How many unauthorised absences are allowed before a fine is given?


The news that fines for parents taking children out of school without permission will rise to £80 has reignited the debate about school absences.  Since the pandemic, school absence rates have been at an all time high and this has had a significant impact on children’s educational attainment. 

Here we’ll provide a guide to the regulations surrounding school attendance, delve into the repercussions of unauthorised absences,  provide insight into how schools manage situations and look at when fines are likely to be issued. 

What is an unauthorised absence? 

Unauthorised absences refer to any time a student misses school without permission from the school or a valid reason, such as illness or a family emergency. Taking a child out of school for a holiday during term time without permission from the headteacher counts as an unauthorised absence. These absences can result in consequences for both the student and their parents. 

Parents or guardians are legally responsible for ensuring their child's regular attendance at school. This responsibility includes making sure their child is on time, present for scheduled classes, and adhering to the school's attendance policies. 

Factors that can impact school attendance 

As well as term time holidays there are other reasons that can lead to an increase in school absences. These include: 

  • Health concerns: Illness or chronic health conditions can significantly impact a student's ability to attend school regularly. Mental health and anxiety issues can also make it difficult for children to attend school. Parents should communicate with the school when their child is unwell and provide necessary medical documentation for absences. 
  • Family circumstances: Family emergencies, such as a death in the family or caregiver responsibilities, can lead to absences. Schools should be understanding of these issues and support children and families. 
  • Transportation issues: Lack of reliable transportation can prevent students from getting to school on time, or at all. Schools should work with families to find solutions, such as arranging bus passes, carpooling options or taxis. 

It is essential that parents communicate openly with the school about any obstacles that may affect their child's regular attendance. By working together, schools and families can find solutions to ensure that every student has equal access to education. 

Consequences of unauthorised absences 

Schools take unauthorised absences seriously due to their potential impact on a student's education. Consequences for unauthorised absences may include:

  • Educational impacts: Excessive unauthorised absences can significantly impact a student's education. Missing school regularly can lead to falling behind in coursework, difficulty catching up with the rest of the class, and ultimately lower academic achievement. It disrupts students’ learning process and may hinder their overall educational progress.  
  • Social issues: Absenteeism can also affect a student's social development. Regularly missing out on school means missing opportunities to interact with peers, participate in group activities, and develop important social skills necessary for success later in life. This isolation can have long-term effects on a child's ability to form relationships and navigate social situations effectively. 
  • Legal action: Persistent unauthorised absences may result in legal action against parents or guardians. This might involve a parenting order, education supervision order, school attendance order or a fine. In extreme cases parents and guardians can be prosecuted and given community service orders or even a prison sentence. 

How many unauthorised absences are allowed before parents are fined? 

Recent guidance from the Department for Education requires schools to consider issuing fines when pupils are absent without authorisation for 10 or more half day sessions during a 10 week period. This means that a week's holiday in term time would be considered for a fine. 

Before 2013, schools used to have the discretion to allow up to 10 days term time holiday each year ‘in special circumstances’ but since then the rules have been tightened and term time absences are now only allowed ‘in exceptional circumstances’ such as visiting ill relatives.

When are parents fined for unauthorised school absences?

Fines are issued by local councils, but the decision to refer parents for a fine is taken by headteachers. Fines are a last resort and generally are only given after a period where the school tries to engage with parents and understand the reasons behind the absences. Where unauthorised absences are due to family circumstances or  where a child is reluctant to attend school headteachers will offer support instead of threatening fines.

Most fines, nearly 90%, are given for unauthorised term time holidays. Nearly 400,000 fines were issued last academic year. This is significantly higher than pre-pandemic levels. 

Each local council has its own policies for issuing fines, which does make it hard for parents to know whether they are likely to be fined. New guidelines aim to tackle this issue. 

How much is the fine for taking your child out of school during term time?

The fine is currently £60, rising to £120 if it’s not paid within 21 days.  From September 2024 it will be increased to £80 rising to £160. This will be the first rise since fines were introduced in 2013. If you don’t pay the fine you could be taken to court and end up with a criminal record, a fine of up to £2,500, community service or in extreme cases a  jail sentence of up to 3 months. 

Will an increase in fines reduce school absences? 

The increase in fines and other measures, are aimed at reducing the number of unauthorised school absences and the associated disruption to children’s education. Geoff Barton, of the Association of School and College Leaders, pointed out the impact on teachers and the rest of the class on the time needed to help children catch up on lost learning. He argued that if everyone took term time holidays it would cause  ‘chaos’ in schools. However, as savings on holidays out of term time are significantly higher than the cost of a fine, it’s not clear how much of an impact increasing the fine will have. 

Additionally, some parents and teachers feel that there are some benefits to allowing term time holidays if that is the only time that children can be taken on holiday. Children potentially gain the benefits of travel, cultural experiences and the chance to spend relaxed time together as a family.  

One solution might be to encourage the travel industry to reduce the huge price disparity between the cost of holidays in and out of term time. 

Strategies for improving school attendance 

As well as the increase in fines, from September schools will also have a statutory duty to improve attendance. Some of the strategies schools use to encourage school attendance are:

  • Establishing a positive environment: Schools encourage open communication between parents, students, and school staff to address any issues that may be causing absences. 
  • Monitoring: Schools have a responsibility to keep detailed records of attendance, identify unauthorised absences and try to intervene early.
  • Providing incentives: Implementing rewards for good attendance, such as certificates or small prizes, can help to motivate students to come to school regularly. 
  • Offering support services: Many schools provide resources like counselling or tutoring for students who may be struggling academically or personally. Support can also be provided to parents who are struggling to get their children to attend school. 

By implementing these strategies, schools aim to work towards improving attendance rates. Parents play a crucial role in supporting their child's education by promoting regular attendance and communicating with the school when there are challenges that need to be addressed. Together, the entire school community can work towards reducing unauthorised absences and fostering a culture of academic success. 

Communicating with school about absences 

  • Notify the school promptly: If your child is going to be absent, make sure to inform the school as soon as possible. Many schools require a written note or phone call from a parent explaining the reason for the absence. 
  • Provide supporting documentation: If your child is sick, obtain a doctor's note to validate the absence. This can help prevent it from being marked as unauthorised. 
  • Schedule a meeting if needed: If you anticipate frequent absences due to special circumstances, such as medical issues or family emergencies, consider scheduling a meeting with your child’s school to discuss an attendance plan. This proactive approach shows that you are committed to ensuring your child's education and can help avoid fines for unauthorised absences.

Further information on school absences

Unauthorised absences can have significant implications for a student's education and well-being. By fostering open communication, understanding the reasons behind absences, and working collaboratively, schools and parents can address this issue effectively and support students in achieving their full potential. For further assistance or support, don't hesitate to reach out to your child's school or to your local authority.