Thursday, 8 July 2004
Joint Committee on Education and Science DebatePage of 3
Chairman: The meeting is convened for the purpose of discussing the role of area partnership boards in tackling educational disadvantage. On behalf of the members of the committee, I welcome the representatives of Planet — the Partnerships Network — Ms Aileen O’Donoghue, chairperson of Planet and chair of the education policy group and manager of Clondalkin Partnership, Dublin; Ms Mary Lynne, education co-ordinator, South Kerry Development Partnership; Ms Catherine Durkin, education co-ordinator, Blanchardstown Area Partnership and Mr. Brian Carty, national co-ordinator of Planet. We look forward to an interesting and, I hope, fruitful discussion.
I draw the attention of witnesses to the fact that members of the committee have absolute privilege but this same privilege does not apply to witnesses appearing before the committee. I remind members of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the House or an official by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable. I invite Ms O’Donoghue to make her presentation.
Ms Aileen O’Donoghue: I thank the committee for the opportunity to be here today. Mr. Brian Carty will speak about Planet and its role and say a little about partnerships and their background. I shall speak about education co-ordinators and some of the general issues. We will have some case studies from an urban perspective from Ms Catherine Durkin and from a rural perspective from Ms Mary Lynne. At the end we would welcome any questions or comments and the opportunity for dialogue with the committee on our presentation.
Mr. Brian Carty: I thank the Chair and particularly Deputy O’Sullivan for facilitating us in making a presentation to the joint committee on the work of partnerships in the area of education. Before coming to that field, I wish to outline in a general context the partnership community in which there are 38 area partnership boards. Originally, in 1991 as an offshoot of the PESP 12 area partnership boards were established in some of the most disadvantaged areas of the country in both urban and rural contexts. In 1996 an additional number of partnerships were established, bringing to 38 the total number of partnerships focused on combating social exclusion in some of the most deprived areas. Planet is the representative body. In the presentation pack to members I have given a brief outline of essentially what the organisation does. It is a policymaking lobbying body on behalf of all the area partnership boards, all of which are members of Planet. Our most recent addition, as of last year, is Dublin Employment Pact, giving a total of 39 members.
In the last page of the presentation which is more of an appendage I have included an outline of the structure of the organisation in graphic form. It sets out the various policy groups and how we operate from a structural point of view. The policy groups are the engine room of the organisation and cover all areas from employment services which would include community employment, job initiative as well as child care and education, on which we are speaking this morning.
From the point of view of Planet as a network, we will continue to ensure there is structured interaction with various Oireachtas committees whether in education or in health. We would welcome further interaction with the various members. I will pass over to our chairperson, Ms O’Donoghue, to give a general overview of the education sector and more particularly what the partnerships boards are doing in that area.
Ms O’Donoghue: Our experience of the education section is that it is extremely sectoralised and centralised. Primary schools do not tend to have a huge dialogue with secondary schools, except in regard to the transfer of pupils who will attend their particular school. Second level schools tend to have very little dialogue with third level institutions and, equally, the community and adult education sector can be separate. While some schools have begun to run VTOS and have some adult education programmes, there has not been formal contact and dialogue between the sectors to any great extent. The most local structures are the VECs and they are only one part of the education picture.
With the establishment of partnerships one of our remits, not only in education but in a number of different areas, is to bring together the various actors or players in a particular sector and look at the issues. By and large, that is what partnerships have done across the country. Most partnerships would have an education committee or an education working group which would comprise representatives of those different sectors — a principal from a local primary school, a home-school-liaison teacher, the local adult education organiser, parents and representatives of community organisations who are delivering education. What we found surprising in the beginning was the fact that these people had not met each other to any great extent previously. We began by trying to establish the issues those various groupings were facing and the gaps in the way services or resources were currently made available to them. Out of that process a number of issues emerged that were common throughout the country.
