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We are failing the children who are not at their desks

Because of my family history, I recognise the importance of education in enabling everyone to increase their opportunities.

My father was one of 12 children who were reared in a two-up, two-down terraced house in Ballyclare. It was far from being an affluent up-bringing, but he was fortunate to have a supportive family, which valued education and hard work.

I have been posing Assembly questions to highlight the significant number of children with less than 85% attendance in school.

Many children are missing one day in seven and fall significantly behind in the classroom. This increases the likelihood that students will drop out of school.

Charlie Taylor, the Government's adviser, in his report on improving attendance at school, states: "There is a clear link between poor attendance at school and lower academic achievement.

"Of pupils who miss more than 50% of school, only 3% manage to achieve five or more GCSEs at grade A* to C, including maths and English, [while] 73% of pupils who have over 95% achieve five or more GCSEs at grade A* to C." Clearly, addressing high levels of absenteeism should be a priority.

In the wards with the lowest levels of school attendance, more than one third of young people are referred to the education welfare officer. The answers given to my Assembly questions show that there is a particular problem in disadvantaged Protestant areas.

There is a very stark community imbalance. The poor educational attainment of Protestant working-class boys has been highlighted for some time, but it is now evident that high levels of absenteeism is a major contributing factor.

In March, RSM McClure Watters published a paper entitled Research Into Improving Attendance in Schools. It failed to acknowledge this issue and so none of the recommendations addressed the issue.

In post-primary education, 26 of the 30 wards with highest rate of absenteeism are, according to the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency, predominately Protestant, two are mixed and the other two are mainly Catholic.

Such a significant trend is a concern. Absenteeism will increase the risk of becoming involved in antisocial activity.

The problem first manifests itself in primary school. Up to 10% of children in these same wards are referred to educational welfare before leaving primary school.

We need earlier intervention, such as Action for Children's early intervention programme. We need multi-agency working from OFMDFM, the departments of education, health, social development, employment and learning and justice to address the issues.

Additional tools must be used to connect with these underachievers, such as the greater use of better reading partnerships and book buddies. Within my own East Antrim constituency, the YMCA's Parent and Kids together initiative has been a beacon of hope.

Recently, the impact of paramilitary loan sharks has been highlighted to me. With extortionate repayment rates, this constitutes a form of modern-day slavery, whereby mothers can be left with no money to put food on the table and children go hungry and are unable to focus at school.

We need a cohesive community, with the removal of the loan sharks and the drug dealers corrupting our youth. The community must work with the police to bring these parasites to justice.

We need all public bodies working closely with the voluntary and community sector to address poor attendance in school and the corresponding educational underachieving.

We need everyone valuing education and recognising that, while education cannot guarantee a job, it will improve the likelihood of finding employment.