Other Questions

School Completion Programme

Maureen O'Sullivan

Question:

6. Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs if he will engage with the Department of Education and Skills regarding moving the school completion programme back to that Department; and his views that the programme is much better suited to the education portfolio rather than to that of his own Department. [35517/15]

This question is on the school completion programme, which is now under the remit of the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, whereas it had always been under the remit of the Minister for Education and Skills. Has there been any discussion between the Ministers on moving it back to the Department of Education and Skills?

The school completion programme aims to improve the school attendance, participation and retention of young people who are at risk of educational disadvantage. The programme provides targeted supports to approximately 36,000 children and young people. Since 1 January 2014, Tusla, the Child and Family Agency, under the remit of my Department, has had operational responsibility for the programme. The establishment of the agency brought together the educational welfare programmes, which had previously been under the remit of the former National Educational Welfare Board, as part of a new integrated response to meet the needs of children at risk of educational disadvantage.

The establishment of Tusla, encompassing key educational welfare programmes, along with its broader focus on child and family welfare, presents an opportunity to shape more effective policy and practice that will help to address educational disadvantage. In its recently published review of the school completion programme, the Economic and Social Research Institute, ESRI, indicated the programme is a key measure to deliver policy goals to secure good education outcomes for children at risk of early school leaving.

My Department will continue to work closely with Tusla to strengthen the operation of the programme and to realise its potential for these children. My Department will also participate in the interdepartmental group which the Minister for Education and Skills proposes to establish to consider the roles of different Departments in delivering the delivering equality of opportunity in schools, DEIS, programme in a joined-up way.

Tusla, with its commitment to a whole-family approach to addressing childhood disadvantage and its statutory responsibility for key educational welfare services, has a key role to play as part of a cross-departmental effort to develop a more integrated and effective response to the issue of educational disadvantage. Given the integrated approach we are now taking, I believe the school completion programme is most appropriate to the remit of my Department and of Tusla.

I thank the Minister for his reply but the teachers involved with the school completion programme would not agree with his view. Early school leaving and underachievement, particularly in disadvantaged areas, are key. Everything being done to address those issues has to be supported. The school completion programme is doing that. Its success in that regard was acknowledged in the ESRI report by Professor Emer Smyth. It was also noted in the report, however, that it was a cause of concern and uncertainty that it came under the remit of the Department of Children and Youth Affairs rather than the Department of Education and Skills.

The school completion programme is rolled out in schools with after-school clubs, holiday programmes and so forth. The teachers who roll it out are in the schools on the ground and are able to address issues as they arise. We know the problems there have been with guidance and counselling. It is the school completion teachers who have been picking that up that work. This is not a criticism of Tusla but an acknowledgement of the severe caseload the agency has. It does not make sense to give it additional work with children who, at certain points, do not need social workers but need teachers in the school completion programme.

Will the Minister consider moving it back to the Department of Education and Skills?

As I pointed out, the issue around school completion is far more complex than the school itself. It also involves parents and their influence on the children, as well as having other activities going on in the school. I have visited some of the schools involved and they have wonderful initiatives around cooking, art, sculpture and other pragmatic programmes involving hands. For those children who have given up on the reading, writing and arithmetic side of education, this entices them back with other subjects that interest them and reintroduces other educational skills. It shows that one needs arithmetic if one wants to be good at certain elements around cooking, such as adding and subtracting ingredients. Similarly, having good literacy skills is important if one is interested in woodwork. It is about understanding these additional skills are helpful to pursue the other subjects in which the children are interested. I have heard the Deputy's points before, but I believe this programme is best placed in an agency which has a remit over a much broader area than just education itself.

It is teachers who are responsible for rolling out the school completion programme. Teachers are under the remit of the Minister for Education and Skills. It is the view of teachers that it would be better for the programme to be back with the Department of Education and Skills where it was when it was set up in 2002 until 2014.

Teachers are in a great position to refer those children who need the programme to Tusla. We know the increasing load on the scheme completion programme in working with children in homeless accommodation, refugee children and Traveller children because the Traveller teacher numbers have also been cut. There is a logistical aspect to this. Are we creating another level of bureaucracy for schools already overloaded with bureaucracy, policies and plans by having the school completion programme under the Department of Children and Youth Affairs? Logic and reason dictate that if teachers are rolling out a programme, then it should be with the Department of Education and Skills.

