Wednesday, 3 April 2019
Educational Supports for Children Experiencing Homelessness: Motion [Private Members]
That Dáil Éireann:
notes that:— all children, including those who are homeless or living in emergency accommodation, have the constitutional right to free primary education;
— all children and young people should have access to secondary education and not have to leave before they have completed their education because of a lack of resources;
— according to the latest statistics provided by the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government, there are currently 3,784 children living in emergency accommodation;
— a recent survey by the Irish Primary Principals' Network found that there are children experiencing homelessness in 27 per cent of primary schools;
— there is no Government policy to cater for the educational needs of children who are homeless or living in emergency accommodation and the needs of these children are mentioned neither in the Action Plan for Education, nor the Department of Education and Skills Statement of Strategy 2019-2021;
— many children experiencing homelessness do not attend Delivering Equality of Opportunity in Schools (DEIS) schools, and do not have access to the same level of supports that students in DEIS schools would be provided with; and
— the delay in processing the Back to School Clothing and Footwear Allowance in 2018 by the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection, placed additional pressure on families with limited incomes;agrees that:— families with children experiencing homelessness should be provided with material assistance and support programmes to ensure their right to education can be fulfilled;
— in placing families in emergency and temporary accommodation, every possible attempt should be made to maintain children's educational stability and continuity of school placement; and
— all schools and educational settings making provision for children experiencing homelessness should have access to resources and/or facilities to provide children with regular, nutritious food;recognises that:— school is often the only stable environment for children in emergency accommodation;
— disruption to children's lives and instability arising from homelessness negatively impacts on children's capacity for learning and ability to develop and retain relationships with peers and staff in the school setting;
— pupils experiencing homelessness have been shown to present with a number of visible mental health issues, including high levels of anxiety, self-stigma, embarrassment and low levels of self-esteem, which ultimately impact on their ability to socialise in school and maintain friendships;
— homelessness can affect children's school attendance along with reduced engagement and participation in school life and learning;
— principals and teachers have been to the forefront of limiting the negative impacts of homelessness on children's education but with no assistance from the Government;
— schools will receive a 5 per cent increase in capitation funding from September 2019, but that this increase remains significantly lower than previous years; andcalls on the Government to:— collect information on the prevalence of children experiencing homelessness who do not have access to the additional supports provided by the Department of Education and Skills;
— establish a €5 million initial ring-fenced fund for schools to provide for the needs of children experiencing homelessness attending school throughout the academic year, through the Department of Education and Skills;
— have the Department of Education and Skills issue a circular to provide advice and guidance regarding educational provision for children experiencing homelessness, including recommendations to boards of management to address additional school costs;
— examine whether the Department of Education and Skills could consider increasing Home School Community Liaison provision where there is increased demand and extend the service to non-DEIS schools who are supporting children experiencing homelessness;
— expand the Rebuilding Ireland Action Plan on Housing and Homelessness Inter-Agency Group to include representatives from the Department of Education and Skills;
— examine whether the July Education Programme could be extended to children who have experienced significant disruption to their education as a result of homelessness and produce a report on this matter within three months;
— develop appropriate professional development training for teachers and schools making provision for children experiencing homelessness through the Teacher Education Section of the Department of Education and Skills;
— plan ahead for the longer-term impact of homelessness on the educational experience of these children and the disruption that it may have caused through the Department of Education and Skills, the Department of Children and Youth Affairs and Tusla;
— examine the expansion of the School Meals Local Projects Scheme to schools that report increases in homelessness; and
— implement the recommendations of the Children's Rights Alliance Home Works report.
Gabhaim buíochas le mo chomhghleacaithe i bhFianna Fáil as a dtacaíocht leis an rún seo a chur os comhair na Dála.
Last week, figures released by the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government indicated there are currently 3,784 children living in emergency accommodation. Temple Street Children's University Hospital reported that 842 homeless children presented to their emergency department in 2018. The single largest population experiencing homelessness comprises children. The current homelessness crisis has been discussed on a number of occasions in this House. I am seeking to highlight and address one specific aspect that has got no coverage and on which there has been no policy whatsoever, namely, the impact on young people's education.
I acknowledge the presence in the Visitors Gallery and the work on this issue of representatives of Children's Rights Alliance, the INTO and Early Childhood Ireland. Children's Rights Alliance produced a report called Home Works and held a very informative briefing in the Houses yesterday.
The key issue, which I have raised previously with the Minister during Question Time, is that there is no stand-alone Government policy to cater for the educational needs of children who are homeless or living in emergency accommodation. By contrast with the Department of the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Zappone, who has adopted some policies to deal with homelessness, the Department of Education and Skills has made no such move. The additional needs of children who are homeless or living in emergency accommodation are not mentioned in the action plan for education nor in the Statement of Strategy 2019-2021 of the Department of Education and Skills.
In addition to those who are recorded as living in emergency accommodation or homeless, there are many who are displaced temporarily to relatives' houses or other rental properties far away from the school setting. The education of this cohort is also affected adversely by the housing crisis. The Department needs to address this urgently. It does not seem to be a priority for it or the Minister. The Home Works report, produced by the Children's Rights Alliance, outlined many of the problems and proposed some solutions that are in some cases easy for the Department to implement. The report was published last July and I raised it with the Minister in November, I believe, but there seems to be no urgency.
This is not a problem limited to certain areas or certain groups although it is fair to state there is a greater problem in the larger urban areas. There are children experiencing homelessness in 27% of primary schools. Schools in and beside my constituency can state the problems straightaway. In one case a child who was not in emergency accommodation moved temporarily to Dublin but forms would have had to have been filled in at the school in Dublin related to the special educational needs of the child and the extra supports. The same had to happen when the child returned to the original school after the housing problem had ended in the local area. There are schools doing tremendous voluntary work, probably confidentially, to assist families whose children are homeless or living in emergency accommodation. Teachers and principals across the country are doing their best to provide additional supports for children and families that are needed in very difficult circumstances. Relying on the ad hoc efforts of individuals is not good enough, however. What is required is a joined-up, targeted strategy from the Department of Education and Skills. Fianna Fáil believes the Department of Education and Skills must take an active role in ensuring that the education of children experiencing homelessness is impacted as little as possible. Every child in the State has a constitutional right to primary education and it is up to the State to provide it. It has to provide it to children who are homeless or living in emergency accommodation in the same way it does to every other child.
Children experiencing homelessness face considerable disruption to their lives. Many have already experienced losing the family home, relationship break-up, financial stress, or simply an increase in rent. They now face a whole host of new challenges that put their right and entitlement to an education at risk. It thereby puts their life prospects at risk. This is indicated by the statistics.
The finding of the Home Works report was that pupils experiencing homelessness have been shown to present with a number of visible mental health issues, including high levels of anxiety, self-stigma and embarrassment and low levels of self-esteem, which ultimately affects their ability to socialise in school and maintain friendships. It is worse if they have to move school or travel from afar. Homelessness can affect children's school attendance. We heard yesterday at the briefing that parents living in emergency accommodation have to choose which child they can send to school on a given day. In such cases, children often miss school because the accommodation is so far away. They may be late for school for the same reason.
When I raised this with the Minister previously, he said the Department was focused on the additional supports provided under the DEIS programme. While it is correct that there are additional supports in DEIS schools, the problem is that the criteria for DEIS do not accurately capture this group of children. Houses in the private rental sector are not always found in areas that would be described as DEIS areas. The biggest problem here arises when people are evicted from their private rental homes. Specific targeted measures need to be put in place. The Department must actively track the children who need to be provided with additional supports. Teachers and staff who work in schools must be provided with training, advice and support on how to help children through this extremely difficult time. Funding should be made available to help children who need hot meals when this is not available in their schools. Parents who cannot afford back to school costs or who need additional home supports should be assisted. Parents have described challenges in providing school lunches while living in emergency accommodation. Such challenges are all too obvious.
July provision exists to provide additional supports to children with learning disabilities. It is recognised that additional costs are associated with the provision of education in these circumstances. Nevertheless, such provision is necessary. The motion before the House asks the Minister to consider whether July provision might be necessary for children who are experiencing significant gaps in their education. The proposals that have been made by the Children's Rights Alliance have been available to the Department for the past eight months. The costs associated with them are relatively small. The first thing we are seeking is for a policy to be put in place so that someone in the Department will grab this issue and examine it. It needs to be studied so that supports can be put in place. It is simply not acceptable that at a time when the fundamental constitutional rights of children are under threat, no action is being taken. The price of failure here, in terms of education, is very high. The price of doing something is very low.
