Tuesday, 19 November 2019

Ceisteanna (38)

Thomas Byrne


38. Deputy Thomas Byrne asked the Minister for Education and Skills his plans to ensure equality of access for students of all socioeconomic backgrounds; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [47467/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí ó Béal (10 píosaí cainte) (Ceist ar Education)

I was not expecting to be called so quickly.

I apologise. Deputy Pringle's question was supposed to be next but he is not here.

I ask the Minister his plans to ensure equality of access for students of all socioeconomic backgrounds in this country and if he will make a statement on the matter. Over the past few months, Fianna Fáil, in the context of the Oireachtas education committee, has put forward a series of proposals to address educational disadvantage. The matters I have highlighted include the issue of reduced hours affecting poorer children, Traveller children and children with special needs. Time and again, socioeconomic background is cropping up as a reason for reduced access to education and we need to sort this out and ensure that the equality that is deserved is achieved for everybody.

Delivering Equality of Opportunity in Schools, DEIS, is the main policy initiative of my Department to address educational disadvantage at school level.

The DEIS programme provides for smaller class sizes and other supports, including additional teaching posts, home school community liaison co-ordinators, DEIS grants, enhanced book grants, curriculum supports, priority access to continuing professional development and the school excellence fund for DEIS. Evidence from the evaluation of the DEIS programme to date demonstrates that it is having a positive effect on tackling educational disadvantage.

The rationale for allocating resources and supports based on a school's level of concentrated disadvantage is based on the existence of a multiplier effect whereby students attending a school with a high concentration of students from disadvantaged backgrounds have poorer academic outcomes, even taking account of individual social background. This approach is supported by national and international research.

In the 2019 to 2020 school year there are 891 schools in the DEIS programme serving in excess of 185,000 pupils. This represents approximately 20% of the overall school population. My Department will spend in the region of €125 million in 2019 on the DEIS programme. That does not include school meals from a different Department.

My Department is now in the final stages of further data analysis on the new identification model to allow for the development of a resource allocation model to match resources to identified need.

In addition, there is a broad range of courses, programmes and supports available to increase transition to both further education and training and higher education for under-represented groups, including those from lower socioeconomic groups. These include initiatives under the programme for access to higher education, PATH, the student assistance fund and student grant schemes.

The issue of language learning and education is particularly emblematic of this matter. The Department of Education and Skills has identified issues in access to learning different languages, which could act as an impediment to employment for pupils for the rest of their lives. In a post-Brexit world, Ireland should be improving access to languages rather than damaging it. In particular, a second language for less well-off students could be particularly advantageous. As I am sure Fine Gael colleagues have told the Minister, Fianna Fáil has a policy document on language learning, some of the damage done by Fine Gael and Labour while in government and how to try to rectify that damage. Education must be a leveller so regardless of where someone is born or how much parents make, we should be striving to build an education system that allows pupils to meet their full potential. That objective is not being met in a number of areas.

I am proud that DEIS was established by Fianna Fáil to ensure everybody is looked after but we must ensure people with disabilities, asylum seekers and Travellers have access to the system. Where is the policy on the barriers facing children who are homeless while in education? That will follow them for the rest of their lives, as research has indicated. Nothing has been done by the Department. DEIS is an important policy response but there is so much more to this.

DEIS has been an outstanding success story and when it was introduced, there were fears around the stigma that would be associated with the programme. That was very quickly dispensed with because of the support mechanisms put in place and the progression by students, not just to third level but also to training and apprenticeships. The statistics bear that out. Disadvantage is no longer looked at on a geographical basis. Disadvantage can sometimes be very subtle or it can be acute. We are measuring it and taking this intensive analysis very seriously. As far as I am concerned, if we are to look at other school support systems, we must make a choice. It will be whether to put resources into this or not; I am certainly an advocate for DEIS and such a support system. I want us to continue moving towards a more meaningful and inclusive education system.

I will raise two matters that are connected to DEIS in that the programme does not apply fully to some schools. Evidence gathered on the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in America indicates that children and families were displaced for considerable periods and that children's education suffered in the long term. In a Dáil motion, we have argued that the Department should act on child homelessness and access to education. The Irish National Teachers Organisation, INTO, developed a protocol but there has been nothing from the Department since the motion was discussed, which is a real shame. We need something to direct schools on how to deal with child homelessness in non-DEIS schools.

Some schools, such as a school whose name I will supply to the Minister in the form of a note, do not have full DEIS benefits but are in areas ravaged by gang crime. They see kids influenced or affected by gangs, and in some cases, at age nine or ten, they work for gangs or are being nurtured by gang members. I know representatives from some of those schools have met departmental officials as they want extra support from the Department. They make a very good case, although they have not gone public on this. There should also be input from the Department of Justice and Equality. There is a range of issues but schools are confident they can work with children who are affected by gang crime if given sufficient resources. I urge the Department, when it reviews DEIS, to look at this as a matter of urgency. I will give the name of the school in a note if that is okay.

Will the Minister agree to give some information and publish details of the school planning areas, which are broad maps that apply in areas of rapid development of housing? These are really confused. People cannot go to a school that is next door or there may be no transport to an area to which they have been designated. It would be really helpful to have a consultation and information process on these mapped areas, and that probably applies to most of the country.

The planning areas are publicly available but I would be happy to forward the information to the Deputy.

We sit on a cross-departmental group that takes homelessness as a very specific and important issue. If Deputy Thomas Byrne wishes to raise any specific matters with me in that regard, I would be happy to take that information. I will take the note he mentioned and his comments highlight the complexity of the challenges and pressures that schools feel in different areas. That is whether they are dealing with criminal gangs, homelessness, anxiety or different coping, familial or society issues for students. The people at the coalface are the teachers and I get feedback from them on a daily basis when I meet them. It is that the challenges are changing but are very complex and evolving. We must be very supportive in that process.

I reiterate the DEIS programme is a targeted supportive system. There are other schools not in the DEIS programme that I strongly believe should be in it, and that is why we are considering a targeted intervention. It will come down to the question of resources, but I am certainly happy to support further expansion in that regard.

We will now take Question No. 37. I understand Deputy O'Keeffe was delayed.