Keeping up at school during a long-term absence

Children writing in classroom
Falling behind at school can be an extra thing to worry about if your child is on extended sick leave, but there are ways to help them stay up to date.

All children get ill from time to time; let’s face it, primary schools are rife with germs, and an outbreak of sickness or flu can sweep through a class in a matter of days. But for some children, illness is a persistent problem and involves a long absence from school.

Fourteen per cent of children have a long-term health condition. ‘These include mental health issues like anxiety and school phobia, physical conditions ranging from asthma and diabetes to cancer, and injuries caused by accidents,’ says Lesley Black, a special educational needs (SEN) advisor with charity Contact a Family.

It’s estimated that a quarter of a million UK children miss at least 14 school days each year as a result of their condition, and some miss many more. ‘Some will be absent for a prolonged period, while others have shorter, recurrent bouts of absence, which can be equally disruptive to their education,’ Lesley explains. These children potentially miss a significant amount of schoolwork, so how can they keep up to date with what they should be learning?

What the law says about school absence

Legally, it’s your responsibility to provide your child with a full-time education, which generally means either sending them to school or home educating them. But this changes if your child is unable to go to school for health reasons. ‘In this case, it’s the responsibility of the local council to make sure your child is getting a suitable education,’ says Lesley.

If your child is likely to be away from school for more than 15 school days, the school must inform the local council of their absence; they are likely to require evidence of your child’s condition, for example, a letter from a consultant or hospital discharge notes.

The council must then make arrangements for your child to receive a suitable full-time education, unless part-time would meet their needs better (for example, if they’re not well enough to do a full day’s work). This could be home learning (including tutoring and virtual learning), a hospital school, or a combination of both.

It’s important to be aware that different councils will have different approaches: for example, in some areas, they ask schools to provide work to be done at home for the first six weeks of absence before arranging a longer-term alternative. All local councils should publish their policy on children with health needs.

What will the school do if your child is absent?

It’s often assumed that your child’s school will ‘send work home’ if they’re off sick. This may be the case if they’re absent for a short period (under 15 days). ‘In this situation, the school is likely to keep in touch and provide work for your child, although the quality of this provision will vary,’ Lesley explains. ‘Some have banks of learning activities online, so you can choose activities that are appropriate for your child’s age and stage; others will just send home worksheets.’

If a child is away for longer, the responsibility to provide an education passes to the council. They should make arrangements to ensure that the child is not left without access to education for more than 15 days, whether their condition is long-term or recurrent. ‘It’s important to take your child’s needs into account, though,’ Lesley adds. ‘Some children may not be well enough to do much work, but others benefit from having some continuity and normality, and from keeping up with what other children are doing.’

Education during a long-term absence: home tutoring

Home tutoring is one option that the local council may arrange if your child is unable to go to school for a long time. Councils generally use tutors who have qualified as teachers, and they are all security checked to ensure they’re safe to work with children.

Home tutoring may be full-time or part-time, depending on your child’s needs and what the council deems suitable. The main focus is usually on keeping your child up to date with maths and English, although other subjects may be taught alongside them. Often, the tutor will liaise with your child’s school so they can set similar work to what they’d be doing at school.

Parents are not usually able to request a home tutor themselves; the request generally comes from the school, an education welfare officer (EWO) or medical services. However, if you feel your child may qualify for a home tutor, you can contact the council’s Home and Hospital Tuition Service.

Education during a long-term absence: hospital school

Children who are being treated in hospital may be able to attend the hospital school. Although big children’s hospitals like Great Ormond Street and Alder Hey are particularly well set up for providing an education, most hospitals have some sort of education provision.

How your child accesses hospital school will depend on what’s on offer at the hospital where they’re being treated, and their state of health. ‘Children who are bed-bound may have work brought to the ward, but those who are mobile may be able to go to the schoolroom,’ Lesley says. ‘Teachers have a good overview of what children should be learning at each stage, and will liaise with the child’s normal school to make sure they’re covering the right things.’

Education during a long-term absence: online learning

Some children who are off sick for a long period may be suited to online learning. ‘This may be in conjunction with a tutor, and councils may also be able to provide resources such as a laptop and internet access,’ Lesley explains. There are also ‘virtual schools’ which run online classes in real-time, so your child gets the experience of going to school without physically being there.

Education during a long-term absence: pupil referral units

Pupil referral units (PRUs) are state schools that are designed specifically for pupils who would otherwise not be receiving education. They are often seen as providing for children who are excluded from school for behavioural issues, but some units are specifically set up for children who can’t go to a mainstream school for health reasons. ‘They tend to be small units with higher staff-to-pupil ratios, which may suit children with medical or psychological conditions,’ Lesley explains. Your local council will be able to advise you about PRUs in your area, and whether they would suit your child. The aim is usually to reintegrate children into mainstream school when their health or other issues have improved enough to enable them to do so.