Westmeath has the third highest 2nd level school absentee rate in the country behind Leitrim and Cavan, according to figures released earlier this year from the school attendance body, the National Educational Welfare Board (NEWB ) but highlighted by the teachers' union, the INTO, at conference this week.
Over 1,400 of the 7,000 post-primary students across Westmeath's 13 secondary schools were marked absent for more than 20 days in the school year of 2005/6, the most recent year for which such data is available.
This equates to more than one in five (20.4 per cent ) of the county's student body going missing for more than a month's worth of schooling in that year, however, the NEWB conceded this included “explainable absences”, like illness and as such, wasn't pure truancy.
Leitrim has the highest figures in the State with 22.8 per cent, with our northerly neighbours, Cavan, coming second with 20.7 per cent.
The lowest rate in the country was Waterford, where just under 13 per cent of students were absent for 20 days or more.
Eighty eight per cent of schools in the State returned data on this subject to the NEWB.
Nationally, in excess of 46,000 pupils are absent for a full month each year.
The figures, which revealed a very high level of school absenteeism in virtually every county, were described last night as “extremely worrying’’ by Teachers’ Union of Ireland president Don Ryan.
Not surprisingly, the figures show a strong link between non-attendance and social disadvantage.
Those regularly missing from school are also the group most likely to drop out before the Leaving Cert exams.
The NEWB has acknowledged that school absenteeism is at an “unacceptably high” level.
Its figures also show a high level of absenteeism even in primary schools, where 12 per cent – or more than 50,000 pupils – are missing for a month or more every year.
Dublin has the highest rate of primary school absenteeism in the State, at 14 per cent.
Mr Ryan said most of those missing school will inevitably drop out before the Leaving Cert exams.
“Non-attendance is linked to socio-economic disadvantage and poor performance in State examinations and we hope these figures draw the Government back to reality and [they] show how truly shameful some of the recent budget cutbacks are.”
He said the withdrawal of grant aid from schools for essential programmes such as the Junior Certificate School Programme and the Leaving Certificate Applied and a reduction in the overall number of teachers in the system will diminish capacity in schools to support those most at risk, not build it.
INTO general secretary John Carr said the NEWB needed to focus on solutions to the school absenteeism crisis – instead of being what it called largely a “data collection agency”.
He said smaller class sizes could play a key role in preventing school absences.
The most recent figures from the NEWB show that 27,000 primary and 28,000 post-primary students are missing school every day.
Under school attendance legislation, schools are required to notify the NEWB when a student is missing for 20 days or more.