By Anthony Quinn
PUPILS from parts of Cookstown District have come top in the league tables - for persistent absenteeism.
Last year, the Oldtown ward had one of the worst rates of persistent absenteeism in Northern Ireland.
Alarmingly, figures released at the Northern Ireland Assembly show that Oldtown also had one of the steepest rises in absenteeism over the past four years.
Since 2007, there has been a 58 precent increase in serious absenteeism by pupils living in Oldtown, rising from a rate of 161.1 cases per 1000 pupils to 255 last year.
The Government defines persistent absence as pupils missing 15% or more of school time. This is the point at which pupils can be referred to the Education Welfare Service which may then formally intervene with families.
Other areas of Mid-Ulster with poor attendances include Lissan, Pomeroy and The Loup in Cookstown as well as Ballymaguigan and Bellaghy in Magherafelt.
Schools are expected to take action on falling attendance in the form of letters written to parents and meetings with them. When levels falls below 85%, a referral from the school to the EWS can result in a home visit and an action plan being drawn up in a bid to improve attendance.
UUP MLA Sandra Overend said that more should be done to tackle the rising levels of absenteeism.
“Absenteeism is a very real issue within our society and it is clear from the statistics that it is of particular concern in some specific areas”, she said, pointing out that they were mainly Protestant wards affected.
“Looking at absenteeism from a local perspective, one of the worst wards is in fact in my own constituency of Mid Ulster. In relation to post primary attendance one of the worst 30 cases is the Oldtown ward in Cookstown. It is evident that the situation in this area has been getting progressively worse since 2007.”
Department of Education statistics show that illness accounted for 59% of all absent days in primary schools and 48% in post-primary schools.
The level of overall absence in Northern Ireland’s secondary schools was 9.1% - much higher than the 4.6% in grammars.
And the proportion of total days missed due to suspension from post-primary schools was more than three times higher for males than for females.
There are many factors which can influence schools’ attendance rates such as long term sickness. A small number of pupils with poor attendance can also skew overall attendance rates in small schools.
Ms Overend, UUP spokesperson for children and young people, called on the Assembly to bring forward targeted interventions to improve attendances.
“I also have serious concerns about the school attendance statistics in various other wards in Mid Ulster, which show a steady decline in attendances. This shows that absenteeism is not solely a concern in predominately Protestant areas but for everyone.
“However, I would reiterate again that the areas mostly affected across the board are predominantly Protestant areas. These high rates of absenteeism cannot be allowed to continue.
“Inequality of educational underachievement is widening and basic standards of numeracy and literacy are still a major problem. Something as simple as increasing attendance rates in the most affected areas would have such a positive effect.
“Allied to that, with youth unemployment rising to over 22% and an increasingly competitive job market it is more important than ever than our young people have the skills to gain employment.”
Ms Overend stressed that the issue of absenteeism was not about lowering the levels of high achievers, but about increasing the lowest levels of achievement, standards of numeracy and literacy, and promoting the value of education.
“This begins at primary school level, ensuring that each and every child achieves a good level of numeracy and literacy so that they can go in to post primary level and make good progress with confidence in their ability. So absenteeism needs to be looked at at primary school level as a first stop.
“The underlying and associated issues to absenteeism and educational underachievement are varied and include crime, alcohol and drug abuse as well as a lack of social and family ties.
“It is therefore only though departments such as Education, Employment and Learning and Justice, working together with agencies such as Surestart, that we will begin to see improvements. This obviously needs to be coordinated and the Office of the First and deputy First Minister, having responsibility for children and young people, is the most appropriate mechanism for doing this.”