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Who is a parent in education law?

It is important to note that, in education law, the definition of ‘parent’ is much wider than in any other field of law. This is because a ‘parent’ can be:

When does my child need to attend school?

When does a child need to start school?

Once a child turns 5, their parents must make sure they are in full-time education, whether by attending school, via homeschooling, or via a mixture of both. 

The law is that children must start school on the first school day of the term that follows their fifth birthday. If you are concerned that your child is too young to start school, you should discuss this with a school’s headteacher. 

How long do children need to attend school for?

Children must attend school until the last day of the summer term the year they turn 16.

In England, between the ages of 16 and 18, children must either:

  • stay in full-time education

  • begin an apprenticeship or traineeship, or

  • be in part-time education while spending 20 hours or more a week working or volunteering

Can I homeschool my child?

Parents can choose to homeschool their child. Children who are homeschooled do not have to follow the national curriculum or take the SATs. If a parent chooses to educate their child at home, they have full responsibility for the costs of the education, including the costs of any public exams. You do not need permission to homeschool your child, nor do you need to be qualified as a teacher. However, if your child currently attends school you should tell the school if you plan to change to educating them at home. The school cannot refuse to allow you to take your child out of school completely, but they can refuse to let you homeschool your child whilst also still sending your child to school some of the time. 

If your child has a School Attendance Order, you must get your local council’s permission before you educate them at home. The council can check that your child is receiving a suitable education via homeschooling and can also issue a School Attendance Order if they do not think that homeschooling is suitable. Parents can face prosecution if they do not give their child an education or do not comply with a School Attendance Order.

Who chooses which school a child attends?

Parents have the right to state their choices for the primary and secondary state schools they want their children to attend. However, this is ultimately a decision made by the relevant local authority. The local authority must recognise a parent’s wishes, unless:

  • this would prevent the best use of the school’s resources

  • this would exceed the Secretary of State’s class size limit (eg 30 pupils to each qualified teacher in an infant class)

  • the school has a special identity, eg a Catholic or Hindu school, and the child does not have a link with this identity

  • the child has been excluded from 2 or more schools in the last 2 years (except when the child is under 5 years old)

Faith schools are allowed to give preference to members of a particular faith or denomination in their admissions policy, as long as this does not conflict with the law on race discrimination

Only designated grammar schools can admit their entire intake based on academic ability. 

A parent does have the right to appeal if their child is not offered a place at the school of their choice. Appeals panels will not generally accept a school’s Ofsted rating as a reason why a child should not attend a particular school. 

Is my child entitled to a free school lunch?

This section applies to England only.

Children in a government-funded school in reception, year one, and year 2 are automatically entitled to free school meals.

Families in England may be entitled to free school meals if they receive any of the qualifying benefits. Families should apply on their local authority’s website. You can check your eligibility using the government’s eligibility checker

There are different processes for applying for free school meals in Wales and Scotland.

What can schools charge for?

Schools cannot charge for public exams or resits if a pupil has been prepared for them at school.

Schools cannot make compulsory charges for events and activities, such as admission costs to museums or relevant transport costs, although they can ask for contributions. If there are not enough voluntary contributions to enable a trip or activity and the school cannot make up the shortfall, they can cancel the trip or activity. 

Schools can state compulsory charges for residential trips and music lessons. However, the school governors must set out a charging policy stating when any charges will be made and when they will be reduced or exceptions made.

In certain circumstances, children might also be eligible for free school transport.

Is my child allowed to miss school?

Parents should inform their child’s school if there is a legitimate reason for the child missing school (eg a doctor’s appointment) to obtain advance permission. A birthday is not deemed to be a good reason for missing school. 

Children can also miss school if they are too ill to go in. Support is available if a child misses school for long periods due to a health problem or cannot attend school at all because of health needs. Schools can request that parents provide medical evidence of their child’s illness.

If a child misses school without a parent’s knowledge, their parent is still responsible and could be committing an offence. However, the Children’s Service will normally offer support where this is the case and will help the child stop truanting. A Parenting Contract can also be drawn up between the parent and either the school or the local authority to address school attendance. This is intended to provide support and is an alternative to prosecution. If all else fails, Child Services might prosecute the parent and this could result in a fine, imprisonment, or a Parenting Order. Local authorities can issue fines on a headteacher’s behalf to parents who fail to take responsibility for their child’s regular attendance at school.

It is not illegal for parents to take their children on holiday during the school term. However, headteachers will only authorise holidays during term time in exceptional circumstances. If however, parents take their children out of school without a discussion with the school, this will be an unauthorised absence and they will run the risk of paying a fine, being prosecuted, or the child losing their place.

Headteachers are in charge of granting permission for children to be taken out of school during term time.

What is the law on behaviour at school?

Every school must publish a behaviour policy on their website explaining the rules for pupils, what happens if a child misbehaves, and measures to prevent bullying. 

Detention, punishment, and protection

Schools do not have to notify parents about after-school detention as long as the child can return home safely afterwards. In some instances, detention can take place outside of school hours. For lunchtime detentions, children should be given reasonable time to eat and drink. 

