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. Parents are legally responsible for making sure that children attend school. If your child doesn't go to school, you could get fined or prosecuted. 

How school attendance is recorded

All schools must record details of pupils’ attendance and absence at school. They do this at the beginning of morning and afternoon sessions. If your child is absent, you must tell the school why. The school will then record the absence. The Education Welfare Service (EWS) has access to all attendance information for each pupil. The Department of Education also receives monthly attendance data for each school.

Regular attendance

Achieving ninety perc cent in an exam or test is a very good result but if your child is at school for only ninety per cent of the school year then they have actually missed four whole weeks of school.

For primary-age children, this can mean almost 120 guided learning hours. This is a big gap for any child to make up.

If your child is a pupil at post-primary school, 120 guided learning hours is the equivalent of one full-time GCSE study time (normally taken over two years).

Your responsibilities as a parent

By law, all children of compulsory school age (aged four to sixteen) must receive a suitable full-time education. For most parents, this means registering your child at a school or you may 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. 

The Education Authority (EA) is responsible for investigating if they believe your child is not getting educated at home or at school.

How to prevent your child from missing school

You can help prevent your child missing school by:

  • making sure they understand the importance of good attendance and punctuality
  • making sure they understand the possible implications for both themselves and you as a parent if they do not attend
  • 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 that is causing concern no matter how small
  • not letting them take time off school for minor ailments

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

  • after school hours
  • at weekends
  • during school holidays

Term time holidays

Schools are not obliged to agree to you taking your child on holiday during term time. They are entitled to record such holidays as being an unauthorised absence.

Problems affecting 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
  • other problems within the home environment

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.

A school can refer your child to the Education Welfare Service (EWS) if they feel there is reason to be concerned at their level of attendance. 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.

Support from the Education Authority

The Education Authority (EA) 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

Action on school absenteeism

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

If your child is referred by their school to the EWS for absenteeism, the EWS will first arrange for an Education Welfare Officer (EWO) to visit your home. This visit provides the EWO with an opportunity to assess whether your child’s absence is condoned by you as the parent(s) and if you are in a position to make sure your child attends school regularly.

The EWS will follow a process with you and your child  to help make sure your child attends school regularly.

The EWS also works with other agencies (e.g. Social Services) to identify and deal with any complex needs that a family has.

Prosecutions against parents 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.

Fines

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 £1,000.00 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 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.

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 that you want your child to attend.

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