Concerns raised after more than 20,000 cases reported to authorities since 2015
The Education Minister has been urged to address the problem of absenteeism from schools after figures revealed thousands of pupils are referred to the Education Welfare Service each year.
More than 20,000 referrals have been made in the last five years as school authorities struggle to get to grips with the issue.
Almost 3,000 referrals were made in the truncated 2019/20 school year.
And while the figure is lower than in previous years, when school days missed through closures during the Covid-19 crisis are factored in, it shows there is no sign that measures to combat the problem are having an impact.
The Education Welfare Service is a specialist support organisation that promotes the participation of children and young people in beneficial education through a partnership and inclusive approach and is available for pupils aged 5-19.
A total of 2,703 referrals for pupils being absent from the classroom were made in 2019/20, even with schools being closed for four months from March until June.
The number has been declining slightly in the past five years, but Ulster Unionist education spokesman Robbie Butler has called on Peter Weir to act.
“I am concerned with the figures and call on the Education Minister to ensure that absenteeism is a factor which is hastily addressed either by intervention or alternative teaching methods,” he said.
“There needs to be a real effort to ensure that the loss of classroom time doesn’t leave an indelible lifelong impact on these children.”
A breakdown of the figures shows 4,419 referrals in 2014/15, a figure that rose to 4,888 the following year.
Referrals fell slightly to 4,835 in 2017/18, and remained high at 4,539 in 2018/19.
With the number of referrals showing no sign of slowing, Ulster Unionist MLA Andy Allen, who obtained the figures via an Assembly question, said fears remain about the impact absenteeism was having on pupils’ futures.
“Absenteeism has the potential to severely impact educational attainment, especially in cases of prolonged absenteeism,” he said. He called for more support to be given to families.
“It is concerning that on average well over 4,000 referrals are being made to the Education Welfare Service each year since 2015 due to absenteeism,” he added.
“There can be many reasons for absenteeism.
“However, it is imperative that the Department of Education does everything possible to support individuals and families.”
Rates of unauthorised absence here are higher than in other parts of the UK.
Over the five years until 2019, more than 1,000 local parents were told they would face court action over their children’s poor school attendance, with almost 400 being fined.
The Department of Education explained that if a pupil’s absence “causes concern” or if it falls below 85%, they are referred to the Education Welfare Service.
The Education Authority said parents must ensure their children attend school on a regular basis, adding that the organisation’s responsibilities on pupil attendance are delivered through the Education Welfare Service.
Following referral, an education welfare officer will meet with the school and make an assessment to establish a support plan with the young person, parent and school
In cases where parents do not cooperate with the advice and guidance of the Education Welfare Service, and where a pupil’s attendance remains a matter of concern, the Education Authority may then consider legal action.
A Department of Education spokesperson said: "As a result of the Covid-19 pandemic in the 2019/20 Academic Year and school closures from 23rd March - referrals were reduced.
"Education Welfare Service (EA) continued to be involved with all vulnerable young people known to the Service and others during this period ensuring contact and welfare plans were in place. Education Welfare Officers maintained contact with school and educational settings as was appropriate during the school closure period."