The future of society depends on our ability to foster the healthy development of the next generation. The motion before the House seeks to highlight the effects of toxic stress on children as they make their way through the education system. Toxic stress has been described by academics in many universities when they have looked at the impact of stress on children. There can be no greater stress than when a child and his or her family is made homeless. We were all shocked when we heard the new figures that came out last week. It can be extrapolated from those figures that almost 4,000 children are homeless. Many of them are in the greater Dublin area. Interestingly, we heard at a presentation yesterday that the percentage increase is actually higher outside of Dublin. I think homelessness has increased by 11.5 times outside Dublin. When we think about these children and the households, we are struck by their negative experiences. When a child loses his or her home, it is absolutely awful because he or she loses his or her primary source of support. Families can lose their houses for many reasons. If they were renting privately, they may have been evicted. Family homes can be lost in circumstances involving domestic violence or family breakup. The reason does not matter because people in homelessness suffer on many levels. We are looking at how we can help to support children.
There are 150 homeless people in County Kildare at the moment. Last year, I met a number of families with children who were sitting State examinations and heard about the crises they were facing. Families suffer when they are unable to give their children security, routine, predictability and the ability to develop friendships. In such circumstances, the school often has to take over to a certain extent. It is sometimes the only safe place where a child can enjoy the routine he or she may have been used to. Being homeless affects every aspect of a child's education, including his or her behaviour, attendance, educational attainment and social response. The lack of cooking facilities in emergency homeless accommodation can mean that children do not get proper breakfasts and are unable to bring proper lunches to school. Schools have not received one element of communication or correspondence to explain how they should deal with such issues. It is absolutely at crisis point. Teachers and schools are trying to do their very best to support these children. They absolutely need that support. A cross-departmental approach, involving extra funding for non-DEIS schools and home school liaison, is needed. As many of these children are in non-DEIS schools, they are not getting the support of a teacher to help them to deal with their problems. These children have been failed by society on many levels. Our teachers and schools want to do the right thing. The parents of these children want to do the right thing. It is up to us to provide them with the supports they need. I commend the motion.
I am glad to have an opportunity to make a few points on this motion. I commend my colleagues who have introduced it. I particularly commend Deputy Thomas Byrne on his work over the years to highlight the impact of child homelessness on education. The work of the Children's Rights Alliance has been significant. It has produced a very good report and very good recommendations. There is no excuse for not seeking to implement all those recommendations as a matter of the utmost urgency. This motion seeks to establish a ring-fenced €5 million fund to provide additional things needed by homeless children when they are attending school. The money in question would be used for things like hot meals, clothing, books, psychological assessments and extracurricular activities. I suggest it is a modest amount, given the amount of money that is available to the Government. I know there are always competing priorities. When I think about the 1916 Proclamation, I am reminded that we are supposed to cherish "all the children of the nation equally". In that context, there can be no bigger priority than the 3,784 children who are currently homeless. The cost of addressing this would equate to €1,320 per child, if we look at it like that. I ask the Minister to petition the Department immediately, or to divert other funds as a matter of the utmost urgency to find the €5 million that is needed as an initial amount. If more money is available, the Minister should acquire it.
While I appreciate that the Minister, Deputy McHugh, is the Minister for Education and Skills, it is appropriate in the context of this motion that I raise housing issues with him too. We are engaged in an awful lot of superficial activity on the housing side. There is an awful lot of talk and an awful lot of commentary. There is an extreme lack of tangible action like the creation of supply, which means building. Our system of local authority house building is rife with duplication. We are telling experts in local authorities around the country that they can give private developers planning for 1,000 houses. When it comes to building ten houses in a place like Burtonport, Sligo, Roscommon or Collooney, we have to contend with an administrative merry-go-round of bureaucracy, which turns what the Government sees as a 59-week period for building houses into a six-year period in some instances. I fully support our efforts to meet our obligations to refugees. It is great that we can take our place in the international forum in bringing people to this country and giving them homes, but how is it that we are able to do that overnight? There is new centre in Moville, which is in the Minister's constituency. There is another new centre in Roscommon to cater for Syrians who badly need homes. I appreciate and support that, but why can we not do it for the 3,784 children who are homeless in our own country? I commend the motion. I ask the Minister to embrace the age-old principle that talk is cheap. It is time for tangible action. We have proposed some very workable solutions this afternoon.
No child asks to be homeless. No child deserves to be homeless. It behoves us to help in any way we can any poor child who finds himself or herself in homelessness. I am convinced that the field of education is an area in which we can work to ensure these children do not suffer any further disadvantage. It is a sad indictment of the Government that a motion of this nature needs to be brought to the floor of the Dáil. Even though six housing plans have been published, almost 4,000 children are living in emergency accommodation. I am sure this does not even reflect the true figure. The right to education is enshrined in the Constitution. This is the least any child deserves. The lack of a safe and comfortable place to call home is an obvious distraction to a child's ability to learn. This motion aims to address the matter in the absence of a credible housing plan.
A family of two adults and two children presented to my office last week. Their current home is a hotel bedroom. They have had to tolerate excessive noise late at night while enduring the cramped environs of a one-bedroom living facility. The parents advised me that their eight year old child is becoming really anxious and is falling behind dramatically in school. They are struggling to provide their children with fresh and nutritious school lunches because the lack of facilities means they have an over-reliance on convenience food. I am also helping a mother who has a special needs child. She chose the location where she currently resides because she does not drive. She wants her child to have the best start in life, given the intellectual needs of the child.
She has received notice from her landlord. With no empty houses in the locality, she will be required to move a distance away and make the long journey to and from school each day. What chance does a child have when the most basic of starts is not afforded to them? Being homeless presents enough adverse challenges, not to mind having the education process impeded also. I call on the Minister to support this motion.
I welcome the opportunity to speak this afternoon on this Private Members' motion brought before the House by my colleague, Deputy Thomas Byrne. I commend him on the work he has done in this area and in the general education portfolio.
Education is a significant issue for children, both in mainstream and special educational needs schools, who become homeless. Those who require learning supports are already vulnerable. When they become homeless, it becomes more critical.
Children in such circumstances tend to have to travel long journeys to school as their emergency accommodation tends to be far from where their school is based. Travelling back and forth can have a significant impact on them. Some families in such circumstances may not have the resources to travel these long journeys and they try to get their children into schools close to their emergency accommodation. However, this is not always possible. Schools can be at full capacity and extra spaces may not be available. In some cases, the families go without and this has major consequences for the children and family unit.
Students in emergency accommodation have issues when trying to do their homework or study for State examinations because their families often live in one or two small rooms. This places them at a major disadvantage in developing and progressing in educational circles. Children with learning difficulties or challenges which are categorised in some cases as special needs are at a more significant disadvantage because it is difficult for a school to put the necessary resources in place. A school must also have them approved by the Department but this can be difficult if the child is not attending the school for a long time. I know of children who were attending school in Kilcock, their family was put into emergency accommodation in Portlaoise but they were offered a home in Athy. That is the kind of problem with which we are dealing. It is how one develops a mechanism of dealing with that logistical problem. Schools applying for extra resources for children with special needs must go through an assessment and then make an application to the Department. Getting approval can be a protracted process in any event. The environment of emergency accommodation is negative for children and impacts on their education. More resources need to be put in place to assist families and children who find themselves homeless and in emergency accommodation. This will in turn assist in solving the issues raised by this motion.
I dtús báire, ba mhaith liom mo fháilte a ghabháil as an seans páirt a ghlacadh sa díospóireacht thábhachtach anocht, díospóireacht fadúda na daoine óga atá faoi bhrú, na tuismitheoirí uilig atá faoi bhrú agus na teaghlaigh éagsúla atá faoi bhrú fosta. Is léir go bhfuil míbhuntáistí agus deacrachtaí ann agus táim tiomanta chuig an gcothromas a bheith ag achan duine ag iarraidh cuidiú agus deiseanna fáchoinne na daoine óga go háirithe. Chomh maith leis sin, is é mo bharúil ná go mbeidh níos mó obair de dhíth leis an gcomhoibriú agus leis an gcomhpháirtíocht trasna na Ranna Rialtais. Sa Teach seo, tá dualgas orainn uilig agus tá freagracht orainn uilig as an réiteach a fháil. Tiocfaimid le chéile agus sin an fáth gur ghlac mé leis an motion seo.
I thank Fianna Fáil for tabling this important and complex motion. The Government has decided it will accept it but I will clarify some of the issues raised within it. I accept it on the basis that this is a complex issue and much more work is needed on the co-ordination between Departments. While some of the work has already started, we must remain vigilant in this regard. We owe that to the young people and to their families struggling with this problem because education is what is left when everything else is forgotten.
Under the Government's Rebuilding Ireland - Action Plan for Housing and Homelessness, a significant number of initiatives continue to be implemented to address the range of complex issues in the housing sector arising from the economic downturn. Tackling homelessness remains a key priority for the Government. As the delivery and supply of much needed homes continues to ramp up, further emergency accommodation has been added to the system, including additional emergency beds and family hubs. The focus is on preventing as many families and individuals as possible from becoming homeless, while exiting those experiencing homelessness from emergency accommodation as quickly as possible.
Budget 2019 contained an allocation of €146 million for the provision of homeless accommodation and related services by local authorities. This is an increase of over 25% on the 2018 allocation. This funding will ensure that local authorities can provide the best possible supports to those individuals and families experiencing homelessness until they can be supported to move into homes.
