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GPs asked to reassure families on school attendance when children are mildly ill

by Emily Roberts
7 September 2023

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GPs are being asked to promote school attendance by advising parents when to send their child to school with a mild illness, following a rise in pupil absences after the Covid-19 pandemic.  

Department for Education figures show that more than one in five children (22.3%) in England frequently miss school, which is double the pre-pandemic figures when just over one in 10 students were persistently absent.  

In a letter, co-signed by the RCGP, Professor Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer for England and leading health professionals, GPs are asked to ‘promote school attendance’ by reassuring parents when when it is fine to send their child to school, in the event they are mildly ill, such as with a minor cough or cold.   

The letter was issued following the publication of a paper which was discussed by the RCGP in June, titled GP Role in Maximising School Attendance – Addressing the Growing Problem of ‘Ghost Children’.  

Members then voted to ‘strongly endorse’ the call for RCGP to raise awareness among GPs about their ‘vital role in promoting school attendance’.  

The RCGP has approved five principles to promote school attendance:  

  • Consistently promote school attendance 
  • Reassure pupils and parents about anxiety 
  • Signpost to school’s mental health support teams 
  • Encourage parents and carers to speak to school staff about any worries their child may have 
  • Make it practice policy to schedule routine appointments to minimise time taken off school.  

According to the RCGP, in 2020/2021 there were 4.6 million school sessions interrupted due to medical appointments.  

The letter said: ‘We are aware that the Covid-19 pandemic may have caused some parents to feel less confident with assessing whether their child is well enough to be in school and be concerned that it is less socially acceptable to send their child in when they are ill.’ 

It added: ‘We, as a profession, need to work alongside our colleagues in education to address health-related barriers to school attendance and maximise the short and longer-term benefits of being in school.’ 

The NHS has produced guidance, titled Is my child too ill for school?, to support parents in their decision-making, which GPs are being encouraged to share with their practices and patients.  

‘In most cases you can reassure parents and carers that it is appropriate to send children to school with upper respiratory tract infection (URTI) symptoms, provided they don’t have a temperature,’ the RCGP letter said.  

When dealing with anxiety, it asks GPs to support families to ‘build up children’s confidence to attend school regularly’, adding: ‘Parents often need reassurance that worry and mild or moderate anxiety, whilst sometimes difficult emotions, can be a normal part of growing up for many children and young people.’