The state body charged with monitoring school absenteeism does not compile statistics on how many children under the age of six regularly miss school, meaning it is powerless to identify potential cases of severe neglect in this age group
In a revelation which has been branded "shocking" by one Dublin inner-city school principal, a spokesman for the National Educational Welfare Board (NEWB) said it had no statutory powers to stop chronic absenteeism among this group of children.
As a result, while the NEWB can "advise" schools on how best to address such absenteeism on an informal basis, it cannot deploy the extensive powers available to it under existing legislation until the child turns six.
These include bringing parents to court if they do not co-operate with NEWB and ensure their child gets an education.
"Children under the age of six are not required to attend school and educational welfare officers cannot prosecute parents of children who are under six for non-attendance," the NEWB said.
"We don't intervene in absenteeism among this group because we don't have the power to do so."
The NEWB also confirmed it does not compile figures on absenteeism rates among this age group.
Labour Party election candidate and inner-city primary school principal Cllr Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, who has sought to highlight the issue of problem absenteeism among this age group, said the lack of data was a "major loophole".
He said in practice many children start school at the age of four or five, even though they are not legally required to do so until they are six.
"It is a huge gap in the information-gathering capacity of NEWB, that when it comes to the most vulnerable children, at the earliest stage of their education, we have no reliable data on their attendance," he said.
"The fact this is not even available is shocking. How can you know which kids need help if you don't even know if they are missing school or not?"
Ó Ríordáin said there was a need to amend the current legislation to ensure that when a child under six is enrolled in a school, the NEWB would monitor this and flag any problems in a compassionate way.
"We are only talking about hard-core cases here. But one of the main indicators of neglect at infant level is non-attendance at school. Currently, a child can miss dozens and dozens of days in school and there is nothing the school can do about it," he said.