Ceisteanna – Questions. Priority Questions. - National Educational Welfare Board.

Jan O'Sullivan

Question:

3 Ms O'Sullivan asked the Minister for Education and Science if he will make a statement on the operation to date of the National Educational Welfare Board; the number of staff employed and the services being offered by the board; if his attention has been drawn to reports of a recent court case where it was stated that a troubled boy facing charges could not be returned to mainstream education due to the fact that the board had no staff; and the procedures in place to check the attendance of primary and secondary pupils. [21911/02]

The National Educational Welfare Board was established on an interim or designate basis at the end of May 2001 and held its first meeting on 15 June 2001. The board was set up on an interim basis to allow it to prepare and plan for the introduction of a new educational welfare service. The post of chief executive was advertised in November 2001 and interviews were held in early 2002. A person considered suitable by the board was offered the appointment and he accepted it. He notified the board very shortly before he was due to take up the post, however, that he was not going to do so. This gave rise to a difficult situation, which the board attempted to address by appointing an interim chief executive.

The board was placed on a full statutory footing on 4 March 2002, through the commencement of certain sections of the Education (Welfare) Act, 2000. All sections of the Act were commenced from 5 July this year. The board is fully established as an independent body and is comprised of people representing school management, teachers, parents, the school attendance service, the voluntary sector and a number of Departments involved in child welfare matters. It is recruiting staff for its head office, including senior management. The board has advertised these posts and the selection process is under way. In addition, the Act provided that school attendance officers become staff of the board and this cohort of staff now works to the board. Including senior posts, this inherited cohort of staff totals 36 in number. These members of staff have been authorised by the board to carry out a range of school attendance duties.

The Deputy has provided no details of the newspaper reports of a court case referred to in her question. As a general rule, however, I do not consider it appropriate to comment on court proceedings in particular cases, especially where a case might be ongoing.

I thank the Minister for his reply. While I appreciate the unforeseen industrial difficulties that have been faced by the board in its attempts to appoint a chief executive officer, I put it to the Minister that there has been undue delay in relation to the appointment of education welfare officers, whose job it will be to ensure that children go to school. Does the Minister agree that, when we discuss children who drop out of school at an early age or do not attend school, we are talking about the most vulnerable children in the State? I am sure the Minister agrees that a small number of children in our constituencies are at risk of dropping out of school and getting involved in crime at an early age. The early intervention of education welfare officers could make the difference between a life of work and productivity and a life of crime for such children.

Is the Minister aware that it has been reported that 30% of pupils in certain deprived areas do not attend school? Can he give the House an approximate date for the appointment of the education welfare officers in all parts of the country? The officers that are in place are those that serve parts of Dublin, Cork and Waterford – there are none in the rest of the country.

The case to which I referred in my initial question referred to a 14 year old boy who could not return to school. A judge described this situation as "crazy" when he realised that, after ordering a report from the National Educational Welfare Board to help to get the child back into school, the report could not be produced because the board was not in place. I put it to the Minister that we are failing our most vulnerable young people? The provisions of the 2000 Act are good, but they need to be implemented.

I agree with the Deputy that the Education (Welfare) Act, 2000, is a good and important Act. The work of the board will be similarly important. I also agree with her that we are talking about vulnerable young people in most, but probably not all, cases of absenteeism. A series of provisions in the Act identifies the causes of absenteeism and early school leaving, as well as safeguarding every child's entitlement to an appropriate minimum education. The Act is designed to develop measures to complement the existing means of preventing the problems I have mentioned. As Deputy O'Sullivan pointed out, the Act contains certain provisions to support children who are at risk. It is a hugely important Act.

Perhaps there has been a tendency to believe that the NEWB will force children who are playing truant to go back to school, but the Act provides for some extremely important complementary welfare measures. The board will promote a positive appreciation among students of the benefits to be derived from education. I do not like to see the NEWB constantly described in negative terms as seems to be the case in the newspapers' commentary of it, although I do not suggest that Deputy O'Sullivan did so. I am sure the Deputy is aware that discussions are ongoing in relation to the board and the work of the welfare officers. I assure her that provision has been made in the Estimates for the continuing roll-out of the board into other areas.