ONE of the country’s most experienced school truancy officers believes closing a legal loophole that excludes intervention with younger children could help the battle against regular absences.
As highlighted by the Irish Examiner yesterday, the families of more than 98% of the 67,000 children starting primary school this week cannot be sanctioned until next January at the earliest if they miss classes regularly.
Almost half will remain outside the power of the National Educational Welfare Board (NEWB) for at least another year after that, into the second term of senior infants, as the law only requires children to be at school from the age of six.
The board can interact informally with families of four and five-year-old pupils on attendance problems, particularly if staff have been working on attendance problems of older siblings.
It also offers support and advice to parents who are having difficulty enrolling a child or whose child faces expulsion.
But senior educational welfare officer Michael Doyle, who is retiring this week after 30 years tracking school attendance, believes stronger powers in relation to attendance would help.
“It’s not unusual for us to come across situations where patterns of regular absence had started before a child was in first class.
“It would be helpful if educational welfare officers had the authority to question parents of children under six who have been missing school regularly without explanation.”
Mr Doyle has been a school attendance officer since 1981, having worked as part of the old system under Garda management. He oversees cases in almost 1,000 schools in Dublin and north Leinster for the NEWB, which took over the role in 2002.
The Irish National Teachers’ Organisation has called for the 2000 Education (Welfare) Act to be amended to take account of the high numbers of infant pupils outside the school attendance laws.
Previous data showed that 11% of primary children miss at least 20 days of school each year, the point that triggers formal action by educational welfare officers, which can lead to families being issued school attendance notices or prosecuted. However, a range of research has highlighted the importance of early intervention with families to deal with truancy problems.
The Department of Children took responsibility for the NEWB, which also oversees the home-school community liaison scheme and the School Completion Programme, from the Department of Education this year.
However, Junior Minister Ciarán Cannon told the Dáil in May that he would see merit in the law applying equally to the parents of all children enrolled in schools, regardless of age.
An opportunity to amend the law could arise when changes are made to the act to formalise the functions of the two government departments.
The legal requirement for children to be educated from the age of six is understood to be in accordance with the situation in most EU countries.
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