Parents could settle battlefield trip row in court

Ben Pietersma with Andrew Lyons-Walker who has been fined after their annual pilgrage to Holland which visits the site of the Battle of Arnhem where Andrew's grandfather fought during World War II
Ben Pietersma with Andrew Lyons-Walker who has been fined after their annual pilgrage to Holland which visits the site of the Battle of Arnhem where Andrew's grandfather fought during World War II
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A couple fined £120 for taking their son on a trip to a famous battlefield are poised to take their fight to the courts.

Rachel Hughes and her partner Andrew Lyons-Walker were told to pay £60 each because they took Rachel’s 13-year-old son Ben Pietersma on a trip to Holland so they could teach him about his extended family’s heritage.

The Year Nine pupil, who is Dutch and lived with his biological father in the country until three years ago, attended a five day annual pilgrimage to the site of the Battle of Arnhem – a trip they say he has made before without penalty.

The trip was especially poignant because Andrew’s grandfather fought in the battle in September 1944 during the Second World War.

The pair asked Ben’s school, Baines High School in Poulton, for permission but were told no and were fined after chiefs said the matter was ‘not negotiable’.

Andrew, who has been with Ben’s mum for more than a decade, said: “It’s important to us as a family and educational at the same time.

“It’s appalling we have been fined. Ben does not miss school unless he is unwell.

“From Ben’s point of view it’s more about what happened to his country because he is Dutch.

“His grandfather remembered watching the paratroopers come down as they were dropped.

“It’s vital to their history. They were under occupation for five years and they were starving to death.

“After the battle the Germans moved everybody out of Arnhem and burned the place to the ground, so it’s part of his nation’s history.”

The taxi driver said he is now considering his options after another dad successfully argued his daughter’s unauthorised absence did not mean she failed to attend school regularly.

Jon Platt was prosecuted by Isle of Wight Council after taking his daughter to Disneyland in April but had his fine overturned by magistrates who decided he had no case to answer, a landmark decision that has left Andrew considering his options.

Andrew, 38, of Wilvere Drive, Norbreck, said: “I haven’t made my mind up yet, I have until November 6 to pay and another week after that until it goes to court.

“Personally, I’m liking the idea of going to court because I have a good chance of winning.”

Section 444 of the Education Act states: “If a child of compulsory school age who is a registered pupil at a school fails to attend regularly at the school, his parent is guilty of an offence.”

Andrew said Ben, who was off school for five days, is performing well at school with his grades placing him in the centre of the school’s results table.

His attendance last year was 98 per cent and 96 per cent the year before that – when he last made the trip to Arnhem.

Andrew, a taxi driver said: “You have to have your children in school regularly, that’s what the law states, so I don’t think there’s a case to answer.”

In 2013, the government changed the rules surrounding term-time holidays and said headteachers must now allow them unless there are ‘exceptional circumstances’.

Baines High School headteacher Roddy McCowan said regardless of the amount of time, a child who misses school, misses out on learning.

He said: “Although I consider each request individually my starting point is always that term times are for education.

“In fact, the legislation clearly states that term-time holidays can only be authorised in exceptional circumstances.

“Every day counts in each pupil’s education and if children miss out on school, they miss out on learning.”

Coun Roy Perry, chairman of the Local Government Association’s Children and Young People Board, said: “Blanket bans do not work and fines are now being successfully challenged in the courts.”

Andrew has joined the pilgrimage, held on the anniversary of the battle in late September, 18 times in the past 20 years.

And when Ben moved to England to live with his mum Rachel instead of his biological father three years ago, he joined Andrew and the rest of the family on the annual trip abroad. Andrew said: “We weren’t fined when we went two years ago, and my other two children, Jack, seven, and Poppy, six, were not fined by their primary school, Carleton St Hilda’s.

“Last year we were going to go but we were involved in an accident on the M6 on the way so we couldn’t.

“It wasn’t a jolly. We didn’t choose when the Army had a major war-time operation.

“The decision to go was non- negotiable. Our entire family went and he has no other relatives in this country.

“He will have learned more about the Second World War by doing this than anything in school.”

After driving to Hull and catching a ferry, the family lays wreaths during emotional ceremonies and takes part in battlefield re-enactments.

A spokesman for the Department for Education said: “It is a myth that missing school even for a short time is harmless to a child’s education.

“Our evidence shows missing the equivalent of just one week a year from school can mean a child is significantly less likely to achieve good GCSE grades, having a lasting effect on their life chances.”

Andrew’s grandfather, Corporal John Atkinson served with 1st Battalion The Border Regiment in Sicily before landing in Arnhem after coasting in by glider.

He was one of 2,000 troops that survived. However, around 8,000 were killed, including many of his friends, Andrew said.

Part of the family’s annual trip involves visiting the graveside of one such friend, 21-year-old Vernon Smith, originally from Carlisle, who served alongside Mr Atkinson.

Andrew said: “My grandfather’s wife asked him if he had seen Vernon over there and he said, ‘I stepped over his dead body’.”

Mr Atkinson died in 1994, just months before the battle’s 50th anniversary.

And although he never made the trip over to Holland, cash was found stuffed in boots buried at the back of his wardrobe, which Andrew believes was being saved to attend the commemorations that year.