The Government fully recognises the importance of an inclusive education system for all, a system which embraces all children equally, equips them with the skills necessary to live the best life possible, to contribute to society and to reach their full potential. I am aware that homelessness among families with schoolgoing children can impact on school attendance, participation and retention. I am committed to providing an education system which breaks down barriers for children to allow them to participate fully in education. I am also committed to a system which gives them every opportunity not only to attend school but to have every opportunity to nurture their talents and bring out the very best in them. I tried to capture this with an Irish word we used in our three-year action plan, "cumasú", access and full potential through empowerment. I fully recognise the constitutional right of every child to attend school. I acknowledge the teachers and principals in the schools dealing with this every day.
The Private Members’ motion contains several accurate statements about the effects of homelessness on children in the education context, particularly the fact the school can be the constant in their lives which can offer a place of security, friendship, support and familiarity, while, equally importantly, allowing them to continue their education. I acknowledge the research carried out by the Children’s Rights Alliance, CRA, in this regard. However, I also have several issues with the motion. It suggests that the Government has no policy to cater for the educational needs of children who are homeless or living in emergency accommodation. It also suggests that neither the Action Plan for Education nor my Department’s statement of strategy 2019 to 2021 deal with this issue. This is not correct. The statement of strategy specifically references that my Department works with the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government to support a co-ordinated approach to homelessness as part of the homeless inter-agency group. One of the goals of the statement of strategy is to advance the progress of learners at risk of educational disadvantage to support them to achieve their potential. This includes all children at risk of educational disadvantage, including those experiencing homelessness without labelling children unnecessarily.
The action plan for education 2019 sets out that innovative approaches to improving the outcomes for learners at greatest risk of educational disadvantage will be explored. Again, this includes all children.
I mentioned co-ordination. There is co-ordination but we can do more and do better. We can look at new ways of doing things. We are open to suggestion. The Private Members' motion also proposes that the homelessness inter-agency group should be expanded to include representatives from my Department. Late last year, my Department was invited to participate on this group and is now represented there. As part of this group, and in other settings, my officials have been working with officials from other Departments and agencies to address the challenges.
The motion also proposes ring-fenced funding for schools in order to provide for the needs of children experiencing homelessness through the academic year. The needs of children experiencing homelessness are many which is why the Government’s response to the current situation involves a co-ordinated approach across all Departments and agencies. A significant amount of supports are provided across a range of Departments and agencies.
Delivering Equality of Opportunities in Schools, DEIS, provides additional supports. The approach is premised on the rationale that additional the resources and supports allocated to schools are based on the level of concentrated disadvantage. I fully recognise that some children experiencing homelessness may not attend DEIS schools. However, the support services provided by the National Educational Psychological Service, NEPS, and supports from Tusla educational welfare officers are available to all schools. The motion calls on the Government to develop appropriate professional development training for teachers. NEPS psychologists are available to provide advice and guidance to principals and teachers in relation to individual students’ needs. My Department has introduced programmes for initial teacher education.
The motion also calls on the Government to explore whether the July education programme might be expanded. The July provision scheme was specifically introduced to provide for students with autism spectrum disorders. We are reviewing the programme to see if it can be expanded. I will keep the House updated on that. Summer programmes are available to children who are homeless through school completion and other mechanisms. I am also happy to explore new ways of doing this.
All Tusla educational welfare services are aware of the challenges faced by families experiencing homelessness. The educational welfare services work with schools to put supports in place to assist these families. Educational welfare officers also assist homeless families to access school places close to their temporary accommodation if the family request this.
The school meals programme operated by the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection provides funding towards the provision of food to some 1,580 schools and organisations benefiting 250,000 children at a total cost of €57.6 million in 2019. The objective of the scheme is to provide regular, nutritious food to children who are unable, due to lack of good quality food, to take full advantage of the education provided to them.
I am sure that the House recognises the considerable suite of supports in place to support children experiencing homelessness in an educational context. That does not, in any way, diminish the very significant challenges faced by families and children who find themselves homeless. We know that emergency accommodation is simply that and can never be a substitute for a permanent home. As a Government, we are doing everything we can to improve housing supply while providing immediate-term supports for families.
I thank the Members for raising these issues. Their doing so has provided me with an opportunity to outline to the House the Government’s commitment to ensuring that children faced with educational disadvantage, including those children who are experiencing homelessness, are provided with every opportunity to participate in and flourish within the education system. We must continue to keep this matter live on the agenda. I thank Deputy Thomas Byrne and his colleagues for raising it this evening.
Sinn Féin will support the motion and I thank Deputy Thomas Byrne for tabling it and Deputy Fiona O'Loughlin who has had much input on this, particularly as chair of the Joint Committee on Education and Skills.
The motion calls on the Government to immediately collect information on the prevalence of children experiencing homelessness who do not have additional supports provided by the Department of Education and Skills and also calls for the establishment of a €5 million initial ring-fenced fund for schools to provide for the needs of children experiencing homelessness. It asks the Government to examine whether the July education programme could be extended to children who have experienced significant disruption to their education as a result of homelessness. The July programme applies to children with autism but at every available opportunity, I like to call for it to be extended to all children with additional needs. Sinn Féin supports its extension to children experiencing homelessness as it will provide them with some pattern and regularity in their lives. Many children living in emergency accommodation will say that school is the one consistent thing on which they can rely.
Sinn Féin agrees that it is outrageous that there is no Government policy to cater for the educational needs of children who are homeless or living in emergency accommodation. Their needs are not mentioned in either the action plan for education or the Department of Education and Skills statement of strategy 2019-2021. We also agree that many children experiencing homelessness do not attend DEIS schools and, therefore, do not have access to the same level of supports provided to students in those schools.
Responding to criticism of its inaction regarding the impacts of homelessness on children’s education, the Department of Education and Skills has stated that a range of resources are available to "support schools in dealing with identified additional educational needs, including needs which may arise for children who are experiencing homelessness". It has stated that this includes NEPS, which works through a problem solving and solution-oriented consultative approach in order to support schools to meet the needs of individual pupils. The Department also stated:
DEIS also provides additional supports to schools from disadvantaged communities. Schools use these additional resources to meet the identified needs of their pupil cohort, including the additional needs that may arise for pupils experiencing homelessness.
This is not good enough. We all know the reality of hardships struggles and challenges that children are currently facing and the Government has no co-ordinated strategy to tackle this. Meanwhile, with each day that passes, a child’s quality of education is being impacted upon.
Children living in temporary accommodation have to travel great distances just to arrive at school. The impact that this has, particularly on small, young children or if it goes on for a long period, is obvious. They are exhausted before the day even starts. We are damaging children’s futures by taking away their chances at a decent education.
Almost 4,000 children and young people in Ireland are homeless and living in emergency accommodation. Neither the Department of Education and Skills nor the State Examination Commission know how many children who are homeless will be sitting State exams this summer. This is because, in the main, candidates are entered for the junior cycle and leaving certificate examinations by their schools and the State Examination Commission has no information on the their residential status. No one is formally tracking these children and there is no specialised policy on their education needs in school. Despite the provisions the Department of Education and Skills indicates that it has in place, many teachers still feel under pressure and ill-equipped to support homeless students.
The overwhelming majority of homeless families and children are either living in family hubs or rooms in commercial hotels and bed and breakfast accommodation. In many cases, indeed probably in most cases, these hotels would have no cooking or cleaning facilities or suitable areas in which to study. Some of the hubs have study rooms or places which are suitable for that, but not all do and there are none in any of the commercial hotels. Students who are homeless may end up with significantly lower exam results than usual as a result of their accommodation situation.
Transportation is a major issue, particularly in rural areas. In Kilkenny, for example, there is one main hotel which provides emergency accommodation. It is located in Kilkenny city, which makes it difficult for those who live outside the city. It can also influence whether children are able to attend school at all. There are many issues which we need to tackle.
A survey carried out by the Irish Primary Principals Network found that the top three challenges for children who are either homeless or living in direct provision are anxiety, family issues and neglect. Homeless students face issues ranging from a lack of confidence, bullying, being singled out and losing friends as a result of their circumstances. These issues coincide with the stress students are under when it comes to exam preparations.
Aside from providing teachers with better resources and wraparound support to assist homeless students, it seems a vital aspect of helping those who are undertaking exams is providing them with suitable study spaces and accommodation.
Over the past two years, the Government has begun to move away from hotel accommodation towards the family hub model. However, we cannot normalise homelessness through the use of these hubs. We only need to look at direct provision and how that temporary solution has evolved. Schools must be able to draw on additional financial supports to provide for the needs of students experiencing homelessness such as school books, uniforms and transport and schools must be able to provide meals, homework clubs and supervised study for these students.
The Minister touched on the school completion programme, which is one of the best programmes that we have. It obviously needs to be expanded and resourced better. The programme had its budgets cut during the recessionary years and it has never had that restored. The work that they do for the small money that they get is incredible. Rather than cutting back on that programme, the Minister needs to expand it. I always think there is an argument for that programme going back into the Department of Education and Skills rather than being under the Department of Children and Youth Affairs.
