Dáil debates

Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Topical Issue Debate

School Completion Programme

6:25 pm

Photo of Seán CroweSeán Crowe (Dublin South West, Sinn Fein)
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I welcome the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy James Reilly. It is a pity that the Minister for Education and Skills has left the Chamber as the issue I raise also relates to education. Children from certain household backgrounds are more likely to die young, experience poor health and have literacy problems, yet educational supports for such children have been targeted for cuts. The background to this issue is that for the past six months meetings have been held in a number of local communities to highlight and explain to public representatives what is coming down the track.

For the last six years there has been a 33% cut in the school completion programme. Those schools are now asking for a halt to those cuts. They hear statements from the Tánaiste, Deputy JOan Burton, and the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Jan O'Sullivan, to the effect that things will change but they have not seen that happen.

I have visited a number of schools in my constituency recently, including St. Mark's, St. Maelruain's and St. Dominic's, as well as others in Old Bawn, East Tallaght, Killinarden, Brookfield, Fettercairn and Jobstown. Those schools have wall charts of all the different things on their programmes but one could see that after six years those programmes had been gutted and filleted. The schools are saying that the cuts have to stop.

The cuts are affecting the most marginalised students and their families. More cuts is the message coming from the Minister's new agency, Tusla. Talk is cheap but action is really important. Every euro taken from these programmes is a huge loss to society and a kick in the teeth for those communities.

How can the Minister stand over these cuts? Most of us in this House - some of us more strongly than others - believe in the idea of an inclusive and progressive society but that is not happening. Over the last six years, such school programmes have gone backwards instead of progressing.

In real terms, it will mean fewer people attending third level education. Recent figures showed that in Dublin 24 some 16% of school students continue to third-level education, whereas literally down the road in Dublin 6 some 99% of students continue to third level. That is the sort of divide that exists in our society. It comes down to the fact that if children leave school early they have nowhere to go. They will not go into well paid jobs. Many of them will be hanging around street corners while some will get involved in drug dealing and other criminal activity. It makes sense to provide such supports, including monitoring school attendance.

The OECD has reported that 93% of young people complete second-level education in Ireland compared to the OECD average of 84%. People around the world are examining the Irish model, so what have we got right? We are literally filleting it and tearing it up.

I hope the Minister will have some answers. Everyone will be looking at the next budget but some schools have already been told that this year's cut is 6.5%. As I said earlier, there has been a 33% cut in the school completion programme in the past six years. It is very hard to stand over this.

Given the Minister's message, are we really sincere about trying to keep young people at school through the school completion programme? If so, we will have to change direction and stop this drift away from the programme.

6:35 pm

Photo of James ReillyJames Reilly (Minister, Department of Health; Dublin North, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Deputy for raising this question. I wish to confirm that we are very serious about this matter. The aims of the school completion programme are to help young people stay in the formal education system until they complete senior cycle, as well as generally improving their school attendance and participation in education. The programme is a targeted intervention for schools identified through the DEIS action plan for educational inclusion of the Department of Education and Skills.

The school completion programme involves 124 locally managed projects and related initiatives, operating across 470 primary schools and 224 post-primary schools. It provides targeted supports to some 36,000 children and young people who may be at risk of educational disadvantage.

Every project in the school completion programme is managed and directed by a local management committee, which includes representatives of schools, parents and other education stakeholders in the locality.

The programme's project model approach gives local communities the autonomy they need to devise creative and innovative approaches to effectively address the needs of young people most at risk of early school leaving. Projects provide a range of targeted supports, including homework clubs, breakfast clubs, mentoring programmes, learning support, and social and personal development programmes for young people. In addition, a number of out-of-school supports including music, art and sports are provided, as well as a range of activities during holiday periods.

As with all major spending programmes, the school completion programme budget was examined in the context of the 2011 comprehensive review of expenditure. This process identified a requirement for savings of 6.5% per annum across the programme over the period 2012 to 2014. In 2014, an allocation of €24.76 million has been provided for the programme.

Since its establishment at the beginning of this year, the Child and Family Agency, Tusla, has operational responsibility for the school completion programme, including allocating funds to projects within the programme. This process requires local projects to develop annual school retention plans, with detailed service proposals for the forthcoming school year.

