Seanad debates

Thursday, 25 November 2021

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Education Schemes

10:30 am

Photo of Aisling DolanAisling Dolan (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Ossian Smyth, to the Seanad. I thank him for taking this Commencement matter, which is about the DEIS, that is, delivering equality of opportunity in schools. Schools have not been assessed for years for DEIS and, as such, schools cannot get DEIS status. This has been going on since 2015. A small number of schools were added in 2017 but no schools have since been added to the DEIS programme. This is a huge issue.

A Department of Education report states that schools in higher level of disadvantage are outside of the DEIS programme. DEIS supports include reduced class size, which means more staff, additional funding, access to literacy and numeracy programmes, the home-school community liaison which is funded through Tusla, the school completion programme to support students in second level to progress to third level, again funded through Tusla, and access to the school meals programme through the Department of Social Protection.

I first tabled a Commencement matter on this topic in April this year. In October, I made statements about the urgency of the DEIS identification model. I am again raising the issue today. In welcome the announcement by the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Humphreys, with regard to the roll-out of the hot school meals programme to a further 55,000 students. That is so welcome but, again, this is for existing DEIS schools. In the recent budget, the Government made available an additional €18 million for 2022, with €32 million planned for 2023, to extend the DEIS programme to schools with disadvantage. That is an increase of more than 20% in that budget. What is the status of the technical group that is putting together the model of DEIS school identification? This process has been going on for years. What are the elements and the eligibility criteria?I believe the Minister, Deputy Foley, has noted there will not be an application system for this programme. How, therefore, are schools to be evaluated? Is it going to be based on a census that is not happening until April of next year? Are we going to have to wait until the census and gathering of data is done? That is just not good enough.

In Ballinasloe we have a DEIS band 1 primary school with additional supports in place for children, though Scoil an Chroi Naofa is still awaiting capital funding for a school building. However, there are no supports at secondary school level in my town. Perhaps we are very special in my town and disadvantage disappears at the age of 12. It is just magically gone - poof, and there is no disadvantage. That would be absolutely fantastic but in the real world that is not the case. I repeat the quote from the home school community liaison, HSCL, there who stated:

The retention of pupils following transfer to secondary school here in Ballinasloe, particularly amongst boys, is challenging. Children leave sixth class having had huge levels of support in primary with DEIS initiatives such as the breakfast club, school lunches, homework club, HSCL and SCP support, affordable book rental schemes, parenting courses, one-to-one pupil parent support targeted at work and attendance including regular home visits with the HSCL and educational welfare officers and so on. These supports are not available in non-DEIS secondary schools. As such, pupils start out in secondary schools at a disadvantage. They quickly disengage and then ultimately we are faced with school drop-outs.

I have also received a letter from a principal in Gortaganny, Loughglinn, County Roscommon. Loughglinn is on the county boundary with Mayo. It is less than 5 km to Ballyhaunis and it is very close to the direct provision centre. In 2014, the school applied for DEIS status and was unsuccessful. There are 89 pupils, 23 of whom are from the direct provision centre. The school reapplied in 2017 and again was unsuccessful. At the moment, over 62% of the children in the school in Loughglinn are coming from direct provision centres. These children are at huge disadvantage. They probably do not even have English as their first language. They need things like first steps reading recovery and maths recovery. It would be invaluable. They need extra support. The current Miss Ireland, Pamela Uba, is a former pupil of the school and would have resided in the direct provision centre in Ballyhaunis. It is all about equality and inclusion but there is no equality of opportunity when children and schools in areas of severe disadvantage cannot access supports.

Photo of Ossian SmythOssian Smyth (Dún Laoghaire, Green Party)
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I am answering on behalf of the Minister for Education, Deputy Foley.

I thank the Senator for raising this issue about DEIS schools. Delivering Equality of Opportunity in Schools is the main policy initiative of this Government to tackle educational disadvantage at school level. Budget 2022 has provided for an allocation of €18 million for 2022 and €32 million for 2023 to extend the DEIS programme to further schools with the highest levels of disadvantage. This represents an increase in funding for the DEIS programme of over one fifth. This year the Department of Education will spend in the region of €150 million on providing supports for schools in DEIS. The programme supports 884 schools and over 180,000 learners. This investment includes providing for over 400 home school community liaison co-ordinators, in the region of €16 million in DEIS grants, additional posts for DEIS band 1 primary schools, curriculum supports, enhanced book grants and access to the school completion programme. Schools in the DEIS programme can also avail of the school meals programme which is provided by the Department of Social Protection.

This package follows an extensive body of work which has been undertaken by the DEIS technical group regarding the development of a model to identify the concentrated levels of disadvantage of schools. This group contains representatives of the Department of Education's statistics and social inclusion units, the inspectorate and the Educational Research Centre. This work involved an initial process of consultation by the Department with the education partners on the technical aspects of the model. The purpose is to ensure that, as far as possible, the refined DEIS identification model can provide an objective and independent means of identifying schools serving high concentrations of pupils at risk of educational disadvantage and also to ensure there is a full understanding of the refined model and its potential application.

The DEIS identification process under DEIS plan 2017 is an objective, statistics-based process, based on school enrolment data and Central Statistics Office data from the national census of population as represented in the Pobal HP index for small areas, which is a method of measuring the relative affluence or disadvantage of a particular geographical area. It is important to note that schools are not required to apply for inclusion in the DEIS programme and all schools will be considered under the refined model. It is also important to note that educational outcomes do not play any part in the identification of schools for inclusion in the DEIS programme at either primary or post-primary level.

The programme for Government set out a commitment to: "Complete the new DEIS identification model, ensuring the extension of DEIS status to schools that are identified as being suitable". This additional funding under budget 2022 has been provided for the extension of DEIS supports to those schools with the highest levels of concentrated educational disadvantage that are not currently in the programme and will allow for that commitment to be achieved. I thank the Senator for raising this matter.

Photo of Aisling DolanAisling Dolan (Fine Gael)
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I understand the Minister, Deputy Foley, is not present but as the Minister of State is the representative of the Government today, I must tell him I do not see the timeline in the response. Is there a timeline for when we are going to see the identification model being completed? When is that? Is it going to be as a result of the census? Is that the reason it has been held back? These schools and these children are at concentrated levels of educational disadvantage. The last amount allocated funding under this programme was in 2017. It is crucial we allow even the smallest of supports. How can the Department of Social Protection allocate hot meals programmes to schools outside of DEIS? How can it justify that when it knows others schools are at a higher level of disadvantage? How is it going to do that? The Department of Social Protection cannot do it until the Department of Education decides we have got an actual model it can use for the allocation of schools into DEIS. We do not have that right now and I see no timeline in the Minister of State's reply for when it is going to happen.

Photo of Ossian SmythOssian Smyth (Dún Laoghaire, Green Party)
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I thank the Senator. Her question is about timelines. She asked when the model is going to be ready and when additional schools are going to be added. I would need to ask the Minister, Deputy Foley, for her response to that and I can come back to the Senator through my office if she contacts my office directly. I have no problem with that. As she has seen, there has been a huge increase in funding for DEIS schools and many new programmes. That does create the situation where other schools wish to be included in DEIS, or feel they should be, as well as a desire to see what the outcome of the new model is going to be. I commit to coming back to the Senator on that.

Photo of Tim LombardTim Lombard (Fine Gael)
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I acknowledge the commitment the Minister of State has made to the House. Coming in to take four Commencement debates is no mean feat and his commitment to us is duly noted.

Sitting suspended at 11.18 a.m. and resumed at 11.31 a.m.