While we support this important motion, we do not want a situation where we normalise homelessness. Obviously, the crucial solution to all of this is to provide people with homes, long-term housing solutions and rent security, and building more local authority housing and providing more options for first-time buyers. I merely make the point that we obviously need supports for people, particularly students who are homeless, but we do not want to get into a situation where we are nearly talking about it as if it is a normal phenomenon. Sinn Féin supports the motion.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on this Private Members' motion. I commend Fianna Fáil on bringing it forward.
I like the title of the Minister's speech, which is "Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world." I suppose that is true. How ironic that it is a quote from Nelson Mandela.
I welcome that the Minister stated he was "committed to providing an education system that breaks down barriers for children". Breaking down barriers and thinking outside the box is something we must do because the circumstances are different now than what they were ten or 20 years ago.
My colleague, Deputy Funchion, covered many issues but I want to look at the impact on families of emergency accommodation, be it hubs, hotel rooms or bed and breakfast accommodation, from a mental health perspective. It is well documented that children who experience homelessness show high levels of mental health issues. One of the significant ones that comes through my office week in, week out is that of parents, but also children, with severe high anxiety. When one is in a tight-knit little hub or room and there is a lot of friction in the family, the parents, many of whom have jobs but just cannot afford the crazy rents, are fighting. The children see this and the anxiety levels go up and up.
There is also an issue with stigma. We spoke about stigma within the mental health system, but the stigma of being homeless is soul-destroying. This is especially so for young teenagers, I suppose, because they are more clued in when they are going to school. The embarrassment of not bringing friends home starts social isolation. What happens is that children who live in emergency accommodation isolate themselves. This leads to another issue where they lose their social interaction skills, turn into loners and break their own self-esteem down. The knock-on effect of that, because one is still stuck in a small room, is that the parents see the exact same thing.
Some of the Members spoke a while ago about supports. We also must support the teachers 100% financially. Nobody expects to get anything for nothing: the way the country is now one would have to earn a disease now, one does not get it for free anymore. We also must properly resource training programmes for teachers. The onus is not only on teachers. The onus is on the community itself because, as I said, there is a horrible stigma attached to homelessness - there has always been a stigma attached to mental health.
The Minister also mentioned in his opening comments specific to Dublin that some, through the initiative of the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, could be entitled to free public transport. I would like to flag that need in rural areas. I guarantee that, although this is only April, we will be in here probably at the end August raising with the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport that children cannot even get on school buses in rural areas. It is merely another matter the Minister needs to flag.
I am conscious of the considerable impact, not only in classrooms, in schools and in the community, but on the individual, if we keep supporting and implementing policies that are damaging to the housing crisis. We have that currently. We have the national emergencies and the scandals in housing. Even though we support the motion, I reiterate it is Fianna Fáil that is keeping Fine Gael in power here and Deputy Thomas Byrne cannot talk out of both sides of his mouth. While we support the motion, let us be real and say that if we want to do something positive, let us do it and not talk about it.
I thank the Ceann Comhairle for the opportunity to speak and Deputy Thomas Byrne for bringing forward this motion.
I welcome that the Minister stated he accepts this motion and he is not objecting to it.
I also compliment the work the Children's Rights Alliance has put into it, and particularly Dr. Geraldine Scanlon and Ms Gráinne McKenna who compiled this report. Before Christmas, myself and Deputies Darragh O'Brien and Thomas Byrne met the Children's Rights Alliance and I am delighted it has come here this evening for this debate.
Yesterday, in the audio-visual room, they brought home the impacts on the families and on the children. When one goes into it, one hears of families getting up at 5.30 a.m. to ensure that they wake their children so that they catch the bus, and the children are falling asleep en route to school. There is shame and stigma, as other Deputies have said, attached to it. Sometimes they do not disclose to teachers what they are undertaking and what their hardship is because they do not want people to know and they do not want to reach out. I believe that if one has a mechanism of gathering that information, one can support such children who are coming in where the shame is removed from it.
At our meeting before Christmas, Deputy Darragh O'Brien spoke about a school in his area where there were a number of homeless families and where they help in providing the lunch box. Different classes bring in a spare lunch. Nobody knows who is providing the lunch or who that lunch is for, but it ensures that every child in the classroom will have a lunch. Some families do not have the opportunity to prepare. They do not have the funds to have a nutritionally balanced lunch with a piece of fruit, protein and carbohydrates, which we teach them all about. This motion is to ensure the gathering of data so that we can support such families.
The extension of the July provision to such children that we speak about in the motion is correct because these children are so exhausted they are losing out on education. I do not know how one could bring it about or how one would make it work, but they are missing out. It will impact them when they head into junior cycle or leaving certificate. It might not impact them at that particular point in time but if people continue in emergency accommodation for longer than six months, it has an impact. What of these children's right to education in the long term? They are in the position not of their own making. We should look at how we could support them. The best way we can support them is by providing the enhanced additional educational needs to ensure they can achieve in their junior certificate or leaving certificate so that they have a prosperous future.
On behalf of the Labour Party, I support this motion.
The factual information in the motion is self-evident in many of the schools in my constituency. Almost every school has had one or more of the families whose children attend experiencing homelessness, some for short periods of time. Some, for instance, experienced homelessness due to a disastrous fire in an apartment block almost two years ago.
People experience homelessness for a variety of different circumstances. Some have come to Ireland as immigrants from other countries and they are simply not in or able to get into the housing system.
Teachers in the schools have been doing their level best to support and empower such children and it is a really important contribution by teachers. If a message of hopelessness is conveyed to children, it would cause even further problems, as well as a loss of self-worth, for the children. That may be the instinct of people at times out of kindness but if we can find a way to create better lives for children while they are in homelessness, we would do them some service.
The Government should put an absolute limit on the amount of time that a child can spend in homelessness. There is much data, for example, around people who become unemployed when young and particularly young men. All the international data show that this impact carries on not just into their 20s and 30s but into their 40s and 50s, and it often triggers other problems. The parallel data on children experiencing homelessness indicates that children worry about themselves and why they do not have a place to do their homework. They worry about why their mum and dad are either fighting, upset or depressed when they do not have a home. I have seen it in children staying in hotels, whom I have met from time to time, that they almost become like small adults, looking out for the parents who they love.
People were very shocked by yesterday's shooting in Riversdale in my constituency of Dublin West. That was at a secondary school and the education and training board was able to immediately put in a fantastic set of supports. Approximately seven weeks ago, at the primary school at the other side of Corduff, there were two 20-year-olds on the street with guns. They did not shoot or kill anybody, which was a miracle. I was in the school and other schools in the area subsequently and the level of fear was palpable. Unfortunately, those schools have from time to time had experience of children whose families have not been able to get a proper home. The schools in the area have a counselling service through the school retention programme but Tusla and the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Zappone, cannot say if it will continue. That is the reason I was there.
This counselling service has a counsellor coming to the school, so if children want to talk to the counsellor because mammy and daddy do not have a house and are worried, for example, they can do it. The school principal can direct that action. However, the Minister and this Government cannot give an assurance that the service will continue. I raised the matter this morning with the Taoiseach and in fairness to him, he said he will look into it. These are big primary schools with large populations. They have 600 or 700 children. As the Minister knows from his visit to the schools in Tyrrelstown, most of the schools in Dublin West are big primary schools and much bigger than most of the primary schools in much of Donegal. This service is provided by Tusla and the school retention programme.
There could be an addition to the Fianna Fáil motion by looking at the school retention programme. There could be a structure around the proposed €5 million funding that partly involves Tusla and school breakfast clubs, which are a fantastic initiative. Children can go there early in the mornings and not only do they get food but, more important, they get a social space where they can sit and chat to other children, teachers and the people making breakfast. It is such a happy place where children can go. I am sure the Minister has probably seen several school breakfast clubs but these are really important structures that help children.
Will the Minister speak to his colleague, the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, and tell her not to let Tusla cut the supports that are so important to children affected by issues like homelessness? With an available counselling service, school principals can direct counsellor availability to children in particular. In one school, there are three children affected by homelessness because of a disastrous fire in the area. The school, including its parents' council and all its structures, reached out in a very caring and confidential way to help those affected families while alternative and permanent accommodation was found for them.
The other person that the Minister should perhaps arrange to meet is somebody I knew when I was a child in school. All the schools I attended are DEIS schools so I know what I am talking about. The Minister should meet Sr. Stanislaus Kennedy as she knows more than anybody else the impact of families living in bed and breakfasts or in a transient situation. She would certainly be able to direct the Minister to much of the current research on the impact on families and children.
A number of the proposals in the motion are very good. The Minister will be going to the teacher conferences in the next couple of weeks and he could put a programme together to meet people like home school liaison teachers. They are often the first people in the school, along with the principal or deputy principal, to deal with these matters. There is also the matter of teenagers who experience homelessness. Unfortunately, relationships in families may be very chaotic. If possible, the Government should move to supporting grandparents or other relatives who may be willing to give care or just be there for families.