Allocations to projects are determined on the basis of these school retention plans, while having regard to the savings requirements set out in the 201 I comprehensive review of expenditure. I am advised that the agency has completed the detailed process of evaluating and approving the school retention plans prepared by individual projects for 2014-15 and that the first instalment of funding under the programme issued to projects in the first week of September. Further instalments will issue in December 2014 and May/June 2015.

The Child and Family Agency will continue to work closely with local management committees, schools and local school completion programme co-ordinators to assist projects through the process. The potential for any changes in the funding allocated to this programme in future years is a matter to be considered in the Estimates and budgetary process, and the resources available to Government.

The Deputy may be aware that a review of the school completion programme is currently under way, which is an important initiative in relation to the future development of the programme. The objectives of the review are to identify best practice in providing support to children and young people to stay in school; clarify the roles and responsibilities of those involved in the programme; and build upon the valuable learning and experience acquired to date.

It is envisaged that this work will be completed during the 2014-15 academic year. The review should help to identify any reforms that are needed to put the programme on a sustainable footing for the future. Most importantly, the findings of the review will be critical to ensuring that funding is directed to those services that provide the greatest contribution to better outcomes and brighter futures for vulnerable children and young people who are at risk of educational disadvantage.

Photo of Seán CroweSeán Crowe (Dublin South West, Sinn Fein)
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We are talking about disadvantaged schools right across the country. It is not just a problem in urban areas but also in rural ones. I hoped that something positive would come out of the Minister's speech and he said there will be a review, which is grand. However, many boards of management involved in the school completion programme have told me that they cannot continue. No programme can sustain a 33% cut over a number of years. It sends the wrong message concerning the school completion programme. We are doing a similar thing in the drugs area but that is an argument for another day.

The whole idea of the programme is to give support to disadvantaged students. According to the attendance levels, it would appear that the programme is working. However, the level of incremental cuts over the past six years is now impacting on such services, so it has to stop. It may be a budgetary argument but the situation is not sustainable. Teachers and students in the relevant schools want the programme to continue working. I am appealing to the Minister to go forward instead of going back, but in order to progress the programme needs to be funded. I welcome any review in that regard. The school completion programme will stand up to any peer review.

Ultimately, we need to send to those communities a positive message that education is the way forward, that it is not set aside for a small elite in society and that there is a place for every child if he or she wants to proceed to further education. We genuinely believe in the concept of lifelong learning, but the children in question are only at the beginning and need the required supports. Will the Minister, in his new position, commit to championing the cause of those children who have been left behind and are disadvantaged through no fault of their own? Many come from a background in which we failed their families and parents. This is a challenge for the Minister and his new Department, but it is one he should take up.

6:45 pm

Photo of James ReillyJames Reilly (Minister, Department of Health; Dublin North, Fine Gael)
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I am sure the Deputy will agree that we all want to see all children reach their full potential. We want those who are particularly vulnerable and at risk of losing out through leaving education early in life to be supported in the best way possible. The schools inclusion programme is a huge part of this process. There have been cuts because, as we know, the country found itself in a bailout having lost its financial sovereignty. However, we are now out of the bailout programme and will certainly do everything in our power to protect the school completion programme. However, Government expenditure in this area is not limited to that programme. Nearly €49 million has been spent on various youth services programmes to offer support to young people all around the country. There is no doubt but that we could not do without these youth organisations and the tens of thousands of volunteers who work in this area supporting children and programmes, not to mention the tens of thousands of volunteers in the sports organisations who help to keep children occupied and engaged in healthy and physical activity that is to their benefit. We certainly have not targeted this area for cuts, but it has been one that has had to endure cuts. It is an area in which I firmly believe it is worth investing. Money spent on prevention reduces expenditure on treatment in a general sense, but nowhere is the gain greater than with children. Certainly, from our point of view and in our budget negotiations, this has been to the fore in our minds. We want to continue to support children to get the best out of the education system and support them when they are getting into trouble. There are many programmes in addition to the one in question, including Garda diversion programmes, which help to achieve that end.