Thursday, 22 February 2018

Ceisteanna (7)

Denise Mitchell


7. Deputy Denise Mitchell asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs when the publication of a formal new school completion strategy is to be expected; the reforms she is considering on foot of the report from the expert group in the summer of 2017; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [8929/18]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Oral answers (11 contributions) (Ceist ar Children)

Will the Minister indicate when we can expect the formal new school completion strategy to be published? What reforms is she considering on foot of the report submitted by the expert group last summer?

Education and schooling are critical in the context of the lives and life chances of children and young people. A range of responses are in place to support children in completing school, and the school completion programme is key among them. The programme provides learner-centred and holistic supports for young people who are at risk of leaving school early.

I believe the programme has played an important part in the achievement of our high rates of school retention.

The programme for Government includes a commitment to prepare a school completion strategy, as noted by Deputy Mitchell. I am working to examine how best to bring about improvements and reforms of the system.

I am conscious that the school completion programme delivers a valuable service for some of our most vulnerable young people. It is, however, in need of significant reform in terms of governance and organisation to ensure that we optimise the outcomes for our young people.

With this in mind, the board of Tusla convened an expert panel to identify and examine a potential revised model of good practice and governance of the school completion programme. The panel examined how industrial relations and human resources issues relating to school completion staff could be resolved to the satisfaction of all stakeholders.

The expert panel concluded its work. When I examined the findings, I decided to carry out some further discussions with a number of other stakeholders. To that end, I hosted an informative school completion consultation event in Farmleigh on 29 January last. The event was attended by a representative group, including school completion programme co-ordinators, school principals, academics with expertise in educational welfare, representatives from the voluntary sector and officials from several State bodies. The matters discussed included best practice and governance within the school completion programme. A range of views were expressed.

Following the Farmleigh event, I asked the facilitator for the day to do some additional work. I hope to bring proposals for reform of the programme to Government in the coming months. I have deliberated carefully over this process. These issues are complex.

The Department of Education and Skills is collaborating with my Department on a scoping exercise and data analysis which will inform the development of our strategy for the future.

Above all, we are moving toward significant reforms of the school completion programme with this strategy.

The Minister did a remarkable job on that long script. Well done.

We all agree that the school completion programme was a very important part of Delivering Equality of Opportunities in Schools, DEIS, funding. It provided supports for children who had issues in school and particularly children who were likely to leave school early. We have to acknowledge what it did. It included supports in school, after-school programmes and summer camps. It does fantastic work and makes a difference in young people's lives. The co-ordinators in particular deserve praise for the difference they make to parents' and children's lives by making school a happy experience for students. The school completion programme operated well under DEIS but it has suffered a reduction in the budget as well as the removal of three national co-ordinators under Tusla. This means that workers have no direct advocate or link with Tusla. My colleagues and I spoke to people involved in this and there has been very little communication with Tusla. It is very difficult for these people when it comes to budgets. The funding has been cut. I acknowledge the work the Minister is doing but can we have the lines of communication opened again?

I appreciate the issues the Deputy is raising. We need that kind of communication in the context of the reform programme that we are moving towards. I have met with a number of school completion co-ordinators not just in my own constituency of Dublin South-West, but in other constituencies and regions in my travels, Kilkenny being the most recent. Members of the newly-named public service union, Fórsa, have indicated in their communication that they are deeply appreciative of the event I hosted in Farmleigh on the school completion programme and the wider gathering of stakeholders. Many constructive things happened there and, as a result, I think we are better informed to determine the reform approach. Once that is ultimately decided, that will influence the investment required.

It is worth highlighting that, each year, the local governance committee must be advised on a proposal which is subject to scrutiny by Tusla to obtain that year's budget. Issues such as target lists, if deemed too ambitious, can hinder the allocation of a budget. Until a proposal is suitable to Tusla, no budget will be allocated. I find it extraordinary that, if we have a scheme that has been too ambitious, the committee will not get its budget. We have to look at this. I welcome what the Minister is saying. Will we be updated regularly on the Minister's progress? When does she expect a date for the completion and implementation of the plan?

Who made the judgment that it was too ambitious?

We have met co-ordinators who say, when they bring proposals-----

Tusla is responding?

-----Tusla is responding to say it is too ambitious.

We have many young people in the Gallery watching this and they are very welcome to this debate. We are talking about them and trying to do the best we can for schooling for them and their colleagues. I note the Deputy's point. When I am describing Tusla, its executive, its educational welfare services division and its board are very keen to ensure that we move from where we are now to a better place. That may be inclusive of some of the commentary that the Deputy is identifying. I will probably need another couple of months to agree those reforms because I will be consulting some young people on this and looking at what comes back from that event. I anticipate that we will ensure that we are as ambitious as we can be, that it would be accepted and that we have that budget to invest.