A week in the sun to help a family of six put a traumatic year behind them led to fines of almost £800.
Darren McDermott and his wife Katie took their four children to Tenerife in December, to put a smile on their faces after a year in which Katie had undergone intensive chemotherapy and surgery for breast cancer.
But in a letter, Central Lancaster High School, which the couple’s sons Joseph, 14, and Oliver, 12, attend, deemed the holiday to not be “exceptional circumstances” and refused the request – just two days before they were due to fly.
Darren said the ordeal felt like a “smack in the face” after the way his sons had continued their hard work at school throughout their mum’s treatment. And Katie said the decision made her feel like her illness was “nothing”.
The family was gifted the holiday by friends to help them overcome the trauma of the previous 18 months, during which Katie was diagnosed with breast cancer.
She underwent 18 weeks of chemotherapy before having a double mastectomy, followed by further surgery to remove her ovaries and affected lymph nodes.
Doctors say the 36-year-old is now clear of cancer, although she will undergo regular check-ups.
The family had already suffered heartbreak when Katie’s brother-in-law – the children’s uncle – and former Lancaster City captain, Neil Marshall, passed away in November 2016 after a battle with cancer.
Darren, 40, said the holiday was a surprise treat for the children to give them a chance to spend time with their mum after so much upheaval.
He said: “We have never taken the kids out of school before, it was just to take them away with Katie after all she had been through.
“We put a holiday request form in the day before the October half-term break.
“We expected a decision the week back at school which would have given us plenty of time to change the holiday, which we would have done.
“But we didn’t get a reply from the school, and it got to the week before the holiday and I said to Katie that we should ring the school, and when she rang it was as though they didn’t know what she was talking about.
“A letter was then sent home that Thursday, when we flew on the Saturday.
“It said we had not been given permission to take the boys out of school, but at that point it was too late, we didn’t have the chance to change it.”
The letter from the school’s attendance officer said: “Parents may request a leave of absence in term time but this can only be authorised in exceptional circumstances. I have discussed your request with the headteacher who does not feel this request is exceptional.
“While sympathetic to your circumstances we are unable to set a precendent by authorising leave during term- time.”
Darren said he spoke to the local authority, who confirmed it should have taken a few days for the school to respond to a holiday request.
“It took them six weeks, and that was only after we called the school,” he said.
The couple’s five-year-old daughter Ava was given permission for holiday leave by Christ Church Primary School.
Youngest child Ella, four, is currently at nursery.
“Ava and Ella are too young to understand what’s going on but for the lads it’s a different matter, they have been through so much,” Darren said.
“Throughout the treatment we discussed how important it was for the boys to carry on as normal and keep doing what they loved doing.
“I feel like this is a smack in the face. They hardly missed any time throughout Katie’s treatment.
“It was a difficult time but they put their heads down and worked hard. We were told they were model students and how proud we should be of them. Two kids who are doing so well at school not being given six days off to spend with their mum, it just beggars belief.
“Katie was absolutely heartbroken, especially by being told it wasn’t exceptional enough circumstances.
“She’s been through a double mastectomy and chemotherapy, and I don’t know how she’s got through it to be honest.
“Now she feels like everything she has been through was just nothing.
“I went to the school myself and we have always supported it so for this to happen was a real kick in the teeth. I can honestly say I will not send the girls to that school now.
“We are in a financial struggle after Katie’s treatment, but it’s not the fine I am bothered about, it’s about how we have been portrayed as not really caring, which is totally untrue.
“We have no issue with the school itself or the teachers, we’ve had some great support from the boys’ teachers who have backed us as much as they can.
“There just seems to be no consistency. We know of people who have been authorised for holidays.”
Katie said the decision by the school marred the holiday.
“I do believe we only got that letter because I rang the school on the Monday,” she said.
“I tried to contact the school on the Friday but it was closed for an inset day so I contacted the local authority and ended up half way through the holiday sending them an email.
“It did almost ruin the holiday. I tried to switch off but it definitely cast a dark cloud over it.
“Cancer affects the entire family and I just thought it was really horrible. I understand it happens to thousands of people but throughout it all the boys went to school and we just felt that at the end of it all it stood for nothing.
“I had 18 weeks of chemo and my children were always at school and nursery.
“After the 12 months we had had, the break was long overdue.”
The couple’s case was passed from the school to the local authority, and eventually to Lancaster Magistrates’ Court. The couple, who live on the Ridge, were sent a letter about their fines a couple of months after the holiday.
They were told they could pay £240 within 21 days, which would then rise to £480.
“From speaking to people we figured we had a good case for appealing the decision,” Katie said. “We spoke to the local authority and put everything in an email. We pleaded guilty because we did take the boys out of school. I wrote a statement of key points to the court and it was decided that it still wasn’t exceptional enough.”
The couple’s case was heard before Lancaster magistrates on June 11, with Darren fined a total of £538 including court costs and Katie fined £250.
“I spent all of last year ill and battling one thing and now I feel like I am doing it all again,” Katie said.
“It was the first time that anyone had made me feel like what I had gone through wasn’t important, and it was really upsetting, especially for the boys to have to witness it all.”
Nicola Hall, head at Central Lancaster High School, said: “As a school we empathise with the wide range of sensitive issues which require compassion and consideration in all of our families. In accordance with regulations imposed by the government, the school has adopted a policy not to authorise term-time family holidays.
“We recognise the importance of children being consistently in school to access their whole curriculum offer.
“We are very aware of the negative impact of missing significant periods of school.
“We hope all parents understand the limitations placed on schools in granting leave, and we thank them for supporting the school to ensure all our students learn and achieve to the best of their ability.
“The intention not to authorise holidays in term-time is outlined in The Central Way guide to our school and in our attendance policy.”
Katie and Darren have now been invited into school to speak to Mrs Hall.