Parents should not keep children out of school for sore throats and runny noses, health leaders including Sir Chris Whitty have suggested, amid concerns over a rise in absences.
Being in school can also help alleviate feelings of anxiety among children, according to a letter sent to headteachers as the new school year starts.
The advice comes as politicians and education leaders have voiced concerns about the rise in children missing school in England since Covid-19.
The pandemic “may have caused some parents to feel less confident” with assessing whether their child is well enough to be in school, the letter says.
It adds that more children may be absent from class than before the Covid-19 pandemic “due to symptoms of anxiety”.
The letter – signed by England’s chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty and the leaders of the Royal College of Nursing, Royal College of General Practitioners, Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, Royal College of Psychiatrists and Royal Society for Public Health – gives advice on absences.
It says: “It is usually appropriate for parents and carers to send their children to school with mild respiratory illnesses. This would include general cold symptoms: a minor cough, runny nose or sore throat.”
The letter says: “Worry and mild or moderate anxiety, whilst sometimes difficult emotions, can be a normal part of growing up for many children and young people. Being in school can often help alleviate the underlying issues.
“A prolonged period of absence is likely to heighten a child’s anxiety about attending in the future, rather than reduce it.”
It adds: “Being in school improves health, wellbeing and socialisation throughout the life course. The greatest benefits come from children and young people attending school regularly,” the letter adds.
More than a fifth (22.3 per cent) of pupils in England were “persistently absent” – meaning they missed at least 10 per cent of their school sessions – in the 2022/23 academic year, Government figures show.
This is significantly higher than the pre-pandemic rate of 10.9 per cent in 2018/19.
Julie McCulloch, director of policy at the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “This is clearly a major issue and, although illness absence rates also remain higher than pre-pandemic levels, is not something that can be solved simply by sending children to school when they have a minor cold.
“Many persistently absent pupils are struggling with profound problems which have been exacerbated by the cost-of-living crisis. What they need is more specialist, pastoral and mental health support.
“Schools also need the support of attendance officers who are able to get out in the community and talk directly to parents and carers.
“School leaders do not need a reminder of how important attendance is; they are already doing everything they can to reduce absences. What they do need is targeted Government investment and support to tackle the many factors beyond the school gate that are having such an impact on attendance.”