We knew that in urban areas there was a big problem with absenteeism from primary and second level and huge under achievement that could not be accounted for just because of the demographic profile of a particular area. Very small numbers of young people were going on to third level and there were many drop-outs even between primary and second level. There were children that we knew were not transferring from one system to the other and there was no way of tracking them. Equally, we knew that adults who wanted to go back to third level faced huge financial obstacles, a lack of support and the feeling of being the fish out of water in institutions that were largely comprised of people who were much younger than them.
Having identified these issues each partnership would have tried to look at what it could do that would either throw more light on the problem, by doing some research or trying to quantify the issues, or develop pilot projects that would demonstrate what could be done in regard to providing resources to schools or to the informal sector to do it. Some five or six years ago schools had little access to flexible resources. Everything was tied up. Even to do small additional programmes was a problem. We have looked at the level of absenteeism in particular areas and the causes and possible solutions. We have also looked at early school leaving, the issues that affect it and how it might be dealt with.
Much work is being done on third level access. Partnerships were instrumental in having the Millennium Fund established. It was based on the work being done by Northside Partnership. There has been a balance of work involving research, pilot work and having that pilot work mainstreamed or taken on board by policymakers within the Department of Education and Science.
Apart from the education committees involved, this work has largely been driven by education co-ordinators, of whom Catherine Durkin and Mary Lynne are two. Those positions have been funded partly at least by the Department of Education and Science and we have had secondment arrangements approved by the Department. That arrangement has become more difficult since last year. It has been an uphill battle to get final approval from the Department regarding the secondments and the continuing funding of the posts. We feel these posts are crucial in driving this work ahead.
Mr. Brian Fleming, one of the principals in Clondalkin who is regularly interviewed about educational disadvantage and who himself writes about it, has said that pound for pound, education co-ordinators are the best investment that the Department of Education and Science has made in recent years. That is because they are uniquely placed to play that sort of catalyst role, to bring together elements which otherwise would not come together. It is not necessarily that we come up with new ideas but we facilitate people who have a great deal of experience in developing their ideas and testing out what works or does not work in the education sector.
Ms Catherine Durkin: The agreement negotiated in the mid-1990s whereby the Department of Education and Science paid to the original 12 people either the full salary or half the salary was a radical intervention by the Department at that stage which was not matched by any other Department. The Department of Education and Science neither got enough credit for that nor took enough credit itself.
I was a serving teacher and in late 1997 I was seconded to another world, so to speak — an area partnership. It was also a very manageable intervention in economic terms. I know that is currently an issue, though perhaps not so much when things are picking up again. There were 38 partnerships involving 12 full-time salaries and 26 half-time salaries. The cost to the Exchequer was, therefore, economical too. The real test of things is whether they prove to be worthwhile.
The environment now is changed. Even a few years ago there were no educational welfare officers in most areas. With the regionalisation of the Department of Education and Science there is a changed environment, but we still have the challenges of early school leaving. Up to the late 1990s there were great achievements in the system in that regard, with students being further retained year by year, but the retention to leaving certificate has hovered around the 81%, 82% or 83% for some time. Coming up to the year 2000 there was hope that the target figure of 90% would be reached. It was not reached and the date for reaching it is now 2006. Therefore, the challenge remains.
There is lower student retention to leaving certificate level in Dublin than in the rest of the country. Dublin’s third level participation is second lowest by county. A new report is due shortly which will show some positive movement with regard to children of unskilled workers in that regard.
There have been literacy achievements. Decade by decade the primary school pupil level of literacy has improved but those with literacy problems at that level still make up about 8% or 9%. Accordingly, there is still a necessity for partnerships and for education co-ordinators. While not ignoring the achievement within the system, we are all aware that many adults across Dublin were early school leavers. Many thousands of young people leave school with only a junior certificate. With the IDA hoping to attract jobs which are further up the value chain, this is clearly an issue.
