North Antrim UUP MLA Robin Swann has called on the Sinn Fein education minister to “immediately implement an action plan to combat absenteeism in North Antrim schools”.
Mr Swann issued his call following a Stormont adjournment debate that he brought to the Assembly on the issue.
“It is with disappointment that I talk about the concern over school absenteeism in the North Antrim constituency. I wanted this debate in the Minister’s presence because, in the figures for the post-primary schools where attendance is less than 85%, two of the top 10 worst offending electoral wards in Northern Ireland unfortunately fall in my constituency of North Antrim,” he said.
“The third worst is Ballee in Ballymena, and the ninth is Bushmills in the Moyle. Both are large Protestant working-class areas. I do not want to make this about the political significance of that, but it is significant and is a reason. This is a concern.
“Regular school attendance and educational attainment are inextricably linked. Likewise, poor attendance equates to poor results. Poor educational attendance leads to low self-esteem and increases the likelihood of students dropping out.
“It further boosts those not in employment, education or training services. Persistent offenders are seven times more likely to be out of a job and not in education or training when they leave school.
“If we can get school attendance sorted and get those basic skills, attainment and self-esteem instilled in our pupils at an early age, we can crack that concern at a later level.
“In real terms, the 2011-12 absence rates in Northern Ireland primary and post-primary schools are, on average, nine days missed for each pupil at primary school and 13 at post-primary school. Although overall attendance levels have improved, the Northern Ireland rates are still double those for England.
“To put that into perspective, of the 300,000 schoolchildren in Northern Ireland, 20,000 are missing at least six weeks of lessons each year, and of the 20,000 pupils who are persistently absent, less than one fifth are referred to the authorities.
“I am not saying that that is the answer, but it is certainly an avenue that we have to look at. However, there is a greater impact and responsibility on parents in the community in general and on politicians, because non-attendance not only wastes money but affects a child’s long-term prospects. It amounts to £22 million a year in lost career opportunities.
“While I am raising concerns about attendance in Ballee and Bushmills, I want to pay tribute to the excellent schools in North Antrim that have fantastic educational provision and attendance rates for their pupils, who really gain and benefit from attending some of the most excellent schools in Northern Ireland.
“I just wanted to put on record my concerns about low attendance rates in those two specific areas of North Antrim,
“There is currently uncertainty over Ballee. It is actually in the third worst ward for over 85% post-primary school attendance and with such low attendance rates in Ballee at present, I have concerns that, if Ballee school actually closes, parents who are not encouraging, compounded by the community or the young people who see no educational gain in attending school, will see no further advantage in having to travel somewhere else in the town to gain an educational experience.
“The attendance of pupils in Bushmills has improved greatly due to the work of the Education Forum but it is really about putting in a collective response from the Education and Health Departments, families, the community and ourselves as elected representatives to provide the support that is needed.
“While others may say North Antrim as a whole is “on average” no better nor no worse than most of Northern Ireland, that’s not good enough for me, as we are failing the pupils in those areas if we don’t try to do something to correct this,” said Assemblyman Swann.