Illness: What to do when you suspect a pupil isn’t really ill


Barry Archibald looks at the issue of checking and confirming any ongoing absences due to illness, and discusses some of the ways in which schools can minimise such absences.


  • Almost 60% of all pupil absence can be due to illness and so strategies that tackle this area can have a major impact on overall attendance.
  • Staff should work constructively with carers on support and strategies that will enable the child to remain in school.
  • In cases where schools suspect a pupil is not really ill, the procedures are essentially the same as for any case of unnecessary absence.

What does the data tell us?

Anyone taking an interest in the media’s reporting about absence from school, the political comment plus the resultant pressure for action, along with recent changes made to the attendance regulations, might conclude that the biggest cause of unnecessary absence from school is holidays in term-time. It clearly is not.

Nationally, absence due to holidays in term-time is 0.5%, while illness accounts for around 3%. In 2011-12, overall school absence stood at 5.1% of possible attendances. If 3% is lost to reported illness, that’s equivalent to 58% of all absences being illness-related. This would seem to be a major indicator of where significant gains could be made in improving levels of attendance.

Why should we question the current level of absence due to illness?

In 2012, the average absence rate of adults from the workplace was 5.3 days. Making an allowance for statutory holidays and annual leave entitlement, that equates to an absence rate of 2.3%. As with absence from school, the main reason for adult absence is reported to be illness. We know that, among adults at least, around 12% of such absences are not for any genuine reason, so it is likely that an equal proportion of pupil absence is also unnecessary. My experience tells me that, among children, it is likely to be more. In that case, why do we accept an absence rate from our children that is well over double the levels that we are prepared to accept from ourselves and our colleagues?

It is the case that younger children are more susceptible to minor ailments and more prone to a range of diseases. At the same time, un-derstandably, we as parents and carers are very protective of our children. However, we also have to look to their future, which is inextricably linked to their educational outcomes that will in turn depend on their regular attendance.

The school and local authority’s responsibilities

The most recent attendance advice from the Department for Education (DfE) tells us that schools and local authorities (LAs) should ensure that every pupil has access to the full-time education to which they are entitled and establish the reason for any absence.

Schools should have a policy, as well as a nominated person responsible for pupils who cannot attend school for health reasons. If there is a genuine reason for absence, LAs have a duty to arrange suitable full-time education for children of compulsory school age who cannot attend because of illness for 15 days or more, whether consecutive or cumulative.

What can schools do to minimise illness absence?

Understandably, staff in schools may feel reluctant to question carers if they are concerned about a child who is regularly absent and where illness given as the reason. After all, they are neither medically trained nor experienced practitioners. However, to meet the responsibilities outlined above, it does fall to them to question and challenge if appropriate.

The Health Education Trust offers a useful starting point. Even for those with a diagnosed condition, the advice is that most children with medical needs are able to attend school regularly and, with proper support from school and family, can take part in most normal school activities.

Obviously, we do not want sick children in our schools, impairing their own recovery and possibly infecting other pupils, but neither do we want them to miss school unnecessarily. Particularly for older pupils, it is important to prepare them for the demands of further education and the workplace, where it would be unacceptable to take time off unnecessarily for minor ailments.

This suggests that the starting point should be more about working constructively with carers about support and potential strategies that would enable the child to remain in school. Approached in this way, there is less chance of staff feeling any unease about having to question or challenge carers.

Schools should make use of the Guidance on infection control in schools and other childcare settings (, issued by the Health Protection Agency, which gives staff a useful outline of the conditions that do require pupils to be absent and a recommendation about the length of time that they may need to be away from school.

Further help on absence from school is available from the NHS, giving details about the most common conditions and in what circumstances they may warrant an absence from school.

Illness is the major source of all absence and while responding sympathetically and with care towards any child’s poor health, schools should also concentrate efforts to reduce unnecessary absence by being more appropriately questioning and using the available guidance about how much time pupils should need to be off for specific conditions.

Case management

Where there are grounds to suspect that illness is being offered as a reason to conceal other issues, there may be safeguarding issues and schools have a clear duty to investigate and act to protect the pupil.

The DfE advice says schools should authorise absences due to illness unless they have genuine cause for concern but, if in doubt, they can ask parents to provide medical evidence.

All schools should have a clear attendance policy and an escalation of intervention in response to any continuing absence. The best approach to take in cases where schools suspect a pupil is not really ill is essentially the same as for any case of unnecessary absence.

If concerned about any child’s attendance, schools should make the carer aware. Sometimes simply drawing attention to the amount of time the child has missed is sufficient to remedy matters.

If that does not resolve concerns, the school should implement a time-limited programme of work, usually of 12-16 weeks, giving a target for improvement, agreeing a plan of action with the carer and providing regular opportunities to engage carers, review progress and explore any barriers to attendance.

Taking a structured approach of this kind will enable schools to establish if the level of absence is warranted and agree appropriate support where needed.

A School Attendance Panel is of particular benefit in cases where illness may be offered as the reason. This provides a more formal oppor-tunity to interview the carer about the child’s absence. It is very helpful to have a School Nurse or similar professional present at this meeting, if possible.

If carers are uncooperative, or concerns persist, the matter should be referred on to the LA to make further investigations with health col-leagues if there is still uncertainty about the authenticity of any illness, or to consider legal action against the carer if the pupil’s unauthorised absence continues.


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About the author

Barry Archibald has been an independent adviser and trainer since 2011, delivering bespoke training and support to schools, academies and local authorities in attendance, behaviour and pupil wellbeing. Prior to that, Barry spent five years as a Regional Adviser working with the DfE and National Strategies, specialising in school attendance, behaviour and the social and emotional aspects of learning. He can be contacted via email ( or via his website (

First published on this website in March 2014.

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