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School Attendance

Education is probably the best chance a child has to rise above the disadvantages they might have grown up with. Therefore, it is of great concern when a child does not attend school. All South African children must attend school from the first school day in their seventh year until the last school day in their fifteenth year, or on completion of Grade 9, whichever comes first. Parents should ensure that children attend school, and should inform the school in advance if their child will be absent. If a learner fails to attend a school and there is no such communication with the school, the Head of Department may investigate and take appropriate measures. It is essential to ascertain the reason/s for the child not attending school, in order to respond appropriately

  1. What is School Refusal?

School refusal is when a child does not want to go to school, this can be for various reasons and can be very distressing for both the parents and the child.

Why do children refuse to go to school?

It can happen at any age but is more common during times of change such as starting school or starting high school, or when changes are happening in the family (such as the family breaking up), or when parents are unwell.

Children who don’t want to go to school usually:

  • want to stay at home with parents
  • get upset about going to school and may have stomach aches or headaches, or may not feel well without a physical cause
  • don’t have any other serious behaviour problems
  • don’t try to hide their wish not to go to school from their parents

Reasons include:

  • separation anxiety
  • fear of losing a parent/caregiver (for example because the parent is/has been ill, or if there are marital problems, separation or divorce)
  • fear that a parent might leave while the child is at school
  • moving house and/or changing school
  • jealousy if there is a younger brother or sister at home
  • untreated symptoms of trauma, abuse, or psychological health problems
  • problems at school (e.g. bullying, not having friends, learning problems, poor relationship with educator/s, has not done homework, and/or is performing poorly, or has fallen behind due to, e.g. long illness, and feels they can’t cope, etc.)
  • parents being unreliable about when they pick up after school
  • parents’ worries
  • lack of basic necessities such as school uniform, stationery and books, sanitary wear or even transport money to get to school
  • absent parents/ child-headed households: many parents travel long distances to work, or work in a different town or city from where they live
  • child-headed households- these situations often result in children missing school
  • teenage pregnancy

Most of these problems are a consequence of poverty, and a holistic intervention is required in order to support the child and their family in such a way as to ensure that the child is able to attend school.

What are the consequences of refusing to go school?  The short-term problems are missing out on school work as well as social interaction with peers.  In the long term – if the problem is handled well, these children usually do well. They get back to school and don’t have any ongoing behavioural or emotional problems.

  1. Child truanting school

Truancy is when children leave for school or go to school but then slip off, often to meet with friends or do something that may involve breaking rules (also known as bunking, playing hooky, malingering or skiving). Truancy involves intentional deception. Children who truant usually have different problems from those who don’t want to go to school and share this feeling with their parents, and they usually present with other behavioural problems.

In many instances, the child who truants:

  • comes from an unhappy or dysfunctional home
  • has too much freedom, or not enough encouragement to learn
  • is depressed and/or anxious
  • struggles to learn and pass subjects, resulting in poor self-esteem and negative feelings about teachers and school
  • lacks a sense of fitting in (for example because parents cannot afford to buy uniform, or those things that help a child feel included)
  • has difficulty socialising, and doesn’t feel emotionally connected with peers or teachers; lacks a sense of belonging in the community
  • is at a dysfunctional school (poor facilities, poor teaching, overcrowding and bullying)

Given these risk factors, it is clear that a holistic approach to the problem is necessary, involving the child, the parents and the school, and focussing on addressing each of the underlying issues which may be contributing to the truancy.

  1. Parents refusing school attendance

It is a parent’s legal responsibility to ensure that their child attends school, at least until the end of Grade 9, or when the child turns 16, whichever comes first. There are incidences where children are kept out of school by their parents, without permission, and in contravention of the law.

Reasons why this may happen:

  • the child may be kept out of school to assist with domestic work, farm work, or any other form of work to supplement the family’s income
  • the parents may be too ill to fulfil their obligations as parents, and the oldest child may be kept out of school to take care of them and/or younger siblings
  • the child may be kept out of school because they are disabled, either because the parents are not aware of schooling options available for children with disability, or because of isolation as a result of shame, stigma, ignorance and/or neglect
  • at times parents keep their children out of school to participate in traditional ceremonies (in cases where cultural/religious practices infringe upon the child’s rights in terms of the constitution and the children’s act, please refer to harmful religious practices)
  • parents with undiagnosed/untreated psychiatric disorders, substance abuse disorders, or abusive parents may not actively ensure that their children are able to attend school (for example, arranging transport)
  • undocumented foreign nationals may keep their children out of school as a result of fear of being deported

Poverty plays a significant role, as does parental involvement and commitment to their children’s academic development. As with other forms of absenteeism, the school is required to investigate the circumstances, and take the necessary measures to address the problem.


  1. Lack of money for fees

As mentioned above, poverty plays a significant role in the rate of absenteeism at schools. Many parents who cannot afford to pay school fees are either under the impression that they cannot enrol their child in a school. In other instances schools have, in contravention of the law, turned children away at enrolment, or prevented them from attending school on the basis of not having received fees.

According to the Schools Act 84 of 1996, Section 5, Admission to public schools, subsection 3:

(3) No learner may be refused admission to a public school on the grounds that his or her parent—

(a) is unable to pay or has not paid the school fees determined by the governing body under section 39;

In addition, the Admission Policy for Ordinary Public Schools states that, “A learner is admitted to the total school programme and may not be suspended from classes, denied access to cultural, sporting or social activities of the school, denied a school report or transfer certificates, or otherwise victimised on the grounds that his or her parent – (a) is unable to pay or has not paid the required school fees…”

In such instances, the parent/child need to be educated and informed as to their rights, and referred to the relevant department of the GDE for assistance.

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