Tuesday, 28 May 2019

Questions (17)

Denise Mitchell


17. Deputy Denise Mitchell asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs if she is satisfied with the progress of the school completion programme; her views on whether there are an adequate number of education welfare officers in place; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [22202/19]

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Oral answers (4 contributions) (Question to Children)

Is the Minister satisfied with the progress of the school completion programme and does she believe that an adequate number of education welfare officers are in place?

I am conscious that the school completion programme, SCP, continues to deliver a valuable service for some of our most vulnerable young people. Currently, the SCP receives annual funding of €24.7 million. My Department works with the educational welfare service, EWS, to ensure that necessary resources are available to support this programme and to ensure staffing levels are sufficient to deliver a high quality service for those young people most at risk of early school leaving. A number of long term complex issues continue to exist, however, regarding both the governance and the staffing of the programme.

In this regard and in recognition of the need for a strong policy platform for educational welfare services, including the SCP, I requested my officials establish a task group to support the further development and integration of these services. The work of this group is near completion and I am eager to ensure that output will result in a clear blueprint for the development of the three strands of the EWS, including the SCP. A consultation event on the blueprint will be held on 10 June. Those working with vulnerable young people as part of the EWS will then have an opportunity to express their views and help shape the policy blueprint prior to its publication.

As part of the implementation of the actions contained in the blueprint, I have requested that a new SCP scheme be scoped out and developed to ensure that its reach, resources and impact are maximised in supporting young people. I will also continue to examine options concerning the employment status of SCP co-ordinators and project workers. I am also aware that the EWS requires adequate staff numbers to ensure the three strands - home schooling, SCP and EWS - can meet the increasing demands on the service.  The EWS has advised that it employs 89 education welfare officers who are managed by 12 senior educational welfare officers and that a service is provided to 3,952 schools. The most recent school enrolment figures stand at just over 920,000 students, with an average of 10,300 students per educational welfare officer. My Department continues to work to ensure necessary resources are available to support the EWS in its work.

Ms Tanya Ward of the Children's Rights Alliance was before the committee and she stated that we need more education welfare officers. She made the point that many of the children in Oberstown had not completed school and that if there had been early intervention many of those children would not be there. I welcome what the Minister stated about the task force and the blueprint policy. There seem, however, to be ongoing issues in respect of the understaffing of the school completion programme. That has been the case, particularly, since responsibility for the programme was transferred to the Minister's Department from the Department of Education and Skills. Are we really going to increase the numbers of these education welfare officers? Has the Minster given any consideration to this programme moving back to the Department of Education and Skills?

I do not know if there will be a rise in the numbers, so I cannot say "Yes" or "No" right now. I can state that we have had a really intensive focus on the education welfare service in general. It is part of Tusla. We started that focus, as Deputy Mitchell knows, with the review of the school completion programme itself. When I looked at it more deeply, however, I realised that we could not just look at that issue in isolation. We had to look at the other two aspects of the education welfare service as well. That in turn brought us to the wider examination and the belief that we need this overall blueprint to move forward to ensure better integration and a better way of supporting our young people staying in school. That may require more people or it may not. I respect the views of the Children's Rights Alliance and Ms Ward. We will listen to those views and perhaps Ms Ward may even participate in a consultation event. We have done much work which will be put in front of the stakeholders and we want to hear back from them before we move forward on decisions.

Written Answers are published on the Oireachtas website.