Absentee kids: the problem of poor attendance at school

Thousands of parents will be referred to social services this year for school absenteeism, and some will face fines or jail. Can more be done to keep kids in class?

In primary schools, 12 per cent of pupils are absent for 20 days or more over  the school year. This rises to 15 per cent at second level. Photograph: iStock

In primary schools, 12 per cent of pupils are absent for 20 days or more over the school year. This rises to 15 per cent at second level. Photograph: iStock


Today almost one million pupils will attend primary and secondary school. And today, like most days, about 60,000 – or 6 per cent – will not turn up for class.

This equates to a loss of 10 school days for a primary school student each year, or 13 days for a secondary school student.

In many cases there will be legitimate reasons for not being in school. But when a child misses 20 days or more, schools are legally obliged to report these students to social services.

Parents, who are legally responsible for ensuring their children receive an education, can be fined up to €1,000 and jailed for a month if convicted of breaching the Education (Welfare) Act.

In practice, this is a measure of last resort – but Tusla’s Education Welfare Services is concerned over the level of school absenteeism.

Poor school attendance is regarded as a red flag for school engagement and early school leaving.

“We received 6,000 referrals last year,” says Dan O’Shea, regional manager of Tusla’s Educational Welfare Services.

While the majority of cases were resolved following interventions by the school or Tusla, some 170 cases last year ended with legal proceedings.

“That is the last resort for us; the most satisfactory outcome for us is that the child returns to school,” says O’Shea.

Barriers to attendance

The Educational Welfare Services favour an approach that identifies the barriers to attendance – such as mental health problems – and linking into supports.

At times a meeting will resolve the issue. But in some cases the letters, meetings and supports don’t work.

“This is one of the challenges for the education welfare officer,” says O’Shea. “In cases of neglect, prosecution is in essence a welfare approach, so that the child gets their entitlement and the obligation is on us to do something on behalf of the child.”

Latest figures from Tusla indicate that the gap in school attendance between disadvantaged (Deis) and non-disadvantaged schools is huge.

In 2016-17, about 8 per cent of students missed 20 days or more of school at primary level.

The equivalent figure for the most disadvantaged schools – known as Deis band one schools – is nearly 24 per cent, more than three times higher.

So what approaches can work to help give children the best chance of getting access to a full education?

Catriona Golden is principal of Ennis Educate Together National School, which has Deis status. The school had a figure of 14 per cent for overall absenteeism last year. While this is high compared to the national average, Golden says it is an improvement.

If you miss a day you have to catch up on two lessons. Students from any background would struggle with that

Golden identifies regular absenteeism as something that needs an immediate response.

“These students might miss a day a week or every two weeks, and the main challenge for them is they’re always playing ‘what happened yesterday?’” she says.

“If you miss a day you have to catch up on two lessons. Students from any background would struggle with that. It’s an extra barrier.”

Complex situation

Regular absenteeism is often the symptom of a more complex situation and requires understanding and practical support.

“If parents didn’t have a very positive educational experience, they don’t view education as important,” says Golden. “So it’s about engaging with those parents and showing them the value of school for their children.

“We are very lucky to have a full-time Home School Community Liaison (HSCL) teacher, and their ability to make a connection is key,” says Golden.

These teachers help establish a positive partnership between parents and teachers.

Golden also uses “positive postcards”, designed by the children, to make the initial connection with the home.

The class teacher will write a postcard about something nice that happened that week and the HSCL teacher will deliver the postcard.

“It’s a way to start a conversation in a positive, non-threatening way, without making them feel like they are in trouble,” she says. “And from there we can ask if there is anything we can help with.”

Golden also runs classes for parents in the school – anything from cookery to jewellery-making.

It’s about the whole school promoting the importance of attendance and not making any child stand out

“They become more comfortable in the school environment and see the value in it,” she says. These classes have another positive side-effect. “The day a parent is in is a day a child will be in too.”

The school places the focus for attendance on class improvement over individual awards for full attendance. The “most-improved” class may get a class party at the end of a month.

O’Shea says the Educational Welfare Service recommends schools adopt a class or school-based approach to their attendance strategies.

“It’s about the whole school community promoting the importance of attendance and not trying to make any child stand out,” he says.

Homeless students

But there is only so much a school can do. At Golden’s school there are several homeless students who cannot access bus transport to help them come to school.

“They have to have the consistency somewhere and we can offer it in school. But we can only offer it if they can get here,” says Golden.

Golden says she would like to see a transport service put in place that takes the needs of these families in account.

“We need these children staying in the same school, not the school that is nearest to them when they move.”

O’Shea also identifies the role social anxiety plays in school absenteeism.

“It has come up a lot lately and can manifest itself in school refusal,” says O’Shea. “It may indicate an underlying mental health issue and require possible referral to CAMHS [Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service].”

But with the current wait time for appointments in child mental health services, there may be a lot of absenteeism before the required therapies are accessed.

Schools may have ditched the old-fashioned “leabhar rolla” and have updated to a more efficient digital format, but the children who populate the classrooms have also changed – and how we support them needs updating too.

School attendance certificates: ‘Kids who don’t get them feel like they are being punished’

Efforts to boost school attendance take many forms, but one approach which has gained favour in many schools is a certificate for 100 per cent attendance.

For children, the idea of getting a certificate is a powerful incentive – but their use has sparked controversy.

We have kids that would love to be in school, but most have no control over whether they come to school or not

Some teachers see it as a simple measure which does little or nothing to address complex underlying issues within families, such as mental health problems and homelessness or long-term illness.

“I know it’s very popular to run the certificate as an incentive, but we can’t claim to be moving towards inclusive education and then have something like 100 per cent attendance as a goal,” says Catriona Golden, principal of Ennis Educate Together National School.

“We have kids that would love to be in school, but most of our kids have no control over whether they come to school or not, and the certificates make them feel like they are being punished.”

Teachers also report unintended consequences. Some say children present for school when they are sick but are removed once the roll has been called so as not to break their record.

Dan O’Shea of Tusla’s Educational Welfare Services says it runs award ceremonies for children who never missed a day of school to acknowledge their achievement, but agrees 100 per cent attendance is not a realistic target for many students.

He says he is aware of the practice of some sick children being marked present for school and then returning home.

“We are aware of that practice and we certainly wouldn’t be encouraging parents to send their children to school sick,” says O’Shea.

“Our service is very clear about that. A child who is sick can be legitimately absent from school.”