In England, parents are obliged to send their children to school during term time. Parents who don’t, risk a fixed penalty notice or prosecution. The most serious cases may lead to imprisonment. As a number of high profile court cases have shown, authorities are taking steps to make sure that the regulations are enforced.
Schools may permit term time absence only when authorised in advance and in ‘exceptional circumstances’, the definition of which is down to each individual school. For example, time off could be granted following the death of a loved one or where it is needed as part of recovery from a medical or emotional trauma.
If you think your circumstances are exceptional, it is important to raise the situation with your child’s school as soon as possible. Be prepared to have documentary evidence to support your claim.
If you find yourself accused of an unauthorised absence, you should seek legal advice as soon as you can. The consequences of being found in breach of the law can be serious.
Defining what constitutes ‘exceptional circumstances’ is not clear cut – it’s down to the discretion and judgement of each individual headteacher. It can differ from school to school. Headteachers have some guidance to help them decide what might be an acceptable justification for absence in term time.
The following may be classed as ‘exceptional circumstances’ by some schools, according to the National Association of Headteachers:
- Absence relating to the terminal illness or bereavement of a close family member. For attendance at a funeral, this is likely to mean the funeral service but not extended leave.
- Attendance at the wedding of a family member or person close to the family.
- Absences are permitted for important religious observances but only for the ceremony and travelling time, not extended leave. This is intended for one off situations rather than regular or recurring events.
- The needs of the families of service personnel may be taken into account if they are returning from long operational tours that prevent contact during scheduled holiday time.
- Schools have a duty to make reasonable adjustments for students with special educational needs or disabilities.
- Families may need time together to recover from trauma or crisis.
Student’s Previous Attendance Record
It is acceptable to take a student’s previous record of attendance into account when making decisions. It is important to note that head teachers can determine the length of the authorised absence as well as whether absence is authorised at all. Evidence is likely to be required in each case.
If a request meets the exceptional circumstances requirement, but falls within the following times, the head teacher must be convinced that absence from school is the only option:
- The first half term of any academic year (applies to all pupils).
- 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 (for all pupils in these year groups).
- At any time specified by the school (this will be communicated to parents by each school).
Helen Simm is a regulation lawyer at Slater and Gordon in Manchester.