Belfast Telegraph

Hundreds of Northern Ireland parents faced court action in last five years over their children's poor school attendance

Hundreds of parents in Northern Ireland have been threatened with court action over their children's poor school attendance
Hundreds of parents in Northern Ireland have been threatened with court action over their children's poor school attendance
Ralph Hewitt

By Ralph Hewitt

Hundreds of parents in Northern Ireland have been threatened with court action over their children's poor school attendance.

More than 1,000 were told they would face court action, with almost 400 fined.

Pupils were absent without authorisation for a series of reasons, including family holidays which did not have school approval.

Rates of unauthorised absence in Northern Ireland are higher than other parts of the UK, figures show.

A total of 1,112 parents or guardians here had court action initiated over their child's poor school attendance in the five years to last April.

During the same period, 374 parents or guardians were fined by the magistrates' courts.

The figures were released by the Education Authority after a Freedom of Information request by the Belfast Telegraph.

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A spokesperson for the Department of Education explained that if a pupil's absence "causes concern" or if it falls below 85%, they are referred to the Education Welfare Service.

Former Education Minister Peter Weir said that while parents have responsibility for ensuring a child attends school, there are individual stories behind each case.

Figures obtained by this newspaper show:

  • School attendance in the 2017/18 academic year was just over 94%;
  • Of the near 6% of time missed due to absence, 3.9% was authorised absence and 1.9% unauthorised absence;
  • Some 170 parents/guardians had court action initiated against them in 2014/15, 267 in 2015/16, 190 in 2016/17, 311 in 2017/18 and 174 in 2018/19;
  • Forty-two parents/guardians were fined in 2014/15, 96 in 2015/16, 58 in 2016/17, 119 in 2017/18 and 59 in 2018/19;

A spokesperson for the Education Authority said parents must ensure their children attend school on a regular basis, adding that the organisation's responsibilities on pupil attendance are delivered through the Education Welfare Service.

In cases where parents do not cooperate with the advice and guidance of the Education Welfare Service - and where a pupil's attendance remains a matter of concern - the Education Authority may then consider legal action.

"While every effort is made to promote attendance, actions will be taken through court in some of the more exceptional cases, which could result in a parental fine," the Education Authority added.

Mr Weir, who was the last Education Minister before Stormont's collapse in 2017, said absenteeism has been an ongoing issue because of the nature of pupils missing school.

"It would be interesting to see how the numbers compare with other jurisdictions but it shows that 99.9% of parents will ensure that their children are present and at school on a regular basis," he said.

"There has to be some level of parental sanction but as part of that there may be a story behind some of those cases.

"It's also the case, and I know that it's something being looked at by others, that absenteeism relates to specific problems around bullying and problems of that nature.

"There will be stories behind some of those figures but in general it is important that there is good attendance because education is very much the key to improving life experiences."

A Department of Education spokesperson said schools should discourage holidays during term time due to the impact they have on pupils' learning and that holidays should be categorised as an unauthorised absence. Only in exceptional circumstances, agreed with the principal, should holidays be authorised by schools, the department said.

"Parents and carers have a legal duty to ensure that their children of compulsory school age receive a full-time education and if a child is registered in school, their parent/carer has a legal duty to ensure they regularly attend that school," the spokesperson added.

The Department of Education publishes an annual bulletin on school attendance, which is measured in half days.

Its latest statistics cover the 2017/18 academic year, when the overall attendance rate for primary, post-primary and special schools was 94.2%. Some 5.8% of half days in primary, post-primary and special schools were missed due to absence - 3.9% authorised and 1.9% unauthorised.

Illness remains the most common reason for authorised absence in all schools, along with medical or dental appointments.

A regional comparison shows Northern Ireland had the highest rate of unauthorised absence in the UK.

At primary school level its 1.6% rate compared to 1% for England and 1.3% for Wales.

At post-primary level, the 2.2% rate of unauthorised absence in Northern Ireland was above 1.6% in Wales and 1.5% in England.

Figures for Scotland are compiled every two years, and 2017/18 statistics were not available.

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