Tuesday, 25 June 2019

Questions (52)

Willie Penrose


52. Deputy Willie Penrose asked the Minister for Education and Skills his plans to review the allocation of programme places in Youthreach across and within education and training areas to ensure the optimal use of resources and taking account of early school leaver numbers and of existing places and if he will make a statement on the matter. [26595/19]

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Oral answers (9 contributions) (Question to Education)

I understand Deputy Burton is taking the next question for Deputy Penrose.

I saw a very nice smiling photograph of the Minister with various author-looking types, who I assumed were staff from the ESRI, which produced the recent study on Youthreach. How are Youthreach resources allocated? If a person has had a bad experience in school such that he or she has had to leave it, his or her only option in terms of staying on for more education and training is Youthreach but very often, no such service is available locally. What is the Department's policy on access to Youthreach and what is its response to the ESRI report?

I am unsure whether the Deputy was scolding me for smiling. Perhaps I need to cut back a wee bit on that.

I thought the Minister looked lovely. Members can access it on their phones.

As part of a series of reviews of further education and training programmes, SOLAS commissioned an independent review of the national Youthreach programme, which was conducted by the ESRI. The report, which was launched on 17 June, provides a comprehensive evaluation of the national Youthreach programme and demonstrates the positive impact of Youthreach for learners.

The evaluation noted that demand for Youthreach across both Youthreach centres and community training centres has fallen by 11% in the period 2015 to 2017, with a further fall in demand in 2018. Some of this decline is related to the improved economic circumstances and availability of jobs. In addition, the school retention rate continues to improve with 91% of students completing their leaving certificate examinations.

The evaluation also found there is uneven geographical distribution of Youthreach places.

SOLAS has considered the key review findings and has developed a response document that sets out 17 recommendations to further improve and develop the Youthreach programme. These recommendations are framed in the context of the broader reform and integration of further education and training, FET, provision in general and the evolving strategy for the FET system. The recommendations include considering the issues of uneven geographical distribution in annual local and national system planning, as well as ETBs, reviewing the sustainability of all centres. In doing so, SOLAS and ETBs will be ensuring there is an appropriate balance of provision across levels one to six of the national framework of qualifications in providing both employment and progression opportunities to learners.

When the Labour Party was in government, it successfully and significantly increased retention rates of pupils and students in both primary and secondary schools. The saddest predictor of somebody being poor in later life is if he or she leaves school at an early stage without qualifications. The numbers of those who want to access Youthreach has been falling but they are still significant. They include children who have been affected by various family issues and children from different ethnic backgrounds. For instance, Traveller children are significant participants in Youthreach. A good Youthreach programme can make all the difference to somebody being successful, going on to a trainee or apprenticeship programme or to college. There are success stories from Youthreach across the country.

Which part of the recommendations will the Minister implement? Will he take action to make the programme more accessible?

The good news is that my officials have started the engagement. There will be a mechanism to consider all the recommendations and see how we can progress these. We will not single out one or another.

Youthreach is an invaluable pathway for young people who are struggling with mainstream education. I recognise the benefit of the relationship between the principal of the mainstream school and the Youthreach team. When there is a good relationship, it works well. It is about creating the awareness of the benefit. At the launch in Dublin in the past week, I met a wonderful young woman who had been in her sixth year in mainstream education but it was not working for her. She subsequently went into the Youthreach programme and received the support and education she needed. It was transformative and she is now in third level studying art and design. We have to continue to channel that awareness but also to accentuate career progression. While that sounds a bit mechanical, we also need, through the programme, to help young people prepare for life and give them the skills to equip them for life.

Schools often have children who may have particular special needs or learning requirements that need to be specifically addressed. For instance, a child may be on the autism spectrum and find life difficult in a general school for a variety of reasons.

Youthreach participation can be a postcode lottery. It depends on where one lives. What arrangements will the Minister make to deal with this? The Youthreach model could be used in existing primary and secondary schools in rural and medium-sized towns where the population might be small. It could be used like an ASD class as a special provision, which could give them an extra boost.

The participation rate in Youthreach centres has reduced for several reasons, including full employment. There are still, however, gaps among young Travellers and migrants. Are we equipping them with the proper education to given them the skills to advance to third level or apprenticeship programmes? SOLAS has a key role to play in all of this. It is working with the third level sector and mainstream secondary school sector. It will have a key role in these recommendations. Practising politicians have an idea that the solution is to send everybody to third level. That is one part of the solution. We have to create positive awareness of apprenticeships.

I recently visited the Combilift company in County Monaghan. It was like being in a university complex, seeing young women doing apprenticeships there and their feeling of satisfaction with them. We will have to continue with the engagement by industry with the second level sector and Youthreach.