School attendance, absence and the law

Regular school attendance is an important part of giving your child the best possible start in life. Talking to your child and their teachers could help solve any difficulties you may have in getting your child to go to school and there are other forms of support available if you still have problems. The law requires parents to make sure their children receive full-time education suitable to their needs. As a last resort, schools and the Education Authority (EA) have legal powers to deal with poor attendance.

Regular school attendance - why it's so important

Going to school regularly is important for your child's future. For example, children who miss school frequently can fall behind with their work and do less well in exams.

Good attendance shows potential employers that your child is reliable. Research suggests that children who attend school regularly could also be at less risk of getting involved in antisocial behaviour or crime.

All schools are required to record details of pupils’ attendance and absence at school. They do so at the beginning of morning and afternoon sessions. If your child is absent, it is required that you inform the school the reason for the absence.

The school will record the absence under a particular category preset by the Department of Education (DE). This data is then available to the Education Welfare Service (EWS) for each pupil. DE also receives annually the overall data for each school.

Your responsibilities as a parent

By law, all children of compulsory school age (normally four to 16) must receive a suitable full-time education. For most parents, this means registering their child at a school - though some choose to make other arrangements to provide a suitable, full-time education.

Once your child is registered at a school, you are legally responsible for making sure they attend regularly.  If your child fails to do so, you risk getting a fine (each parent could be fined up to £1,000 for each child) or being prosecuted.

The EA has a duty to step in if they believe a child is not getting the education required by law, either at home or at school.

Preventing your child from missing school: what you can do

You can help prevent your child skipping school by:

  • making sure they understand the importance of good attendance and punctuality
  • taking an interest in their education - ask about school work and encourage them to get involved in school activities
  • discussing any problems they may have at school – inform their teacher or Principal about anything serious
  • not letting them take time off school for minor ailments - particularly those which would not prevent you from going to work

Arranging appointments and outings after school hours, at weekends or during school holidays will help to prevent disruption to your child's education and to the school. Under normal circumstances you should not expect the school to agree to your child going on holiday during term time.

Support on school attendance

There are many different issues which can affect school attendance.

Examples include problems with:  

  • bullying
  • housing or care arrangements
  • transport to and from school
  • work and money

If your child starts missing school, there may a problem you are not aware of. Ask your child first, then approach their teacher or form tutor.

Support from the school

Your child’s school is the first place to go to discuss any attendance problems. The school should try to agree a plan with you to improve your child’s attendance.

A small number of schools are working with the Education Authority (EA) to undertake the ‘Primary Attendance Matters’ programme which aims to show primary aged pupils the benefits of school and to reward them for good attendance.

If your child’s attendance gives the school reason for concern (the trigger point for this is normally when attendance drops below 85 per cent), they will refer your child to the Education Welfare Service (EWS) in the EA in your region.

Support from the Education Authority

The EA in your region can also help if you are struggling to ensure that your child goes to schools.

Potential forms of support include:

  • home tuition for children with long term and recurring illnesses, so they do not fall too far behind
  • support to help reduce the burden on children where families are in difficulty (for example, if a child is spending a lot of time caring for someone)
  • working with families and schools to overcome bullying and other serious problems

The EWS in the EA is a specialist education support service which helps young people of a compulsory school age and their families to get the best out of the education system.

The EWS can offer advice and support to help you and your child to have good attendance at school.

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 2015 and 1 July 2016, can join a P1 class at the beginning of September 2016.

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.

Worried that your child may have difficulty settling into primary school

If you have any concerns or feel that your child would need additional arrangements in order for him or her to settle into primary school, you should first contact the Principal of the primary school you wish your child to attend.

Guidance for parents on this issue is also available and can be viewed on the Department of Education website.

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 the EA have a number of legal powers that they can use.

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 any 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 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.

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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