I do not believe any Deputy will disagree with the objective of the Bill which is to tackle and resolve the issues of truancy and early school leaving.
When presenting the Bill to the House the Minister stated it had been drafted to address the needs of those most as risk of suffering educational disadvantage. He went on to say that it represents a radical but necessary departure from the traditional problem of non-attendance. In a major initiative it proposes to put in place a supportive infrastructure to help every element of the system to make its own contribution to tackling school attendance difficulties.
I hope these are not just fine words and sentiments. However, as we know from experience, the School Attendance Act, 1926, was also strong on sentiment and ideals and yet the Department stood by and let the system fall by the wayside. What evidence do we have that this Bill will be any different?
The history of the Department's record in fulfilling its obligations under the School Attendance Acts is one of serious neglect, under-resourcing and failure to fulfil its obligations. Against this background how can the Minister expect a warm welcome for this Bill that neither pins legal responsibility on the proposed new education welfare service to deliver on the objectives of the Bill nor obliges the Minister to adequately resource the service?
One must take into account the long-term neglect of the school attendance service when considering the justifiable scepticism among the teachers, school attendance officers, social workers, youth and community workers, probation officers, gardaí and other related professionals in their responses to this Bill. They have all had countless experiences of sitting in health board convened case conferences or planning meetings about young children where truancy is a major problem or perhaps the child's behaviour is causing such a problem that the school can no longer cope. Such case conferences are laudable attempts to deal with the difficulties the child is experiencing but time and again these professionals have come up against a brick wall. They know what services they would like to put in place to keep the children in school. Where services exist the waiting list is so long that the child will be well past any intervention by the time his or her name is reached.
Imagine the frustration and anger of these professionals, whose hands are tied, as they watch countless young people start on the slippery slope to life outside school, more often than not a life of crime and drug abuse. Imagine the pain and anger of these children's parents who, together with the professionals, know that early intervention is the key. An immediate referral to an educational psychologist may be the answer for the child, a place in a remedial class or smaller class may have stopped the rot but these are not and have not been available for many children.
Throughout my period as a public representative I have met countless parents in clinics who were at their wits end because their children were facing expulsion from school and the parents were not in a position to appeal that decision or do anything about it, often because of their own difficult circumstances. The reality for a young person who has been expelled is that most other schools will refuse to offer the child a place and that is the end of the child's formal education. We do not welcome that but it is my experience and I am sure it is the same elsewhere in the country.
To date, countless young people have simply disappeared from our education system. One or two may have been lucky to have been picked up by some area based initiative or community project, of which there are many, but many have slipped through the net to a life of poverty and disadvantage.
The education of children is of particular importance in any country. Ireland has always prided itself on the standard and quality of our education system – a nation of scholars. We should be embarrassed at how we as a progressive country have stood back and allowed children drop out of education too soon and enter into a life cycle of poverty. I am sure Deputies are aware of the strong evidence of a close link between early school leaving and social and economic disadvantage in later life. The Minister referred to a CORI study when commending the Bill to the House. This shows that 92% of households classified as poor are headed by an early school leaver and that with low educational qualifications have less chance of employment than those with higher educational qualifications.
A 1996 report shows that an estimated 15,000 young people opted out of the educational system at some stage. Of these, more than 900 did not attend secondary school. More than 3,000 left before their junior certificate and 7,500 left before the leaving certificate examination. An estimated 85% of those who leave school early come from working class backgrounds or small farms. In a more recent report entitled "Resources and Choices – Towards a Fairer Future", CORI calls for the creation of a society with a place for all, which is socially, economically and environmentally sustainable in the long-term. Among the means for achieving this it suggests is an education system which would enable people to participate fully and meaningfully in developing themselves, their community and the wider society. It proposes that the State should provide the necessary funding to completely eliminate the phenomenon of early school leaving without a qualification by the year 2000. Will this Bill go any way towards meeting this objective?
