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School attendance and absence: the law

The law requires parents to make sure their children receive full-time education suitable to their needs. For most children this means attending school regularly. As a last resort, schools and education and library boards (ELBs) have legal powers to deal with poor attendance.

Your responsibilities as a parent

By law, all children of compulsory school age (normally four to 16) must receive a suitable full-time education. As a parent, you have a legal responsibility to make sure this happens - either by registering your child at a school or by making other arrangements to give them a suitable, full-time education. Once your child is registered at a school, you are legally responsible for making sure they attend regularly.

If they do not, you will be contacted by your child’s school or your local ELB. ELBs have a duty to step in if they believe a child is not getting the education required by law, either at home or at school.

If your child is missing school, you may be visited by a member of the Education Welfare Service (EWS). They will talk to you about your child’s attendance problems.

Compulsory school age

In Northern Ireland children normally start school in the September of the school year after their 4th birthday. This means children whose fourth birthday falls on or between 1 September 2013 and 1 July 2014 can join a P1 class at the beginning of September 2014.

Those children whose birthday falls in the summer months - 2 July to 31 August, do not start school until the following September.

A child continues to be of compulsory school age until they reach the age of 16.

If your child turns 16 between 1 September and 1 July (inclusive), they can leave school on 30 June of that year. However, if your child becomes 16 between 2 July and 31 August (inclusive), they cannot leave school until 30 June of the following year.

Support on school attendance

If you’re having trouble getting your child to go to school, the school and your local ELB can support you in several ways.

To find out more about the forms of support available - see ‘School attendance, absence and your child’.

Action on school attendance

A child registered at a school can legally miss school only in very limited circumstances.

These include:

  • when the child is too ill to attend
  • when the school has authorised the absence beforehand

If a child is missing school without good reason, schools and ELBs have a number of legal powers that they can use.

The EWS in the ELBs receives referrals from schools when pupils’ attendance is a cause for concern or when attendance drops below 85 per cent.

The initial response to a referral of a pupil by a school to EWS is a home visit.  This provides the Education Welfare Officer (EWO) with an opportunity to assess whether the absence is condoned by parents and if they are in a position to ensure regular attendance.

The EWS will go through a protracted process of trying to engage children and their families in developing coping strategies and mechanisms that will enable them to ensure children are educated appropriately.

They also work closely with a range of other agencies to ensure the complex needs that families may have, are addressed in the best way possible.

Parent Only Prosecutions are used as a last resort where parents fail to engage with the service and continue to ignore their child’s educational and welfare needs. However, this is only one of many avenues explored.  

Fines

The Education Welfare Service (EWS) can apply to the courts to issue fines to parents of children who are not attending school regularly. In the Magistrates Court the maximum fine that can be imposed is £1,000 in respect of each child who is missing school.

While the maximum fine is unusual, it has been applied on some occasions but has usually been decreased at the Court of Appeal.

Education Supervision Orders

The EWS may apply for Education Supervision Orders in the Family Proceedings Court and these are usually granted in cases that are clearly non-school attendance. However, an application for an Education Supervision Order may be refused if there are concerns about the child’s behaviour that are not totally about education.

In these circumstances the Court may direct Social Services to investigate a child’s circumstances under Article 56 of the Children (NI) Order 2005.

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