Original Article on Guardian.

A couple who took their children out of school without permission to visit their sick grandfather in India are being taken to court this week as part of the government’s continuing crackdown on term-time absence.

Shahnawaz and Sofiya Patel had put in a request to their two sons’ primary school for an authorised absence to make the trip last December when the children’s grandfather was undergoing surgery. It was the first time the Patels, from Preston, Lancashire, had made such a request, and their children – Omar, 11, and Eiad, eight – have had no previous unauthorised absences, but their school, the English Martyrs Catholic primary in Preston, refused permission.

The children’s grandmother died three years earlier in a car crash; they did not go to the funeral and had not seen their grandfather, who survived the accident, for five years – so the Patels went ahead with the trip.

“We did not want our children to miss out on potentially their only opportunity to see their grandfather in person so we decided to take them with us,” said Mr Patel. “This was the first ever request made to the school and my children have never had any unauthorised absences. I even asked the school for work to be taken during our visit, this too was declined and the reason cited by the headteacher was that she did not condone the absence.”

Since September 2013, local authorities have to fine families who take children out of school for unauthorised absences. The government’s chief aim has been to raise school attendance and crack down on parents taking children on holiday during term time, but parents have complained that holiday companies raise their prices for school holidays, making it too expensive for many to travel.

According to government guidelines, children can only be taken out of school during term time following an application to the headteacher and if circumstances are “exceptional”. The Patels were told their circumstances were “not exceptional”.

The Patels have since been issued with four penalty notices and fined £480. After subsequently discovering that his father’s condition was more serious than first thought, Mr Patel offered to pay the accumulated fines out of money he had been saving to pay for his father’s pilgrimage to Mecca, a journey he would now be unable to make.

He wrote to the council: “Under the circumstances we believe the matter no longer serves the interests of either party. The psychological wounds of my mother’s death haven’t yet been healed and we are now faced with a rather more difficult circumstance that adds further to our woes.

“I no longer have the mental, physical or financial ability to carry on with the trial and hope you will show sympathy for the crisis that we as a family are currently facing.”

He was told by Lancashire county council that the payment period had expired and that he would have to attend the hearing at Preston magistrates court on Wednesday or submit guilty pleas in writing. Mr Patel, who works as a paralegal, now intends to fight the case.

He has written to the education secretary, Nicky Morgan, and the Department for Education. The department responded: “The decision to prosecute a parent under section 444 of the Education Act 1996 rests with Lancashire county council whose officers are best placed to assess your family’s circumstances and decide upon the most appropriate course of action. As your case is now before the courts, I am afraid that the department is unable to comment or intervene in Lancashire county council’s decision to prosecute.”

The debate surrounding what constitutes exceptional circumstances was addressed by the National Association of Head Teachers. It issued guidance for its members in October 2014 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”. A recent BBC Radio 5 Live report claimed that fines for absence in schools had gone up by 88%, with almost 78,000 fines issued for 2013/14, compared with 41,000 the previous year.

Lancashire county councillor Matthew Tomlinson, cabinet member for children, young people and schools, said: “School attendance is given high priority in Lancashire schools and rightly so, as every day counts in each pupil’s education. Taking parents to court over non-attendance at school is a serious matter, which is always considered carefully.

“The decision to authorise absence or not rests with the headteacher of the particular school, and penalty notices are an enforcement option that are available to local authorities, if requested by schools. However, our aim throughout is not to punish parents, but to ensure that children and young people attend school and receive a good education.”

The organisation Parents Want a Say, which campaigns against the government’s revised school attendance policy, said of the Patels’ case: “This is unfortunately symptomatic of the decisions some headteachers feel they have to make in the wake of Ofsted pressure on attendance stats. Children are being treated as numbers and are not being seen in the wider context of family and civil life.”