The ESRI in its identification of the national investment priorities for 2000-06 have also pointed out that those who leave school without any qualifications are likely to spend much of their lives unemployed. They have also highlighted interventions for children who currently do not make it through the system as the first priority for investment in education.
Recently a report was published by the Area Development Management which made a recommendation to the Minister for Education and Science on how to tackle educational disadvantage. The report outlines the need for further training and support for teachers and educators working with young people. Speech therapists, educational psychologists, teacher counsellors and literacy support are all necessary features of a successful effort to stop educational disadvantage. Where are these provisions in the Bill? The resource implications of the proposals in the Bill are considerable and will require generous financing. The Minister must recognise this if we are to make any progress in tackling this serious and crucial issue of early school leaving.
My scepticism, and that of many professionals in the educational field, is linked to some of the facts about the shortcomings in our current education system. These shortcomings are too often directly experienced by young children on a day to day basis in their short schoolgoing lives. These are the children the Minister hopes the Bill will enable to participate in the education system for longer and benefit to the maximum extent from the system.
I will give some examples of the shortcomings to which I refer. There are still 200,000 pupils in classes of 30 or more in primary schools. Some 500 schools are still without access to a remedial teacher. Schools lucky enough to have a remedial teacher generally find that they have so many pupils to cater for that the service provided is often minimal and of little effect. The pupil teacher ratio for special schools and special classes set out in the special education review has not yet been fully implemented. Only one primary school in four receives a psychology service from the Department of Education and Science.
Most commentators will agree that the problem of educational disadvantage begins at primary level. Intervention at primary level is the best way to keep at school children who experience difficulties, for whatever reason. How can we be serious about the proposals to tackle early school leaving and educational disadvantage when these kind of shortcomings exist in primary schools? The problems currently experienced by primary schools because of the shortcomings of the educational psychology service are a prime illustration of my argument. Educational psychologists assess children who present with educational and behavioural problems in the classroom. Such children often may be experiencing a whole range of other difficulties and may well be at risk of early school leaving. They also help teachers to deal with problems such as bullying, advise them on teaching pupils with special needs and maintain liaison with health boards and other agencies.
Approximately 2,000 primary school pupils will be assessed by an educational psychologist this year. A recent Eastern Health Board report suggests that six times this number may suffer from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. A child with ADD must be assessed by an educational psychologist before the school can make an application for funding for special resources or special classes for a group of children. Without the educational psychologist's report, the Department cannot even consider meeting the child's needs. The teacher is then left with the impossible task of managing this child, together with the 29 or more other children in the class. Is this child one of the children the Minister hopes to retain within the education system? He cannot do this without an adequately funded psychological service.
As we speak, Saint Kilian's junior and senior national schools in Castleview, Tallaght, have 900 pupils and one educational psychology service between them. The principal was quoted recently in the newspapers as saying that he has children who are emotionally disturbed and who need help. These are the children whom the Minister thinks this Bill will enable to remain in school until they obtain a qualification. That same principal went on to criticise the level of help given by the Department when an application for special resources is granted. He said he had a visually impaired child and that that child would be worth one-eighth of a teacher. Another principal was quoted as saying that his school is allocated four hours per week of a special teacher's time for an emotionally disturbed child. He said this allocation was completely inadequate and presumably would not facilitate him in keeping this child in school.
It is my contention that the Education Welfare Bill is flawed because it is set in the current context of an inadequately resourced primary school system. In terms of the Bill itself, it is a totally inadequate response to the problem of early school leaving. As I have already suggested, early school leaving will only be resolved by providing support services to enable schools to offer a range of assistance to pupils at risk of leaving school early. Resources will also be needed for out of school activities in the community. Whereas the Minister takes account of the wider picture of early school leaving, he fails to do anything about it in the context of the Bill.
