SCHOOL absenteeism in deprived areas of South Belfast is eclipsing that in more affluent parts it has been revealed, prompting an MLA to demand “immediate intervention” from the Education Minister.
The figures show that in both primary and post primary schools across the south of the city, the attendance is much poorer in areas including Blackstaff and Botanic, compared to that of Malone, Finaghy or Rosetta.
Describing the stark contrast as “astounding” South Belfast MLA Michael McGimpsey has accused the Department of Education and Minister John O’Dowd of “falling short” in preventing plummeting school attendance.
The department has insisted it is “developing guidance” for local schools to keep pupils in class.
The data shows that in the Botanic area, the rate per thousand of primary pupils with less than 85 per cent attendance stands at a whopping 207.4, compared to just 14.8 a short distance up the road in Malone. Attendance at schools in Ballynafeigh, Blackstaff and Shaftesbury wards is also poor compared to Malone and Stranmillis.
Meanwhile, in post primary schools, the rate per thousand with again, less than 85 per cent attendance is highest in the same areas, Blackstaff and Shaftesbury, with 366.7 and 359.6 respectively, compared to Stranmillis at 18.8 and Malone at 30.9.
“There is a very clear demarcation between the rates of those in wealthier areas and those in economically disadvantaged areas of South Belfast,” Mr McGimpsey said.
“Most concerning of all are the high levels of absenteeism at primary level within these disadvantaged communities, often within walking distance of each other, such as Botanic and Stranmillis.
“These levels of absenteeism will undoubtedly negatively impact upon their attainment levels and employment prospects in later life.
“The Minister indicated that his department has commissioned research to identify strategies to improve school attendance. I believe this falls far short of what is required to tackle this issue. The disparity between rich and poor is so stark that there needs to be immediate intervention from the Minister and his department.”
However principal of Botanic Primary School, Paul Bell, said his school, which is in one of the worst wards for attendence levels, said he felt the “bland statistics” offered by the Department often painted an unfair picture of schools.
“What the figures don’t reveal is that in our case, we have a large number of pupils from transient communities, including the Roma, or families from overseas studying at the university for example.
“Pupils from these backgrounds can often have to leave school for periods of time, for family reasons, or if their parents are taking academic study trips abroad. I suspect you would not find as many families like that sending children to schools in other areas such as Malone.
“If other statistics were available, you would see that in our case, we are performing very well academically, and I question the department’s aims in publishing such bland statistics without any background information.”
A Department of Education spokeswoman said attendance was an issue they took “very seriously”.
“Statistics show that absence tends to be higher in schools with high levels of free school meal entitlement, an indicator which is generally used to signify levels of deprivation,” she said.
“We have commissioned research to identify strategies which are effective in improving attendance in such schools. These findings will be used to develop guidance for schools to support them in tackling this problem.”