Free trips boost Belfast school attendance
A south Belfast school has achieved a dramatic drop in pupil absence, partly by introducing free school trips as a reward for high attendees.
Botanic Primary introduced a range of measures to improve its attendance rate, which was one of the worst in Belfast.
In 2009, the attendance rate at the 220 pupil school was under 85%.
This meant pupils on average missed school for one and a half out of every 10 days.
By 2015, their attendance rate had risen nearly 10% to 94%.
That means that, on average, pupils were at school for an extra day every two weeks.
Botanic's pupils come from a diverse range of backgrounds, with 28 nationalities, while Roma pupils make up almost a fifth of the student population.
The principal, Paul Bell, and staff introduced a number of measures to get pupils to school more.
The school contacts parents straight away if they have concerns about attendance, and raises the topic at every parents' meeting.
They outline to parents how many days of school their child has missed on a regular basis.
The school also introduced rewards for good attendance.
These included a free school trip for children who attended school on at least 95% of days over the course of a term.
The trips, to locations like the cinema or adventure centres, cost the school about £500 each.
However, they have been very successful.
Fewer than one-third of the pupils were eligible for the first trip, but that has now risen to almost two-thirds of children.
Senior teacher Carol Thompson, who organises the activities, said: "At the beginning we only needed one bus, because maybe two to three years ago we only had about 50 children coming."
"This has been such a success that in January we will be taking 63% of the school."
'Value of school'
Mr Bell said that they had to get the message across to children, as well as parents, that absence hampered learning.
"If parents aren't really taking attendance seriously, to go and talk to them has limited effect," he said.
"When you talk to the children and start to impress upon the children that they are missing out on their education it's much more meaningful."
"When the children start to see the value of school then they start to come."
"And when you make the school a fun and attractive environment, who wouldn't want to come here?"
The Education Training Inspectorate (ETI) praised the school for an attendance "strategy combining extrinsic awards, information to parents and prompt action when attendance drops to 90%."
The Education Minister Peter Weir has also launched a new strategy called "Miss School = Miss Out" to improve pupil attendance.