School attendance will once again be compulsory when pupils return this month, reversing a controversial policy that allowed parents to keep children at home due to the pandemic.  

“Once we are slowly returning back to normal, this obligation (to attend school) will be effective once again as from this new scholastic year,” the Education Ministry said.

Last year, Frank Fabri, the permanent secretary at the ministry, amended the policy on attendance to avoid parents and families from being penalised.

A month later, school attendance dropped from 90 per cent to 75 per cent. Half the missing students did not attend because they were classified as vulnerable but the other half were cases of absenteeism, Owen Bonnici, then education minister, had said.

Some falling through the gaps

Commissioner for Children Pauline Miceli was a leading critic of the policy. Before schools reopened in September 2020, after a seven-month shutdown, she had warned that education should remain compulsory for everyone but vulnerable pupils.

It was already a challenge to reach children not attending compulsory schooling before the pandemic, her office had highlighted.

Miceli had urged the Education Ministry to make exemptions on a case-by-case basis following professional advice. With attendance no longer obligatory, some children were “falling through the gaps”, her office had warned, urging parents and carers to prioritise school attendance over other activities such as going to supermarkets.

Keeping in mind those children for whom attending school was a ‘safe haven’, Miceli also feared that if attendance did not remain compulsory, those living in vulnerable situations and were regularly absent from school prior to the pandemic would continue to fall through that net.

With the change of education minister last November, Times of Malta had asked Justyne Caruana if she would consider reversing the decision to allow parents to choose whether to send their children to school or not, given the rate of absenteeism, the Commissioner for Children’s concerns and the fact that the COVID-19 situation and spread in schools seemed to be under control.

The minister had not addressed the questions back then.

Neither did she comment about what she thought of giving parents this option and its repercussions on their children’s education and well-being as well as whether it could have had more detrimental effects than benefits and whether she was analysing these.

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