I was seconded in November 1997 and asked to set up an education group. Aileen O’Donoghue spoke of the type of participation within such groups. It included the Department of Education and Science. We had about four meetings over two months and an interesting and interactive analysis was done of all the issues. One of the aspects which concentrated minds was that people knew there was funding in place. That made it more exciting, knowing we were not merely discussing issues but could actually do something. We engaged, for example, in a third level access programme, though I will not go into that in great detail.
There is now a substantial access programme in Blanchardstown where there is an Easter revision course annually. In the first year, 90 students from two schools in the area attended the course. There was supervised study along with language classes after school in French and German for sixth class primary pupils. We have now introduced Spanish. This programme was mainstreamed by the Department last December and we are funded by the Department and by the Society of St. Vincent de Paul.
In 1998, £15,000 was given to a local committee to do research into the incidence and profile of young ex-prisoners in Blanchardstown. Arising from that research and subsequent lobbying, money was received from the young people’s services and facilities fund and then from the probation and welfare service. We now have the BOND project — Blanchardstown Offenders New Directions. It has 90 clients on its books, 84 of them male and six female. This indicates the level of need as most of those people would have been early school leavers. There was a great donation from the Dublin County VEC and also from the back to education initiative. This shows what can be done with a very small amount of money. More than ever there is a need for this sort of intervention because there are many more young offenders in Blanchardstown who have been imprisoned in St. Patrick’s Institution and Mountjoy Prison.
The Northside Partnership with the other partnerships in the Dublin region has been to the forefront, and took some great initiatives with regard to higher education support schemes. Indeed we copied its scheme when we set up our own third level scheme. The Northside Partnership had started it a few years earlier and has helped hundreds of people in areas such as Coolock with practical supports such as travel vouchers and course costs. This is a fantastic scheme which has been replicated in other areas. It also has the Challenger programme which again focuses on primary and second level students and encourages young people to go to college.
I can supply further details of this very good programme in which parents and students are involved, sometimes over five or six years of their school cycle. There have been great successes with regard to getting people to college. The partnership also has a programme to prevent early school leaving. This involves 1,600 primary school children getting daily breakfast and lunch. There are also other in-school programmes.
The last case study I will mention relates to the Dublin Employment Pact. One of its programmes involves linking education and the workplace, whereby young people who are in employment, but who have only a junior certificate, are with the agreement of their employers given training over a number of months. This might involve one day weekly. It has been a very successful programme and has been named in Sustaining Progress. It is being launched next Monday. It was the Northside, the Clondalkin and the Tallaght Partnerships which were responsible for getting that programme off the ground and it could not have happened without their being there. It is marvellous that this programme has been named in Sustaining Progress.
Ms Mary Lynne: The thrust of partnerships is inequality. One of the ways in which it is reflected is in access to and benefit from education. We all know that those who have benefited from education have increased employment prospects and, as a result, a better income. It is reproduced in the next generation if there is a good outcome from education.
I know that some members are very familiar with the work of education co-ordinators, but I will briefly describe it. It looks at the concept of lifelong learning and offering people opportunities to learn from the cradle to the grave. Our ethos, work and principles are about facilitating those who are most marginalised. Many of those who are already benefiting from the system do not really need any help. The parents, community and schools are already helping them, and they are benefiting and moving on without any intervention being necessary. However, there are individuals, in urban areas and also very much in rural areas, who need intervention on the ground.
We know from our work over recent years that it is crucial to intervene early. The young person’s brain is developing at an enormous pace up to the age of five. If we lose out and do not intervene, helping the young children at that age, they lose the capacity to learn. It simply goes out of the brain. We know that from research. There is therefore an onus on us to intervene, particularly with pre-school children.
Recent research in the United States shows that a child of four whose parents are professionals has a greater linguistic capacity than the parents of a welfare child. If we can help develop language skills and help parents to develop their own capacity to help their children, we can do enormous good. That is really the work of partnerships. We will help young people but also the adult parents.
