The mission of my Department as set out in Cumasú, my Department's Action Plan for Education 2019, is to facilitate individuals through learning to achieve their full potential and contribute to Ireland's social economic and cultural development. Goal 2 in the Action Plan commits to advancing the progress of learners at risk of educational disadvantage and learners with special educational needs in order to support them to achieve their potential. Equality of opportunity is at the heart of our vision.
The Report on Education Inequality and Disadvantage and Barriers to Education by the Joint Committee on Education and Skills was published recently.
The Joint Committee met on two occasions to during 2018 to discuss the topic of education inequality and disadvantage. At these meetings it also heard from a range of Stakeholders including senior officials from my Department.
The aim of the examination by the Joint Committee was to focus on solutions to the issue of education inequality and disadvantage. Areas covered in the examination include my Department's DEIS programme and if it can be improved; if an education system can be created which increases participation in post-secondary education, especially among groups with traditionally low rates of participation; the benefits that equal access to education can provide particularly among groups who experience high instances of poverty, addiction and other social issues especially those who live in areas of deprivation.
Based on the contributions made at both meetings, the Joint Committee made six conclusions and forty four recommendations in the Report.
My Department is investing heavily in supporting learners at risk of educational disadvantage.
DEIS is the main policy initiative of my Department to tackle educational disadvantage. DEIS provides additional supports to 896 schools identified as having the highest concentrations of pupils from disadvantaged communities, serving approximately 183,000 pupils, at an overall cost of €125 million per annum. Schools can use these additional resources to meet the identified needs of their pupil cohort.
My Department's Further Education and Training Strategy set out a vision to transform the sector, and provide a focus for the annual funding and investment priorities, to deliver a world-class integrated system of further education and training that would support economic development, increase social inclusion and to meet the needs of all who engage with the sector. SOLAS are currently developing a new Further Education and Training Strategy which will cover the next five year period from 2020. This provides an opportunity to refresh commitments on how further education and training can support inclusion of diverse and marginalised groups in education and training, society and the labour market.
The Progress Review of the National Access Plan for Equity of Access to Higher Education was published in December 2018. It highlighted an increase in participation rates across a number of the target groups with particularly high increases for students with disabilities and among socio-economically disadvantaged groups. The Programme for Access to Higher Education (PATH) Fund comprises dedicated funding to support access to higher education. €16.2m secured through the budgetary process has enabled three strands of the PATH fund to be rolled out.
My Department is currently examining those recommendations made by the Joint Committee which come under its remit, in the context of the supports currently available.