School staff are also allowed to use any reasonable force necessary to protect pupils from harm due to other pupils’ behaviour or to prevent damage or disruption. This includes physical restraint such as leading a pupil by the arm or breaking up a fight. This power can also apply to unpaid volunteers or parents accompanying students on a school-organised visit. Teachers cannot inflict corporal punishment on any student, regardless of their age. Any non-physical punishment must be fair and within the school’s policy. Schools do not need the consent of parents to use force on a pupil but they should inform parents about serious incidents that required using force.

Searching students

A teacher can search a student or their possessions where they have reasonable grounds to suspect the student has a prohibited item. Schools should clearly state in their behaviour policy which items are prohibited. 

It is legal for schools to insist students are screened by a metal detector when they enter the school. If a student refuses to be screened, the school can refuse to allow them onto the premises, but this will be treated as an unauthorised absence and not an exclusion. 

Parents should be informed about any search that has taken place and the outcome of the search as soon as possible. They should be informed what, if anything, has been confiscated and the resulting action the school has taken, including any sanctions applied. Schools can legally confiscate, keep, or dispose of a student’s property as a disciplinary measure as long as doing so is reasonable.

Exclusion from school

If a child is excluded from school, for the first 5 days it is the parent’s responsibility to make sure that the child is not in a public place during school hours without a good reason. If a parent fails to do so, they could face prosecution.

Children cannot be excluded from school indefinitely: exclusion must be for a specified time or be permanent. Under a fixed exclusion:

  • a child cannot be excluded for more than 45 days in one school year

  • only the headteacher can exclude a child, and

  • exclusion cannot be for a minor offence, such as wearing jewellery or not doing homework

Permanent exclusion should only be used as a last resort if all other behaviour management strategies have failed. However, one-off offences can lead to permanent exclusions if they are serious, for example, the child being in possession of a weapon. 

If a fixed-term or permanent exclusion lasts longer than 5 days, the school must arrange alternative full-time education. Pupils with special educational needs or disabilities can also be excluded from school, but schools cannot exclude a pupil because of their disability or any other needs the school cannot meet. 


All schools must have a bullying policy that covers all types of bullying and which includes clear steps the school will take if bullying occurs and a clear statement of sanctions. Schools must also have existing measures in place to prevent bullying. The following forms of bullying are illegal and should be reported to the police:

  • violence or assault

  • theft

  • repeated harassment or intimidation, for example, threats or abusive text messages

  • hate crimes

Preventing and avoiding discrimination at school 

Schools must follow anti-discrimination laws, which means they must act to prevent discrimination, harassment, and victimisation within the school. This means that they must prevent pupils from being treated less favourably due to their status in relation to a ‘protected characteristic’ (eg race, gender, or sexual orientation). This extends to protecting pupils who attend the school, potential pupils, and former pupils. 

Schools cannot discriminate regarding:

  • admissions arrangements 

  • the supply of services (eg education) 

  • benefits and facilities, or

  • making reasonable adjustments to remove disadvantage experienced by pupils with disabilities 

Single-sex schools can refuse to admit students of the opposite sex and faith schools can give priority in their admissions to members of their own religion.

Access to school premises

Parents of enrolled pupils can have access to school premises at certain official times, for example, access to a playground at the beginning and end of the school day. It is up to the school to define the extent of this access and, if parents exceed this, their presence on school premises could be considered trespass. Schools also have the right to remove this access if a parent uses abusive or insulting language that presents a risk to staff or students. It is enough for staff to feel threatened. If a parent is barred from school premises it is a criminal offence for them to breach this bar and cause a nuisance or disturbance.

For more information on parents’ and children’s rights and responsibilities, read Children’s rights and responsibilities and Parents’ rights and responsibilities.

Special educational needs and disabilities

Special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) can have a great impact on a child’s ability to learn, socialise, and concentrate at school.

If a parent thinks their child might have special educational needs, they should contact the SEN (special educational needs) coordinator at their child’s school. Schools and colleges must have a SEN coordinator. The child might be entitled to SEN support at their school or college, for example, speech therapy. 

The child might also be able to get an education, health, and care plan (an EHC plan) if they need more help than the school provides. This is a plan of care for under 25s who have more complex needs. There is more information about SEN support and EHC plans on the government’s website.

It is illegal for a school or other educational provider to treat students with disabilities unfavourably. This could take any of the following forms:

  • direct discrimination, eg refusing admission to a student with a disability

  • indirect discrimination, eg only providing school forms in an inaccessible format

  • harassment, eg if a teacher shouts at a student with a disability for not concentrating when this is as a result of their disability

  • victimisation, eg suspending a student with a disability when they complain about harassment

For more information, read Equal opportunities and discrimination

Schools must also make reasonable adjustments. This involves removing barriers for children with disabilities so they can access education and participate in the same way as students without disabilities. This applies to all school activities and all the decisions made by school staff, and could take the form of providing specialist teachers or equipment. 

Schools do not have a duty to make alterations to physical aspects of the school that already exist to help students with special educational needs and disabilities. However, this duty does apply to schools as part of their overall planning responsibilities. Local authorities and schools together must publish and implement plans to make schools more accessible. 

If a parent thinks their child is being disadvantaged at school because of their disability, they can either ask the school to change the way things are done (eg by changing their policies) or to provide extra aids or services. If they believe their child has been discriminated against, parents should follow the school’s complaints process. If this doesn’t work or for a particular reason the parent does not want to complain to the school, they might instead be able to complain to a SEND tribunal.

For more information, read Disability and reasonable adjustments and Children and special educational needs.

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