I thank the Chairman, Deputy Kehoe.
"History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake", wrote James Joyce. Trauma is a nightmare from which politicians in Ireland need to wake up to regarding children in Irish society today in order to address a glaring system gap, which is the lack of emotional counselling and therapeutic services in and around schools. The Joint Oireachtas Committee on Education and Skills report on early school leaving in 2010 identified trauma then as an issue affecting early school leaving. Our own educational disadvantage centres, formed with DEIS and the INTO, also raised this as a priority issue in 2015. International research in the last decade has accelerated awareness of how mental health and trauma-related issues impact upon school engagement and early school leaving.
The Irish system currently puts teachers in the role of therapists, which is unacceptable. The Wellbeing Policy Statement and Framework for Practice of 2018 talks about one good adult, where a teacher is in this role. We need to recognise that career guidance counsellors are not emotional counsellors at the level of therapeutic supports. They are not a substitute for emotional counsellors.
Similarly the National Educational Psychological Service, NEPS, psychologists do not provide sustained one-to-one counselling support. Across many countries in Europe, and in a 2019 report in which I was involved with the European Commission evaluating the implementation of the Council recommendation of 2011, we see that many European countries have emotional counsellors and therapists routinely in and around schools. Ireland does not. I appeal to all of the members today to seriously prioritise this issue.
In my submission members will also see a triangle of need, which is a public health model. This is increasingly recognised, and is sometimes called a variant of the Hardiker model of need, where one is looking at the different levels of need. The indicated prevention level of need is that of individuals' specialised chronic need in complex issues. That is the level at which the Irish system currently fails in respect of trauma and supports.
The second priority issued that we have raised in our submission is a related one on alternatives to suspension and expulsion. This is a system absurdity where on the one hand we have a range of services trying to keep young people in school yet we have over 13,000 post-primary students being suspended annually, according to the most recent figures, which is 3.8% of this school-going population. There has been a slight improvement in recent years on that figure but not a great one. A key commitment in the DEIS 2017 action plan was to expand multidisciplinary team supports to primary schools but we need the resources for that. I urge members to also look at that aspect of this issue. There is again international research showing how destructive suspending and expelling youngsters from school is. Our centre's Peter McVerry Trust report of last year highlighted that 25% of homeless men had been suspended from school. Suspension and expulsion is the fast track to homelessness.
A third point I will raise here is on the issue of hot meals in schools. This is something on which significant progress has beenmade by successive Governments. I also note that child poverty statistics from the last economic crash show that child poverty rose with the fastest acceleration in all of Europe between 2008 and 2011 in a small island on the west coast of Europe called Ireland. We accelerated child poverty more than any other country in Europe and, uniquely, put the burden of child poverty on our children. We must not do that for the forthcoming economic recession. It is very gratifying to see that there are at least steps being taken towards a hot meals provision in schools but this needs to be expanded as part of a phased universalism in schools.
We also raise attention in our submission to the DEIS allocation tool. The policy purposes behind this tool are very concerning in that it may be punishing schools for their success if they attract students from a broader social mix.
The tool itself raises a lot of concerns. The other two issues in our submission relate to arts and social inclusion. This is an open goal for policy development. The arts and education strategy is not fit for purpose in regard to arts and social inclusion issues. The arts bring about issues of challenging fear of failure. The other aspect is outdoor education. In the light of Covid, this is another aspect on which we need a strategic approach.