation advanced by Mr Platt in his defence against prosecution, the Government will seek to amend the legislation accordingly.