Wednesday, 21 January 2004
National Educational Welfare Board.
I thank the Minister of State for coming to the House. I wish to refer to the new National Educational Welfare Board which I welcome. As the House is aware, the Educational Welfare Act 2000 became fully operational in July 2002. I understand a budget of €5.4 million was allocated for 2003. My query relates to areas of concentrated disadvantage — for example, the RAPID areas — and to children at risk. It is important that children, who are not currently receiving an education, receive priority.
I received word from the National Educational Welfare Board that six cities and 12 regional towns will shortly have an intensive service to work with schools and families to ensure children attend school regularly. I was disappointed that Tuam and Ballinasloe were not included in the initial phase. It is important these towns have a welfare service. We have come a long way since the time the gardaí had a statutory role in rural areas in looking after the welfare of children, particularly their attendance at school. Some cities had school attendance officers but those in rural areas were used to the gardaí performing that role. Although the gardaí have a voluntary role and there are many excellent ad hoc committees involving social workers, the juvenile liaison officer scheme and principal teachers, towns in the RAPID designation should benefit from this scheme.
I understand up to 73 staff may be appointed and that there is a budget of €5.7 million for 2004, which is not enough money. I do not know whether we know the real need for the service. That should be investigated first. Nine counties were not included in the scheme. It is important that the service is available to towns in the RAPID area. The Department has designated those areas. Up to now, it has designated some schools as disadvantaged. They have provided remedial teaching. I would like to see the report on early education completed by the Committee on Education and Science in the last Oireachtas. The rapporteurs were Deputy Richard Bruton and Senator Fintan Coogan. They recommended in particular that there be a very early point of contact with homes in the specific towns and cities designated. The example they gave was the public health nursing service, which obviously provided a service for newly born children. It is a very early point of contact for families and if that sort of service was available, it would be very welcome.
Another proposal I could mention was that an individual education plan be made available for each child at a very early age. It is very important that there is early intervention. That is why I like the idea of the educational welfare service and the employment of educational welfare officers. The regions are very important in that regard. We must have the service in the regions. I understand there are five regions throughout the country. We are in the north west region and I presume we will have a service from Galway city. However, it is bluntly stated here that there will be no service in the towns of Tuam or Ballinasloe. I am interested in another sentence where the CEO states that the board will follow up urgent cases nationally where children are not receiving education. I would like to know how that will be done since I cannot see how a board will be able to do that nationally when we do not have the service in the towns I mentioned.
Once again, I welcome the fact that I have had this opportunity to raise the issue and hope that we will very soon have those welfare officers available in all the various towns in the RAPID areas and the disadvantaged towns.
It is somewhat unusual that I rise to reply to my brother regarding a part of the world where I was born and raised and with which I am very familiar. I feel privileged to have this opportunity to talk about the issue.
I thank the Senator for giving me the opportunity, on behalf of the Department of Education and Science, to clarify the position regarding the appointment of educational welfare officers to the towns of Tuam and Ballinasloe in County Galway. The Education (Welfare) Act 2000 established the National Educational Welfare Board as the single national body with responsibility for school attendance. The Act provides a comprehensive framework promoting regular school attendance and tackling the problems of absenteeism and early school leaving.
To discharge its responsibilities, the board is developing a nationwide service that is accessible to schools, parents or guardians and others concerned with the welfare of young people. For that purpose, educational welfare officers, or EWOs, are being appointed and deployed throughout the country to provide a welfare-focused service to support regular school attendance and discharge the board's functions locally.
The board has appointed a chief executive officer, directors of corporate services and educational welfare services and a management team of eight staff. To date, 53 educational welfare staff have been appointed. That includes 29 former school attendance officers who transferred to the board from the existing service. The board has recently advertised a competition to fill a further 15 vacancies which will bring the total staff complement to 84.
At this stage of its development, the aim of the board is to provide a service to the most disadvantaged areas, including areas designated under the Government's RAPID programme and most at risk groups. Five regional teams have now been established with bases in Dublin, Cork, Limerick, Galway and Waterford and an educational welfare service is now available, for the first time, in the cities of Limerick, Galway and Kilkenny. Twelve towns with significant school-going populations, 11 of which are designated under the Government's RAPID programme, also now have an educational welfare officer allocated to them. Those towns are Dundalk, Drogheda, Navan, Athlone, Carlow, Wexford, Bray, Clonmel, Tralee, Ennis, Sligo and Letterkenny. In addition, the board will follow up urgent cases nationally, including in the towns of Tuam and Ballinasloe, where children are not currently receiving an education. Decisions regarding the assignment of staff to specific areas are a matter for the board, which is an independent statutory body. In 2004, the board will receive the first comprehensive data returns from schools and those will assist it in keeping the level of need for the new service in particular areas under review.
The board has also moved to provide a service to families who decide to have their children educated in places other than in recognised schools. A small number of people with the appropriate skills have been allocated to this work and assessments will commence shortly. The Department of Education and Science recently issued guidelines to assist the board in meeting its responsibilities in that area. An information leaflet and an application form are being prepared for issue to families who are educating their children at home.
Work is also proceeding on the establishment of the register for 16 and 17 year olds who leave school to enter employment. The board is also ensuring that information concerning the Act and the work of the board generally is made available to schools, parents and others as soon as possible. An introductory letter was issued to all schools last March. Guidelines are being prepared for schools on the reporting of student absences and a protocol outlining the interaction between schools and educational welfare staff is being developed with the assistance of the school implementation group recently established by the board. That group provides for consultation and collaboration between the board and school managers, principals, teachers and parents.
There is a range of schemes, initiatives and services dealing with educational disadvantage at both primary and post-primary level. Those include the school completion programme, the visiting teacher service for Travellers and the home-school-community liaison scheme. Each of those schemes contributes in a very positive way to promoting the education of children and young people. It is important that those schemes and the board co-operate with one another to ensure that there is a continuum of service to the child who may be at risk.
In that context, and as provided for under section 10 of the Act, it has been arranged that the Department of Education and Science work with the board to ensure that any opportunities for integrated working between educational welfare officers and staff on other educational disadvantage programmes, whose work involves an attendance element, are exploited to the maximum. The Department considers the implementation of protocols for such integrated working on attendance matters to be very important. When in place, those will assist the NEWB in carrying out its remit and ensure that all available existing resources are utilised to the optimum.
The provision for the NEWB in 2004 is €5.7 million. The provision has been determined in the light of developments to date, the overall resources available and the need to ensure a collaborative and co-operative approach by all involved in addressing issues of disadvantage. I trust this clarifies the position on this matter for the Senator and I thank him for raising this important and urgent issue.