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Judge warns parents over school truancy

A District Judge has warned parents that he has the power to impose heavy fines on them if their children are long-term absentees from school without a legitimate and verifiable reason.

Barney McElholm issued the warning at the Magistrates Court in Londonderry after he dealt with 18 cases of sustained school absenteeism.

The maximum fine that can be imposed in the Magistrates Court is £1,000 for each child who is missing school.

In one case, a primary schoolgirl had an attendance record of only 25%, and in another case a solicitor told the court that bullying was an issue in relation to a child staying off school.

Another solicitor told Mr McElholm that the mother of two schoolchildren he represented suffered from agoraphobia.

A senior welfare education officer said that long-term school absenteeism was “a worrying problem which has affected some families for several years”.

Adjourning the cases for one month in order to monitor any improved attendances, Mr McElholm said he was also concerned that “some of the cases probably involved young children looking after their parents and I would like my concerns in that regard conveyed to social services.”

The court cases are initiated by the Education Welfare Service in the various education and library boards. They can apply to the courts to issue fines to parents of children who are not attending school regularly.

The service is usually only called in when a child’s attendance drops below 85% or is a cause for concern.

The education department says 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.

While the maximum fine is unusual, it has been applied on some occasions.

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