More than 800,000 children will be returning to school this week

Parents who keep their children at home from school to stop them catching swine flu will be brought to court if necessary to ensure their children do not miss out on their education, the head of the state body responsible for monitoring school attendance has warned.

As more than 800,000 primary and secondary school pupils begin returning to school over the coming days, Eddie Ward, chief executive of the National Educational Welfare Board (NEWB) said it would be working with schools to identify where student absences are a concern.

While there was "no question" of parents being pursued if their child was ill with swine flu, or where there were valid concerns due to an actual outbreak at a school, he noted that the advice from health authorities here is that parents should send their children to school.

"If a parent is flouting the law in relation to attendance, the law is there and we are enforcing the law," Ward told the Sunday Tribune.

"Every parent has an obligation to send a child to school and where a parent wilfully flouts the law, the necessary steps will be taken."

Under current legislation, schools must notify the NEWB if a child aged between 6 and 16 has missed 20 days or more in the school year, or if staff are concerned that a pupil is missing too much school.

This may then be followed by a visit to the parents of the child by an educational welfare officer. If necessary, the board can also take legal action to force parents to send their children to school. Parents can be fined and imprisoned if they do not co-operate with the board.

"Absenteeism for any reason is a concern, it means children are missing out on an education. It's our experience that parents want what's best for their children," Ward said.

"The job for state agencies is to ensure they are reassured that all the necessary protections are there."

While parents can decide to "home school" their children, this would require registration with the NEWB and would typically mean they would forfeit their child's school place, he noted.

Ward's comments come as schools around the country prepare for a potential upsurge in swine flu cases as students return to school.

At least one well-known private school, Wilson's Hospital in Co Westmeath, has required its students to bring signed declarations that they are "swine-flu" free on their first day back at school.

Students have also been told to carry their own "pocket" hand sanitisers or to purchase these at cost price from the school, or they risk being sent home, its headmaster Adrian Oughton told the
Sunday Tribune.

"I believe we have to put all measures in place to try to minimise the possibility of an outbreak," he said.