Last reviewed 11 May 2022

Parents have a statutory duty to ensure that their children start full-time education once they reach compulsory school age. This will be on 31 December, 31 March or 31 August following their fifth birthday. However, most children start full-time education in the September after their fourth birthday. Michael Evans considers some of the issues associated with school attendance.

Parental freedom of choice

In order to meet their statutory duty to educate their children, parents essentially have three choices.

  1. A state-funded school, chosen by around 93%.

  2. An independent school, where they generally have to pay fees, chosen by around 6.5%.

  3. Home schooling, chosen by fewer than 1%. They are completely autonomous and fully responsible for all costs involved.

Good attendance is imperative

Once their child starts school, parents have a duty to ensure regular attendance at the school at which their child is registered and can only allow their children to miss school if they are too ill to go in or if advance permission has been given by the school for the absence.

The Government regards regular school attendance as being crucial to the raising of standards in education and ensuring that all pupils fulfil their potential. The rationale is that those with a record of poor attendance tend to achieve less in both primary and secondary school and that if lessons are missed, pupils are in danger of falling behind.

To achieve these aims the Government expects schools and local authorities to ensure that every pupil has access to the full-time education to which they are entitled. Good attendance and the reduction of absence must be promoted, with early action taken to address patterns of persistent non-attendance.

The statutory duty of schools

Schools have a statutory duty to record attendance and follow up absence. Sanctions and fixed penalties can be issued by local authorities where parents do not meet their responsibilities.

All schools, including independent schools, are required to have an admission register and unless all pupils in a school are boarders, there must also be an attendance register. All pupils must be placed on both registers.

The admission register must include the following:

  • date of admission

  • the full name and date of birth of the pupil

  • the full name and address of any parent or carer with whom the pupil lives, together with at least one contact number

  • contact details of any other parent with whom the pupil does not normally live

  • previous school, where relevant.

Schools must take the attendance register at the start of the first session of each school day and once during the second session. On each occasion they must record whether a pupil is:

  • present

  • attending an approved educational activity

  • not attending for some other reason.

Boarding schools with no day pupils are not required to keep an attendance register, but if there is a mixture day pupils must be registered in the normal way.

Absences should be followed up to ascertain a reason for the absence to identify whether or not it is approved and to ensure that where necessary, proper safeguarding action is taken.

Keeping a check on absence

The Government is always anxious to know the reasons why pupils are not in school and a system of national codes has been established for state-funded schools to record and monitor attendance and absence in a consistent way.

Once the correct attendance code has been identified, this is entered on to the school’s electronic register or management information system to be downloaded to the School Census.

Pupils present during morning registration should be marked thus: /, while in the afternoon the mark is thus: \.

There are a number of approved off-site educational activities for which one of the following codes should be entered.

  • Code B is for an approved off-site activity.

  • Code D is used if a pupil is also registered at another educational establishment such as a pupil referral unit, a hospital school or a special school on a temporary basis.

  • Code J is used to record time spent in interviews with prospective employers or another educational establishment.

  • Code P is used when a pupil is taking part in an approved sporting activity.

  • Code V is used when a pupil is taking part in an approved educational trip or visit, including residential trips.

  • Code W is for when pupils are involved in approved work experience.

There are also a number of other reasons for absence that can be authorised — either as a result of prior approval or following an accepted explanation for the justification of the absence — including the following.

  • Code C used in exceptional cases where schools have granted authorised leave of absence.

  • Code E used when a pupil has been excluded, but where no alternative provision has been made for their education.

  • Code H used only in exceptional circumstances when leave of absence has been granted for a family holiday.

  • Code I used when a child is ill and unable to attend school.

  • Code M when a pupil has a medical or dental appointment.

  • Code R when a pupil’s absence is due to a religious observance.

  • Code S for study leave. This should be used sparingly and only granted to Year 11 pupils during public examinations.

  • Code T is used when Traveller families are known to be travelling for occupational purposes and have agreed this with the school, but it is not known whether the pupil is attending educational provision. (Traveller is a generic term that can include Roma, English and Welsh Gypsies, Irish and Scottish Travellers, Fairground Showmen, Circus people, Occupational Boat Dwellers and New Travellers.)

In the case of an unauthorised absence the following codes are among those that might be used.

  • Code G when a holiday has not been authorised by the school or if the absence has been longer than the previously agreed time.

  • Code N where the reason for the absence has yet to be determined.

  • Code O where the school is not satisfied with the reason given for the absence.

  • Code U when the pupil arrived in school after registration was closed. The Government expects all pupils to be punctual to lessons and to arrive at school on time.

Home schooling as an alternative to school attendance

In percentage terms the number of children who are home-schooled is small, but actual numbers are significant and are on the increase.

According to a BBC report, more than 40,000 UK pupils were formally taken out of school between September 2020 and April 2021, a 75% increase on the previous two-year period.

Reasons given are various. Many parents expressed concern about what they perceive to be a heavy-handed, authoritarian approach by schools and local authorities, with the risk of prosecution over school attendance and absence.

Other parents question the wisdom of putting 30 children in one classroom where they all do exactly the same thing and follow what they see as a rigid, inflexible national curriculum which is too rigorous, over-structured and limited, with little scope for deviation.

Others have been disturbed by bullying and there have been well-documented cases where children diagnosed with autism have struggled at school but thrived with home schooling.

Home schooling is a serious commitment for parents. It is a full-time job and can potentially halve the family income. Not everyone is confident enough to undertake that sort of thing, but these days there are plenty of online educational resources and numerous books full of useful guidance. There are also growing networks of like-minded parents that enable the sharing of ideas and tips and provide plenty of opportunities for children to socialise.

There is no requirement for parents to obtain agreement if they wish to educate their child at home and Government policy remains that schools and local authorities should not seek to prevent parents from educating their children outside the school system.

Many parents have successfully home schooled their children for many years and a growing number of parents have taken the opportunity to follow this lead. They have a conviction that school attendance is not at all necessary.


  • Parents have a statutory duty to educate their children and they have three routes to achieve this.

  • The Government regards good attendance as being crucial to the raising of standards.

  • Children can only miss school if they are ill or have received previous permission to be absent.

  • Schools have a statutory duty to maintain an admissions register and a register to record attendance twice daily.

  • A system of codes has been devised to indicate various types of absence.

  • An alternative to school attendance is home schooling and although numerically small in percentage terms, this is growing in popularity.