Schools start reopening their doors today and, although many parents will send their children to school, very early in the first term attendance will drop. But parents who fail to send their children to school could end up in serious trouble.
Both the Education Minister Andrew Holness and the Office of the Children's Registry are brandishing the Child Care and Protection Act (CCPA) under which parents could face strict penalties. The minister is also waving the Education Act before them.
He said the current 80 per cent school attendance rate was unacceptable and he was considering having certain areas declared compulsory attendance zones, under the Education Act.
According to Section 28 (1) of the CCPA 2004, "every person having the custody, charge or care of a child between the ages of four and 16 years shall take such steps as are necessary to ensure that the child is enrolled at, and attends, school." Failure to do this constitutes neglect which may be reported to the Children's Registry. The penalty for neglect ranges from a fine of $1 million to three to five years with hard labour, or both.
Reasons for absenteeism
However, the Office of the Children's Registry said that for the period January to June 2010, they received 85 reports of children not enrolled at a school, and 564 reports of children who were enrolled but were not attending school.
The reasons for absenteeism from school were not always specified in reports received, the Children's Registry said. "However, there are indications that lack of funds and basic items to send children to school may have been contributing factors. Taking this into consideration, the Children's Registry is encouraging parents who may be having difficulties to seek assistance, as indicated in the CCPA."
Section 28 (2) of the CCPA states that "where a person having the custody, charge or care of a child is financially unable to provide the child with any article required for the purposes of the child's education at a school at which the child is registered, that person shall apply to the minister, in the prescribed manner, for assistance."
"If parents are having difficulties and seek assistance, it shows that at least they have the interest to ensure their children attend school, but if they deliberately prevent the children from attending school, for whatever reason, then this needs to be reported," said Olive Wilson Cross, acting registrar at the Children's Registry.
But any parent thinking of using poverty as an excuse will have to come up with something else because, Holness said, that would not be considered a valid excuse for absenteeism.
"There are parents who are not sending their children to school regularly. I want to (say) to those parents, if the difficulty is an economic one, if your household does not have the economic resources to send the children to school on a regular basis, that in itself, is not an excuse. I certainly do not accept it as an excuse," he said.
According to the Jamaica Information Service, Holness advised that parents who are facing economic constraints have a duty to reach out to the various relevant agencies set up to provide financial assistance to the needy.
These, he said, include the Programme for Advancement Through Health and Education (PATH), as well as their political representatives, school principals, guidance counsellors or ministers of religion.
"I could only forgive you if you tried and the system did not respond. That is your only excuse, but if you did not try and your children are not in school, then I find you guilty," he pronounced.