Tusla is comfortable to be engaged with this programme and anxious to continue to be so. It has already taken several actions to strengthen the operation of the programme on foot of the ESRI review. There have been improvements to the annual school retention plans to focus on outcomes to be achieved for children and young people in the locality. Focused discussions have commenced with all those involved in the delivery of the programme on the review findings and how to strengthen the core functions of the programme. A new governance structure has been put in place at national level to support local projects in the development of the programme and to improve integration with the related home-school community-liaison and statutory education welfare officers. There will be new school attendance guidelines to advise schools on the practical supports needed to enable children to maximise their participation in education.

We are in close contact with the Department of Education and Skills on this programme. We are mutually concerned with outcomes for children. We know if they stay in school they achieve higher educational outcomes.

They are more employable and therefore have better prospects of higher incomes later in life. We are very much committed at all stages of a child's development to ensure we get the best outcomes for them.

Child and Family Agency Funding

Thomas Pringle

Question:

7. Deputy Thomas Pringle asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs the steps he will take in response to the funding pressures to child and family services, as highlighted by Tusla, the Child and Family Agency; if he will respond to the agency's need for increased funding over a period of three years to fund cases where children and families are not allocated a social worker; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [35511/15]

The question relates to the need for a programme over the next three years at least to ensure that Tusla has the required funding to carry out its remit.

The Tusla 2016 Estimates business case identified a requirement of €137 million over a three-year period. This included a request for additional capital funding of €11.5 million. I was pleased to be able to allocate significant extra resources to Tusla for 2016. The overall level of funding that I have provided will significantly strengthen Tusla's base funding level and will give the agency greater capacity to respond to current risk and anticipated demand, addressing areas of currently unmet need during 2016. The 2016 gross funding allocation under budget 2016 includes an allocation of €676 million for Tusla, representing an increase of €38 million over the 2015 allocation. This includes €662.4 million in current expenditure and €13.6 million in capital expenditure.

The additional resources are intended to alleviate service pressures in child welfare and protection services, in particular pressures being faced in the areas of unallocated cases, private residential and foster care, and domestic sexual and gender-based violence strategy. In addition, my Department expects to provide supplementary funding of approximately €20.7 million to Tusla in 2015. That is in addition to the €38 million.

This level of provision addresses all of the key priorities identified by Tusla and considered to be achievable in 2016. The funding provision will give rise to a substantial recruitment programme involving up to 400 additional staff next year.

In accordance with the agency's establishing legislation, my Department will be issuing a detailed performance statement to inform the preparation of Tusla's business plan for 2016. This statement will set out the key priorities that I will require of Tusla in the coming year. I am very pleased that having asked Tusla for a detailed business case setting out the basis for seeking additional resources in 2016, I have been able to provide significant extra funding that will strengthen its funding base and secure the delivery of quality services.

I thank the Minister for his response. While there has been a €38 million increase for 2016 and a Supplementary Estimate of €20 million for this year, by all accounts the three-card trick of Supplementary Estimates will not be available next year to the Government because of the pressures under the fiscal treaty. This should not be a once-off increase in funding to make it appear that Tusla's issues were being addressed. Is this a programme that will continue over the coming years? The €38 million represents less than a third of what Tusla claims it needs just to stand still and meet its statutory requirements.

It is startling that Tusla admits it is in default of its statutory obligations, with 8,800 children without an allocated social worker. Of those, 1,730 are classified as very high priority. There is a crisis that needs to be addressed. While what is proposed for 2016 is acceptable, what is the plan for 2017 and 2018?

I remind the Deputy that many Departments have had Supplementary Estimates over the years; they are not new. What is different about this year is that we have been able to predict much earlier what that supplementary budget would be and therefore accommodated it in a much more transparent way than in other years where it came in at the last minute before Christmas. Allegations of three-card tricks do not stand up.

On the broader issue, Tusla has a three-year plan. We have met the requirement as outlined by it for 2016. It also has to gear up which is quite a challenge for it. It will need to employ a significant number of additional social workers. It is well advanced in doing that, as I said in response to an earlier question. More than 100 have been recruited with the recruitment of approximately another 100 in process. We have arranged the funding for this year's recruitment going from 218 social workers to 256 or 254 and there is funding for another 174 next year. It will need to recruit many people over the next year. While that will be a challenge, I believe it is one it will be able to meet in order to address this issue, which has been with us for a long time.

While the increase in funding now is welcome, Tusla has identified a deficit of €132 million required over the next three years just basically to meet what it states are its statutory requirements. That is not to talk about early intervention programmes.

Other Deputies earlier spoke about the family resource centres. Those centres' work has the potential to prevent children coming into contact with Tusla, thereby saving money in the long run. Those are the matters it needs to address.

