Included, engaged and involved part 1: promoting and managing school attendance

Guidance to education authorities in Scotland on the promotion of good attendance and the management of attendance.

6. Managing unauthorised absence

6.1 Unauthorised absence

Schools should record absence as unauthorised when they perceive that there is no valid reason for the absence provided. Such absence can be categorised as:

  • Absence with parental awareness in specific circumstances (see 6.2 below)
  • Family holidays during term time
  • Occasional absence without parental awareness
  • Longer term absence – school related issues
  • Longer term absence – home and wider community
  • Absence relating to substance and alcohol misuse

6.2 Absence with parental awareness in specific circumstances

Parents generally act in the best interests of their children. On occasion, parents allow absence because they genuinely believe that their child will benefit from an alternative activity (e.g. trip, family related activities). In these circumstances, clear school and education authority policies and regular communication of expectations will help school staff respond appropriately.

Sometimes, parents allow absence because they believe the school is failing to act in the best interests of the child or young person, for example, by failing to address conflict between the child or young person, fellow pupils or a particular teacher. A parent may also be in dispute with a school following a period of exclusion, if for instance they don’t agree with the school’s management of the incident. In these circumstances, early contact with the parent through home-school link or family support workers, or a key member of staff responsible for pastoral care, to build relationships and restore trust is important. Arrangements to ensure the child or young person’s attendance at school should be the first priority, to help ensure that absence from school does not become a habitual response to difficulties. Plans should also be in place to resolve any ongoing difficulties.

Some parents and family members may have had their own negative experiences of school, which may lead to a lack of confidence and trust in the education system. The key to building relationships is regular contact, both informal and formal, and encouragement to parents to see the school as a source of support and practical help.

In some instances, parents may appear to allow pupil absence but are experiencing difficulties in supporting their child to attend school. In such instances, schools may wish to enlist the support of home support workers, relevant pastoral staff or other agencies where appropriate. Specific relational approaches to support parents should be considered.

6.3 Family holidays during term time

Absence from school, whatever the cause, disrupts learning. It is important that parents encourage their children or young people to attend school and that parents arrange family holidays during the holiday period. Family holidays should not be recorded as authorised absence, other than in exceptional circumstances, where a parent’s employment is of a nature where school-holiday leave cannot be accommodated. Such employment may include armed services, emergency services, professions where parents are required to work away from the family for prolonged periods of time. It is for education authorities and schools to determine their own context and assess when these circumstances apply and authorise absence accordingly. However, the majority of family holidays, if taken during term time, should be recorded as unauthorised.

The categorisation of most term-time holidays as unauthorised absence is an on-going contentious issue due to the higher cost of holidays during school holiday periods. The Scottish Government recognises the importance of family holidays but has no control over the pricing decisions of holiday companies or flight operators. Attendance is one of the five key drivers for raising attainment as part of the Scottish Attainment Challenge. Our main focus is therefore to encourage parents and children and young people to recognise the value of learning and the potential impact of disrupting learning for the child or young person and the wider school community.

6.4 Occasional absence without parental awareness

Addressing occasional absence without parental awareness requires a multifaceted response including the promotion of positive relationships and a range of approaches to including and engaging children and young people in their learning. There are a number of possible reasons for occasional absence without parental awareness – these can be school or home related (this is explored further in 6.5 and 6.6.) However, schools should give clear messages to children and young people that occasional absence is unacceptable. There should also be a vigilant and quick response from staff that includes contacting parents to notify them that their child is absent from school. At secondary school some young people who are considering occasional absence without parental awareness may present themselves for registration and then absent themselves for specific lessons. This can be minimised by effective supervision with an eye on entrances/exits to the school grounds; effective monitoring of lesson–by–lesson attendance and use of this information to manage absence hotspots. Schools may be able to identify children and young people who are at risk of occasional absence and take preventative action at an early stage if they do not arrive in lessons (i.e. immediate notification to the school office for action by the member of staff responsible for managing absence and notifying parents).

In order to maximise the number of children and young people staying in school grounds at breaks and lunch times, it may be beneficial to work in partnership with them to improve the areas within the school grounds where they can gather, to make this environment more welcoming and attractive. This might include providing healthy snacks and drinks for purchase and allowing music, games or activities to encourage young people to stay within the school.[32] Some children or young people may find some parts of the school environment threatening and unsafe at times and it can be helpful to ensure that there are safe spaces for them to go to when they need to.

A number of children or young people may not attend school as a result of peer influence. Schools should work with children and young people to help them to understand that occasional absence is not in their best interests and to develop knowledge and skills which allows them to make their own choices. For children and young people who are particularly vulnerable to peer influence and may not attend school to gain standing with peers, buddying and mentoring during break times and even during class changeover can provide the positive influences that helps them stay within school.

More rarely, occasional absences are organised and planned in advance, and involve groups of young people, for example in gang-related or territorial activity, or in preparation for parties or weekends. In schools where staff have positive and trusting relationships with children and young people they may be more aware of such plans. Local police and youth work staff should also be encouraged to share information where appropriate and collaborate on a joint response. As well as preventing occasional absence, this approach can help prevent children and young people coming to more serious harm. In some circumstances schools may consider consequences following incidences of occasional absence. However, they should be carefully explored and discussed in order to ensure the needs of the child or young person are being met.

