School attendance, absence and the law

Going to school regularly is important for your child's future. Parents are responsible for making sure their children receive full-time education. Talking to your child and their teachers could help solve any problems if your child doesn't want to go to school.

Regular school attendance 

Good attendance shows potential employers that your child is reliable. Children who go to school regularly might be less likely to get involved in antisocial behaviour or crime.

All schools must 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, you must tell the school why.

The school will record the absence. The Education Welfare Service (EWS) gets this information for each pupil. The Department of Education also receives annually attendance 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 go regularly.  If your child doesn't go to school, you could get fined or be prosecuted in court. 

The Education Authority is responsible for investigating if they believe a child is not getting educated at home or at school.

How to prevent your child from missing school

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 and letting their teacher or principal know about anything serious
  • not letting them take time off school for minor ailments - particularly those which would not prevent you from going to work

To avoid disrupting your child's education, you should arrange appointments and outings:

  • after school hours
  • at weekends
  • during school holidays

You shouldn't expect the school to agree to your child going on holiday during term time.

Support on school attendance

A child's school attendance can be affected if there are problems with:

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

If your child starts missing school, you mightn't know there is a problem.  When you find out, ask your child and then approach their teacher or form tutor.

Support from the school

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

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

Support from the Education Authority

The EA in your region can also help if you are struggling to make sure that your child goes to school.

Support might 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 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 fourth birthday. 

If your child's birthday is between 2 July and 31 August, they don't start school until the following September.

They must attend school until they reach 16 years old.

If your child turns 16 between 1 September and 1 July, they can leave school on 30 June of that year. If your child becomes 16 between 2 July and 31 August, they can't leave school until 30 June of the following year.

If you're worried about your child settling into primary school

If you think your child would need support  to help them settle in at primary school, contact the school principal in the primary school you want your child to attend.

To read guidance for parents, go to:

Action on school attendance

A child registered at a school can legally miss school when:

  • they're too ill to go to school
  • the school has authorised the absence beforehand

If a child is missing school without good reason, schools and the EA can use their legal powers to find out why.

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 make sure their child attends school regularly.

The EWS will follow a process with children and their families to help them make sure their children get educated.

They also work with other agencies to identify and deal with any complex needs a family has.

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. 


The EWS can apply to the courts to fine parents of children who aren't attending school regularly. In a magistrate's court, a parent could be fined up to £1,000 for each child who misses school.

Education Supervision Orders

The EWS may apply for Education Supervision Orders in the Family Proceedings Court.  An Education Supervision Order order is usually granted if the only problem is a child's non-school attendance. The court can refuse an order if they think the child’s behaviour isn't only about education.

The court might ask social services to investigate a child’s circumstances.

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