By all accounts, the Supplementary Estimate granted this year will not be available next year in such a way. It is a bit of fancy accounting that has made it happen this year. What are the programme and plan to allow Tusla to meet its needs and do the vital work of protecting children?

Tusla's plan will become very clear once it has submitted its business plan to me. We will consider it and it will be published. It will be very clear to every Deputy then.

I wish to reassure people that when we talk about high-priority cases, these are not children in any immediate risk. Anybody in immediate risk is looked after immediately. In other words - I have given this example previously - if a teacher is concerned about a child being abused that morning, before that child leaves school that day a social worker will be involved. We take this issue very seriously.

Where Tusla is in breach of its statutory obligations is with regard to children in care who are not considered to be at risk but do not have an allocated social worker, which is just not good enough. I and Tusla would love to be able to address all this in a year, but that is not possible. It has outlined a very practical three-year plan to address an issue that has been with society for decades. Until Deputy Shatter raised this matter in opposition, we were not even counting the number of children who were dying in care.

Inter-Country Adoptions

Robert Troy

Question:

8. Deputy Robert Troy asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs his views on the announcement that his Department is no longer pursuing an adoption agreement with Russia; the reason for this; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [35534/15]

Many families were left devastated recently by the Department's announcement that it is no longer pursuing an adoption agreement with Russia, despite being strung along for many years. In response to questions from me before the summer recess, the Minister said that efforts were still progressing. Why has the Minister taken the political decision not to progress this bilateral agreement further?

Work on a bilateral agreement with the Russian Federation has not ceased. It remains the aim of my Department to achieve a bilateral agreement, but I do not believe this will be possible to finalise it in the short term because of a number of difficult issues outstanding.

I recently met representatives of the Russian Irish Adoption Group. I am conscious that members of the group have adopted Russian children in the past, prior to the current arrangements, and many, very understandably, seek to adopt another child from Russia. The Russian Irish Adoption Group gave a powerful presentation of the sensitivities involved. I am of the view that it is essential to give clear, frank information about the likely timescale potentially involved in trying to secure an agreement with the Russian Federation in order to allow fully informed decision-making. I advised the group of the current position regarding a bilateral agreement and I outlined to it the issues that still remain despite our continuing efforts.

The Adoption Act 2010 provides for adoption of children into Ireland from countries that have signed and ratified the Hague Convention and from countries where a bilateral agreement on adoption is in place. The Hague Convention is a landmark in regard to inter-country adoption and provides an international architecture that prioritises the best interests of the child.

While it has signed the convention, the Russian Federation has not ratified the treaty, and this has prevented recent adoptions from Russia into Ireland. We have been trying to reach a bilateral agreement with the Russian Federation on inter-country adoption for a number of years, but significant issues remain in the way of an agreement. For example, the Irish Constitution is very clear on the integrity of the family unit and the Russian requirement for post-placement reports on adopted children poses a real difficulty in this regard. Other practical issues include the accreditation of adoption mediation agencies to facilitate inter-country adoption between Ireland and Russia, the fees to be charged by agencies for facilitating adoptions, and matters relating to re-adoption in cases in which an earlier placement has broken down. We will continue to pursue the matter and try to resolve the difficulties outstanding.

In the meantime, I will seek to progress very important improvements in Irish adoption services, including the draft legislation for adoption information and tracing, which is currently undergoing pre-legislative scrutiny by the Joint Committee on Health and Children. This is important legislation affecting all adoptions, past and future. We are also working on the adoption (amendment) Bill which incorporates amendments required to the Adoption Act 2010 arising from recent referendums, including the children's referendum. The Bill will include other important changes, including provision for step-parent adoption.

I remind the House that we have only 14 minutes remaining in this slot and two Deputies are waiting to ask questions. I ask all Members to stick to the time allocated.

Everyone agrees that the best interests of the child are paramount. There are still hundreds of thousands of Russian children in state care who could be adopted by an Irish family and given a second chance. We would not need a bilateral agreement but for the fact that Russia has not signed up to the Hague Convention. While I welcome the fact that the Minister is being clear and frank now, for the past four years families were given hope and led to believe that matters were progressing well. The Minister is now saying that it still is the aim of his Department to progress the issue, which is welcome, but has the Department set a target date for completion? My understanding, having spoken to representatives of the families, is that the Department received correspondence from Russia in October 2014, but that correspondence has not been responded to and nothing has happened for over 12 months.

