Persistent non-attendance at school is a key indicator for subsequent difficulties, including early school leaving, long-term unemployment, homelessness, substance abuse and criminal activity. Tackling this problem is, therefore, a key priority for the Government and the approach I have been taking involves a series of actions, both statutory and non-statutory. I regard the statutory and non-statutory actions as complementary rather than mutually exclusive. The latter would include those actions being taken under the school completion programme and other initiatives to encourage better school attendance patterns by pupils from educationally disadvantaged backgrounds.
The Education (Welfare) Act 2000, which is now fully commenced, established the National Educational Welfare Board as the single national agency with responsibility for school attendance. The principal function of the new board is to ensure that every child in the State attends a recognised school or otherwise receives an appropriate minimum education. The board appointed an interim chief executive officer in August 2002 and directors of corporate services and educational services have recently taken up their posts. The board is currently recruiting eight further head office staff.
Thirty seven former school attendance officers who were employed by local authorities under the previous legislation were transferred to the board on 5 July 2002 in accordance with section 40 of the Act. These 37 staff are currently providing a service in the cities of Dublin, Cork and Waterford and 25 of them have recently accepted the terms and conditions of employment of educational welfare officer, EWO, and will henceforth be carrying out the full range of EWO duties and providing a year round service rather than the school term-based service they were providing as former school attendance officers.
Proposals for the recruitment of an additional cohort of educational welfare officers have been received from the board and officials of my Department had discussions with the executive of the board recently in relation to these proposals. Arising from these discussions, the executive wrote to my Department on 4 April clarifying certain costs associated with the proposals. It is not possible to specify the number of new education welfare officers who will be put in place this year until my Department has had an opportunity to consider these proposals and costs in a multi-annual framework.
I have allocated a budget of €5.4 million to the board for the current year and it is my intention that the board's proposals will be taken forward in the context of these resources and the budgetary allocations in future years. The board's proposals provide for the assignment of staff on a regional basis, with regional managers being put in place to ensure smooth implementation of the Act nationally.