Work with parents is enormously beneficial, and it increases the capacity of the parents, children and grandchildren. Much of our work is, therefore, with parents, encouraging them to become involved in their own education and development. We also know that where the parents are developed and interested in their children’s education, there will be a better outcome in schooling, since they will have a greater capacity to relate to school. They will see the benefits of schooling.
Our work is about the integration of local services. Many of the services are separate, as my colleague has mentioned. Health boards, schools and VECs operate with their own agendas. They all do very good and necessary work, but partnerships are in an independent position in most counties and are able to draw together all those different interests. Therefore, it is crucial that all that work should continue.
We know from research that a child spends only 20% of its waking hours between the ages of five and 18 in school. The onus of learning and education should not be on schools alone. It must also be on the home and the community. Therefore, our work also has to involve community development, raising the capacity of the individual. That is why the parent is so crucial.
Work with schools is ongoing. Many are doing excellent work, and most are very committed. I come from a teaching background, having been at second level, and most teachers are very concerned and interested in the children’s welfare. However, many are constrained by the curriculum and so on.
Some children are suffering in the education system as it currently operates. Where a child has come from a dysfunctional family, it simply cannot sit down and learn. It needs intervention such as behaviour management and counselling. There must be systems to help the child withdraw from schools. Much of our work relates to that kind of piloting of initiatives in second level schools in particular, but it is also evident that children are coming in at the age of four or five to schools already exhibiting behaviour that will have an impact on their learning. We must be very conscious of the responsibility that we have to help individuals.
Perhaps I might turn to rural issues, such as the lack of infrastructure and personnel to support people with educational difficulties. In many rural areas, there are very few programmes targeting one or two individuals. The emphasis is on where one has large numbers of children, and that is evident in urban centres, where one has schools with 600 or 700 children. In many rural schools, numbers are much smaller.
I conducted a survey in 2000 in the south Kerry area, asking principals of second level schools to look at their children aged between 12 and 15, up to junior certificate level. How many would be likely to leave school without completing that examination or have difficulty in doing so? The number was 80 out of eight schools. There were 80 children there, but there was only one school with any additional support, which was the SSRI at the time. That has now been changed to a school completion. Currently there is no intervention or additional support to help the children complete junior certificate and so on in south Kerry.
There is a lack of facilities for arts, cultural and sporting activities. Were it not for the GAA, there would be simply nothing in much of rural Ireland. If we acknowledge that many people learn a great deal from school, we must enhance the capacity locally for organisations such as the diocesan youth service in Kerry to work with other young people. Though it does excellent work throughout the county, it is so constrained by lack of money that it has had to go to the USA to raise funds to support additional informal learning. I am sad to hear that.
I will not go into the transport issues since members know about them already. I come to our past actions. Wexford Partnership and, I believe, Waterford Partnership were involved in two pilot programmes regarding FETAC and organic horticulture. That was targeted at adults from a farming background who wanted to develop themselves and get a qualification. They developed and wrote up the modules, submitting them to the FETAC system. Sligo Partnership’s early reading skills programmes at levels one and two were piloted. They were written up and are now available for other centres which want to do early learning.
Waterford and Galway Partnerships both worked with clusters of rural schools, and that is what we must consider if we are to service rural Ireland. There is no point in saying that a school does not have the numbers. One must look at the town of Killarney or Tralee and say that one will cluster the four schools in the area, giving resources to it as a whole rather than to a school. Most principals with whom I have worked have been able to identify small numbers of children in the different areas who would benefit from it.
Members can see the other kinds of programmes operated. Many of us would have worked in home supported learning programmes in which we went into children’s homes rather than having a homework club. Transport is difficult if one is leaving the local primary school at 3 p.m. and there is no way back to it. In south Kerry and other areas, we have supported learning in the home, with a teacher going in and supporting one or two children from each school. Westmeath has done a great deal of work regarding Traveller women and families. In Roscommon the partnership has focused on upskilling teachers on their understanding of equality and how to encourage children.
