A-Z of codes 4: Codes H, I, J and L


In the fourth article in this series, find out about the codes for approved holiday absence, illness and attending an interview.

Continuing his series of handy reference guides, Ben Whitney explores each of the recommended codes in detail including:

  • The text of the official DfE ‘Advice’ (November 2013)
  • Commentary on the issues raised
  • Some points to inform best practice (see Toolkit).

It should be noted that this guidance relates only to those of compulsory school age.

Code H: Approved holiday (authorised absent)

‘Headteachers should not grant leave of absence unless in exceptional circumstances. The application must be made in advance and the headteacher must be satisfied that there are exceptional circumstances which warrant the leave. Where a leave of absence is granted, the headteacher will determine the number of days a pupil can be away from school. A leave of absence is granted entirely at the headteacher’s discretion’.

from School Attendance: Departmental Advice (http://bit.ly/1vGHqez)

Some schools and local authorities (LAs) seem to have overlooked the fact that holiday leave has not been banned altogether; Code H is still the authorised absence code to use if the circumstances are ‘exceptional’. But what does ‘exceptional’ mean? Taking a holiday is clearly not an ‘entitlement’, as some parents may wish (it never was), but neither need it necessarily be classed as an offence. As is explicit above, the decision on whether to authorise the leave lies, as it has always done, solely with the headteacher (not with the LA), though the LA will, in accordance with its code of conduct, have to determine what happens next if absences are left unauthorised. The DfE Guidance says that a penalty notice ‘could’ follow, but not that it must.

‘Exceptional’ surely means out of the ordinary or unusual, with some specific element that sets the request apart. What is the reason why the parent is requesting a holiday? If it is only to save money, this might not meet the criteria, although a rare cheap holiday for that particular family might still be ‘exceptional’, especially if this opportunity is all they can reasonably afford. If the holiday is itself exceptional in terms of the destination and activity involved, or if the parents’ work or personal circumstances mean that they are required to fit in with requirements over which they have no control, these explanations might also meet the criteria. Decisions must be ‘reasonable’ and some examples of refusal strike me as unnecessarily harsh. However, the bar has certainly been raised and parents need to be made aware of this if they are not already.

Code I: Illness (authorised absent)

‘Schools should advise parents to notify them on the first day the child is unable to attend due to illness. Schools should authorise absences due to illness unless they have genuine cause for concern about the legitimacy of an illness. If the authenticity of illness is in doubt, schools can request parents to provide medical evidence to support illness. Schools can record the absence as unauthorised if not satisfied of the authenticity of the illness but should advise parents of their intention. Schools are advised not to request medical evidence unnecessarily. Medical evidence can take the form of prescriptions, appointment cards, etc. rather than doctors’ notes’.

from School Attendance: Departmental Advice (http://bit.ly/1vGHqez)

This mark accounts for the overwhelming majority of absences: three times the total amount of unauthorised absence and six times the amount lost to holidays. But it is not a ‘problem’, at least in terms of alleged ‘truancy’, although it is included in ‘persistent absence’. If the school agrees that the child was genuinely ill, parents have an immediate defence in law. Some children, especially younger children, those in poorer communities and those with special educational needs, are ill more frequently than others. This is clearly reflected in the data, and schools in some areas, as well as many special schools, can often do little about it, other than encouraging an early return if it is safe for the child to do so. If the child is genuinely ill, it would be unreasonable not to authorise the absence or even to make other provision in the most extreme cases.

If the school doesn’t accept that the child was ill, then the headteacher shouldn’t authorise the absence and must inform the parents accordingly. However, there is obvious pressure to do so in order to reduce unauthorised absence and because schools may have no choice in practice but to take the parents’ word for it. Notes from doctors cannot be legally required and are usually not available for routine illnesses (explanations from parents do not have to be in writing). LA officers may be able to help find out the truth if there is any dispute but ultimately, as always, the school has to decide what to do. Persistently unjustified examples should certainly be challenged and, in the end, absences have to be left unauthorised if they are to be used as evidence. Frequent illness could trigger a Parenting Contract to define future arrangements.

Code J: Attending an interview at another school or prospective employer (counts as present)

‘This code should be used to record time spent in interviews with prospective employers or another educational establishment. Schools should be satisfied that the interview is linked to employment prospects, further education or transfer to another educational establishment’.

from School Attendance: Departmental Advice (http://bit.ly/1vGHqez)

Only needed if the pupil misses the whole session with permission, not if they come to school first (and provided they actually attended the interview). It may also be used for entrance examinations in school time.

Code L: Late before registers are closed (present)

‘Schools should have a policy on how long registers should be kept open; this should be for a reasonable length of time but not that registers are to be kept open for the whole session. A pupil arriving after the register has closed should be marked absent with Code U, or with another absence code if that is more appropriate’.

from School Attendance: Departmental Advice (http://bit.ly/1vGHqez)

This is a big decision for a school because it makes the difference not just over whether or not an absence is authorised but between the whole session being counted as absent or present. There is no specific regulation about when this judgment should be made and therefore practice can vary. What is too late in one school (Code U) will be marked as Code L in another and therefore classed as present. This can make a significant difference to the published information, even though what actually happened in the two cases may be identical. Exactly who makes the decision, and according to what criteria, is often inconsistent. Schools should be clear with parents and pupils about how late they can be and still be counted. Some flexibility may be reasonable, but it is not appropriate to keep registration open indefinitely. As the DfE Guidance makes clear, a specific policy is needed.

Further information

Guidance on School Attendance, DfE, November 2013 (http://bit.ly/1vGHqez)


Premium and Premium Plus subscribers can download this template document from the Toolkit section:

About the author

Ben Whitney is an independent education welfare consultant and trainer, with over 20 years’ experience in attendance management for two local authorities. He has written several books, his latest being Just Ticking the Box? Refocusing school attendance. More information on his current training and consultancy services can be found at www.ben-whitney.org.uk.

First published on this website in December 2014.

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About Author

Ben Whitney

Ben Whitney is an independent education welfare consultant and trainer, with over 20 years’ experience in attendance management for two local authorities. He is the author of several books on both attendance and child protection. More information on his current training and consultancy services can be found at www.ben-whitney.org.uk.

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