6.5 Longer term absence – school related issues

Children and young people may be absent from school for a number of reasons. For some, it is an expression of unhappiness with life in school, which may have a number of causes:

  • Struggling with learning or specific lessons
  • Conflict with, or fear of, a teacher or teachers
  • Conflict with, or fear of, another child or young person
  • Bullying
  • Issues relating to social media
  • Social and emotional needs and concerns relating to mental health
  • Anxiety about school
  • Unhappy with course choices after S3
  • Feeling stigmatised by the school’s attempts to provide support
  • Feeling stigmatised by insensitive sharing of personal details
  • Feeling stigmatised by insensitive handling of appointments or involvement with other services (e.g. social work) during school time

It is essential to identify any underlying causes of absence and to take action to resolve these. Pastoral care and additional support staff should work together with other staff and partners to identify and support individual needs. Schools which convey a positive, caring ethos help children and young people to feel that they can approach staff within the school to express their views, discuss their concerns and seek help. Approaches which support the development of a whole school positive culture and ethos can be found in section 3.

6.6 Longer term absence – home and wider community issues

For some children and young people, their unhappiness may be linked to other issues, such as:

  • Challenging family circumstances, including domestic abuse
  • Coping with adversity and trauma
  • Worries about parents, siblings or people close to them
  • Experience of care
  • Experience of abuse or neglect
  • Anxiety/mental health issues
  • Involvement in territorial activity/gang activity/drug supply/courier activity
  • Substance or alcohol misuse

A child or young person may suffer from extreme anxiety and mental health issues which make it very difficult for them to attend school. Schools should consider developing a whole school approach to reducing stigma and provide support for mental health. In some circumstances other agencies and supports may be required, e.g. school counsellors or educational psychologists.

Many of the children and young people who are absent from school may be extremely anxious about circumstances at home and be worried about leaving a parent or a sibling if they feel that they are unsafe, e.g. in circumstances of domestic abuse or substance misuse. In such circumstances, schools should work with the child or young person and family to provide support where needed and offer reassurance to the child or young person through regular contact with the parent/sibling or by confirming they can speak with a trusted adult about their concerns.

Schools should be aware of the impact that early adversity and trauma can have on children and young people. Any approach to promoting and supporting attendance should be sensitive to the child or young person’s needs and background. Care experienced children and young people are more likely to have experienced early adversity and trauma at some stage in their life and this may be ongoing.

Staff should use their knowledge of the child or young person and the family to determine the most appropriate response. The consistency of adult and peer relationships, planned support and opportunities to achieve provided by schools are a key part of enabling the child or young person to work towards positive outcomes.

Peer group influence can be an important factor in attitudes to school. They can be constructive or negative, but either way are likely to be important to every child or young person, as these friendships often represent to the child or young person a sense of belonging to the school and community.

As they grow older, some children or young people may have friends (or partners) no longer attending school. Supervision and monitoring of entrances/exits can help deter former pupils from hanging around in the vicinity of the school (see also Absence relating to substance and alcohol misuse at section 6.7). School staff should consider whether there is coercion or any risk to the pupil for which child protection concerns may arise (particularly in the case of a child or young person who is involved in a relationship with someone older).

On some occasions community issues can spill over into the school. Conflict between families or gangs and territorial issues can cause children and young people to avoid school in order to avoid each other. It is helpful to involve partner agencies such as the police, community learning and development services and youth work, to consider a collaborative approach to resolve this, both within school and in the community, and to ensure that where there is conflict in the community, all children and young people feel safe at school.

Schools should provide opportunities to enable more vulnerable children and young people to become attached to positive peer groups and to be exposed to positive role models through buddying and mentoring. For some, the opportunity to be a buddy or mentor to others has a similarly positive effect on their own behaviour as well as that of the children or young people they mentor. Peer mentor programmes such as Mentors in Violence Prevention Programme[33] can support children and young people to become part of the school community and challenge attitudes.

Some schools use additional support staff to deliver break time and after-school activities that provide a focal point for children and young people having difficulty forging positive peer relationships.

6.7 Absence relating to substance and alcohol misuse

The use of drugs and alcohol by children and young people can affect school attendance in a number of ways:

  • Being intoxicated or leaving school to become intoxicated
  • Being hungover
  • Being unable to function without using substances (addiction)
  • Trying to avoid others who may be involved in the supply of substances and alcohol

All staff should be aware of signs for concern, of which absence may be the initial trigger of investigation. Substance use may be a reaction to unhappiness caused by other issues, and may have become a longer term addiction. Absence may be a response to avoiding others associated with substance use including ‘dealers’ or those in the supply chain, or because they themselves have become involved in such a supply chain. In such instances, schools should be aware of how to ensure the safety for all children and young people.

Our alcohol and drug strategy, published in 2019, has an emphasis on prevention and early intervention for young people and for those most at risk of becoming addicted to alcohol or drugs[34].

Many schools have counsellors and work with community groups or the third sector to support children and young people with these needs. Collaboration with other agencies such as the police, drugs services and youth services can lead to better sharing of information and more effective prevention activity. Substance misuse education work is being taken forward in our schools through CfE. Educating children and young people about alcohol and drugs, and the impact these can have on life and health, will hopefully prevent them from making unhealthy choices now and safeguard their health for the future.

Similarly it is also crucial that children and young people affected by a family member’s substance misuse problem are correctly supported. Understanding and addressing the impact of this on the child or young person is critical to safeguarding their health and wellbeing.



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