The homelessness problem is growing in Dublin. I have seen the figures but in Dublin, for example, much of the extra accommodation taking up the building industry's time is aimed at students. We saw reports the other day that most student accommodation is being offered at approximately €250 per week so very few Irish students are able to afford it. This is absorbing a vast amount of building capacity and, unfortunately, very little of it is available for people who need permanent homes. It is something this Government must address.
The fact we are having such a discussion on education provision for homeless children is a sign of the crisis we have in our society. The discussion has moved on from preventing homelessness because of the Government's inability to do it. It has moved to ensuring the children who are homeless have the least affected experience as possible. It is utterly scandalous.
Over Christmas I was contacted by a teacher in the constituency of the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, who told me about a boy in his class. This boy had to have an operation, with eight teeth and a cyst removed. He needed somewhere to rest, recuperate and recover, according to the doctor's advice. Every day the boy turned up to school despite being unable to concentrate or pay attention. He had no choice because both he and his mother were living in emergency accommodation; there was a different bed and breakfast or hotel every day and they were turfed out every morning. He had no choice but to turn up to school, where he was utterly incapable of performing or achieving the required recovery. That is a result of the policies of this Government.
How can he receive an education and recover in those circumstances when they were unable even to get the very basic access to a homeless hub, which would have at least meant that he had somewhere to rest and recuperate? The Government is responsible for that, not just in the Minister's own constituency but around the country with almost 4,000 children now homeless. The consequences are devastating for children like that boy but also in the long run in terms of the mental and physical impact on their health. Decades into the future, society will pay a price for the crisis that has been created.
When one talks to homeless families, one of the first things they will always say is how they are managing with their children. Often the tale is one of trekking across the city in the case of Dublin to bring their children to this school, that school or a couple of schools and getting up very early in the morning. There are tales of not being able to prepare food and wash clothes and the impact of all of that in terms of their children being tired and hungry and sometimes not being able to access clean uniforms.
I thought some of the quotes in the excellent study by the Children's Rights Alliance were very striking and very similar to the stories that come to me and, I am sure, to others. One person said:
I could survive and not eat in the morning. I would not eat in the afternoon and wait for evening. I could manoeuvre that but children, they have to eat and even if they eat, they're still saying "I'm hungry". I can't pay for a bus when he has to eat and we can only walk so far. Sometimes when there's no money in my hand, I'm like "we really have to walk right now, you know" He's an understanding boy because he could see the situation and we had to walk. They had said to me about him constantly trying to go to sleep at the table in school and then getting frustrated and then not listening to what the teachers were saying.
We hear story after story like that.
The Government recognised this problem and promised to fix it. In 2016, it said no children would be staying in bed and breakfasts or hotels by July 2017. In fact, the situation has got worse. The response of the Minister last week or the week before regarding this contradiction between the promise made by the Government and the reality was not to promise to try harder but to withdraw the promise. It was to say that it was irresponsible to promise to end homelessness and that homelessness will always be with us. It is utterly shameful.
The answer is simple. It involves rejecting the logic of market, which makes people homeless; proper rent controls; and investment in public housing. The one light we have seen in the past week or so is the victory of those who organised together to resist evictions in Leeside in Cork. It shows that if people get organised and fight, they can win victories. It is an inspiration to the people in Exchange Hall. There are many children among this group who are facing mass eviction in Tallaght. It gives them inspiration to get organised and have protests this weekend but they should not have to do this because the Government should be passing legislation to prevent any evictions into homelessness.
It is utterly shameful that we even have to discuss providing supports for homeless children. The Children First guidelines define the abuse of children as involving the systematic neglect of their needs. By any standard, the State and the Government are responsible for the abuse of children. It is an abuse for any child to have to live in emergency homeless accommodation with all that goes with it. Before discussing the contents of this motion, the first commitment should be to eradicate child homelessness so we do not even have to discuss the supports that are necessary. I urge everybody who is enraged by this phenomenon to get out on the streets for the Raise the Roof demonstration on 18 May because this must be the defining issue of the forthcoming elections. We must use this election to put a bomb under this Government in terms of its failure to deal with this outrageous and shameful scandal.
I was talking to a friend who is a geneticist carrying out academic research on the impact of deprivation and homelessness on children. He put it to me in very simple terms. Deprivation, poverty and homelessness literally - biologically - get under someone's skin. A person is marked biologically for the rest of his or her life by these experiences in a way that is irreparable. The damage done to someone's mental and physical health will never be fully undone. It can be remediated somewhat by supports and a person's environment and situation subsequently but there is still trauma, physical damage to that person's body and vulnerability to disease and the development of his or her brain at every level is affected. Every day a child spends in emergency accommodation is doing permanent irreparable damage.
Most schools are discussing the homeless crisis currently. What is it like for a child sitting in the class when it is being discussed as some sociological phenomenon while the child is living in that situation and when he or she cannot bring his or her friends back home for sleepovers and so on? It is appalling and totally unnecessary when we have thousands of empty homes around the country and when people are making sickening and obscene profits from speculating on property, hoarding land, sitting on empty buildings and trying to evict people and we fail to address it because we are worried it will impact on the so-called market. The consequence is irreparable damage to children.
In a way, I am reluctant even to normalise this by talking about putting these supports in place but having said that, we have no choice. Obviously, to some extent, school is a place where that can be done so I support the measures Fianna Fáil has put forward in this motion. I would add another one involving transport. There is a significant problem with people being put in emergency hubs that are miles away. I have a number of cases, some of which I have raised here. In fairness to the Minister's office, particular cases have been dealt with but it should never have got to this point. Many other cases are not dealt with. They involve parents having to drive from Wicklow to bring their children to three different schools, sit in the car all day waiting for their children and then bring them back down to Wicklow without being given any support for the transport. It is unbelievable. These things must be addressed and real and targeted supports have to be provided for children we have failed who are suffering as a result of this Government's policies but, most importantly, we must eradicate this problem immediately. Otherwise, we will be guilty of the same sort of crimes that we now condemn such as the Magdalen laundries and the industrial schools and let us not forget the people in direct provision or children coming out of residential care who are homeless. The State is failing people in the most terrible way and we need to act quickly to resolve that.
I dtosach, is maith an deis í atá againn labhairt faoi leanaí agus daltaí scoile agus na fadhbanna agus na deacrachtaí atá acu. Tá sé dearfach go bhfuilimid go léir ar an leathanach céanna mar bhí mé ag éisteacht leis an díospóireacht ó mo oifig. Gabhaim aitheantas chuig Fianna Fáil agus chuig an Teachta go bhfuil an deis seo againn inniu. I acknowledge the teaching and ancillary staff, the home-school liaison, the guidance counsellors and the principals who support their students - not only those coming from bed and breakfasts, hubs and hotels but all pupils who present with a wide range of issues regardless of whether those issues are anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation, a tendency to act out violently, pregnancy, self-harm and addiction along with those with special needs, Traveller children who have difficulties and those children living with parents in addiction or in prison. They are issues that in the past would be more associated with second-level schools but are now presenting at primary level. That is the reality for many of our schools. Staff must deal with very significant pressures in the middle of a changing educational environment where there are more demands relating to governance not only for principals but also for staff. They involve paperwork, policies, plans and the constant revision of policies not to mention the extent of the circulars that come from the Department. This, of course, is particularly difficult for teaching principals.
So there is no doubt that as the motion suggests, there are particular issues for children coming from emergency accommodation. We know they cannot bring a friend over. There are no sleepovers and there is no personal space for homework. Sometimes there are difficulties in travel from the accommodation to the school. Parents do not want to change the school. There are difficulties with attendance and most importantly with nutrition because we know the lack of real cooking facilities means an over-reliance on takeaways and fast food leading to further increases in childhood obesity.
Then there is the difficulty these children face in keeping up with sports and extracurricular activities. We know that the more stable the background, the more progress in education. I acknowledge the extra supports many schools have put in place for these children. I know from my constituency, Dublin Central, that the after-school clubs, the homework clubs and the youth clubs are also providing support. While it is very important to look at the needs of those who are vulnerable and in emergency accommodation, we cannot forget about the needs of those children coming into school from very unsuitable accommodation and overcrowded accommodation, from homes where the parents have problems with addiction or are in prison. I wish to mention the specific needs of children in the north inner city whose lives have been affected by the feud. Again, it is the schools and the clubs that are picking up the pieces and providing the supports.
There are some very practical and modest steps in this Private Members' motion to ease the burden of living in emergency accommodation: a small amount for additional services; the July education programme; and more resources for home school liaison. Again, my experience of home school liaison from the north inner city is the phenomenal amount of work the officers do. They also work with foreign national children, whose parents in many cases do not speak English and are trying to navigate their way through bureaucracy. Equally, there is the work of the guidance counsellor.
I have already mentioned circulars. I see that one of the recommendations is for another circular to be sent to the schools, but I think the schools themselves could write that circular from their own experience of working with children coming from emergency accommodation and unsuitable accommodation. I do not want to forget any child who is coming into school from such poor accommodation because that is also having a massive impact.
