1. By law, all children of compulsory school age (4-16) must receive a full time education. Section 45 of the Education and Libraries (Northern Ireland) Order, 1986 states:
“Duties of parents to secure full-time education for their children
45.—(1) The parent of every child of compulsory school age shall cause him to receive efficient full-time education suitable to his age, ability and aptitude and to any special educational needs he may have, either by regular attendance at school or otherwise.
(2) The provisions of Schedule 13 shall apply to the enforcement of the provisions of paragraph (1) and a parent who contravenes the provisions of that Schedule shall be guilty of an offence and liable to the penalties provided by paragraph four of that Schedule.”
2. The Education Authority is responsible for ensuring compliance with this statutory requirement. Most schools have an attendance policy, which should be readily available from the school website, informing parents how to adhere to their attendance policy and what to do if your child is unable to attend.
3. A child can only miss school if they have either been previously authorised by the school not to attend or they are unable to go to school due to illness or “other unavoidable cause” (Schedule 13, (3)(2) (a) of the Order highlighted in bold below). If a child is ill there is clearly no difficulty. “Unavoidable cause” is not defined in the 1986 Order. It should cover a situation where a child is in a household where another person is ill or in self isolation or the child or someone in their household have come into contact with someone who has or is suspected of having COVID-19.
4. Failure to attend school for reasons other than illness or unavoidable cause can lead to prosecution of the parent of a non-attending child in the local magistrates court. Normally such prosecutions only follow if the child’s attendance falls below 85%. Education Welfare Officers can also apply for Education Supervision Orders in Family Proceedings Courts.
5. On 16thMarch, 2020 an application for judicial review was made in the High Court in Belfast on behalf of the mother of a child attending a primary school in Armagh. The child suffered from underlying health conditions and was at greater risk of harm should she contract COVID-19. It was argued on her behalf that the decision not to close the schools in Northern Ireland was unlawful and contrary to the necessary protection afforded to all citizens under the human rights legislation. At the hearing, the Education Authority confirmed that there would not be any prosecution in the child’s circumstances for non-attendance due to “unavoidable cause.”
6. The Government has now decided to close schools in the North of Ireland from Monday 23rd This is after schools in the rest of Ireland and most of Europe have already been shut due to the health risks caused by COVID-19.
7. If parents are not prepared to wait until 23rdMarch and are or already have removed their children from school before then, due to the myriad risks posed by COVID-19, they should contact the school and inform them that their children are being removed due to these risks and as such their children are not attending for “unavoidable cause.”
Disclaimer: This article does not constitute legal advice. Legal advice should be sought to address specific circumstances.
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