School attendance and the Law

Claire Edgar

23 March 2016

 

Growing up, most of us didn’t particularly enjoy getting up early and going to school each day, and as parents we have probably experienced our fair share of early morning tears and tantrums from our own children on the same issue!   There is normally an almighty whoop in the air when the school summer holidays come about and our children are faced with a few months of school-free bliss.

However, as luck would have it, the school summer holidays are also one of the most expensive times of year to travel.  Many parents are faced with not being able to afford to take their children on holiday during this period due to overpriced flights and travel accommodation.   This has resulted in many children being taken on holiday during term time when travel costs are lower and more affordable. 

In England, parents taking their children out of state schools during term time could currently face a fine of £60 or worse.  This differs to the current position on term-time holidays in Northern Ireland - here, parents cannot currently be fined for their child’s unauthorised absences from school.   However, if your child's school attendance falls below a certain level, the school could refer the matter to your local Education Welfare Service.

What is the law on school attendance? 

It would be of no surprise to anyone that the law in Northern Ireland states that children must receive ‘efficient full-time education’.  As parents, we have a legal obligation to make sure that we provide our children with suitable education either by registering them in school or making other appropriate arrangements to make sure they receive a suitable education.  As parents, we also have a legal responsibility to ensure that our children attend regularly at school once they are registered. 

What if my child is not attending school regularly? 

If your child’s attendance at school drops to below 85% and no acceptable explanation is provided for their absence (for example, they have been too ill to attend or their absence has been previously authorised), or alternatively if your child’s school are concerned about your child’s ongoing absences, they can refer the matter to the Education Welfare Service. 

If such a referral is made, an Education Welfare Officer will initially attend at your home to discuss and explore with you the reasons why your child has been absent from school.  The Education Welfare Officer’s primary role is to try to support and assist you and your child.  

What can happen if I do not engage with the Education Welfare Service?

In most instances, the assistance of the Education Welfare Service is a welcome support to parents experiencing issues with their child going to school.  However, if a parent fails to engage with the Education Welfare Service by ignoring their child’s educational needs and, despite warnings, does not ensure their child’s regular attendance at school, they are effectively considered to be breaking the law.  As such, an application to prosecute a parent may be made by the Education Welfare Service to the local Magistrates Court.  If such an application is made, the Court has the power fine parents up to £1,000 for each child if they consider that the law has been broken. 

Education Supervision Orders 

If there are significant concerns about a child’s school attendance, the Education Welfare Service can make an application for an Education Supervision Order.  This application is made to the Family Proceedings Court under the Children (NI) Order 1995.   Unlike parental prosecutions, these proceedings are not criminal proceedings and are in no way issued to punish the child or parent – their intent is to provide support and assistance to the child and their family on an ongoing basis.  An application for an Education Supervision Order is therefore only appropriate where there is a good level of co-operation and engagement between the Education Welfare Service and the family of the child. 

When an Education Supervision Order has been applied for, the Education Welfare Officer provides a full report to the Court on the issues regarding the child’s absence from school.  This report will contain a plan of proposed work set out by the Education Welfare Service.  The report will be shared with the child’s parents who are entitled to their own legal representation in these proceedings.   The court may appoint a separate solicitor to act in the interests of the child if it feels this is necessary. 

When will the Court make an Education Supervision Order? 

Before making an Education Supervision Order, the Court must be satisfied that a child is not being properly educated and also that making an Order would be better than making no Order.  The Court must also give careful consideration to a number of factors detailed in a list called thewelfare checklist’. This includes: 

  • The ascertainable wishes and feelings of the child. 
  • His or her physical, emotional and educational needs. 
  • The likely effects of a change in circumstances. 
  • His or her age, sex and background. 
  • Any harm suffered or at risk of suffering. 
  • The capability of parents or other relevant persons in meeting his or her needs. 
  • Other powers available to the Court. 

What happens if an Education Supervision Order is made? 

If an Education Supervision Order is made, this allows a Supervising Officer to give directions to you or your child which should be complied with.  Directions given by the Supervising Officer could include permitting them regular access to your child, agreeing to attend meetings/appointments or agreeing to undertake assessments.  Any directions given by the Supervising Officer should be necessary, reasonable and confirmed in writing. An Education Supervision Order will initially be made for one year however this can be extended for up to three years or alternatively an application can be made to discharge the Order if it is deemed unnecessary.  An Order cannot continue once your child has passed compulsory school age. 

What if I don’t adhere to an Education Supervision Order? 

If an Order is made and parents fail to comply with it, the matter may be referred back to the Family Proceedings Court and the Court.  Social Services may also be directed to investigate the child’s circumstances more fully and consider whether they need to take further action to secure the welfare of the child. 

It is therefore imperative that parents do all they can to ensure that they act in the best interests of their child by fully engaging with the Education Welfare Service and complying  with any Orders made by the Court. 

For further information on any aspect of family law or for a free, no obligation discussion, please telephone 028 9024 3901 or contact us online using the contact us form.