I wish to mention another issue facing schools. I chair a school board of management and I was taken aback at the most recent board meeting to have received a letter from the National Council For Special Education. It went through the various options currently available: mainstream schooling with additional supports; placement in a special class within a mainstream school a reduced pupil-teacher ratio; or a special school setting. The letter included details on special classes, and I acknowledge the genuine tone of the letter in referring to ensuring "a continuum of educational provision" for children with special educational needs. The letter asked the board to consider establishing one or more special classes in our school. The next paragraph stated that when a special class is sanctioned, the school may be eligible for enhanced capitation, specialist staff training may be available and students may be able to avail of the school transport system. There is a need to replace the word "may" with that of "shall". The letter outlined other arrangements. In this case, unless I am going to be given a massive grant to put another floor on the school, there is no way we can take on extra classes.
There are practical and logical steps to make the burden of living in emergency accommodation less detrimental. It is important that we have the statistics in this regard and that we know exactly where the needs are in order that resources are directed there. Ultimately, however, it is about resolving the housing problem because then we would not have this issue.
This is a very important motion. Yesterday, Ms Tanya Ward, chief executive of the Children's Rights Alliance, and Ms Gráinne McKenna, an assistant professor at DCU, presented some of the findings of their report, Home Works: A Study on the Educational Needs of Children Experiencing Homelessness and Living in Emergency Accommodation. Reference was made to the 4,000 children who are homeless. The study reflects the issue we all know of and deal with week in and week out when we meet families with homeless children. We find echoes of the impact homelessness is having on the children's lives and their schooling when they sit in front of us and we see the anguish and disappointment on their faces. Deputy Boyd Barrett eloquently outlined earlier the disastrous impacts of homelessness on children.
It is more than four years since I brought this issue to the attention of the Ombudsman for Children, and over the past three years I have constantly raised it with the Minister, Deputy Zappone. It cannot go unsaid that we cannot accept a situation in which homeless children are a permanent feature of the Irish education system or Irish society. That would be a total outrage. While this hapless Government tries to come to grips with the matter, the aims of the motion before us are very valuable. Homework support grew out of the fact that teachers were noticing students arriving to school hungry and with difficulties in getting all their school gear and so on together on the way in. There is no guidance whatsoever available to schools when families or students tell them they are homeless. Principals and teachers have been doing their best in very difficult circumstances but are left looking for support and information themselves.
During research for the paper we heard yesterday, teachers told of how they sometimes brought in snacks to school for children and of children who started crying when putting on their coats because they were not going home, or at least not going to a forever home like the vast bulk of our children, but were going to a hotel or a family hub or whatever. In many cases, as the Minister knows from her constituents, children have to trek across the city, facing very early starts to get to school for 9 a.m. and then another big trek home. This is a totally unacceptable situation. It is extraordinary we have allowed this to develop in our country over the past decade. It is an appalling, shameful thing. It is not the children who should be embarrassed; it is we who should be embarrassed as a Dáil that has not brought this to an end.
The motion includes a very simple group of recommendations: a €5 million ring-fenced fund for schools; guidelines and recommendations to be sent to boards of management urgently; and representatives of the Department and the education system to be included in the Rebuilding Ireland action plan as we try to bring this horrible situation to an end. The Children's Rights Alliance particularly stressed the need for a small budget for schools to help deal with the needs of students experiencing homelessness; a teacher to be allocated to act as a support, just like a home school liaison officer; and the whole area of guidance. The motion before us has sought to address these matters. We support the motion and the reasonable request from Government, but it is appalling that we have allowed this situation to come to pass, that we have broken through the 10,000 barrier and that we are not taking urgent emergency steps to bring this whole situation to an end in order that our teachers, whose first priority, obviously, is the education of our young people, do not also have to deal with the suffering of children who are homeless.
I am glad to speak on this motion on educational supports for children experiencing homelessness. I compliment Deputy Thomas Byrne and his colleagues on bringing it forward.
We speak about the chaos in the United Kingdom Parliament as a national embarrassment to its politics, but the issue of child homelessness is equally a national embarrassment for this Parliament and the Government in particular. That is, if the Government could be embarrassed. I am of the view that it is past being embarrassed. It has not a morsel of shame. We simply cannot imagine the sense of disorientation children experience when they go through the trauma of finding themselves in emergency accommodation. I ask the House to just think about this. Any of us who has ever gone on holidays with our kids knows that after a day in a hotel they are frustrated and annoyed and want to get back to the familiar surroundings of a home, and they on holidays. I know very well one family who found themselves in this appalling situation an bhliain seo caite. Their nine year old deaf son was so affected that his speech development regressed by almost two years during about 12 or 14 weeks. This is the blackguarding and the neglect that the Government is wilfully perpetrating on young people.
We are here talking about the educational needs of children in homelessness. How much worse is it for children who already have special educational needs and who, even if they had a home, still often cannot access speech and language therapy or other services, an issue we raise here every second day of the week? The entire system of meeting the educational needs of children in crisis is badly broken - as I said this morning to the Taoiseach, beyond broken. I spoke today during Leaders' Questions about Tipperary, a big county 117 miles in length. The Minister has often told me she used to visit the Cahir meat factory in her younger days. There is not a single senior registrar for the child and adolescent mental health services, CAMHS, in the whole of County Tipperary. Is rud uafásach é sin. It is a scandal. There is not one CAMHS speech and language therapist for the whole of south Tipperary - níl aon duine ann. I welcome this motion and commend those who have brought it before the House.
I wonder what difference it is going to make and what notice the Minister, or the Government, is going to take of it.
The Government is incapable of being embarrassed anymore. It is brushing these issues off and ignoring Opposition motions, even those that have the support of the majority in the House. We saw that with the motion calling for the abolition of the JobPath programme some weeks ago. It was the same with the motion on post offices. That was unanimously accepted, even by the Taoiseach. The Government will ignore that at its peril. This is even worse. Young, sick, vulnerable children are being expected to live in hotel rooms. It is an outrage. History will not be kind to the Minister or the Government on this issue.
Homelessness is a real and serious problem in Ireland. There are 3,784 children now living in emergency accommodation. This Government does not have any policy in place to cater for the educational needs of children who are homeless or living in emergency accommodation. In addition, the needs of these homeless children are not even mentioned in the action plan for education nor in the Department of Education and Skills statement of strategy which covers the period from 2019-2021. It really is heads in the sand time with this Government.
This Government is letting down the education system in Ireland right across the board. I was contacted last year by many schools in my constituency in west Cork. The totally inadequate number of release days to teaching principals was highlighted to me, as well as the lack of regard for their mental and physical health given the increasingly unrealistic and unimaginable workload. I highlighted these concerns to the Minister. Today, however, we still have a situation where our young teachers are emigrating to other countries for better terms and more stability. All these factors affect our children in the education system.
The main concern when one talks to any teacher is always that of their students. I am on a school board of management. I know the struggles schools are going through daily. We have excellent young teaching principals in west Cork. I do not see them staying in their posts, however. They are working into the night to deal with the heavy workload they are being left with by a Government that is not even looking into the situation. This Government needs to accept that having a fully working educational system requires all of the cogs to be working together.
We saw major delays last year in processing the back to school clothing and footwear allowance. This placed serious additional pressure on families already struggling with limited incomes. My office is inundated every year with constituents having to fight to get places for their children on a school bus. All this is unacceptable. Parents have enough stress and worry already without adding all these unnecessary burdens. The closest school rule is a scandal in its own right and has been allowed continue by this House year after year.
I see many parents now fighting with Bus Éireann to try to get their child to school. Those parents are being told the school their children are going to is not the closest school. Measurements are being taken in areas where the bus never travels. That is being done to win the case and it might involve only 0.5 km or even just a few metres. In one case, a mistake was made where the route was measured through a farmyard. Any possible way is being used to cut the parent out from getting the right to have their child taken to school. The Minister of State is going to have to wake up to the problems out there. She will have to sit down with the people who might be able to create solutions. I would appreciate if she would at least do that for people.
I acknowledge and thank Deputy Byrne for bringing this important motion before the House. I also thank the Minister of State sincerely for coming to County Kerry last week and for going to Ardfert national school. Her visit was very well received. There was delight that she took time out of her schedule to go there. She was most welcome. Any time she might want to come back to Kerry and she has a bit of good news that she might bring with her, we will welcome her with open arms. There is no pressure but do not come empty-handed.
This is a most sincere and terribly important motion. I have dealt, as everyone else has, with families who have had terrible difficulty in getting their children to school because of homelessness and the disruption that causes in lives. The upset of not having a proper home, or a place that can be called a permanent home, creates much strife and upset. Schooling can fall to one side and that is why every possible measure has to be put in place to ensure stability for our young students. I say that because children and young people are at an important formative stage in their lives from six up to 12 or 13 years old. They need stability, routine, and the security of knowing their teachers and not being sent from Billy to Jack. Our teachers are willing and care about the students who come to them. All they want to do is help those students. It is up to us, as politicians, however, to make sure we put in place the measures, the funding and the requirements needed. It is bad enough if young people are suffering from uncertainty as to where their home is. We want to ensure that education will continue for students in that situation. That is crucially important and cannot be emphasised enough.
