A FORM of “modern day slavery” is a factor in an increasing number of children being absent from school, MLA Roy Beggs Jnr has claimed.
The Ulster Unionist representative last week won cross-party support for an Assembly motion calling on the First and Deputy First Minister to take affirmative action on the causes of absenteeism.
Mr Beggs produced statistics which showed that the areas with the highest levels of absenteeism are predominantly Protestant, including some of the more deprived wards in the Larne Borough Council area.
The East Antrim MLA portrayed a frightening picture of the background of some of those children who have less than 85 per cent attendance at school - the point at which they are referred to an education welfare officer.
“Recently,” he revealed, “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. That is a modern day form of slavery.
“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 those parasites to court.”
Mr Beggs also told the Assembly: “Given my family history, I recognise the importance of education in enabling everyone to reach for the opportunities that are available to them.
“My dad (former MP and Larne mayor, Ald Roy Beggs Snr) was one of 12 children who were reared in a two-up, two-down terraced house on the Rashee Road in Ballyclare. Needless to say, their upbringing was far from affluent. Dad was fortunate to have a supportive family, which had a strong Christian belief and valued education and hard work. That had enabled all the members of the family to contribute to society and be gainfully employed throughout their lifetime.”
Highlighting the extent of absenteeism, Mr Beggs said: “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 added: “There is a problem in a particular part of our community. The lower educational attainment of Protestant working-class boys has been highlighted for some time as being a problem, but it is now evident that there is a major contributing factor: corresponding high absenteeism.”
Mr Beggs warned: “Absenteeism will reduce the likelihood of employment and increase the risk of becoming involved in antisocial activity. Just like the inner city deprived areas in Great Britain, we are at risk from a gang culture.”
He urged for more early intervention projects like Action For Children in the Northern area in 2010-11, as well as early alerts for parents of children who are absent from school.
“I want to learn more about when a family nurse practitioner service will be available in my constituency,” said Mr Beggs.. “There has been a successful pilot in the Western Board area, and we now have two more pilots. Why are those not being widened to address the problem?
“We need multi-agency working from the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister, and we need the Department of Education, the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety, the Department for Social Development, the Department for Employment and Learning and the Department of Justice to all work together to address the issue.”
This week, Mr Beggs urged the Northern Regional College to increase provision of lifelong learning courses in Larne.
“I met with the NRC last week and I was pleased that they recognise there is a problem and they are attempting to create more educational opportunities for people who have not taken up the opportunities at school.
“However, individuals and the community generally need to show that they value education, because the college cannot provide courses unless there are sustainable numbers enrolling for them.”