LONDON — A British man who took his daughter out of school without permission to visit Disney World in Florida broke the law and must pay a penalty, the British Supreme Court ruled on Thursday.

The case has been heavily debated in Britain, pitting as it did the rights of parents to raise their children as they see fit against stiff truancy laws in a nation where school attendance is compulsory.

The father, Jon Platt, had argued that the government’s case represented a vast overreach by the “nanny state.”

“You are not the final arbiter of what’s right for your child,” he said.

The Supreme Court’s 18-page ruling overturned two lower courts’ decisions in favor of Mr. Platt, finding that he had no right to take his daughter out of school without a valid reason, such as illness.

The case originated in January 2015, when Mr. Platt asked to take his daughter, then 6, on a vacation to Disney World.

The school refused permission. Nonetheless, Mr. Platt took his daughter on vacation from April 13 to 21, making her miss seven days of school. He was fined £120, about $180 at the time.

Mr. Platt sued, arguing that his daughter had an attendance rate of 95 percent before the vacation and 90.3 percent afterward. Noting that the school generally considered 90 percent to 95 percent to be satisfactory attendance, he said he had done nothing wrong.

A local magistrate agreed, as did an appeals court, but the local council took the case to the Supreme Court.

Writing for the court, Justice Brenda Hale ruled that the requirement that a student attend school “regularly” meant “in accordance with the rules prescribed by the school,” not, as Mr. Platt argued, “with sufficient regularity.”

“Over what period is the sufficiency of attendance to be judged?” the court asked. “How much is sufficient? Does one take into account how good or bad the reasons for any previous absences were?”

The court went on: “It is not just that there is a clear statistical link between school attendance and educational achievement. It is more the disruptive effect of unauthorized absences.”

The effects, the judge wrote, include going over missed work, disturbing other students and setting back group learning. “Most of all,” the court found, “if one pupil can be taken out whenever it suits the parent, then so can others.”

Her ruling outlined the history of school attendance laws dating to 1870, when Parliament provided for the creation of public elementary schools and empowered local boards to require attendance by children ages 5 through 12.

British students can generally stop attending school at age 16, although in England students are required to continue some form of education, including apprenticeships, until 18.

Justice Hale also noted that in a separate case, in February 2015, Mr. Platt’s daughter’s mother was fined after the girl missed school for five days without authorization.

“The mother did exactly the same thing, was issued with a penalty notice and paid it,” the court noted.

Britain’s Education Department said in a statement on Thursday that it was pleased that the court had affirmed that “head teachers have the ability to decide when exceptional circumstances allow for a child to be absent.”

Even Prime Minister Theresa May felt compelled to weigh in, defending the right of the head teacher, or principal, at the school to set school policy. Her Conservative Party typically advocates school choice and local autonomy.

The journalist Toby Young, writing in the conservative magazine The Spectator, said Mr. Platt might seem like a “conservative hero” by “taking on the overmighty state,” but he concluded: “The principle he’s standing up for — and which he’s worked himself up into a lather of moral indignation about — is his right to massively inconvenience his daughter’s teachers just so he can go on a family holiday when the costs of overseas travel are lower. Not such a noble cause after all.”

But John Pugh, the education spokesman for the opposition Liberal Democrats, said the court’s ruling was too inflexible.

“Many employees have no choice when to take their holidays,” he said. “Others simply cannot afford to go on holiday at peak times, when the cost of holidays goes through the roof.”


Comments (2)
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My Nana used to say "You learn more by traveling than by doing anything else".


Outrageous. When I was in school my parents would take me out for two week vacations from elementary school all the time. I found my time away from school was much more valuable than my time in school. Often my perception was that when I came back after having been gone for two weeks that nothing had happened while I was gone. I expect the trip was way more valuable than school would have been for her.

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