East Antrim MLA Roy Beggs highlighted the problem in a motion before the Northern Ireland Assembly seeking more government support to tackle absenteeism.
“Recently, paramilitary loan sharks have been creating an ongoing issue in my community. It has been reported to me that mothers can be left with no money to put food on the table and children can be put out to school with, perhaps, no breakfast,” he stated.
“How can parents and children concentrate on their education? We need a cohesive community with the removal of loan sharks and drug dealers, who are corrupting our youth. The community needs to work with the police to bring these parasites to court.”
The Ulster Unionist representative, who has been pursuing issues around educational under-attainment over the past decade, described the school absenteeism problem in some local areas as “horrendous”.
A table provided to him by the Department of Education detailing post-primary school attendance figures by electoral ward in 2010/11, reveals that absenteeism is a particular problem in the Coole, Dunanney and Whitehouse wards of the Macedon area, and the Monkstown ward in the University area.
Mr Beggs said that school absenteeism is a serious problem in predominantly Protestant working class communities and stressed that more needs to be done to ensure that young people and their parents value education.
While the figures for primary school attendance levels were somewhat better, Mr Beggs said they were still “worrying.”
The UUP man’s motion to the Assembly called for an integrated approach to identifying the causes of absenteeism, and for appropriate action to be taken by all relevant departments, in conjunction with parents or guardians, to enable more young people to reach their full potential.
“For a number of years, I have been posing Assembly questions to highlight the significant number of children and young people with less than 85 per cent attendance at school, the point at which they are referred to an education welfare officer. Many children are missing more than one day in seven and falling significantly behind in the classroom because of that. This, in turn, can lead to low self-esteem, and it increases the likelihood that students will drop out of school and end up not in education, employment or training,” he continued.
The local MLA went on to stress that despite the best efforts being made by schools to address the issue, factors outside their control are at play.
“I recall visiting a primary school where the children behaved exemplarily. When I asked the principal whether there were problems with absenteeism, I was told that the children loved coming to school but that some of the parents had personal problems that could impact on their children. It is clear to me that social services and the health service can play a role in improving school attendance through addressing such issues.
“In summary, we need all public bodies to work closely with the voluntary and community sector to address the poor attendance at our schools,” he added.
Mr Beggs vowed to continue to engage with educationalists, individuals and groups in the community to encourage everyone to value education.
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