This page provides information about the law on school attendance and the powers of the local authority in enforcing school attendance.
Section 7 of the Education Act 1996 places a duty on parents to ensure that their child of compulsory school age receives a suitable education either by regular attendance at school or otherwise.
What is compulsory school age?
A child is of compulsory school age the first term after their 5th birthday. Therefore:
- Children who turn 5 between 1st January and 31st March will be of compulsory school age at the beginning of the school term after 1st April.
- Children who turn 5 between 1st April and 31st August will be of compulsory school age at the beginning of the school term after 1st September.
- Children who turn 5 between 1st September and 31st December will be of compulsory school age at the beginning of the school term after 1st January.
A child remains of compulsory school age until the last Friday in June in the school year that they turn 16. From September 2013 all 16 year olds need to remain in education or training until the end of the academic year and from September 2015 they will be required to continue until their 18th birthday.
Who is considered a parent in education law?
Section 576 of the Education Act 1996 defines a parent widely and includes:
- A biological parent of the child (even if they do not have parental responsibility and even if the child does not reside with that parent)
- Any person who is not a parent but has parental responsibility for the child (for example through a Residence Order, Child Arrangements Order, Special Guardianship Order, Step Parental Responsibility Order, Adoption Order or Care Order).
- Someone who has care of the child.
Therefore all of these persons have the duty to ensure a child of compulsory school age receives a suitable education. This does not mean that the child has to attend a school, it is possible to home educate a child and fulfil this duty. Please see our page on Home Education for more information.
What is a suitable education?
The education must be:
- Full time
- Efficient - the education must achieve what it sets out to achieve.
- Suitable to his age, ability and aptitude and any special educational needs he may have. The education must equip the child for life within the community and must not limit a child's options in later life.
What is the law on school attendance?
All schools, including independent schools, must maintain admissions registers and all schools except boarding schools must have an attendance register. The Registration (Pupil Registration) Regulations 2006 require a school to put the child's name on the admissions register on the first day that the child is expected to attend school. If the pupil does not attend they will be recorded as absent: this can be authorised or unauthorised.
A school will authorise an absence if:
- The child is too ill to attend and the school accepts this as valid. If the child is off for long periods the school might ask for proof from the doctor.
- The parent has got the advance permission of the school e.g. for a holiday, religious observation.
- The child has been excluded.
- The child has a medical or dental appointment.
- The child is on study leave.
- The child is being educated off-site.
Schools have to regularly inform the local authority of any pupils who are regularly absent from school, have irregular attendance, or have missed 10 school days or more without the school's permission.
Schools are also under a safeguarding duty, under section 175 of the Education Act 2002 to investigate any unexplained absences.
Can I book a holiday during term time?
Headteachers will only authorise holiday during term-time in exceptional circumstances. You should put your request in writing to the school as soon as possible. If you go on a holiday without the authorisation of the head teacher then you may be liable to pay a fine and/or be prosecuted for non-attendance.
What sanctions can be put in place for for non-attendance?
Parents can be issued a Fixed Penalty Notice by the school, local authority or police, for their child's non-attendance. The penalty is £60 and this rises to £120 if paid after 21 days but within 28 days. Each local authority should publish a Code of Conduct for Fixed Penalty Notices.
There is no right of appeal against a Fixed Penalty Notice. If this is not paid the local authority can proceed to prosecution or withdraw the notice. The local authority also can prosecute parents for non-attendance without issuing a Fixed Penalty Notice. Only the local authority can prosecute parents and they must fund all associated costs. Local authorities must conduct its investigations in line with the Police and Criminal Evidence (PACE) Act 1984.
If a registered pupil of compulsory school age fails to attend school regularly the parent could be guilty of an offence under s444 Education Act 1996. The Supreme Court has held in April 2017 that attending school "regularly" means attendance in accordance with the rules prescribed by the school and not "sufficiently frequent attendance". This means that a child must attend school on every day that the school requires him or her to do so and failure to do this may lead to the commission of an offence.
There are two offences:
1. Section 444(1) Education Act 1996 - If the child is absent without authorisation then the parent is guilty of an offence. This is a strict liability offence i.e. all that needs to be shown is a lack of regular attendance. Sanctions can include a fine of up to £1000.
