Victory for Thornton mum after school holidays court battle

Michelle Smith, of Thornton Gate in Cleveleys, who has overturned a fine for taking her children out of school
Michelle Smith, of Thornton Gate in Cleveleys, who has overturned a fine for taking her children out of school
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A mum has described a school’s decision to try to fine her £60 for taking her daughter out of class for a holiday as “lunacy” after she won her court battle.

Magistrates threw out the case against Michelle Smith after she successfully argued 10-year-old Amelia Lewis regularly attended school, even after going to Ibiza at Easter.

The 34-year-old, of Thornton Gate in Cleveleys, said the youngster only missed classes at Norbreck Academy because she had different holiday dates than her four siblings.

Speaking after leaving Blackpool Magistrates’ Court, said: “It’s lunacy to try and bring prosecution for someone normally in school every day.

“It’s been a long day but I’m over the moon and massively relieved.”

Michelle’s school holiday furore began in March after she and partner Rick Lake took their five children on holiday, when four of them, who go to separate schools, were on their half-term break.

Michelle has two children who attend Hodgson Academy in Poulton, Taylor, 16, and Courtney, 14, who broke up forEaster on Thursday March 24.

A third child, 12-year-old Lenny, who is the son of her partner Rick, attends Cardinal Allen in Fleetwood and he brokeup onWednesday, March 23.

Miss Smith sends her 12-year-old son Shai to another high school, Montgomery High School in Bispham, because she felt it was more suited to his particularneeds.

That school broke up onThursday, March 24.

Despite sending a letter to Norbreck explaining the situation, Michelle was warned against taking Amelia out of school and was later ordered to pay £60 by Blackpool Council, acting on behalf of the school.

The document, quoting the Education Act 1996, stated ‘if a children of compulsory school age who is a registered pupil fails to attend school regularly the parent is guilty of an offence’, but Michelle refused to pay and instead opted to have her day in court.

It was there she said the council said that, with seven days’ unauthorised absence and three days’ authorised absence, Amelia’s attendance for the year stood at 94.68 per cent – below Norbreck’s target of 95 per cent.

But her barrister successfully claimed the authorised absences, for hospital appointments, should be counted towards her attendance, taking it up to 97 per cent and proving the youngster attended regularly.

“A child that is performing well and attends school every day, except one unauthorised absence, should not be issued a fine,” she said after magistrates dismissed the case against her on Tuesday.

“Instead of just issuing fines, they need to be looking at the bigger picture.”

Headteacher Karen McCarter, who was in court for Tuesday’s hearing, said: “The school accepts the judge’s decision in this case, however we will continue to uphold school policy on unauthorised attendances.”

We reported in April how the school asked for the fine to be issued because it was following government rules, which are currently being challenged in the Supreme Court.

“We understand this is a difficult situation for the family but the government only permits schools to authorise absence in very exceptional circumstances, such as bereavements or funerals,” Mrs McCarter told The Gazette in April.

“Although it may seem harsh, term-time absence for holidays are not allowed.

“The government expects that schools maintain the highest levels of attendance, pointing out that even one day’s school missed can adversely affect a child’s grades.”

The Department for Education said it’s up to schools to decide when to issue fines, using discretion as to what qualifies as ‘exceptional circumstances’, but said even one unauthorised absence could land parents in hot water, regardless of how often they attend school.

That policy was recently challenged in the High Court by Jon Platt, a father from the Isle of Wight, who successfully argued the fact his daughter ‘regularly’ attended school should be taken into account after he was fined after a term-time holiday.

He now faces a Supreme Court showdown with his local authority after it appealed the High Court’s decision, with the ultimate ruling expected to set a precedent.

Until then, parents face unclear rules and inconsistency, with solicitor Julie Robertson, from Simpson Millar, which specialises in helping families challenge unreasonable fairs, saying: “What one head teacher agrees are special circumstances, another doesn’t.

“It is a postcode lottery. We need more consistency and, in some areas, more common sense.

“Clearly, some schools are using their discretion appropriately where the parents are sensible in their choices and decisions.

“Others seem to be rather abundant in slapping parents with a fine regardless of the circumstances.”

Coun Graham Cain, Cabinet Secretary for Blackpool Council, said: “It is the law that children must attend school unless they have exceptional circumstances that allow them to be exempt.

“In this particular case the school felt that a holiday was not an exceptional circumstance and a penalty notice was issued.

“The penalty was not paid and prosecution followed.

“On this occasion the judge has decided in the parent’s favour based on the individual circumstances, which is disappointing and we feel sets the wrong example.

“We will continue to enforce unauthorised absence in accordance with the current law.”