A couple have been fined for taking their children out of school to visit their poorly grandfather in India.
Shahnawaz Patel, 36, and wife Sofiya, of St George’s Road, Deepdale, Preston, initially fought the fines, but each pleaded guilty at the city’s magistrates’ court and were fined £480 with £150 costs and a £20 surcharge.
Mr Patel told the court: “I requested a meeting and we were just told our circumstances weren’t exceptional.
“I needed my kids and family with me. We’ve done everything we can to make sure they go to school.
“We are not bad parents – it has been portrayed that way.”
In July 2014, the Patels had requested an authorised absence from their sons’ school, English Martyrs Catholic Primary, Preston, to make a trip in December, when the children’s grandfather was due to have surgery related to a road accident three years earlier, which killed his wife.
The boys, Omar, 11, and Eiad, eight, who had had no previous unauthorised absence, met their grandparents once, five years ago.
Their dad Shahnawaz’s last trip to see his parents in Gujarat, India, three years before as a surprise for his mum’s birthday ended tragically when his parents and other members of family were involved in an horrific crash.
The crash claimed the life of his mum Zebunissa, and left his dad Rafiq, now 78, with severe injuries, for which he had an operation last December.
Speaking from their home, driving instructor Sofiya told the Evening Post: “Still we don’t know what ‘exceptional circumstances’ means.
“We didn’t know if he was going to wake up the next day.
“He has never recovered from the accident and has a steel rod in his leg.
“He was sitting in the front of the vehicle and the glass went into his body.
“When we learned he was to have surgery we sought permission from school but were refused.
“My husband took the decision to take them to see their grandfather in the circumstances. We did not want them to miss out on what could have been their only chance to see their grandfather again.
“We got the first fine through the post and then a second one when we did not pay it.”
The Patels could have paid the £240 penalty within 21 days but did not, and it rose to £480 payable within a further seven days.
If such fines remain unpaid, authorities are compelled either to withdraw the fines or prosecute under the Education Act.
Barbara Hounslea, prosecuting for Lancashire County Council, said: “It was documented in emails from Mr Patel to his MP that he had no intention of paying penalties. As a result the authority must either prosecute or withdraw the fines.
“Their attendance in this period was 84.3 per cent – 11 per cent lower than expectations. They missed 15 per cent of their education during this period.”
Since September 2013, local authorities have to fine families who take children out of school for unauthorised absences in a bid to improve school attendance and deter parents from taking children on holiday during term time.
Guidelines state that youngsters can only be taken out of school during term time following an application to the headteacher and if circumstances are “exceptional”.
The debate surrounding what constitutes exceptional circumstances was addressed by the National Association of Headteachers.
It issued guidance for its members in October which says absences to visit family members are not normally granted during term time, but adds, “children may, however, need time to visit seriously ill relatives”.
Financial services worker Mr Patel wrote to the Department for Education but it has said it is unable to comment or intervene in Lancashire County Council’s decision to prosecute.
The couple decided to plead guilty. Mr Patel said: “We had to plead guilty but don’t think it should have reached this stage because permission should have been granted.”
In court, he said: “The key thing is I took them away out of necessity because three years ago when my mum passed away it was a difficult time for us.
“When I got call in June saying dad was unwell I had to make a request to school.
“The first letter that was submitted in the first week of July the headteacher didn’t respond to, and later said it was lost.
“Omar achieved a level six in maths so surely we are doing something right.”
Deputy District Judge Ross said: “The offence is made more serious because there are two children but there’s considerable mitigation in that they attend school regularly, have good results and this is an isolated incident.”
She lifted a reporting restriction identifying the youngsters after an application by the Evening Post, saying there was “no sufficient evidence to justify imposition of it” and that she had to balance the welfare of the boys with the right for open justice and freedom of information.