A number of people wrote to me about the media using the term “compulsory school age” and saying it was compulsory for children to attend school from age 5 in connection with the Summer Born Campaign evidence given to the Education Committee, so I thought it was worth unpicking this a bit.
Compulsory school age is defined by the Government in the Education Act 1996 as follows:
8 Compulsory school age.
(2) A person begins to be of compulsory school age—
(a) when he attains the age of five, if he attains that age on a prescribed day, and
(b) otherwise at the beginning of the prescribed day next following his attaining that age.
(3) A person ceases to be of compulsory school age at the end of the day which is the school leaving date for any calendar year—
(a) if he attains the age of 16 after that day but before the beginning of the school year next following,
(b) if he attains that age on that day, or
(c) (unless paragraph (a) applies) if that day is the school leaving date next following his attaining that age.
(4) The Secretary of State may by order—
(a) provide that such days in the year as are specified in the order shall be, for each calendar year, prescribed days for the purposes of subsection (2);
(b) determine the day in any calendar year which is to be the school leaving date for that year. LINK
However – and somewhat confusingly – “compulsory school age” does not mean that a child age 5 and upwards must go to school. During the period covered by the “compulsory school age”, education is compulsory but school is not, since the law provides for “education otherwise than at school” which includes elective home education by parents.
7 Duty of parents to secure education of children of compulsory school age.
The parent of every child of compulsory school age shall cause him to receive efficient full-time education suitable—
(a)to his age, ability and aptitude, and
(b)to any special educational needs he may have,either by regular attendance at school or otherwise. LINK
Therefore it is permissible for a journalist to refer to the compulsory school age – as this is the phrase used in legislation – but not to say that children must attend school. Parents only commit an offence if they fail to secure the regular attendance of their child whom they have registered at a school as a pupil, and not if they opt out of sending their child to school in the first place.