By Paola Hadjilambri
Director of Business Development
MICHAEL KYPRIANOU – ADVOCATES & LEGAL CONSULTANTS
The fact that the pandemic has changed our lives in the last two years is undeniable. The fact that the protective face mask has become part of our daily routine like the antiseptic gels no one can deny, as well as distance learning and working from becoming our new daily routine especially during the lockdown period. We live in a new reality that has brought restrictions, losses and terrible confusion.
We are in a "war" situation with an invisible enemy that we are trying to fight tooth and nail to overcome. Some of us are faithfully following the steps and instructions of the scientists and the governments, whilst others apply different views and methodologies. After all, this is a democratic society.
But the news from the Chief of Police of Cyprus about the complaints received in recent months from the Ministry of Education in regard to the non-systematic attendance of students in schools due to the government's measures against the pandemic, is a cause for concern. And yet, parents prefer to keep their children away from school and learning because of their own personal beliefs and disagreements with the government's decisions, not realizing that they are depriving their own children of their inalienable right to have access to free education.
A parent's decision not to send their child to school when they are obliged to do so is considered as a criminal offence as it violates the child's fundamental rights to unhindered access to education, learning and training. The uninterrupted and continuous attendance of children until the completion of the secondary school cycle or the completion of the student's 15th year of age is an essential issue of particular concern to the Ministry of Education and Culture, especially in recent months when there has been a flurry of activity over the government's new measures in schools.
Everyone is entitled to his or her personal opinion and the right to freedom of speech and thought. Something that is perfectly acceptable to the extent that it does not infringe on the right of- freedom of one's fellow human being at all levels. And certainly, the right of access to free education of every minor child is indisputable and any non-compliance by the parent or guardian is punishable under the Public and Secondary Education (Compulsory Application and Provision of Education) Act, 1993, 24(I)/1993220(I)/20041(I)/2019.
According to the existing legislation, 'attendance at pre-primary, primary and secondary school is compulsory until the pupil reaches the secondary cycle or the fifteenth year of age, whichever comes first' (Law 24(I)/1993, Law 220(I)/2004).
Both the State and the parent/guardian have an obligation to ensure that each child attends school without interruption up to the abovementioned age.
Also, "whoever has custody of a pupil's person and fails to enrol or supervise the pupil's attendance as defined in Article 3, commits an offence punishable by imprisonment of up to three months or a fine of up to 1000 euros or both" (Law 24(I)/1993, Law 220(I)/2004(I)/2019).
At the same time, the Ministry of Education and Culture, within the framework of its competences, has the obligation to contribute to ensuring the right of the child to education, by providing for regulations and specific procedures for his/her regular attendance and non-abandonment of schooling, as referred to in Article 28 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
To this end, each child's attendance is monitored through the school system, which takes daily attendance and absence records, and where problems arise, immediate action is taken in cooperation with other relevant authorities.
The relevant circular issued by the Director-General of the Ministry of Education to the Directors of Secondary and Primary Education sets out the procedure for ensuring the regular and compulsory attendance of children. Where a problem is observed, immediate coordinated action is taken in cooperation with other relevant services, such as the Welfare Office and the Police.
Under Regulation 18 of the Public Secondary Schools Regulations 1990 to 2019, with regard to incomplete attendance and absences of pupils from school, any absence of a pupil from school, even for one (1) period of instruction, must be justified either by a medical certificate or by a special affidavit of the parent or guardian acceptable to the school management, unless written permission has been given by the school management. The certificate or attestation must be presented to the administration when the student returns to school and no later than five (5) days after the day of the absence.
When the number of absences is high, the school unit shall contact the parents (in accordance with the provisions of the relevant Regulations) and discuss with them the problems causing the absences and then the District Superintendent shall be notified accordingly. The Provincial Inspector (PIE), upon receipt of the school's notification, proceeds to investigate the case by contacting the school principal by telephone and then contacts the child's parents to stress that education is compulsory, therefore incomplete attendance or non-attendance of the child at school for a long period of time is a violation of the law, subject to prosecution.
In cases where it is deemed appropriate, the District Inspector of Education will communicate, by telephone and in writing, with the educational psychologist and the Welfare Office in order to deal with each individual case as best and as quickly as possible. Communication is ongoing until the child's continued attendance at school is assured
If the above actions are not successful, the District Inspector of Education will proceed to refer the case to the Police by written letter and at the same time inform the Head of School. The letter to the Chief of Police is also communicated to the Director of Secondary Education, the relevant Inspector, the school principal, the school's educational psychologist and the District Welfare Office.
If, after a reasonable period of time, the actions of the Police do not have the expected result, the District Inspector informs the Secondary Education Directorate, which then contacts both the Police Headquarters and the Welfare Office or other agencies and officials who were involved in the investigation of the case. The Director-General of the Ministries of Education and Culture and Labour and Social Security, the Commissioner for Child Protection and the Attorney-General are then informed.
In view of the above, we cannot but proudly comment on the struggles that took place so many years ago, all over the world, to ensure free education and to ensure that children attend school. We reflect on our anger when we hear in the news about children who, instead of attending schools, work for a slice of bread.
We are reminded of the Secret School, (Kryfo Scholeio) during the Greek Revolution which took place 200 years ago and where Greek children risked their lives and defied death in order to learn to read and write by attending school after midnight. Then there was war, and bullets, and hand-to-hand fighting. In the face of the thirst for learning, all this paled in comparison because 'letters' were a symbol of freedom and justice, a symbol of free thinking, of critical thinking, since "He who freely reasoned, reasoned well".
Today, our children are not in danger from any conqueror or bullets, but from the slumber into which we are indulging them with our blessing, because we simply refuse to follow rules and laws. And then we want to call ourselves democrats and take to the streets and demonstrate for the human rights that are being violated by the powerful of the earth. But are we ourselves, in the end, not complacent in our own self-righteousness to be like the weak and even worse, dragging our children along with us? And then we talk of a bleak future. That is, the one that we will hand to them because quite simply the "I" has defeated the "we" of Makriyannis once again. I will not be pessimistic, because I still choose to hope in Man with reason and critical thinking, as a superior and free-thinking being.
This article in no way constitutes legal advice. For further details, please contact Ms. Paola Hadjilambri, Director of Business Development, at +357 26 930 800 or via email at Paola.Hadjilambri@kyprianou.com