It is a question at the forefront of many students’ minds: how many absences from school are allowed before receiving a sanction? It can be difficult to work out, especially when there are varying rules for different counties in the UK. This article discusses in detail how to understand the rules and laws about attendance in the UK, and what the consequences are for breaking them.
In short, there is no specific number of unauthorised absences that are allowed in UK schools. It is important to always attend school unless there is no other option but to stay at home and not attending school means falling behind on education and which has long term implications on your life. However, an attendance rate below 90% is considered a persistent absence rate and may mean being referred to a local education authority for help. Some absences are excused, such as medical, illness, or head teacher’s permission, but these are not always given and should be avoided wherever possible.
While this is a quick answer, it is important to know the specifics of these rules, so read on to find out more about attendance and absences in the UK.
How Many Unauthorized Absences are Allowed?
There is no specific number of unauthorised absences which is allowed under UK law, as unauthorised absences are not good, and should always be avoided in order to get a consistent education. All pupils between 5 and 16 must attend school for the duration of the year, and absences must be avoided wherever possible.
However, after 5 days, or 10 sessions (a session is half of a day, morning, and afternoon) of unauthorised absence the school is required to notify the local educational authority. These do not need to be consecutive, 10 sessions over the whole year are enough for this to happen. Attendance is recorded by every school at every session, by law, and this is how they know when you have missed sessions. An attendance rate below 90% is defined as Persistent Absence.
Once persistent absence has been reported, several things can happen, which are detailed in the segment below. It is not always after 10 sessions, and individual cases will be considered for more or less time to be acceptable, however, in a vast majority, 10 sessions of unauthorised absence are enough to be reported to the local authority.
While there is no specified number of absences in law, local authorities may set their own targets, or have rules about what is allowed in their area.
What is an Unauthorised Absence?
An unauthorised absence is when a child is not in school, and the school is not satisfied by the reasons given for non-attendance.
Accepted absences can include:
- Leave of absence authorised by the headteacher (such as time off due to bereavement).
- Holidays authorised by the headteacher, who must specify how many days are approved. These will only be approved in exceptional circumstances. For more information on the circumstances for holidays, please follow this link.
- Illness: a parent or guardian must tell school on the morning of your first day of absence. If you have coronavirus, you MUST stay at home for at least 10 days from the day after you developed symptoms or had a positive test. You must also stay at home if told to self-isolate by the school or Public Health England. For more information on illness and school, this website has details on isolation periods and time off school for illnesses.
- Medical or dental appointments, although you should try to arrange these outside school hours if possible.
- Religious observance.
- Gypsy, Roma, and Traveller absence when the family is travelling for occupational purposes. You must continue your education while travelling, at a different school or with work set by the school.
- Offsite educational activities: this could include music, dance or drama exams, or participation in a sporting event. Approval is at the school’s discretion.
An unauthorised absence is usually any which does not fall into this list or is not authorised by the headteacher. The reasons listed do not count towards the unaccepted total of 10 sessions, and will not cause any negative consequences, however, they should be avoided, as being absent for these still causes negative effects on your attendance. There are acceptable cases not on this list, but those are subject to the headteacher’s discretion.
A session is generally recorded as an absence if you are not there for registration, even if you turn up later in the day. This means that the school can mark you as late or not there depending on how late and this shows why it is key to attend school on time.
How Do You Get an Absence Authorised?
To get an absence authorised, you must contact your headteacher and follow the procedure given to you by them. This usually must be carried out by a parent or guardian and is subject to the headteacher’s discretion. No absence has a sure chance of being excused, and you may be asked to provide evidence such as:
- Death certificates, for a funeral.
- Doctor’s notes, for long illness absence, or prescriptions, or appointment bookings.
- Invitations, tickets, or similar, for weddings, especially if these are abroad.
- Any other similar evidence requested by the head.
It is also important to note that there are certain days of the year which headteachers are not allowed to authorise absences on (except in extreme circumstances):
- The first half term of any academic year
- Year six transition day (for pupils in year six)
- Year six SATs week (for pupils in year six)
- Year nine options time (for pupils in year nine)
- At any time during years 10 and 11
- At any time specified by the school (this will be communicated to parents by each school).
What are the Penalties for Unauthorised Absences?
Once Persistent Absence has been reported, the local authority has a few options for enforcing attendance to school
A Parenting Order: meaning your parent will need to attend parenting classes and follow rules set by a court on helping you with attendance. This may occur with or instead of prosecution in court and is intended to help parents to understand and help students to improve attendance.
An Educational Supervision Order: this means an Education Officer will be appointed to assist you and your family in integrating back into education, following orders from a family court. This is a common companion to other orders such as fines and school attendance orders.
School Attendance Order: This is an order by a Family Court for your parent to provide evidence (within 15 days) that you are registered with the school they have listed or that they are home educating you. Failure to provide this evidence can result in fines and prosecution.
Fines: Your family can be fined £60 per parent for you not attending school, per day and child, which could rise to £120 if it is not paid in 21 days. After 28 days your family may be prosecuted for not paying.
Prosecution: in some cases, the court may fine families up to £2500, a community order, or a jail sentence up to 3 months. These sentences are serious and only a last resort but are still very much a possibility. These sentences also give you a Parenting Order, as mentioned above.
More information on these sanctions is found here.
Why is School Attendance So Important?
In most cases, school attendance strongly positively correlates with academic success, in other words: being in school gets you better grades and better understanding. This is due to many factors, but mostly because missing teaching time means you miss key content that affects your courses and learning, even if you catch it up later.
Another reason it is so important to attend school is friendships. Especially if you do not attend in the first few weeks or days of term, it can be really difficult to make friends at a new school. Not only that, but persistent absence at any time of the year is damaging to friendships, because if you do not see people as often you may begin to drift apart or miss important changes to their life.
Safeguarding pupil’s well-being in school is made very difficult if they are not there to request and show that they need help. This could mean that pupils do not get the support they need as soon as possible, but also that they may be exposed to more danger, as school is a safe place for many students. If you feel unsafe at home, there are always people to talk to in school or helpline websites and feeling unsafe is never ok.
Do Colleges and Sixth Forms Look at Attendance Levels?
While attendance helps with academics as seen above, it is also true that some colleges and Sixth Forms look at your attendance before accepting your application to study at their school. This means that what you see as a few days off in year 11 may turn out to be an attendance record that stops your chances of getting into the school or college you want to go to.
They look at this as an indicator of whether you are a dedicated student, so having lots of unexcused absences is not helpful. More information on how your attendance record can follow you after high school is in this Think Student article.
How to Deal with Mental Health While at School
There are other reasons why you may not want to or feel very anxious about going to school. Bullying is a big problem and can make school feel like an incredibly unsafe place to be in. Anxiety, exam stress, and friendship issues can all make you feel like school difficult, but not going only makes these issues worse, as you begin to lose tolerance to being in the building, and magnify the problem.
Also, the school cannot help solving these problems if they do not know about them, so telling a trusted adult, teacher, or friend (who can help you tell someone) is key to helping these problems be resolved, no matter how small they may seem to you.
For more help on getting into school if you are anxious, this Young Minds guide is very helpful.