I turn to the structure of our schools and in particular our national schools. As Deputy Collins stated, many of boards of management are struggling trying to fundraise. Teachers and boards of management should be able to concentrate on education. Those people are not meant to be financial gurus. They are not supposed to have to be out having race nights, golfing classics and nights at the dogs to raise funds. That is not their job. Their job is to teach and educate people. They never signed up to be some sort of funding experts. It is not an election they are trying to fund. They are trying to educate young people. I feel very strongly about that. It seems to be the trend that schools are not getting enough from the Department and so they have to fundraise themselves. That is terribly unfair and it is putting an unfair burden on people. I thank Deputy Byrne again for bringing this motion before the House.
I also want to commend Deputy Byrne on bringing forward what is a most relevant and timely motion given more than 3,500 children are experiencing homelessness. Despite reassurances from the Government that it has plans in place to deal with this, I see no sign of the situation abating in the short term or medium term, unfortunately. The first priority for any child unfortunate enough to enter homelessness is to keep him or her in the same school to continue his or her education. It would be necessary, first of all, to try to place the family in temporary accommodation to allow that to happen.
The Minister's reply stated there is interaction between his Department and the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government. I suggest that needs to go further. There should be direct interaction with each homeless unit in each local authority. The people in those units know the exact situation on the ground. They also know the most suitable accommodation that would facilitate the child remaining in the school he or she is already going to. I ask the Minister to extend that interaction with each local authority to try to ensure the child is kept in the same school. The school would then be a place providing some level of happiness and security to the child while he or she is experiencing the very unfortunate situation of homelessness.
Other funding supports are also needed. I refer to education and nutritional supports. Those are critical. Bed and breakfast accommodation and hotels are not ideal places to provide the correct type of nutrition for a child. They could, however, receive properly nutritious food in an educational setting and that would be very helpful. Psychological and well-being supports are also very much needed. As mentioned by previous speakers, the extension of the July education provision for those experiencing learning difficulties and autism are other practical measures that could be taken on board to help those unfortunate children having to transition to and deal with homelessness. The school would be then, at least, a place of happiness and security while they are getting back into a secure environment.
Like many people, I get quite traumatised talking about this issue. It is an appalling failure of our system. Without bashing anybody, I want to impress on Government that 3,800 children are homeless. It is shameful and unacceptable. If we, as Parliament and as politicians, are not able to solve this problem, one would wonder what is our role.
Another aspect of this concerns me greatly. There is a certain resignation in society that this is the way it has to be. That is very sad. Can one imagine the trauma of a child this evening coming from school to a hotel room tonight? Can one imagine the trauma of a parent or parents dealing with that situation? Can one imagine the trauma of children who are not able to go to school in a normal and natural way and who hide from their friends the fact that they have no home and no roof over their heads? As we speak in this Chamber this evening, almost 4,000 children are in that situation. It traumatises me to the extent that I often wake up at night and think of my own two children, one of whom is now a young adult and one a teenager. I shudder to think about them being in that situation. I compare them with those people who I know are in this very traumatic situation.
The scars of homeless on our young people never go away. I assure the Minister of State of that. As has been already mentioned, this is now a nationwide problem; it is no longer urbanised. The fear and trauma it brings into people's lives is shocking. It raises the question, is our Constitution ruptured? What happened to "cherishing all the children of the nation equally"? Where has that gone? It does not mean anything any more because, especially in respect of homelessness, we definitely do not cherish all the children of the nation equally.
Deputy Thomas Byrne has been very much to the fore with outstanding ideas in respect of education matters over a number a years. In this document he mentions specific issues that could be dealt with. This issue is traumatic and sad. As a nation and a people, we cannot become resigned to the fact that this is the way it is going to be. It is not. We must make dramatic changes.
Figures released by the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government last week indicated that there are currently 3,784 children living in emergency accommodation. There is no apparent Government policy to cater for the educational needs of children who are homeless or living in emergency accommodation. Regardless of where a child is living, he or she needs the security of education - whether primary or secondary - in familiar surroundings with his or her friends. The Department of Education and Skills does not collect information on children in education who are experiencing homelessness nor does it have in place a specific strategy to support such children in this extremely challenging situation.
Children experiencing homelessness face massive disruption to their lives. Many have already experienced their family losing a home. Some may have experienced a relationship break-up or financial stress in the household. As a result, children's capacity for learning and ability to develop and retain relationships is negatively impacted. The challenges many families face when trying to remain positive and confident about their children's education when homeless and living in emergency accommodation, perhaps in a hub or hotel room, are absolutely immense. For many children, school is one of the only areas of stability in their lives.
I recently dealt with a young family who unfortunately became homeless in Dungarvan due to their rented accommodation becoming unavailable to them. The family of two adults and two children had to present to Waterford City and County Council in Waterford city as this is the only place in the county where homeless services are dealt with. They were subsequently accommodated in Waterford city on a temporary basis. The children, aged three and five, were enrolled in school in Dungarvan, which is an hour's travel from Waterford city by bus. As their accommodation was a short-term solution, the parents believed it was best to continue to bring their children to school in Dungarvan. Every day for six weeks, these young children undertook the two-hour return journey. While the children were in school the parents, one of whom had a disability, had to wait in Dungarvan until they finished school, each at a different time. Thankfully the family is now living back in Dungarvan, where their housing needs are met.
What struck me most about these parents was that, had it not been the case that the dad had free travel due to a disability, they would not have been able to afford the bus fares from Waterford to Dungarvan and back five days a week. That was the problem. Perhaps this is something the Minister of State could bring up with the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport. The family was lucky from the point of view that they had free travel which enabled them to keep the children in the security of their education. They also knew that their housing situation was going to last only a short length of time. This is not the case for all families. The fact that they would not have been able to afford this travel was the one issue this mother asked me to raise. I know that is not a matter only for the Department of Education and Skills, but for the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport. The cost of transport to maintain continuity of schooling for people who have to move outside their normal locations is an issue which certainly needs to be given consideration. We are all in agreement that continuity of schooling is very important for all children, regardless of where they live.
I thank Deputy Thomas Byrne for tabling this motion and I thank the Deputies who have spoken from the heart very much. I will preface my remarks by saying that I have 31 years' experience as a primary school teacher and principal. It is a tragedy that any child should be homeless and that any children going to school should have the burden of not having a safe roof over their heads. I want to thank a particular group of people - the battalion of teachers and school communities right across the country that help these children. These children are traumatised. Deputies have used all of the words of which I could think. They are burdened and upset. They do not have security and stability. They are not coming from a secure home and do not know that they can go home in the evening and enjoy a roof over their heads. I hear exactly what the Deputies are saying. I have been taking notes since I entered the Chamber and I will bring back these points to the Department of Education and Skills. Work is being carried out in the Department to support the teachers and children. I take the point that more needs to be done. We need more houses and we need to get roofs over these people's heads or we will be here again in the future talking about other children who are homeless.
To my very core, I believe that children's education is transformative and that nothing should interrupt it. Deputy Michael Healy-Rae mentioned that I had visited Ardfert national school. It was such a beautiful environment. The children were happy and confident in themselves. They were able to sing and they were delighted with their world, including their school world. They were able to compete for a Digital School of Distinction award. I would say that most of them had none of the worries of the children about whom we are talking today.
The education system is for every child regardless of background, economic status or, as in this case, living conditions. A child's right to attend school is enshrined in the Constitution.
The Government recognises the importance of an inclusive and all-embracing education situation. Never is it more important than in the case of children experiencing homelessness or living in emergency accommodation. School is their constant, their stable environment, the place where they learn the skills to cope with their situations, progress educationally, meet friends and be just children. The Department of Education and Skills and the Government as a whole fully recognise the barriers facing children from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds, including those experiencing homelessness. We have put in place various targeted measures to assist families and children in such circumstances. The Department provides DEIS schools with a suite of resources to support the inclusion of disadvantaged children in the education system. These include additional teaching posts, additional and enhanced funding, NEPS, support and priority access to continual professional development and the Centre for School Leadership.
I note the points made about collection of data and the fact that not all homeless children will attend DEIS schools. Collection of data in the Department is done via the primary online database, POD, and post-primary online database, P-POD, systems. Collection of data at school level is complicated, since not all children or parents will want to be identified within the school system as being homeless. The key issue is that, where a child is experiencing challenges that impact on his or her education, the school is in a position to access educational supports via NEPS and other resources available to the school. Where additional supports are required outside of the school system and are provided by other Departments and agencies, consideration will be given to how best to provide information to schools to assist in accessing those supports for children.
