Absences, exclusions and anxiety: Your Top 5 school attendance questions answered

7 mins read

Thursday 8 December 2022

Tags: education, exclusions, send, special educational needs, school attendance, absences, anxiety

Last month, our SEN advisers hosted a special Q&A session in our Facebook Group in which they helped nearly 20 parent carers who were worried about their child’s school attendance. 

Parents asked a variety of questions ranging from support with medical absences to threats of exclusion and even legal action as a result of low attendance – a reflection of how stressful this issue can be for many families. 

We have rounded up 5 top questions that we think other parent carers will find helpful, but you can read them all in Contact’s Facebook Group. 

You can also take a look at our school attendance webpages for more advice about absenceshelp with medical needsexclusions and information on home education

Can I take my child on holiday during term time if they struggle with crowds and find busy attractions too overwhelming? 

Unfortunately, there isn’t any special provision for taking children with additional needs on holiday during term time. The law changed a few years ago, making it much harder for schools to authorise those absences. This is entirely at the headteacher’s discretion. Headteachers can authorise a term-time holiday in exceptional circumstances only and parents must ask permission in advance. There’s a bit more detail about this in the government’s attendance guidance on page 58.  Some schools are sympathetic and will authorise the holiday, while others won’t. If your child’s school or the local authority has a blanket policy saying they never authorise term-time holidays, you may want to challenge that on the grounds of potential discrimination. But that wouldn’t necessarily mean that your child’s absence would be authorised. Some parents bite the bullet and pay the fine, but that’s not an option for everyone, particularly as each parent can be fined for each child. 

My daughter’s special school keeps closing down whole classes due to understaffing, but complaints are falling on deaf ears. What can I do? 

I don’t think there’s a quick and easy answer to this one, as many schools are being faced with increased costs and also have particular difficulty recruiting support staff as the pay is low. But I can suggest a few possible ways forward. 

Write formal complaints to the governing body of the school and then escalate. If the school is a local authority community school, you can take it further to the local authority and the secretary of state; if it’s an Academy, then to the Academy Trust and the Education and Skills Funding Council. We have some further information on complaints on our website.  

State that your daughter is entitled to full-time suitable education. The education she is getting is not full-time, and neither is it suitable as children with Education, Health and Care (EHC) plans are far less likely to be able to learn remotely than other children. Your daughter also will not be able to get the full provision specified on the EHC plan. 

Local authorities have a duty under section 19 of the Education Act 1996 to provide alternative education for children who are not able to be in school for reasons of illness, exclusions or otherwise. They also have a duty under section 42 of the Children and Families Act 2014 to secure the provision in the EHC plan. You can complain to the local authority if they are in breach of either of these. 

I would also suggest getting together with other parents and asking for a meeting with the Director of Children’s Services in your local authority. It would be helpful to get the local MP involved too. 

My child’s school sent me a letter saying the welfare officer is monitoring her poor attendance, despite knowing about her issues with social anxiety and possible autism diagnosis. What could come of this? 

It is possible that the school has a system that automatically sends out letters when a child’s attendance falls below 90% (the threshold for persistent absence). 

If you don’t already have it, ask for a copy of your child’s attendance record. Check whether the absences have been authorised or not. Absences for sickness and medical appointments should be authorised. You cannot be fined or prosecuted for authorised absences. Our school attendance webpage has more information on this. 

Regarding fines, each local authority must publish a local Code of Conduct for education penalty notices. This sets out the circumstances in which a fine will be issued, for example over an unauthorised term-time holiday or a set number of unauthorised absences per term. Some local authorities are much quicker to move to fines than others. 

It may be helpful to contact the attendance officer yourself and explain the situation. This will also show that you are trying to work with the school. 

What can I do when my child’s school is marking them down as ill, but the local authority is threatening legal action over non-attendance? 

You must try and get medical evidence, as you should not get in trouble for non-attendance if you have supporting evidence from a professional. If the child is too unwell to attend school and the school are marking it as an authorised absence due to illness, the local authority should not be threatening legal action. Visit our website for more information about medical-related absences

Each local authority must publish a local Code of Conduct for education penalty notices. This sets out the circumstances in which a fine will be issued, for example over an unauthorised term-time holiday or a set number of unauthorised absences per term. Some local authorities are much quicker to move to fines than others. 

There is no formal right of appeal against a fixed penalty notice for school attendance. But if you are issued with a fixed penalty notice and you think that the notice has been issued in error (for example if the absence was authorised or should have been authorised), then you can ask for the penalty notice to be withdrawn. 

What do you do when a child has been permanently excluded but there is no next school in place? 

During the first five days of an exclusion, the school should take reasonable steps to set and mark work for your child. From the sixth day, the local authority must arrange suitable alternative education for your child. This may be in a pupil referral unit. In the longer term, the local authority should find a place in another school for your child. You can also apply to other schools yourself. However, a school can refuse to accept a child if they have been permanently excluded twice already within the last two years, and in some circumstances they can refuse pupils with challenging behaviour. 

If your child has an Education Health and Care (EHC) plan, an exclusion should trigger an emergency review of the plan. The local authority must make sure that any alternative provision is able to meet your child’s special educational needs as set out in the EHC plan. 

Our webpage on exclusions has a table which sets out your rights and the governors’ responsibilities according to the length of an exclusion.