School refusal is when a young person becomes very distressed and anxious about going to school, to the point that they refuse to attend. To learn more about school refusal, check out our factsheet.
Questions parents and carers often ask include:
- What will happen if my child keeps refusing to go to school?
- If a student continues to refuse to attend school, who is accountable or responsible for what?
- Is it illegal for my child not to attend school?
- Can I or my child get into legal trouble if they refuse to go to school?
These are complex questions, and the answers will depend on which state or territory you live in.
Many parents and carers have trouble finding accurate information about school refusal, or find the available information confusing or overwhelming. If this is you, you’re certainly not alone! We’ve put together below all the relevant legal information about school refusal for the different states and territories so that it’s easy to find.
If you’d prefer to jump straight to the information that’s relevant for you, click on your state/territory here:
- New South Wales
- Australian Capital Territory
- South Australia
- Western Australia
- Northern Territory
What happens if my child refuses to attend school?
There are many steps involved if your child frequently refuses to attend school, and the specific steps depend on which state or territory you live in.
If you’re worried about your child’s school refusal, the best first step is to contact their school to discuss your concerns with a teacher or relevant staff member, and to ask what avenues of support are available. They may recommend counselling, or might create a management plan to help your child with attending school.
If your teenager continues to refuse to attend school and available avenues of support have been exhausted without any changes to your child’s attendance, then it’s possible (but extremely uncommon) that the police may intervene or that there may be legal repercussions such as fines or, in extreme cases, convictions.
This might sound scary and overwhelming, so please be aware that legal action will be taken only when the school has exhausted every other avenue of management and there are no other options available.
Is my child’s school accountable for their refusal to attend?
Schools and teachers do have certain responsibilities when it comes to their students refusing to attend classes, or school in general, but every school will have its own policies and procedures.
Specific steps depend on which state/territory the school is located in, but generally these responsibilities can include:
- noticing absenteeism, tardiness, unexplained absences or frequent absences on significant days (e.g. days when they have tests or exams)
- noticing if a student frequently spends time in the sick bay, or often asks to go home due to illness
- reporting concerns about a child's attendance patterns – how this is specifically done (e.g. whether it’s reported to a principal, supervisor, learning support team or school counsellor) will depend on each school’s policies
- making contact with the child’s parents and communicating with them about their concerns
- ensuring that parents have all the relevant information they need about school refusal and absenteeism
- working with parents to develop management plans to assist the student with returning to school.
As every school has slightly different rules and processes, familiarise yourself with the specific absenteeism policies of your child’s school if your teen is refusing to attend classes.
Can I get into legal trouble for my child’s school refusal?
The legal implications of absenteeism and school refusal differ slightly between the states and territories (e.g enrolment ages, the amounts of fines imposed, etc.).
You can find information about the state- and territory-based laws below.
New South Wales
In NSW, students are required to participate in full-time education from age 6 until they complete Year 10, then participate full-time in approved education, training or employment until they complete Year 12 or they turn 17 (whichever happens first).
A child’s school attendance is the responsibility of their parent or guardian, and it is an offence if a child consistently fails to attend school.
However, parents may lodge a defence for non-attendance, including:
- medical conditions
- accidents or unforeseen events
- suspension from school
- written permission from the principal of the school
- disobedience of the child that was out of the parent’s control.
In Victoria, schooling is compulsory for young people from age 6 until age 17.
A school will notify you and organise a management plan with you if your child has more than five ‘unapproved or unexplained’ absences in one school year. The school may refer you to a school attendance officer, who will monitor your child’s attendance and work with you to organise an attendance management plan for them.
If strategies to help your child attend school haven’t worked, the school attendance officer can issue an official warning or an infringement notice.
However, Victoria’s Education and Training Reform Act 2006 recognises that absences from school due to school refusal (or ‘disobedience’, such as in the case of truancy) aren’t the fault of the parent, so this may be considered a ‘reasonable excuse’ for absence. This means that absences arising from school refusal shouldn’t be considered as ‘unapproved or unexplained’ absences.
Australian Capital Territory
Young people in the ACT are required to participate in full-time education from age 6 until they complete Year 10, then participate full-time in approved education, training or employment until they complete Year 12 or they turn 17( whichever happens first).