The Bill imposes statutory duties and responsibilities on school principals, boards and teachers and expects that this will resolve the issue. There is not a commitment to provide extra resources to ease the increased workload which will follow for teachers, principals and board members. Little or nothing is offered to assist schools with the pressing problem of discipline. What exactly is the school supposed to do with the child who is persistently absent or indulges in unacceptable behaviour in the school? The TUI in its response claims that appropriate sanctions are not specified in the Bill which does not give the board of management the right to enforce the code of discipline and does not require parents to accept the school's code of discipline.
The Bill is almost silent on the rights of the child in that there is not a legal right of the child to the appropriate support services. There is not a system of any appeal for the child or its parents where they might feel they are not being treated fairly or have not been provided with the necessary support or services. The National Educational Welfare Board will not automatically have teacher, parent or management representation. The teachers unions have already made known their unease at the absence of a teaching representative and have predicted that problems of an industrial relations nature may follow if this is allowed to be the case.
The provision that deals with expulsion from schools is seriously flawed. The Bill proposes to wait until a child has been expelled before considering the supports and services he or she may require. Surely it would make more sense to address the child's needs before the matter reaches the crisis stage of expulsion. The Bill makes boards of management responsible for finding a suitable place in some other school for a pupil who has been expelled. It is beyond me how this will work. Will an alternative school agree to take a pupil who has been expelled?
The role of the new education welfare service requires further clarification and the duties of the welfare officer need to be specified. A crucial element of the welfare service will be its ability to work alongside the many other professionals involved in the child's education and welfare. This type of successful working in partnership can be achieved only where there are clear boundaries and no dereliction of duties. Already home-school liaison teachers have begun to express fears that their positions could be redefined to include some kind of enforcement role in terms of school non-attendance. Such a move would be disastrous for a service that has been very successful to date in fostering the vital links between home and school for some students.
The Bill does not place any obligation on employers to ensure early school leavers continue their education in some form. This is despite a suggestion from the Minister that the Bill would include a scheme under which all school leavers under 18 would have to maintain their links with the education system on a part-time basis. The Bill fails to address the question of pupils who work long hours outside school hours which disrupts their performances when at school. I had hoped the Bill would place some obligation on employers in respect of students who work at night or at weekends.
An innovation of the Bill will be the registration of all children being educated outside the school system, such as at home. Registration will involve assessing such education to ensure it is up to minimum standards. Whereas this is a welcome development and parents who chose to educate their children at home must be in some way accountable for the level of education they provide, it is unfortunate that this provision is included in a Bill which is perceived by many of these parents to deal with truancy and social disadvantage. Those who have chosen to educate their children at home are unhappy at being included in the same Bill. Such families have a commitment to education. Those parents feel the Bill is punitive in tone and that the standards used to assess home education may be arbitrary. They also point out that the Bill fails to mention supports for home education, such as grants for books or an information service.
This Bill does not address the question of why so many young people with their whole lives ahead of them abandon the so-called best years of their lives for a life of unemployment. Many of those who leave school early claim there is no link between what they do in school and what they do outside school. Such discontinuity occurs for cultural and socio-economic reasons and it involves not only the child's ability to cope with school but also the school's inability to cope with the needs of the disadvantaged child. People who live in poverty will always choose an immediate opportunity to secure an income over the longer term benefits of an education because they have to cope with the daily demands of life.
If the Bill is to have any real effect on those at risk of early school leaving, it must address these issues. Schemes such as the home-school liaison service, Breaking the Cycle, the Early Start Initiative and the initiative for eight to 15 year olds at risk must be expanded and made available to all disadvantaged communities. Youthreach courses, the educational psychological service and the remedial teacher and counselling service must be expanded and pupil-teacher ratios must addressed
The Department of Education and Science has set a target of 90% for leaving certificate completion by the year 2000. This goal cannot be reached without investment in the types of measures I have outlined, combined with efforts to redress the serious shortcomings in the primary school system. I hope the cycle of disadvantage can be broken to give all young people a chance to share in Ireland's Celtic tiger economy, but it will not be broken by this Education (Welfare) Bill. I urge the Minister to take on board the comments from the many professionals who are concerned about the inadequacies of this Bill and not let this opportunity slip.