Friday 20 April 2018

About 100 serious cases of pupil absenteeism every year

Tanya Ward of the Children's Rights Alliance (INM)
Tanya Ward of the Children's Rights Alliance (INM)
Katherine Donnelly

Katherine Donnelly

Every year, there are about 100 chronic cases of children who miss huge chunks of schooling and whose parents refuse to put it right.

These are the cases of last resort, where parents are issued with a court summons because they have ignored all previous advice and warnings. About one in four cases result in a conviction; the penalties are a maximum fine of €1,000 or a month in prison or both.

There are about another 250 children who come to the attention of educational welfare officers every year, but whose parents work with the authorities and get their children back on track.

A child who displays persistent absence from school, which amounts to a loss of 20 days or more during the year, automatically triggers the interest of the National Educational Welfare Board (NEWB) if there is no valid reason, such as illness.

If the educational welfare officer feels they are making no progress, they can issue a school-attendance notice to the parents. It lasts for two years and if there is a breach of the notice at any stage within that period, a summons can be issued.

School-attendance legislation covers 6-16 year olds and there are about 750,000 in that age bracket at school in Ireland.

Against that figure, the incidence of serious absenteeism may seem statistically small, but the lives and futures of children are at stake.

So if parents are not living up to their responsibility to give their children the education to which they are entitled, and on which their life chances depend, the State has a responsibility.

Chronic absenteeism is more of an issue in disadvantaged communities and those schools are provided with a range of supports, such as breakfast clubs and home-school liaison staff, to assist them in helping parents overcome whatever challenges they face. There is always an argument for even better supports, but sometimes individual cases are very complex.

One primary principal said that the most serious cases could often be a consequence of tragic circumstances, such as mental-health issues or substance abuse.

Critics of any suggestion of using child benefit payments as a stick around school attendance include Tanya Ward of the Children's Rights Alliance.

She argues that it is a universal payment designed to help families with the cost of caring for their children and that it should in no way be used as a tool to punish parents and families.

In practice, it would indirectly lead to school principals actually making decisions on who gets child benefit.

The NEWB comes within the remit of the child and family agency, Tusla. A spokeswoman for the agency said persistent non-attendance could often involve more than one factor.

She pointed out that homelessness was recently presenting as a reason for absenteeism because of the journeys some children face in travelling to the school they were in before becoming homeless.

There is little evidence of such a law in other jurisdictions. But in Michigan, USA last year, the governor signed into law the "parental responsibility act", providing statutory authority to cut off child assistance for chronic truancy.

Irish Independent

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