The identification of need, early intervention and prevention strategies are considered key components in supporting children who experience homelessness. NEPS works with schools through the Department's continuum of support framework. The NEPS model of service works through a problem-solving and solution-oriented consultative approach to supporting schools in meeting the needs of individual pupils. NEPS has played a central role in the development of the Department's well-being policy statement and the framework for practice, which was published last year, and it will be leading the implementation of this policy within schools over the next five years. The initiatives planned will provide schools with a framework for developing and promoting the well-being of all children and young people. In addition, NEPS psychologists support schools in implementing early intervention and prevention programmes such as the incredible years programme in primary schools and resilience building programmes, for example, the Friends programmes at primary and post-primary levels.
Students facing homelessness may have the same emotional and learning needs as other students, but the immediacy of those needs is heightened. NEPS supports the role of the school in identifying individual needs and, at a systems level, in the development of a culture and environment that supports connectedness and provides structure and stability, key elements that underpin learning and opportunity.
All schools will receive a 5% increase in capitation from September next. Over the course of the 2019-2020 school year, an additional €10 million will be allocated to primary and post-primary schools, of which €4 million will be allocated in 2019. This increase is the beginning of the process for the restoration of capitation, which is one of the actions included in the Action Plan for Education 2019.
For DEIS schools, the home-school community liaison, HSCL, scheme and the school completion programme, SCP, are core elements of the local strategy to support school attendance, participation and retention. HSCL co-ordinators engage with parents when they become aware of concerns raised by either the school or parents. Where appropriate, and if consented to by parents, referrals are made to the SCP and children then have access to before, during and after-school supports as well as holiday programmes provided by the SCP.
Eligible families can avail of the back to school clothing and footwear allowance from the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection to assist with the costs associated with returning to school each September. Conscious of the cost to families, the previous Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Bruton, provided in a circular issued to all schools in 2017 for measures to be adopted by schools to reduce the cost of school uniforms and other costs.
For children experiencing homelessness, school attendance can often be an issue for a variety of reasons. Tusla's educational welfare services are aware of the challenges faced by families experiencing homelessness. They work with schools to put supports in place to assist these families with issues that affect them in school. Tusla seeks to maximise attendance, participation and retention rates in school to try to ensure that the education placement does not break down and the protective factors of maintaining school engagement are capitalised on.
I express my gratitude to all sides of the House for supporting this motion. The result should be some action. I accept what colleagues have said. All of us, and certainly those of us in this party, want to end child homelessness. I agree with the statements that have been made to the effect that we do not want child homelessness and that we cannot afford as a society to normalise it. The truth is that we are dealing with a reality today that must be addressed, yet the educational issues relating to homelessness are not being addressed.
We all remember the case of a young lady who spoke on "Morning Ireland" last year. Amanda was a student preparing for her exams. She had spent two years living in a hotel room with her mother, her brother and her older sister, who returned to the family from college at weekends. She described her experience in the most visceral of terms, speaking of the impact of her situation on her long-term future and how it could stop her from going to college and so on.
A large body of work is required to addressed the ongoing homelessness and housing crisis. While the specific proposals in this motion are limited in scope, their target is to address the long-term harm that could otherwise result.
I will severely criticise a number of the points made by the Minister, Deputy McHugh, but I also acknowledge that the Minister of State has indicated that she will bring many of the issues raised back to the Department. The Minister claimed that it was not correct of our motion to assert there was no policy, but it was. There is no policy on this matter. He pointed to the fact that the Department of Education and Skills had been invited late last year to join the inter-agency group. That is welcome and I would have accepted an amendment to that effect, but it only happened late last year and the crisis is growing larger and larger. The Department's statement of strategy references the inter-agency group but prioritises student homelessness. While the Department is right to focus on that important issue in its consideration of homelessness, there is no strategy to deal with the homelessness of schoolchildren and its impact on their educational attainment. It is not right for the Minister to come to the House and state that there is.
There is no strategy or policy. There is simply a reference to everything else that is going on in the Department. I am told that homeless children are included because it refers to all children and that everyone who attends a school under the DEIS programme will benefit but that is not the point at all. There needs a much greater focus from the Department and it is not good enough to say that the innovative approaches to education in the action plan include all children. That is not good enough.
The Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy McHugh, after setting out the limited actions that his Department has taken, spoke about DEIS. One of the main points of this motion is that DEIS does not cover a significant number of the students involved. We acknowledge the supports that are provided through DEIS, and there should be more and we will come back to that at some point in this Dáil, but one of the points of the motion is that DEIS supports are simply not available to a sizeable amount of these children.
The idea that NEPS is routinely available to homeless children is not the case. Deputy Burton stated that the counselling service and the school retention service, which I do not think is directly related to homelessness, are under threat. The latter is delivered through Tusla and not the Department of Education and Skills. NEPS psychologists are certainly stretched beyond their capacity and I cannot imagine that they are giving much in the way of assistance to schools. It is misleading of the Government to state that they are.
I am glad the Minister indicated that he will look at July provision. That is being reviewed at the moment. It needs to be looked at and that is what the motion seeks. The motion looks for July provision to be considered in the cases of children who have missed significant amounts of school time.
When the Minister moved on from describing what his Department is doing, which I say is not much, he proceeded to refer to what the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, is doing. There was mention of transport across Dublin but that is not the point. The transport situation in rural areas, where these children are increasingly based perhaps because they are moving from Dublin, is absolutely chronic because they have to travel miles to get to school. That is preventing them getting to school at all or on time and that is the whole point of the motion. A totally different focus needs to be taken by the Department.
The Minister of State referred to Tusla's education and welfare service and the sooner that is merged with the Department of Education and Skills the better because there is a lack of joined-up thinking.
I compliment the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Zappone, on the work she has done. She has only a small Department but she has done her bit by placing some focus on this issue. There has been none of that in the Department of Education and Skills.
The Minister of State spoke about the school meals programme operated by the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection. That has its purpose, of course, but is not targeted at homeless children and we want to ensure that homeless children who are in danger of not having meals and unable to take part in the school day to the fullest extent possible have their needs met. That needs to be done whether through the Department of Education and Skills, the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection or both. It should be raised by the Department of Education and Skills at the inter-agency meetings. I would like to see the Department of Education and Skills putting items on the agenda at those meetings rather than just being there as a new member which was only invited along late last year.
We are making the choice to limit the potential of these children if we do not proactively tackle this problem. We are not equipping them with the skills they need to survive and thrive. We are, in effect, locking them into a cycle of poverty. If education lifted us out of the poverty of this country, the lack of it can mire people in poverty. We need to educate our people and ensure that everybody has the opportunity to be educated fully and properly.
On a side topic, the scandal of reduced hours in schools needs to be addressed. There are homeless children suffering as a result of reduced hours but those reductions also apply to children with special needs and others. The Minister for Education and Skills stated in reply to me yesterday, and I repeat it, that no school is entitled to shorten the school day for any child and children who are homeless should not have a shortened school day because of their family circumstances or the transport difficulties they face.
The experiences that homeless children are dealing with are already understood. Deputies Boyd Barrett and Paul Murphy referred to the long-term, incurable scarring effects of those experiences and I accept that. Longitudinal data from the US shows that homelessness impacts on behaviour, employability, relationships and brain development. We cannot allow this situation to continue.
It is welcome that the Government is not opposing the motion but I would rather it had simply amended it to point out that Department of Education and Skills had joined the inter-agency group last December. The Government might make a genuine effort to look at these issues and think of itself as a driver in this area and does not simply depend on Tusla, the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government, NEPS, particularly in areas where it effectively does not have a presence, or the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection. We need much more proactivity.
I welcome that the Minister of State has said that she will go back to the Department and take up these issues because they are brought here in a spirit of genuine constructive debate and on foot of the Children's Rights Alliance. That alliance is not a political organisation but represents many organisations around the country which are dealing with these issues on a day-to-day basis. It has access to some of the best researchers in the country.
I welcome Mr. John Boyle from the Irish National Teachers Organisation, INTO, and representatives of the Children's Rights Alliance to the Gallery. I thank them all for what they are doing. I hope this motion has shone a light on their work. I encourage anyone listening to the debate to read the Home Works report because it is searing to read the experiences of those children.
I have spoken to principals today and the whole issue of special needs, and especially children who are homeless with special education needs, is dreadful. The discontinuity of education is a major problem which has not really been addressed by anybody. These children have to repeatedly stop and start their education which is an extra burden above and beyond their colleagues who do not have traditional special educational needs. I think it is agreed by everybody that homelessness is a special educational need where it leads to gaps and breaks in a child's education or the shortening thereof. We have a duty, as a Legislature and Parliament, and the Government has a duty to respond to it much more thoroughly.
I thank everyone for their support. Fianna Fáil will certainly be pursuing this, as will the voluntary organisations, the NGOs, the Children's Rights Alliance and their members, and the teachers' unions and I encourage them to do so. They have seen that they have the support of everyone in the Dáil tonight and they will want to see action on that.
I again thank all my colleagues for supporting this motion. I also thank Mr. Shane Smyth in the Fianna Fáil research office for his support and work. I look forward to seeing results and, as everyone has said, let us end child homelessness.