Commencement Matters

School Completion Programme

I welcome the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy James Reilly.

I thank the Minister for attending. The matter is self-explanatory - the need for the Minister to confirm that funding for the schools completion programme will not be cut in County Clare or any other county and to consider increasing the funding for this valuable service for children which was established in 2002. The programme has had a significant positive impact on the retention levels of young people in primary and second level schools and the numbers of pupils who successfully complete the different cycles or their equivalent.

Another of my concerns is the teams and their understanding of whether funding is to be cut and their role in the future. As in the past, I rarely speak unless I know the people who are administering and delivering a service. To give them their Christian names, I know Áine and Catherine and the level of work they undertake to ensure vulnerable children - probably the best words to use - come to school every day and receive an education with the best possible support. We must have people like them in the school completion service. I am sure there are many others like them throughout the country who seek to ensure the service is delivered. I am aware of two children who, as recently as last week, had to be helped and encouraged into school to start their examinations. Nine times out of ten, the staff go beyond the call of duty. It is not always a nine to three job, as a great deal more work is involved. We heard a comprehensive presentation recently in Ennis, but I already had an understanding of the type of work done, given that I deal with many schools. I look forward to the Minister's response.

I thank the Senator for raising this important issue.

The school completion programme aims to retain young people in the formal education system to completion of senior cycle and to improve the school attendance, participation and retention of its target cohort. It is a targeted intervention aimed at school communities identified through the Department of Education and Skills DEIS action plan. It involves 124 projects and related initiatives operating in 470 primary and 224 post-primary schools. These projects provide a range of supports and interventions designed to support approximately 36,000 children throughout the country who have been identified by local management committees as being at risk of educational disadvantage. Typically, projects offer homework clubs, breakfast clubs, mentoring programmes, learning support, social and personal development programmes, out-of-school supports, including music, art and sports, and a range of activities during holiday periods.

Since 1 January 2014, the Child and Family Agency has operational responsibility for the school completion programme, including the allocation of funds to local projects. In 2014 the agency allocated €24.756 million and a similar allocation is being made for 2015. There are two projects in County Clare, the Ennis school completion programme, with an allocation in the 2014-15 academic year of €255,947, and the Kilrush school completion programme, with an allocation of €119,978. The Ennis project involves four primary and two post-primary schools, while the Kilrush project involves one primary and one post-primary school.

The agency asked chairpersons of local management committees to prepare their school retention plans for the 2015-2016 school year based on the expenditure allocated last year and to return them to the agency by last Friday, 5 June. Following receipt of these plans, all school completion projects including the two in County Clare will be notified of their allocations for the 2015-2016 school year.

The Senator may be aware that a review of the school completion programme by the ESRI is almost complete. The review is an important initiative in regard to planning for the future development of the school completion programme. The review will assist in identifying the reforms necessary to consolidate the programme on a sustainable footing for the future. The review is being overseen by a steering committee involving officials of the Child and Family Agency, my Department and the Department of Education and Skills.

The review will, among other things, examine the school completion programme structures and their fitness for purpose to support an integrated approach to address early school leaving. It will analyse the interventions provided and make recommendations for evidence informed supports designed to secure the best educational outcomes for young people. The Minister for Education and Skills recently published an evaluation of the Delivering Equality of Opportunity in Schools, DEIS, programme, which was also prepared by the ESRI, and which refers to the school completion programme as an integral support within DEIS in improving attendance and engagement in education.

The report is almost finalised and it is expected it will be available in the coming weeks.

I have advised the agency of my commitment to ensuring that there is no diminution in the school completion programme services. The school completion programme is an important service within the agency's educational welfare services. It is highly regarded as a key response in securing improved educational outcomes for children and young people at risk of early school leaving. I am pleased to confirm for the Senator that there will be no cuts to the programme.

In fairness, I know the Minister has worked hard in this area but the report, when it comes back, may highlight the value of enhancing these programmes because they have been subjected to cuts in the region of 30% to 40% in recent years. I am glad the Minister is now in a position to ensure that there will be no further cuts and that the services will be maintained, if not enhanced, by the recommendations in the report. He fully understands the value of the services provided to those young people and, in that respect, the supports have to be provided to the school completion programme. I thank the Minister for his acknowledgement of that.

I am very glad there are no cuts in this area because it is a hugely important programme. I am awaiting the outcome of the ESRI report but I am confident it will be very positive. I believe it will give us further evidence to underpin future development of the scheme and strengthen my hand in regard to the Estimates process in the coming year to try to get further funding for it. Nonetheless, we all have to be cognisant of the fact that our economy, although recovering, is still fragile. That recovery must be guarded, and we have to continue to make sure that all the funding we seek and receive is used to the best possible outcomes. That is why evidence based research and the ESRI report will be so important.

I am very pleased that in this year's budget we got our first increase for the Child and Family Agency. All of that money went into Tusla so that it could address the many needs it faces, and in particular many of the unallocated cases of children who were in requirement of social worker assistance.

Schools Complaints Procedures

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Ó Ríordáin, to the House.

I thank the Minister of State for coming into the House to take this Commencement matter. The nub of what I want to raise is the importance of introducing a parents charter and to ask when we can expect it and when this new section 28 can be brought in to the school admissions policy.

Recently, I became aware of numerous cases of people having problems trying to get in contact with their child's school to raise an issue. In terms of the current process, as the Minister, Deputy Ó Ríordáin, will know well, the Department's website asks if the parent has contacted the Department of Education and Skills, which many parents think they should do, but the Department of Education and Skills, despite being funders of education, has no role at all. Schools are running themselves under the board of management. I believe there is a much greater need for parents to be involved in the running of the school so that when they do have an issue, it can be dealt with effectively.

