Seanad debates

Thursday, 12 May 2022

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Education Welfare Service

10:30 am

Photo of Mark DalyMark Daly (Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Peter Burke, to the House.

Photo of Fiona O'LoughlinFiona O'Loughlin (Fianna Fail)
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On 30 March, a conference took place down the road from here that celebrated 20 years of the school completion programme, SCP. The conference gave people the opportunity to hear about the transformative work that happened in schools and communities as a result of the programme. The Taoiseach, who established the programme as he was the Minister for Education at the time, acknowledged all of the terrific work as did the current Minister for Education, Deputy Norma Foley. I wish to acknowledge the SCP work that has been carried throughout the country.

I appreciate that the Cathaoirleach accepted my Commencement matter that seeks an update on the Curragh-Kildare school completion programme and calls for necessary supports to be provided to enable the programme to carry out its work. Recently, I was contacted by the acting chair of the Curragh-Kildare school completion programme cluster, which consists of Kildare Town Community School, which has more than 1,000 pupils, St. Brigid's primary school, which has more than 1,000 pupils, as well as the Curragh post-primary school and the Curragh amalgamated primary school. The cluster has been supported since 2006 by the school completion programme. It has done a lot of really good work. The cluster works with children at primary and post-primary levels who are at risk of not completing their schooling, which is hugely important within any community and town. One school home-school liaison teacher has been assigned to one of these primary schools, so a huge amount of work needs to be carried out.

During Christmas 2021, local schools received an email informing them that the current educational welfare officer would leave in the next two weeks, which had the result that many priority cases had to be closed. A suggestion was made that the school completion programme and the one home-school liaison person could continue to support the remaining families as best they could. Since then the local schools have sought an update on the appointment of a new educational welfare officer but to no avail. They have been left with no contact and no support for six months. These schools do their very best to support their pupils and their families but they cannot do that on their own without proper enforcement and follow-up at a formal level by an educational welfare officer. The deterioration in attendance has been frightening and, quite frankly, unforgivable. These schools need external supports and without that schools are powerless, and defenceless, against investigation by the Ombudsman for Children.It is insulting that this situation has been allowed to continue. It is a slap in the face for the teams within the schools and shows a complete disregard for the years of work that they have put into supporting the programme and the target families. They have been left high and dry. It is absolutely time that action was taken here. It is time that the calls from these schools were heard at the highest levels. That is why I am raising it today.

It should not be this difficult and school completion programmes should be able to access something as basic as an educational welfare officer. It is unacceptable that the adequate support is not being given. This cluster of schools caters for almost 2,400 students in the Delivering Equality of Opportunity in Schools, DEIS, initiative who are in schools in bands 1 and 2, and many of whom have substantial care needs. That there is no forethought or preparations for continued provision for the continuity of support is simply not acceptable.

Photo of Peter BurkePeter Burke (Longford-Westmeath, Fine Gael)
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I thank Senator O'Loughlin for raising her Commencement matter and I apologise for the absence of the Minister for Education. Senator O'Loughlin sets out quite well and very clearly the merit and importance of the educational welfare officer and the repercussions if such an officer is not in situat a very important time in the development of children.

DEIS is the main policy initiative of the Department to address educational disadvantage at school level. Currently, 884 schools and more than 180,000 students benefit from the DEIS programme. The Minister, Deputy Foley, recently announced the expansion of the DEIS programme to an additional 310 schools, with 37 existing DEIS schools upgraded. This means that in the 2022-23 school year, there will be 1,194 schools in the DEIS programme serving over 240,000 students or nearly one in four students. This will also mean a €32 million increase in the Department's expenditure on the DEIS programme for 2023. This is the largest-ever single increase in the investment in the programme and will extend DEIS status to schools serving the highest proportions of pupils at risk of educational disadvantage.

The school completion programme was established in 2002 by the Department to support the retention of young people in education. It was integrated into the school support programme provided under DEIS in 2005 and is now one of the key DEIS supports. The school completion programme is a key component of Tusla education support service, TESS. The programme is targeted to support primary and post-primary children and young people who have been identified as potentially at risk of early school leaving, or who are out of school and have not successfully transferred to education outside of the school system or into employment.

The Curragh, County Kildare, school completion programme comprises two local primary schools and two post-primary schools. The total funding provided to the Curragh school completion programme by TESS is in the region of €170,000 per annum. The project provides targeted supports to young people identified as requiring support. In addition, universal supports are given to some 500 students. More than 700 young people receive interventions, ranging from intensive supports multiple times weekly to after-school supports and school holiday programmes. The project also delivers a significant number of programmes such as mentoring for achievement, mind out and decider skills.

The educational welfare service is also part of TESS and operates under the Education (Welfare) Act 2000, which emphasises the promotion of school attendance, participation and retention. The educational welfare service deals with children and families who have difficulties with regard to school attendance, participation and retention. This is a statutory service and its primary role is to ensure that every child either attends school regularly or otherwise receives a certain minimum education to ensure and secure every child's entitlement to education.

A recruitment process with the already-established educational welfare officer national panel is currently under way to fill this vacant educational welfare officer post. In the interim, TESS management at local level have been working collaboratively to bring together the home school community liaison, the school completion programme and the educational welfare service capacity in TESS to prioritise TESS interventions for children and young people to ensure school attendance. I will bring the Senator's specific issues to the Minister for Education as well.

Photo of Fiona O'LoughlinFiona O'Loughlin (Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Minister of State for being here to give a response. While I certainly welcome the expansion of the DEIS programme, my question was not about that. It was specifically about the welfare office. I accept that the Minister of State said that more than 700 young people receive interventions. That just shows the number of young people and the extent of the community that need this support. The Minister of State mentioned that the recruitment process is under way to fill this job and that management at local level have been working collaboratively to bring everyone together for interventions. It is not working. The efforts of the home school liaison and school completion programme are toothless without the legal standing of the educational welfare officer to support their work. The educational welfare officer is an essential piece of the puzzle.

I again ask the Minister when the Curragh-Kildare school completion programme can expect to have a replacement educational welfare officer. What caused the delay? I appreciate the Minister of State is not within the Department of Education but what will that Department do to ensure that should such a situation arise in the future, the position be filled in a time-efficient manner? This case is in Kildare but it could happen anywhere in the country. It is too big and too important of a piece just to be ignored and not to have something set in train.

Photo of Peter BurkePeter Burke (Longford-Westmeath, Fine Gael)
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I have detail before me in terms of the Tusla educational support service which is currently working to try to engage and fill that gap. It is stated in the formal reply from the Department that the recruitment process is under way but I do not have a timeline as to when it will be completed. I will revert to the Minister, Deputy Foley, and advise her of the Senator's concerns for her locality which are very-well merited. I know that we have to learn in this country that early intervention is key to determining the future of people and giving them the chance to realise their ambitions. We have to be very proactive in that approach.