We have focused on substance abuse. That came about through the local employment service which had found that some people placed in jobs had difficulty retaining them because of substance abuse issues. We then did a survey and found that 62% of young people at second level schools were frequent imbibers of alcohol. Again taking an area based approach, local action group meetings were held where we worked with the Garda and health board. That was a good example of the partnership working in conjunction with other agencies — the health board, Garda, ourselves and the schools. As a result of that a number of courses were set up, using VEC funding, to work with parents and young people.
This year we received funding of €50,000 from the Leader programme in south Kerry and also the credit union movement for the purchase of a light mobile unit which is currently touring primary schools in south Kerry. It is the first operation of its kind in rural Ireland. There is one in Dublin and I believe a few in the United Kingdom. This initiative came originally from Australia to the United Kingdom and we launched it in January this year. It has aroused great interest. The Bishop of Kerry has endorsed it and it has helped to encourage a good working relationship among all those involved.
As for the future, it is not true to say there is no further work for education co-ordinators. There is so much crucial work to be done, particularly among the most marginalised. Many of them have no voice. They do not contact radio shows. Members of the committee, as politicians, probably come across them but they are largely invisible to the general public. We must ensure that partnerships are properly resourced to cater for their needs. The money is well spent. It is reaching into the homes of people who cost the State little. In rural Ireland they are not committing crimes. They are not drawing attention to themselves. It is vital we continue this important work, particularly, as Ms Durkin has mentioned, on the new regional structures that have been set up. The educational welfare officer will need someone on the ground to identify those who are falling outside the system and so on.
Obviously the schools will do what they can. However, at the moment in Kerry there is one person carrying out this role, in the town of Tralee, the RAPID area. Already in Killarney, a large number — eight at least — are outside the school system. Nobody is catering for them. I wrote in February to the education welfare office, which is giving priority to the RAPID area and currently there is no service outside of this. I urge the committee to use its influence to ensure that our work, both in urban and rural areas, is supported, since we are focusing on marginalised people everywhere.
Deputy O’Sullivan: I welcome the representatives and thank them for their presentations, which were particularly informative. The fact that people spoke to the committee rather than reading from documents helps considerably in terms of the overall dialogue. I was keen that this group should address the committee. It has given us a good picture, both from the rural and urban perspectives.
My initial question is concerned with the group’s fear of losing funding. To take up the point made by Ms Durkin, I would like to congratulate the Department of Education and Science on initiating the funding and bringing it to this point and I would encourage it to continue. Perhaps we might clarify whether there is a delay each time in getting the sanction or has the Department indicated it might not be available in the future? That is my first practical question, to see where the committee can assist in terms of ensuring that the Department of Education and Science is aware of the good work being done and of the need for it to continue.
The presentations have given a good overall picture of the importance and practicality of the work. Ms Lynne made the point towards the end that much of the activity is directed at hidden need that is not always measured in terms of how Departments account for the way money is being spent.
My second question relates to how the group sees its role in working with the new regional educational structures — the new offices that have been set up in various parts of the country — and with the educational welfare officers in particular. My personal experience is of a well-provided for area in Limerick where there are education welfare officers. They are already working with the community in terms of issues such as transition from primary to second level and other matters to do with keeping children in school. How formalised is the relationship with the regional education officers and educational welfare officers? Perhaps the witnesses could indicate where that might need further development, as, for example the case of south Kerry, where as yet there is not much of a service.
Heretofore, the committee would have stressed the need for the Educational Welfare Board to be properly resourced in terms of providing a full service around the country. The initial focus has been mainly on the RAPID areas, which is probably the right approach in terms of the limited resources. However, there is a need to spread those resources around the country to ensure that no one is left out of the net.
