The Dublin woman in her 30s was sentenced at Tallaght District Court to 30 days in prison – forcing her children into care – after it was heard her 15-year-old son had missed almost 70% of his school days from November 2008 to April this year.
The court heard of family difficulties and an abusive former partner but the presiding judge, James McDonnell, said the woman’s failings in relation to her son’s education were so severe that a jail sentence was warranted.
At the same court sitting, the father of a secondary school girl who had also been repeatedly absent from classes, was sentenced to 15 days in jail for failing to appear after the case was adjourned from a previous date for a probation and welfare report.
Criminal prosecutions for failure to ensure children attend school have increased significantly in recent years – from 34 in all of 2006 to 39 in the first three months of this year alone.
The National Education Welfare Board (NEWB), which oversees school attendance and initiated the prosecutions, would not comment specifically on the individual cases, but said court proceedings were “a measure of last resort” and formed a “very small percentage” of the board’s work.
“The board’s main emphasis is on the welfare of the child and family and on ensuring that concerns and problems are dealt with before school attendance becomes a crisis issue,” it said.
When a serious problem did arise, the first step in dealing with it was to issue a school attendance notice (SAN) which was a legally-binding order directing the parent to ensure their child attended school as required.
“When a SAN is issued, the situation is monitored and the parent is given every opportunity to address the underlying issues,” the board said.
“In exceptional cases, where there is no change and the child remains out of school, the EWO (educational welfare officer) will consider taking a prosecution.”
The number of SANs issued in the last few years has increased substantially – from 196 in 2006 to 384 last year. That figure looks likely to be exceeded again as 123 SANs were issued in the first three months this year.
An NEWB spokeswoman said a conviction did not mean the board had given up on the case and welfare officers continued to work with the family to ensure the child attended school.
However, she added: “If the parents continue to fail in their duty to send their child to school then further legal action may be considered.”