Seanad debates

Tuesday, 27 January 2015

Commencement Matters

School Completion Programme

3:15 pm

Photo of Hildegarde NaughtonHildegarde Naughton (Fine Gael)
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I thank the Minister for being present. The school completion programme is a targeted support service for pupils in DEIS schools. It is targeted at pupils at risk of not benefiting appropriately from education due to economic or social advantage. This is most apparent in early school leavers and those with poor attendance or a lack of achievement relative to their peers. The programme has been successful in addressing these issues since it was established in 2002.

It was funded and directed by the Department of Education and Science. In 2010 the SCP was brought under the remit of the National Educational Welfare Board and it moved to the Department of Children and Youth Affairs. From 1 January 2014, the SCP was brought into the newly established Child and Family Agency, Tusla, and forms part of the educational welfare service of the agency along with the educational welfare officers and the home-school liaison scheme. The programme supports 36,000 young people in schools. It is the only service within the three strands of the educational welfare service of Tusla that works on the ground in schools to support the most marginalised and vulnerable children in the education system.

I was contacted by a representative of the local management committee of the Galway city east school completion programme who wished to highlight the impact of continual budget cuts to the programme and specifically on its project which supports targeted students in seven DEIS schools on the east side of Galway city: Scoil na Trionoide Naofa, Mervue; St. Michael's national school, Mervue; Scoil San Phroinsías, Tirellan; Scoil Chaitríona junior and senior, Renmore; Castlegar national school; and Galway Community College.

Between 2008 and 2014, the Galway city east completion programme lost 22% of its funding due to continual reductions in budget allocation. The figure nationally is 33% in overall funding reduction. In the Galway city east area in 2013 and 2014, the project was forced to reduce staffing from September 2013. The hours of the most junior project workers were reduced from 35 to 20 hours per week and four part-time homework club assistants, three of whom had been employed by the project since 2006, were made redundant. This resulted in 38 fewer targeted students during 2013 and 2014 compared with the previous year. Some 48 fewer places were available to targeted students for homework support and it was no longer possible to provide 80 places on its two-week long summer camps.

There remains strong demand for this service nationally. While I accept that with the near bankruptcy of the country very difficult decisions had to be made, I now ask the Minister to commit to looking at this service again. The school completion programme is under enormous pressure. One of the main concerns is that since the programme was incorporated within the Child and Family Agency, the budget it brought with it was not ring-fenced. This is causing huge unease within the scheme for those charged with delivering the service nationally. It is simply impossible to have certainty about programmes or to plan effectively without having a ring-fenced budget. I therefore ask the Minister to look again at the area with a view to increasing the funding if possible and at least to ensure that where moneys are available to the service that they are ring-fenced for the school completion programme.

3:20 pm

Photo of James ReillyJames Reilly (Minister, Department of Health; Dublin North, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Senator for raising this matter. As she rightly said, the school completion programme aims to retain young people in the formal education system to completion of senior cycle and to improve the school attendance, participation and retention of its target cohort generally. It is a targeted intervention aimed at those school communities identified through the Department of Education and Skills DEIS action plan for educational inclusion. It involves 124 locally managed projects and related initiatives operating across 470 primary and 224 post primary schools to provide targeted supports to approximately 36,000 children and young people.

Since 1 January 2014, the Child and Family Agency has had operational responsibility for the school completion programme, including the allocation of funds to local projects. In 2014, an allocation of €24.756 million has been provided for the school completion programme. The programme is one of three service strands within the continuum of education welfare service being implemented by Tusla, the Child and Family Agency, to support children, their families and schools. The other service strands are the home-school-community liaison scheme and the educational welfare service.

The agency has approved local projects' school retention plans for the 2014-15 academic year. The amount provided for 2014-15 for the school completion programme takes account of the savings requirements in the comprehensive review of expenditure for 2012 to 2014. The first two instalment of 2014-15 funding issued to local projects in September and December, and a third instalment is due in May 2015.