2. Section 444(1A) Education Act 1996 - an aggravated offence. If the child is absent without authorisation and the parent knew about the child's absence and failed to act then the parent is guilty of an offence. Sanctions can include a fine of up to £2500 and a prison sentence of up to 3 months.
There are some limited defences to these offences:
- The headteacher authorised the absence
- The child could not attend because of sickness or 'unavoidable cause' in an emergency. Caselaw has held that stress arising from bullying, behavioural or mental health difficulties or a 'chaotic lifestyle' should not be considered an 'unavoidable cause'.
- The child was absent on a day exclusively set apart for religious observance
- The school is outside of the statutory walking distance of the child's home and the local authority has a duty to make travel arrangements in relation to the child under and has failed to discharge that duty
- The child is not registered at the school and the parents are providing a suitable alternative education
- The parents' trade or business requires them to travel from place to place.
Parents can also be prosecuted by local authorities under section 103 of the Education and Inspections Act 2006 if a pupil of compulsory school age who remains on the admissions register is found in a public place during school hours after being excluded from school. Sanctions can include a fine of up to £1000.
I have received a summons to the Magistrates Court - what should I do?
If you have received a summons for court for one of the above offences then you should seek the advice of a criminal solicitor and check if you qualify for criminal legal aid. Some courts can provide duty solicitors who may be able to advise and represent you at a hearing, usually if there is a risk of imprisonment.
We are unable to provide much information or advice once a summons has been issued as the matter is then covered by criminal law and not education law.
Can I ask for help in getting my child to attend school
If you are finding it difficult to get your child to attend school you can ask the local authority and school to help you. You can agree a plan to help improve your child's attendance which can result in drawing up a "parenting contract". This is a voluntary agreement between you and the local authority or school governing body to encourage school attendance. The agreement is not legally binding as such but can be used as evidence if the local authority later pursues prosecution. The local authority or governing body should fund any support needed to implement the parenting contract e.g. a requirement to attend parenting classes.
What is a Parenting Order?
The court can impose a Parenting Order following a successful prosecution for irregular attendance or failure to follow a School Attendance Order. A Parenting Order can also be made up to 6 months after a parenting contract has been entered into.
The court can also impose an order on its own, if the local authority or governing body apply for this within 40 school days of a child's serious misbehaviour or review of a child's exclusion. The order will:
- Require parents to attend parenting classes to support them in improving the child's behaviour. This can last up to 3 months.
- Require parents to comply with other conditions for up to 12 months.
Parents have a right of appeal against an order to the Crown Court.
A responsible officer from the school or local authority will supervise the order. Breach of the order without reasonable excuse can lead to a fine of up to £1000. The police can enforce the order.
What is a School Attendance Order?
If the local authority is not satisfied that the parents are providing a suitable education to a child of compulsory school age and it is appropriate for the child to attend school then they can apply for a School Attendance Order under section 437(3) of the Education Act 1996.
The order will require the child's parents to register the child at a named school. Failure to comply with a School Attendance Order amounts to an offence which the parent can be prosecuted for.
What is an Education Supervision Order?
The local authority can apply for an Education Supervision Order under section 36 of the Children's Act 1989 if it believes a child of compulsory school age is not being properly educated. This can include irregular attendance at school.
Under the Education Supervision Order a supervisor will be appointed for the child who will advise, assist, befriend and give directions to the child and his/her parents to ensure he/she is properly educated.
When can a child's name be removed from the school roll?
A school can only remove a child's name from the school roll in set circumstances as set out in Regulation 8 of Education (Pupil Registration) (England) Regulations 2006.
The school has to inform the local authority under Regulation 12(3) Education (Pupil Registration) (England) Regulations 2006 of any pupil who is going to be removed from the admissions register where:
- The child will be home educated
- The child has moved away and no longer attends school
- The child has a medical condition and is certified as unlikely to be in a fit state of health to attend school
- The child is in custody for more than 4 months and it is not reasonably believed he/she will return to school
- The child has been permanently excluded.