In the ACT, if a student has seven or more days of unexplained absences, the principal or a delegated authority from the school will first contact parents to confirm the reason for the absence and to find out how they can offer support.
The school may also contact the Student Engagement Branch of the ACT Department of Education, which works with school staff and parents to identify and address barriers to attendance and to provide support to students and their families.
Compliance notices may also be issued to parents if their child continues not to attend school. Parents can be issued with fines if compliance notices aren’t followed.
In Queensland, schooling is compulsory for children from age 6 and a half to age 16, or until they complete Year 10 (whichever happens first). Parents can be fined if a school-age child doesn’t go to school, unless there is a reasonable excuse.
A reasonable excuse includes:
- the child lives with parent A and parent B has good reason to believe that parent A is sending the child to school
- the parent isn’t reasonably able to control the child’s behaviour to the extent necessary to ensure they go to school.
Schools in Queensland have a responsibility to monitor students’ attendance and to notify parents about any unexplained absences. If your child refuses to attend school, you will be encouraged to contact their school for assistance and support.
In South Australia, a child between age 6 and age 15 is of ‘compulsory school age’. Young people who are 16 years old are of ‘compulsory education age’ and must be enrolled in an approved learning program (which can include high school, university or TAFE courses, vocational education or training, apprenticeships or traineeships).
It is a parent’s or carer’s legal responsibility to get their child to school every day, unless there is a reasonable explanation for their absence. South Australian schools have a legal obligation to follow up and let parents know if their child hasn’t attended school, or if they are concerned about the amount of time a child has been absent.
It is uncommon, but possible, for parents to be prosecuted if their child doesn’t attend school, and this can result in fines or a criminal conviction.
In Western Australia, school attendance is compulsory until the end of the year in which a child turns 17 and a half.
If a school is concerned about the amount of days a child has been absent from classes and a reasonable excuse hasn’t been provided to and accepted by the principal, they may refer the case to the Attendance Panel at the Department of Education. The Attendance Panel can conduct a mediation or investigation, which the parent or carer and the child must attend. If your child continues to be absent from school, both you and your child may be prosecuted.
If your child is missing school because they don’t want to continue normal schooling, talk to your principal about their situation.
In the Northern Territory, young people are expected to attend school full-time from age 6 until the end of Year 10. They must then either continue with schooling or enrol in another type of approved education or training. This is compulsory until they are 17 years of age.
It is a parent’s or carer’s legal obligation to ensure that all school-age children in their care attend school.
If a child is regularly not attending school, their case may be passed on to a student engagement officer. The student engagement officer will check your child’s attendance, and provide you with support through providers not connected to your child’s school.
If your child still doesn’t attend, you might receive a compulsory conference notice. In this meeting, an attendance plan for your child will be created.
If absenteeism from school still continues, an infringement notice can be given, and you may be issued a fine or the Northern Territory government may then begin legal proceedings.
In Tasmania, students must participate in education and training until they complete Year 12, attain a Certificate III, or y turn 18 years of age (whichever happens first).
Schools have a legal responsibility to notify parents and carers about absenteeism, and to work closely with parents to support a child’s attendance.
If a child has been absent without explanation for more than five days in a year, their school principal may contact you for an explanation. The principal may also request evidence or a statutory declaration from a parent for a student being regularly absent.
Parents and carers may also be asked to participate in a compulsory conciliation process. This is a meeting that can include the parent/carer and representatives from the school, such as the principal, a teacher or a social worker, and is run by an independent mediator. This process allows the school to raise their concerns about the child’s attendance, and also allows the parent to discuss issues and concerns. By the end of the process, a plan to help the child return to full attendance at school and an agreement (which may include a compulsory schooling order) is signed. If absenteeism from school continues after this, it may result in a prosecution and a fine or community service order.
If you need support
Many parents find this information overwhelming or upsetting, but it’s important to know there are lots of options for management, mediation and support before things get to the point of your being fined or prosecuted. The best thing to do first is to speak to your child’s school and ask what support options are available.
School refusal can be a really distressing experience for parents and carers, so it’s important to look after yourself and your mental health as well, and to seek support and/or professional help if needed.