500 parents threatened with prosecution over childrens’ attendance

Children with mental health issues most likely to miss school, latest figures show

Empty desks: Schools are obliged to alert Tusla, the Child and Family Agency, if a child has missed out on more more than 20 school days a year. Photograph: Thinkstock

Empty desks: Schools are obliged to alert Tusla, the Child and Family Agency, if a child has missed out on more more than 20 school days a year. Photograph: Thinkstock

 

More than 500 parents were threatened with prosecution last year over their failure to ensure their children attend school, new figures show.

In all, about 800,000 children go to primary and secondary school across the State each day. About 54,000 students on average miss school each day, equivalent to 10 school days for a primary school student and 13 days for a secondary school student.

Schools are obliged to alert Tusla, the Child and Family Agency, if a child has missed out on more more than 20 school days a year.

Those most likely to miss significant amounts of school time include students with emotional or behavioural problems, special needs or mental health issues.

While in the vast majority of cases supports are made available for children or parents, authorities have the power to prosecute parents where they fail to co-operate.

Under the Education and Welfare Act, parents may be fined up to €1,000 and jailed for not complying with official warnings to ensure their children attend school.

Eibhlin Byrne of Tusla said prosecution was a measure of last resort and most parents responded well to offers of support. “We can be proud of our school attendance rates in Ireland but this should not cause us to lose sight of the fact that some of those children who have poor attendance records are the very children for whom education is crucial if they are to improve their life chances,” she said.

 “Equally we must be vigilant regarding the complex needs of vulnerable students, ensuring that attendance and participation in school is facilitated by providing appropriate and timely supports.”

A conference on Thursday organised by Tulsa, the Child and Family Agency, will hear of the most effective ways of supporting at-risk children.

It will formally launch a “statement of strategy” for school attendance, which seeks to assist schools to prepare the systems required to monitor and record attendance.

Ms Byrne said schools will be invited to consider the culture within their school, the learning environment offered to children and aspects of school life that may encourage attendance, participation and retention in school.

All schools will be required to complete these statement and send them to Tulsa.

School attendance notices

While some 516 warnings, or school attendance notices, were sent to parents last year, their resulting co-operation meant that just 176 resulted in prosecutions, according to Tusla.

One of those cases involved an 11-year-old boy who missed 133 school days of 150.

Dublin District Court heard last year that the mother had not co-operated with authority despite 15 home visits and 27 letters which were sent to her. In addition, 15 school meetings were arranged but she did not attend any of them. The mother pleaded guilty to the offence and pledged to co-operate with authorities.

Latest figures show that non-attendance is approximately twice as high in special schools when compared to mainstream primary schools. The rate of 20-day absences is about three times higher in special schools.

Counties Donegal, Galway, Kerry, Mayo, Monaghan and Roscommon show consistently low rates of suspension, while Dublin and Wexford show higher rates.

Higher in towns

Rates of non-attendance in primary schools are also higher in towns and cities than they are in rural areas. 

A report published last year by the ESRI raised concerns that cuts to Tusla’s school completion programme – which is designed to improve the school retention rate – could “seriously compromise its viability” and leave children in crisis situations without support.

The ESRI said the recession had led to a greater complexity of problems for students, including homelessness and parental unemployment.

At the same time, there was a 25 per cent reduction in overall funding for the programme – from €32.9 million in 2008 to €24.7 million for 2015.

This impacted on the ability of schools to respond to the needs of children with emotional and behavioural problems, including refugee children who are trying to overcome the trauma of fleeing conflict, according to school principles interviewed for the report.