Tuesday, 12 March 2013
Topical Issue Debate
School Completion Programme
I am sure the Minister of State is well aware of the school completion programme and the vital role it plays in the school community and the community as a whole. He will know that one of its main purposes is to ensure that every child has the opportunity to complete the leaving certificate. In doing that, those involved in the programme work in some of the most disadvantaged communities in the country. As the school completion programme is ingrained not only in the school system but in the community, it has built up a wealth of experience over a number of years. It also recognises that a holistic approach is needed to deal with the issue of school completion, encompassing the community, families, schools and children. Therefore, each project throughout the State has built a number of relationships with outside agencies, the schools and the individuals concerned. As a result of this work and experience, those involved in the programme have developed a number of indicators by which they can identify children who are at risk of dropping out of school and they put in place strategies to try to combat that tendency before it becomes an issue. They offer a number of supports, including the provision of breakfast clubs, which not only provide children with a healthy breakfast when they go to school but also teach them how to socialise with their peers, as well as lunchtime clubs and after-school clubs, which help children in completing their homework. Such clubs foster a culture whereby children will go home and do extra study and go the extra mile to try to complete their education.
The programme also offers a number of academic supports to students who may need them. These are provided inside and outside the school environment. A key area on which the programme focuses is school attendance. Unless children attend school, it is difficult for them to be instilled with a culture of learning and to obtain qualifications. Those involved have developed a number of programmes to target school attendance among students. They have established a number of initiatives that reward attendance at school, which have proved to be successful. Any of the co-ordinators of the school completion programme would advise that in areas where these programmes are in place and are working well, school attendance is on the increase.
Similarly to every other section of society, the school completion programme has suffered a number of cutbacks in recent years. There has been a 20% reduction in its budget over three years, with a final cut this year of 6.5%. If cuts continue to be implemented, it is the children who will suffer. I ask the Minister of State to raise this issue with the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs. Some staff have already been let go under this programme and children will suffer as a result of the reduction in the supports that are available.
We have just passed a referendum on children's rights. The people working in the school completion programmes are the very ones who have the experience and the knowledge to help meet children's educational needs. The school completion programme is a vital component of the educational welfare board which has done great work in many areas. If we continue to target the funding to this group I fear that the school completion programme will collapse. If that happens the children will suffer. If we do not invest in education we are giving up on education. No one in this House, regardless of political persuasion, wants to see children, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds, lose the support and assistance they need to complete their education. I ask the Minister to revisit this budget cut.
I thank the Deputy for putting this matter on the agenda this evening. I am taking it on behalf of the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Fitzgerald. I assure the Deputy that I will bring his comments directly to her attention.
The school completion programme aims to retain young people in the formal education system to completion of senior cycle and generally to improve school attendance, participation and retention of its target cohort. The programme operates under the remit of the National Educational Welfare Board which has responsibility for the operational management and national direction of the programme.
In 2013, funding of €26.456 million is being made available by the Department of Children and Youth Affairs to support the 124 school cluster projects and related initiatives within this national programme. This funding enables the 470 primary and 224 post-primary schools in the programme to support educational interventions for approximately 36,000 students. The majority of schools supported by the school completion programme receive this assistance as part of the school support programme under the DEIS initiative.
As in all areas of the public sector, the Department of Children and Youth Affairs had to find savings as part of the comprehensive review of expenditure. The Department must play its part in the collective Government effort to reduce our unsustainable day-to-day deficit. That is the reality for the Department of Children and Youth Affairs as well as others. The comprehensive review published in December 2011, set out clearly the 6.5% per annum savings required in the school completion programme in each of the years 2012 to 2014. The extent of the adjustment was signalled to the projects by the Department in late 2011. In these circumstances it has not been possible to ring-fence funding at historical levels but we did protect individual projects from the full budget adjustment in 2012.
In order to remain within the 2013 allocation, however, the local management committee responsible for each project was notified last September that a 6.5% reduction would be applied for the coming academic cycle, in this way the full year budget for each project was confirmed earlier than in previous years to assist local management in refining programmes within available budgets.
The local management committee leading each project assesses local needs to devise an integrated, costed and targeted proposal of interventions to support educationally disadvantaged students at local level. This project model approach is a key feature of the school completion programme. It allows the local management committee the autonomy to be creative and innovative in developing tailored support strategies for young people.
Each committee was requested to review its proposed programme of supports and to finalise an approved programme with the National Educational Welfare Board. Projects were advised to examine all elements of expenditure and to seek to reduce costs and achieve efficiencies while prioritising evidence based services to support children's educational outcomes.
The National Educational Welfare Board, in its role to give direction and support to projects, has assisted each project in this process to review plans to ensure front-line services are protected to the greatest extent possible. The board continues to work closely with management committees, schools and local school completion programme co-ordinators to ensure student supports are tailored to meet local needs. As a further support to projects in managing the challenges presented by programme adjustments, the Department has recently commissioned Pobal to undertake an analysis of existing operational and staffing arrangements with a view to providing advisory support to local management in such matters. It is intended that this work will commence shortly after Easter.
I want to focus on a project in my area, the Le Chéile project which covers five DEIS schools. It is in Knocknaheeny on the north side of Cork city. The Government is investing huge sums of money in regenerating the physical environment of the area. It is knocking down houses and rebuilding them to a high standard. While on the one hand the Government is doing that, on the other it is cutting the budgets for programmes to improve the social environment in those communities which is contradictory. This project has three members of staff who work 35 hours a week, one who works 24 hours and two who work 22 hours. They access 170 students. These are schools where traditionally there is a high level of early school leaving and a higher than average number of children with special needs. As a result of the budget cut the decision has to be made whether to cut the two members of staff who work 22 hours or to cut the programmes. It is not possible to implement another cut on top of the cuts of the previous two years of 6.5% without affecting front-line services.
In his response the Minister of State said, "The Department must play its part in the collective Government effort to reduce our unsustainable day-to-day deficit. That is the reality for the Department of Children and Youth Affairs as well as others." The reality of a 6.5% cut to these communities is that children who now have the supports and resources to complete their education may not have them in September. They may not get the opportunity to complete their education. If we cut these resources and staff and the co-ordinators have to decide whether to cut back on programmes, children will suffer. That does not make any economic sense in the long run because if people leave school before they have the opportunity to realise their educational potential it will cost us more. The Department needs to consider that. In this project 6.5% represents approximately €25,000 or €26,000 which is not a large sum of money but one cannot put a price on the benefit to the community, the schools and the children of having it. I ask the Minister of State to ask the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs to reconsider the budget cuts which will be implemented in September.
I acknowledge the Deputy's points and assure him that I will bring them to the attention of the Minister, particularly the Le Chéile project in Knocknaheeny.
While there are significant financial problems everywhere the full adjustment identified in the comprehensive review of expenditure for 2014 will be further considered in the context of a review of the programme to be undertaken this year. A core objective of the review will be to ensure that available funds are appropriately targeted to support those pupils most at risk of early school leaving. The review will address the potential to achieve greater consistency in programme delivery, administration and examine the reforms necessary to consolidate the programme on a sustainable footing. Terms of reference are being finalised and the Department will consult with individual projects during the course of this review.