I am very pleased that the Deputy acknowledges, as do all parents, that the best interests of the child must be paramount. Our problem is that the Russian State has not ratified the Hague Convention. If it had done so, we would not have this issue. The difficulties that are presenting as a consequence of our attempt to arrange a bilateral agreement are very complicated and affect our Constitution. That said, we will continue to work to seek to resolve them. Knowing that parents are keen to adopt, I do not want to leave people with the impression that this matter can be resolved in the shorter term. I have given a realistic timeframe in case anyone would be disadvantaged in adopting by waiting for this issue to be resolved, because that would have been grossly unfair.

I thank the Minister. To be fair to the parents' representatives, they acknowledged that the Minister was very frank during their meeting with him. That frankness is welcome, but the Minister still has not told me his target date for completion. There are complex issues outstanding, but it is up to officials within the Department and the Adoption Authority of Ireland to work with their Russian counterparts. The Department will not be able to iron out the difficulties if it does not engage. In that context, is it true that correspondence received in the Department from Russian officials has yet to be dealt with? If this issue is still a priority, the Minister must set down a clear target date and insist that we will have this resolved in 12 months. It will not be resolved if the Department does not engage on the issue and if the Minister does not visit Russia. As I understand it, a proposed visit to Russia was cancelled in January of last year. We must up the ante, engage with the relevant people and give these families and the children of Russia hope.

I hear what the Deputy is saying. Mine is a small Department and we have a number of people who are skilled in this area who are engaged in a myriad of other tasks related to adoption. That is not to say that they are ignoring this issue, but they have the information and tracing Bill to deal with, which is currently in progress. Communication is taking place, as should be the case, but I will double check on that to make sure there is communication with the Russian Federation. The Deputy suggests setting timelines, but that is an impossibility when one is dealing with other people who have their own timelines. I am not saying what the Russian timelines are because I do not know, but I cannot with any degree of credibility give a timeline for resolution of this issue. We need the agreement of the Russian Federation before we can make any commitment in that regard.

School Completion Programme

David Stanton

Question:

9. Deputy David Stanton asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs further to Parliamentary Question No. 34 of 8 July 2015, if the Economic and Social Research Institute review of the School Completion Programme has concluded; if he plans to publish the report; the changes he plans to make to the Programme, as a result of the report's findings; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [36214/15]

This question relates to the ESRI's recent review of the school completion programme. I know a question was asked about this earlier, but unfortunately I missed the response because I was attending a committee meeting. I understand that the review has now been published. What actions have been initiated by Tusla? The agency has advised that it has initiated a set of actions on foot of this review to address its findings. I also ask the Minister to give an undertaking with respect to the funding for the programme and to outline its effectiveness.

I thank Deputy Stanton for his question. Since he tabled the question, the ESRI has published the report on its website. It presents the findings of an examination of the operation of the school completion programme and makes recommendations for the future operation of the programme. The review is now being considered by my Department, and a range of actions have already been taken by the Child and Family Agency, Tusla, aimed at strengthening the operation of the programme. Improvements have been introduced in the annual school retention plans so that there is a stronger focus on the outcomes to be achieved for children and young people in the locality. Focused discussions have commenced with all those involved in the delivery of the programme on the review findings and how to strengthen the core functions of the programme. In addition, a new governance structure is being put in place at national level to support local projects in the development of the programme and to improve integration with the related home-school community liaison and the educational welfare officers.

My Department will work closely with the agency to draw together the output from the ESRI review along with the perspectives of stakeholders, including the children and families who participate in the programme, to improve its effectiveness in responding to the needs of children at risk of educational disadvantage.

I thank the Minister for his response. Perhaps the Minister does not have the statistics to hand this morning, but I would appreciate if he could let me know how effective the programme is in achieving its school retention objectives. What are the Department's plans with regard to the recommendation to review cluster boundaries in line with the review of DEIS and to encourage principals to treat the programme as an integral part of DEIS planning? How does the Minister intend to improve reporting mechanisms for the programme, as recommended by the ESRI?

In overall terms, the ESRI report indicates that this programme is perceived as being extremely valuable by those who operate it. The programme has added value in terms of being successful in retaining young people in education. I have already pointed to some of the actions to be taken on foot of the review. Improvements will be made to the annual school retention plans to focus on the outcomes to be achieved for children and young people in the locality. Focused discussions have commenced with all those involved in the delivery of the programme on the review findings and how to strengthen the core functions of the programme. A new governance structure is being put in place and new school attendance guidelines will be drawn up to advise schools on the practical supports needed to enable children to maximise their participation in education.

In line with the Department's recently published national strategy on children and young people's participation in decision-making, it is important that children at risk of educational disadvantage and their families are consulted in order that their perspective is heard on the supports available and the way in which these can be enhanced. This is critical to the success of the programme as those who have completed it know best how it can be improved. For this reason, they must be listened to. A number of other issues are also covered.

