Belfast Telegraph

Monday 20 October 2014

Absenteeism in our schools must be addressed

It seems that alarm bells do not ring loudly enough when it comes to monitoring absenteeism in our schools. The overall total of pupils missing around six weeks of lessons a year is 20,000, which is equivalent to twice the rate in England. Yet only one in five cases was referred to the Education and Welfare Service for investigation.

Most people will agree with auditor general Kieran Donnelly who said it was unacceptable that most cases were not probed.

As he points out, attendance at school is linked with attainment and this is demonstrated by the time these children reach the age of 18 when they are seven times more likely to be out of education, without a job or not in training. The opportunity to make something beneficial out of their lives is being severely hampered. One factor which has been identified for absenteeism is taking children on holiday during term time.

That is a temptation given that travel companies charge premium rates when schools have broken up, but parents must weigh up the damage to their children's education against the opportunity for a family break. It is possible that primary schools could be more flexible on this issue than secondary or grammar schools where the push for good examination results is at its most intense. Another major cause of absenteeism is sickness, yet it seems strange that so many pupils should require such protracted leave from school for this reason.

Yet we will never know the true reasons for all the days missed if proper investigation is not taken once the threshold for unacceptable absences is passed.

There is likely to be a complex mixture of reasons for absenteeism, although the levels of deprivation in the child's background and the type of school attended are major factors. Of course not every child or their parents are trying to con the system, yet it is human nature that some will since the chances of being caught are seemingly so slim. That is one loophole that can, and should, easily be closed.

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