Q. What exactly is meant by ‘exceptional circumstances’ when it comes to authorising absences?

A. This has certainly attracted plenty of media attention and very strong views on both sides.

When the Education (pupil registration) (English) (amendment) regulations 2013 came into force on 1 September 2013 there were probably few people who realised just how controversial the implications were likely to be.

Headteachers are not allowed to grant leave of absence during term time unless there are ‘exceptional circumstances’. The new attendance rules also allow headteachers to decide the length of the absence that might be granted. Some of the ensuing difficulties have resulted from the confusion and different interpretations of the meaning of ‘exceptional circumstances’.

There have been cases where different schools attended by members of the same family have taken different decisions. This lack of consistency, along with the increasing use of fines and the family misery in some publicised cases, is making the whole area increasingly contentious.

In a bid to calm the situation and clarify ‘exceptional circumstances’, the NAHT has published a leaflet, ‘Guidance on authorised absence in schools’. The leaflet defines ‘exceptional’ as ‘rare, significant, unavoidable and short’.

Throughout the examples it provides it uses as a tester whether the event can reasonably be scheduled outside of term time or not. If it can, then it would not be normal to authorise absence.

This means that the NAHT supports the stance that absence during term time for holidays/ vacations should not be authorised. However, granting absence to families needing time together to recover from trauma and crisis might be considered to be exceptional.

Schools are reminded that they have a duty to make reasonable adjustments for students with special needs and disabilities and that absence for important religious observances should only take account of the ceremony and travelling time.

The examples given are helpful for headteachers, and following these guidelines might alleviate some of the public outcry there has been. The leaflet emphasises that it is guidance only and has no statutory authority. However, it should help schools with their decision making and, it is hoped, help prevent some of the bad feeling this new wording has caused.

Further information

Guidance on authorised absence in schools: http://bit.ly/UnauthorisedAbsenceGuidance 


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