The establishment of Tusla with its educational welfare programmes, alongside its broader focus on child and family welfare, presents an opportunity to shape more effective policy and practice to address educational disadvantage.

I thank the Minister for his response, on which I have three brief questions. Does he agree that flexibility is needed in resource allocation for the various projects or clusters? Will he indicate the scope of the review of existing provision for younger students given the importance of early years intervention? Will he commit to maintaining or perhaps increasing funding for this important programme?

Obviously, we want flexibility as different things work in different areas, not only in educational disadvantage but many other areas of Government policy. What will work in Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown will not necessarily work in Lusk and certainly will not work in Leitir Móir, County Galway. For this reason, flexibility is required and will be part of the future programme. I apologise as I did not hear the Deputy's second question. He referred to the scope of something.

I asked about the review of existing provision for younger students which was recommended given the importance of early years intervention. Younger students are part of early years intervention at that level. I also asked a question about funding.

I will revert to the Deputy on his question concerning a review. On funding, I made my commitment to the school completion programme very clear last year when we protected the funding available for it. All Departments are continually asked to ring-fence funding for one programme or another. However, ring-fencing funds reduces the scope for other areas of activity which may be just as important. While I attach great importance to the school completion programme, I will shy away from making any commitments until I see Tusla's business plan. The school completion programme is critical because it is very difficult for children who have fallen out of the educational system to take advantage of education later in life. As a result, they lose years in terms of being able to progress, making themselves more employable and enjoying better opportunities in life, which is what we want.

National Carers' Strategy

Terence Flanagan

Question:

10. Deputy Terence Flanagan asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs his assessment of the level of support that is currently available to young carers; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [35325/15]

If Deputy Flanagan does not mind, we will proceed directly to the reply because there are only two minutes remaining. The Deputy will have an opportunity to ask a supplementary question.

The national carers strategy is led by the Department of Health. Many Departments, including my Department, have a role to play in its implementation. Better Outcomes, Brighter Futures, the national policy framework for children and young people for 2014 to 2020, was launched in April 2014. One of the key policy priorities under outcome 5 - connected, respected and contributing to their world - is to ensure positive networks of family, friends and communities. Children and young people may experience difficulties maintaining friendships, education and employment due to the need for them to take on caring responsibilities within their families. This was recognised in the national youth strategy, which I launched on 8 October 2015 for all young people aged between ten and 24 years. I am pleased that representatives of the Carers Association participated in the consultation process in the development of this strategy.

The Child and Family Agency Act 2013 brings together a range of existing services for children and families in one agency. Tusla's functions include maintaining and developing services to support and promote the development, welfare and protection of children and support effective functioning of families. Tusla's child protection and welfare practice handbook provides guidance to social workers in working with young carers.

In terms of developing referral pathways to supports, the Meitheal methodology for early identification of need is a valuable aid. Tusla is working with the HSE to implement its actions under the national carers strategy implementation plan.

In addition, Tusla's educational welfare service has completed national guidelines as a practical support for schools in the preparation of school attendance strategies. The guidelines will assist schools to implement effective measures to support children at risk of poor attendance and participation, including those with caring responsibilities. They are being published and it is intended that they will be circulated to schools very shortly.

To learn more about children who undertake caring roles, my Department requested the Central Statistics Office to help to identify the extent to which children have caring responsibilities. Under the national strategy for research and data on children's lives, analysis of figures in the 2011 census will help to inform future policy as to how best to address the support needs of children and young people who undertake caring roles. This analysis will be published in early 2016.

I ask Deputy Terence Flanagan to put all supplementary questions now.

I thank the Minister for his response. According to the census, 8,500 vulnerable children are dealing with caring responsibilities while attending school. What plans are in place to increase supports to this group of children, especially those who are highly vulnerable? How does Ireland compare with other jurisdictions regarding supports?

The Minister referred to the Children and Family Agency's national guidelines which will be published shortly in respect of the 2015-16 academic year. Will they be published before Christmas?

The Minister met representatives of the Carers Association in 2014. Does he have plans to meet the association again to discuss this specific issue?

I welcome the changes made in the recent budget to help and support carers generally. However, as the Minister will no doubt agree, carers, especially vulnerable young carers, require greater attention.

For the purposes of clarity, the analysis will be published in early 2016 and, as such, not before Christmas. I reiterate that the national carers strategy is led by the Department of Health, although my Department has a role in it, as it does in many different Departments. The issue of supports is one that would be more appropriate to the Department of Health.

Written Answers follow Adjournment.