The Estimate for the Child and Family Agency for 2015 is €631 million, a 4.3% increase on its 2014 allocation.

The Department recently issued a performance statement to the agency under section 45 of the Child and Family Agency Act 2013. It includes my priorities for consideration in the development of the agency's 2015 business plan. The business plan will set out the agency’s proposed activities, programmes and priorities for 2015, including provision for the school completion programme in the light of the moneys available. A review of the school completion programme has commenced. The review is an important initiative in planning for the future development of the programme. It is anticipated that the review will assist in identifying the reforms necessary to consolidate the programme on a sustainable footing for the future and to ensure it is in line with the aims of Better Outcomes, Brighter Futures, the national policy framework for children and young people 2014-20.

The aim is to ensure available funds are targeted at those services that provide the greatest contribution to good educational outcomes for children and young people at risk of educational disadvantage. The review will, among other things, examine the school completion programme structures and how they can best support an integrated approach to address early school leaving. It will analyse the interventions provided and make recommendations for evidence and formal supports designed to secure the best educational outcomes for young people. The plan for the review includes arrangements to capture the views of a range of stakeholders, including staff and all those involved in the organisation and administration of the school completion programme. It includes a survey to gather the views of project co-ordinators and chairpersons of the 124 local school completion programme projects throughout the country, case studies of projects involving staff and participating schools in interviews with national stakeholders who have a direct interest in the programme.

Preliminary information gathered on it indicates that the school completion programme encompasses a broad and diverse range of measures and interventions that have been developed by local projects during the years. I hope that following the review, we will be in a better position to learn more about the most successful of these and to share that learning across the school completion programme for the greater benefit of all the children participating. It is envisaged that the review will be completed during the 2014-15 academic year.

3:25 pm

Photo of Hildegarde NaughtonHildegarde Naughton (Fine Gael)
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I thank the Minister for his response and welcome the review. It is important that we study programmes, how they work and how we can target vulnerable young people living within the community. The major concern for those who do this work in communities is the fear that if they do not have a ring-fenced budget, if they are part of another organisation and there are demands in other areas, money may be siphoned off to meet other demands. We all appreciate the need for efficiencies and to make sure programmes are run effectively with the best outcomes for students and young people. The primary concern is that by being brought under the Child and Family Agency and because of the fact that there is no targeted, ring-fenced budget the scheme will lose out. That is the bottom line and I would appreciate it if the Minister responded to this point. I know that a review is taking place, but many of the people doing great work under the scheme would be very relieved if they could get some commitment that the budget for it would be ring-fenced.

Photo of James ReillyJames Reilly (Minister, Department of Health; Dublin North, Fine Gael)
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There have been articles in the media about the school completion programme funding and the reductions in funding that have taken place in recent years. Media coverage has focused particularly on the ability of some local school completion programme projects to provide school breakfasts and more generally the impact on school attendance. The Child and Family Agency works closely with local management committees, schools and local school completion programme co-ordinators to assist projects to deliver their services to young people in disadvantaged areas having regard to the resources available to them. It is important to note that it is a matter for the local school completion programme projects and individual schools to determine the range of supports they prioritise for pupils within the resources made available to them under the programme. The aim of the review is to examine those things that work well and those that do not work so well to see if they could be improved and ensure the money is spent in a way that gives maximum benefit for the children and achieves our goal of keeping as many children as possible in school for as long as possible in order that they can complete their education and reach their full potential.

The review will look at what works well and examine what does not work so well and see if it can be improved. It is also to ensure the money is spent in a way that gives maximum benefit to the children and achieves our goal of keeping as many children in school for as long as possible so that they can complete their education and reach their full potential. The review has been carried out by the ESRI so it brings a degree of independence and rigour in which we can all have confidence. It is not intended to be used as a way of reducing the funding of these programmes but rather to ensure we get the maximum benefit for children from them.

Sitting suspended at 3.20 p.m. and resumed at 3.40 p.m.