A couple from Rathkeale have been warned that if their 12-year-old daughter does not start going to school in the next month, one of them will be sent to prison.
The married couple have been prosecuted by the National Education Welfare Board after allowing their daughter to miss almost one-third of all school days in fifth and sixth class of primary school.
The couple, who have cited the “cultural problem” with education in the Traveller community, have also allowed their daughter to attend only 19 out of 92 days in her first year of secondary school so far this academic year.
They appeared before Newcastle West Court, where Judge Mary Larkin warned that if their child’s school attendance does not improve by the end of February “you can decide which one of you will be going to jail”.
The pair cannot be named, so as to protect the identity of the child.
Stuart Moloney, education officer with the welfare board, told the court that a warning notice was first issued to the parents in March 2011 due to the girl’s poor attendance when she was in fifth class. Mr Moloney said that while there was “a slight improvement” in attendance after this notice, the girl still ended up missing 63 out of 180 days that school year.
When the girl moved up to sixth class her poor attendance continued, and the board subsequently issued both parents with a court summons in February 2012.
Mr Moloney said that the girl missed a total of 54 out of 181 school days in sixth class.
Solicitor Kate Kiely, prosecuting on behalf of the welfare board, told Judge Larkin that the girl’s mother gave an undertaking in court last April that she would ensure that her daughter made the transition to secondary school, despite her ongoing attendance issues.
However the court heard that since last September, the girl has only attended 19 out of 92 days of secondary school.
Solicitor John Lynch, defending, cited the “cultural problem” in the Traveller community towards education, and in particular the “bullying and taunting” this girl has received from other Travellers when she tries to go to school.
Mr Lynch said that the parents “recognise their duty to the law” and have been “trying to get a balance... but it’s not working out”.
Ms Kiely said that experience has shown that even with the difficulties Travellers have with secondary education, “it’s accepted that a primary level of education is acceptable”.
Ms Kiely reminded the court that the current prosecution related to the girl’s “chronic” failure to attend in fifth and sixth class of national school. She said that the board will be bringing a separate prosecution over her secondary school attendance in the near future. The court heard that the maximum penalty for each parent is one month in prison and/or a fine of €634.87.
The child’s parents took to the witness box in turn to give explanations for their daughter’s school record. Her mother said that the child was absent for much of sixth class because her mother-in-law was dying.
“My children didn’t grow up with her, because we didn’t talk. When she was dying I had my little girl with her... to be close to her”.
When asked why her daughter had attended so little school in fifth class, the mother replied “I can’t remember”.
“Stuart knows I do my best”, the mother said, referring to Mr Moloney. “I bring her to school, but she doesn’t head in and then she’s afraid to come back up home. If I have to sit with her [in class] I will. I do send her down to school”.
The girl’s father echoed his wife’s evidence, stating that “my mother was dying, she was sick” when their daughter was in sixth class.
He also insisted that the girl will be forced to attend secondary school from now on. “I will put her in there from here on. She will be in school”.
Judge Larkin issued a stern rebuke to both parents, and reminded them of their “legal and moral responsibility” to ensure that their daughter receives and education.
The judge commented on a note in the case file, which stated that the girl did not attend secondary school last Christmas as “she was standing at a number of weddings”.
The judge said that this amounted to a “deliberate” decision to avoid school “because she has better things to do”, something which was done “with the acquiescence of her parents”.
Judge Larkin did not accept the parents’ claims that they have tried to make the girl go to secondary school, but she has refused.
“I’m absolutely certain that, in your home, when you give her a direction, she does what she is told. I do not accept that you tell her [to go to school]. Children do what they are told... this child is being deprived of an education”.
The judge said that she would adjourn the case for one month, and told the parents that if the girl does not start attending secondary school by then, “you can decide which one of you will be going to jail”.
The case was adjourned until February 28.