School attendance Bill extends age rule
THE GOVERNMENT is to examine proposals to legally oblige parents of children under the age of six to ensure their children attend school regularly.
Under existing laws, parents of children aged between six and 16 may be prosecuted for not doing enough to make sure their children go to school. As a result, the vast majority of the estimated 67,000 children who start primary school each year are not covered by school attendance laws.
This week, Labour TD and former school principal Aodhán Ó Riordáin will publish a Bill that would extend this responsibility to parents who have enrolled children aged under-six in school.
He said the powers of the State body responsible for ensuring every child attends school or receives an education – the National Educational Welfare Board (NEWB) – were limited in dealing with very young children.
Extending these powers to intervene with parents of those under- six would help ensure there was earlier intervention in addressing issues of school non-attendance.
“A problem which I experienced as a principal, and which has been repeated to me by colleagues, is the difficulty intervening before these problems become entrenched. By giving the NEWB greater legal muscle to intervene with those under-six, we can begin to change that.”
Latest figures from the board show about one in 10 primary school pupils miss at least 20 days of school each year.
Research shows long absences from school in early years can be particularly damaging and have long-term negative consequences for literacy and numeracy skills.
Children’s charity Barnardos, which has numerous programmes to encourage school attendance, welcomed the proposed move.
Norah Gibbons, its director of advocacy, said any measures aimed at improving frequency of school attendance were good for children. “The principle must be that you intervene early and ensure parents don’t get into the habit of leaving the children out of school,” Ms Gibbons said.
In a statement, the board said such a move may require constitutional and legislative changes, and may also impact on its resources.
While it did not have legal responsibility to take action against parents of those under-six, the board noted it was able to support families of young pupils where there were attendance issues. Schools were required to report concerns over attendance of all pupils to education welfare officers. These officers can work with the family, the school and other services where appropriate to improve attendance.
Mr Ó Riordáin said while his proposed Bill may increase the workload for welfare officers, in the longer term it could reduce pressure on the system as a result of earlier intervention.