I was made aware of a case recently where an issue was brought to the attention of the principal, was ignored for seven months and was only responded to when the parents in question contacted the chairperson of the board of management. They were then informed that if they had a complaint they should write to the secretary of the board of management. The secretary of the board of management and the principal are one and the same person. The parents did that. They were first told that all letters were only opened at a board of management meeting and that the secretary was not aware of it. However, it now turns out that it was the secretary who opened the letter and who was present while the decision was taken on the course of action that would be taken to address the parent's complaint, and it was the principal who contacted the parents. These parents were concerned that it is very much a one-sided process. Despite the school saying it is open and transparent, the parents were not present in the school when it was discussed but the principal was present. There is no recourse for a parent to get somewhere with a genuine concern. In addition, if one checks with someone in the Department of Education and Skills they will say the trustees should be contacted. The trustee in most of our voluntary secondary schools is the bishop or the organisation. If someone contacts the bishop, the bishop will say he will now contact the chair of the board of management, but that is the person about whom the complaint is being made. It is totally up to them.

In the four years I have been a Member of this House, I have been contacted by numerous people who have had difficulties in getting school principals to return calls or answer letters. It is wrong for a principal in a school to ignore a letter for seven months and only respond when this parent took the matter to the chair of the board, even though the chair of the board referred it back to the secretary, who is the principal. There is an urgent need to ensure the parents charter is incorporated in the school admissions Bill and have this process in place because parents are under the misguided belief that it is the Department of Education and Skills they should contact when the Department, as far as I can see, has no role in the matter. I raise this Commencement matter so that concerns of parents can be addressed and that schools are held accountable for complaints procedures or concerns parents may wish to raise.

I would like to take this opportunity, on behalf of the Minister for Education and Skills, to thank the Senator for raising this issue. The Minister, Deputy O'Sullivan, is in the Dáil answering oral questions. I welcome the opportunity to address the role and clarify the position of the Department of Education and Skills in the complaints procedure process for secondary schools.

The Senator will be aware that, under the Education Act 1998, legally, all schools are managed by the school board of management on behalf of the school's patrons or trustees or education and training board, ETB, known as the management authority. It is the management authority that employs the school's teachers and other staff members. In ETB schools, the ETB is the employer. The school principal manages the school on a day to day basis.

Accordingly, whereas the Department of Education and Skills provides funding and policy direction for schools neither the Minister nor the Department has legal powers to instruct schools to follow a particular course of direction with regard to individual complaint cases or to investigate individual complaints except where the complaint involves a refused enrolment, expulsion or suspension in accordance with section 29 of the 1998 Education Act.

In dealing with parental complaints, the Department's role is to clarify for parents how their grievances and complaints against the school can be progressed. Where parents feel that the school's board of management has failed to investigate or adequately investigate their complaint, they should contact the Ombudsman for Children. The Office of the Ombudsman for Children may independently investigate complaints about schools recognised with the Department of Education and Skills, provided the parent has firstly and fully followed the school's complaints procedures.

Section 28 is the section of the Education Act 1998 that provides for parental complaints in schools. It expresses a desirability of determining appeals and resolving grievances in the school.

The Minister for Education and Skills is not satisfied with the current provisions of section 28 and plans to revise it to provide in law for a parent and student charter. Changing how schools engage with, listen and respond to parent concerns will be an important part of the charter. Providing parents with the rationale for any decision is important. If schools help parents to understand the basis for a decision, they are more likely to accept the fairness of decisions.

A core objective of the charter is to shift away from reacting to problems only after they give arise to grievances. The emphasis will be on improving the day-to-day experience students and their parents can expect from schools in order that grievances will not arise or will be resolved quickly and informally. As a result, the need to resort to a formal grievance process should be much reduced. The Minister's intention is to amend section 28 of the Education Act 1998 to require every school to have a parent and student charter in accordance with principles set down in legislation that will set a national standard. Her plan is to have this change introduced during the passage of the Education (Admission to Schools) Bill 2015.

I thank the Minister of State. He referred to a complaint continuing on to the Ombudsman for Children. Unfortunately, if a child is 18 years old, this will not count. The guildelines of the Department of Education and Skills provide that the principal must arrange a meeting and that the complaint must be resolved within ten days. The parents in question wrote a letter in March and did not receive a reply until the end of April, at which time they were told the principal was too busy to meet them within the ten-day timeframe. They then received a letter giving three hours' notice of a meeting, which was not suitable either.

Young people are at the heart of this issue. The voluntary contribution is also relevant. It is supposed to be voluntary, but they are hearing that pupils in class are either radiators or sponges. Those who have paid their voluntary contribution are the radiators radiating warmth, while those who have not paid are the sponges in society. This is totally unacceptable and we urgently need to look at the matter. Schools should be held accountable for dealing with issues such as this, which are very damaging to young children.

I thank the Minister of State for coming into the House. As a fellow former teacher, we share the same passion for students, those whom we taught and those yet to come down the road. That is why this issue needs to be dealt with in legislation as quickly as possible.

I share the Senator's concerns. While an incident such as a student being described as a sponge is rare, it would be outrageous if such a comparison were to be made that one student was a radiator, while another was a sponge. Most professionals never use that terminology, but, unfortunately, such instances can and sometimes do occur. As the Minister has stated formally in her reply which I have given to the House, it is her absolute intention to introduce a student and parent charter in legislation by amending section 28 of the Education Act 1998 by means of the Education (Admission to Schools) Bill 2015.

Sitting suspended at 10.55 a.m. and resumed at 11.30 a.m.