Absence from school

Compulsory child education

All children of compulsory school age (5-16) should receive suitable education, either by regular attendance at school or through other arrangements. It is the parent’s responsibility to ensure their child is receiving this. If a child is registered at school, parents have the primary legal responsibility for ensuring that their child attends school regularly.

In addition, all 16 year olds must remain in education or training until their 18th birthday.

Schools are legally required to maintain an attendance register, and they must tell the local authority about pupils who are regularly absent or have missed at least 10 school days without the school’s authority.

It is, of course, necessary for a child to miss school when ill, or faced with an unexpected family situation. In recent years, the government has cracked down on school absences and schools have tightened their policies on requests for authority to take a child on holiday. An increasing number of fines are being handed out to parents, and some parents have been taking successful action against their local authority after being issued with fines for a child’s non-attendance at school.

Reasons why a child could be absent from school

A small minority of parents do not take their child’s education seriously and allow them to remain at home, or go out for the day, or on holiday without their school’s permission. In addition, some children play truant – ending up with the parent being contacted by their school about their child’s absence. There is a direct correlation between absence from school and poor educational standards in the UK – a problem the government has been seeking to address.

Schools and local authorities have the legal right to take action for non-attendance. Any child registered with a school can miss school in very restricted circumstances: when the child is too ill to attend, or when the school has pre-authorised the absence. Illness and emergencies are a part of normal life. If your child is ill, the school should be informed as soon as reasonably practical so that this can be entered on the school’s register.

However, apart from an emergency, children must attend school. If an emergency arises and you have to take your child out of school, or cannot send them to school, you must inform the school. Evidence may well be required. Note that schools are under a safeguarding duty to investigate any unexplained absences under Section 175 of the Education Act 2002. This is for the child’s safety and protection.

Reasons for authorised absence from school include the following:

Medical grounds

Ill health is the leading cause of absence from school, as are appointments with doctors or dentists. Though considered as a legitimate reason for the health and safety of all, the school can ask for medical certificates for any absence of more than a week, and proof of a medical appointment.

Religious reasons

Certain days hold special relevance for various religious communities, including Christmas and Easter for Christians, Eid for Muslims, Diwali for Hindus, and Passover for Jews, etc. Pre-authorised absence can be given for genuine religious observance.

Lack of transport

The local education authority (LEA) must provide for transport to schools in legally defined circumstances. Otherwise, the lack of transport can be a valid reason for children missing school.

Other reasons

Other genuine reasons for absence – with pre-authorisation – include family holidays, funerals, interviews, and so on. Please note, however, that a school does not have to authorise a request for absence for these reasons.

Requesting absence from school

For any kind of planned absence, school permission is essential and it is best to apply for it well in advance. Permission will usually only be granted in exceptional circumstances. If a child does not attend but permission is not granted, the parents can be prosecuted.

School Attendance Order (SAO)

A School Attendance Order (SAO) is an order issued directing parents/guardians to send their child to a specified school of his/her preference where the local authority is not satisfied that the education being provided is sufficient – for instance, if the child is home-schooled and is not being taught correctly.

Education Supervision Order (ESO)

Along with prosecuting the offender, the local authority may apply to a court for an Education Supervision Order (ESO). The ESO program employs a supervisor, specifically appointed to you, to offer help. They also actively advises on getting your child back into education.

Support on school attendance

If you are having trouble getting your child to go to school, help is available. The school and local authority extend support to parents facing such challenges in many ways, including parenting contracts. Parenting contracts are a voluntary form of support that goes easy on the possible reprimands: their purpose is to help connect the child, parent and the school or local authority to work together towards the child’s attendance. They, however, can be used as evidence by the local authority if faced with non-compliance of the terms of the contract.


If a child of compulsory school age who is on the admissions register, but is found in a public place during school hours having been excluded from school, the parents can be prosecuted. On conviction, a fine of up to £1,000 can be imposed.

The local authority can prosecute a parent for non-attendance at school. It does not have to be preceded by a fixed penalty notice.

If a prosecution is successful, the court can order a Parenting Order, supervised by either a responsible person at the school or the local authority. A Parenting Order requires parents to attend parenting classes to support them in improving the child’s behaviour for up to 3 months, and also requires them to comply with other conditions for up to 12 months. Breaching such an order can lead to a fine.

Penalty Notices

Another alternative to prosecution is issuance of penalty notices by the local authority, police officers or head teachers to the parents of children who have irregular school attendance. The penalty is a £60 for each instance, rising to £120 if paid after 21 days but before 28 days.

Article written by...
Nicola Laver LLB
Nicola Laver LLB

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A non-practising solicitor, Nicola is also a fully qualified journalist. For the past 20 years, she has worked as a legal journalist, editor and author.