Belfast Telegraph

We're not doing enough to tackle absenteeism in the classroom, warns report

By Adrian Rutherford

Education welfare officers are not doing enough to tackle absenteeism in the classroom, despite 20,000 pupils missing six weeks of school every year, a report has said.

Unauthorised absence from Northern Ireland schools has increased and is now double the rate recorded in England.

The annual cost of this lost education is running at £22m, Stormont's Public Accounts Committee found.

Pupils from socially deprived backgrounds, Traveller children and children in care have some of the worst attendance records.

The report found that 16,000 of the 20,000 pupils here who miss six weeks of school a year had not been referred to the Education Welfare Service (EWS) for support.

A school is supposed to contact education welfare officers where a pupil's attendance drops below 85%.

PAC chair Michaela Boyle said the committee was very concerned that young people were not taking advantage of their opportunities.

"We know that there are complex reasons why a child might be absent from school and it is important that the education system gets to grips with tackling these issues," she said.

"This is the only way that the system will manage to break the vicious cycle of underachievement of the most vulnerable groups of our society."

The report found many of those who miss school are not contacted by the EWS and therefore do not get the help they need to return to education.

Committee members said that the EWS is "too reactive".

"The fact that 16,000 pupils a year miss almost six weeks of school, yet are not known to the EWS, is extremely disconcerting.

"This must be a priority for action," the report adds.

The committee called for a fundamental review of the organisation. It said schools should refer all cases where intervention is considered necessary, and recommends a mechanism for identifying pupils who require help at the earliest possible opportunity.

Today's report is based on attendance statistics for the 2011/12 year collected from all schools via the school census.

Although pupil attendance has improved marginally since statistics were first collated in 2007/8, the PAC expressed concern that the level of unauthorised absence rose from 27% in 2007/8 to 33% in 2011/12 and is now double that reported in England.

Ms Boyle said a long-term strategy was needed to tackle school attendance.

"The committee accepts that there is no simple solution to resolving these issues," she said.

"However, our report found that there were examples of schools that have managed to deal with the issue of non-attendance through collaboration with parents and communities, despite very challenging circumstances.

"We believe that more can be done through better collaboration and the development of a coherent attendance strategy," she added.

"These mechanisms should be put into place urgently."

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