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Wednesday, 3 October 2023

School attendance and absence: the law

The law requires parents to make sure their children receive a full-time education suitable to their needs. For most children this means attending school regularly. As a last resort, schools and local authorities have legal powers to deal with poor attendance.

Your responsibilities as a parent

By law, all children of compulsory school age (5 to 16) must receive a suitable full-time education. As a parent, you have a legal responsibility to make sure this happens - either by registering your child at a school or by making other arrangements to give them a suitable, full-time education. Once your child is registered at a school, you are legally responsible for making sure they attend regularly.

If they do not, you will be contacted by your child’s school or the local authority. Local authorities have a duty to step in if they believe a child is not getting the education required by law, either at home or at school.

If your child is missing school, you may be visited by a member of the Education Welfare Service. They will talk to you about your child’s attendance problems.

A child becomes of compulsory school age when they reach the age of five and, where a parent has elected to register their child at school, they must start school in the term following their fifth birthday. A child continues to be of compulsory school age until the last Friday in June in the school year that they reach the age of 16.

Support on school attendance

If you’re having trouble getting your child to go to school, the school and local authority can support you in several ways. One option they may suggest is a parenting contract.

Parenting contracts are a form of support and not a punishment - they are intended to help you and the school or local authority to work together to improve your child’s attendance.

Parenting contracts are voluntary. You should be aware, however, that if your child is missing school regularly and you refuse to agree to a contract - or do not keep to its terms - this can be used as evidence if the local authority decides to prosecute you.

To find out more about the forms of support available - including parenting contracts - see ‘School attendance, absence and your child’.

Action on school attendance

A child registered at a school can legally miss school only in very limited circumstances. These include:

  • when the child is too ill to attend
  • when the school has authorised the absence beforehand

If a child is missing school without good reason, schools and local authorities have a number of legal powers that they can use.

School Attendance Order (SAO)

A School Attendance Order is issued if your child is not on roll at any school and the local authority is worried that you have not made arrangements to provide an alternative, suitable, full-time education. SAOs are used to direct you to send your child to a specified school.

Before serving an SAO, Children’s Services Officers should make every effort to discuss the situation with you. If it is not possible to persuade you to make suitable arrangements for your child’s education, then you will be served with a notice stating that you are failing in your duty to provide your child with an education.

The notice must inform you that you need to satisfy the local authority that you are providing an education at school or otherwise within a specified time period (but not less than 15 days beginning with the day the notice was served).

Local authorities are responsible for prosecuting parents if they breach an SAO and also have the option of seeking an Education Supervision Order.

Education Supervision Order (ESO)

As well as or instead of prosecuting you the local authority may apply to a court for an ESO. This order means that a supervisor will be appointed to you to give you help and advice on getting your child back into education.

Penalty notices

As an alternative to prosecution, authorised local authority staff, police officers and headteachers can issue penalty notices to parents of children who are not attending school regularly. The penalty is £50, rising to £100 if not paid within 28 days. If you fail to pay a penalty fine, you will be prosecuted.

Taking you to court

The local authority may prosecute you (they don’t have to issue a penalty notice first) and this could result in a more severe penalty.

You could get a fine of up to £2,500, a community order or, in extreme cases, a jail sentence of up to three months. If the court thinks it will help to stop your child missing school, it may also impose a Parenting Order.

Parenting Order

A Parenting Order is a court order which requires you to attend parenting education or support classes. You will also have to do whatever the court says is necessary to improve your child’s behaviour and attendance at school.

The role of your local authority

Follow the link below to enter details of where you live - it will take you to the part of your local authority website which covers school attendance.

There you can find out more about the action your local authority takes to deal with poor attendance. You should also find contact details for their Educational Welfare Service.

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