I also wanted to ask the group if it is part of the formal review taking place in the Department into the educationally disadvantaged. The Minister has told the committee on a number of occasions and said in response to parliamentary questions that he is reviewing the whole area of educational disadvantage and the variety of programmes that exists. Is the group involved in this or is that happening within the more formalised education structures? As a full picture has been given as to what the group does, I will leave it to my colleagues to ask more specific questions. However, the witnesses might indicate what types of development they foresee for the future. Obviously the planned network means individuals can exchange information, but are there parts of the country that are left out of that? Is there a need to spread it further?
Deputy Stanton: I welcome the delegation and congratulate its members on the work they have been doing. It was referred to during the presentations as a quiet revolution. I believe there is a need for the delegates to be less quiet about the work being done and publicise it more in the hope the media will take notice. As public representatives, we hear all about the problems young people are facing and the difficulties a small number encounter in terms of drugs and crime, school absenteeism etc. We seldom hear about the good work that is going on and the potential for so much more to be done, given funding and support.
I join Deputy O’Sullivan in congratulating the Department of Education and Science and say “Well done” for the support it has given to date. However, I am struck by what somebody said earlier, about the recent uphill battle for funding from the Department and the secondment of posts, in particular. I would encourage the Department to give more support to the Planet network education training policy. Perhaps the committee could formally add its voice by writing to the Department indicating that it had met the group today and stressing how impressed members were with its report and the work that is going on. The Department should be encouraged to continue with this excellent work and to support it further. That is something the committee could do.
I would like to know what sort of interaction the group has with the National Educational Welfare Board. Is the there a formal structure with the officers of the welfare board? Delegates referred to the whole educational area being centralised and sectoralised as well. I am a former teacher and I worked in school community liaison area for a while. I am well aware of the potential for co-operation and various groups working together. Delegates mentioned they worked with the Garda and the health boards. The Society of St. Vincent de Paul was referred to several times. Is there an overlap in regard to the Planet network’s relationship with home-school-community liaison teachers? Part of the remit of the home-school-community liaison scheme was to set up co-ordinating groups in each area. I am not sure how this is working and the committee should consider the issue later in the year.
Reference was made to the training of teachers. Today’s presentation was similar to what would be prepared if somebody was undertaking a master’s degree in the sociology of education. We heard a treatise on the sociology of education and I was taken with what was said about the language capacity of children from certain backgrounds being so much less than children from other backgrounds, which is important.
Another bug-bear of mine is the issue of out-of-school learning. It was stated that schools interact with children when they go to school, which is about 20% of their waking time. However, schools are increasingly being asked to take on issues such as drug awareness training, sexuality awareness training and bullying awareness training. It is claimed that the schools should do this or that.
The issue of out-of-school informal learning and youth work was referred to. The youth work Bill is dead in the water but we have heard very little on this from the media. Children often have nowhere to go and nothing to do. GAA, soccer and rugby clubs do excellent work but, apart from this, there is very little. We are building thousands of houses — urban wastelands — with no infrastructure or facilities such as community halls where people can get together. What is the Planet network’s experience in this area?
The issue of rural deprivation is important. A child in a rural area may not be able to access services due to the distance involved. As there may be a critical mass in terms of numbers, services may not be provided.
The fact that the Planet network had to go to America to get funding is amazing. We are told that the country is awash with money and that the Minister for Finance has billions at his disposal, yet we must go to America and to the Society of St. Vincent de Paul to get money for this crucial work.
I would like to hear more about the mobile unit as I did not fully understand what it is doing. Has the Planet network’s research been published and can the committee obtain summaries of the findings, which would be interesting? Has there been any independent assessment of the work of the partnership networks or is this planned? It would be useful to highlight the organisation’s work.
Deputy Crowe: On the difficulties in obtaining funding, I am told that education co-ordinators have been left for six months out of contract. The contracts were due for renewal in December but were renewed only last week and run until next summer, although the education programmes continue until the following December. The delegation might refer to this.
I read much of the group’s documentation before the meeting, including Mainstreaming for Sustainable Development, and I agree with 99% of what is involved. The difficulty is the question of resources and how they are used. For the past ten years, there has been great emphasis on the issue of people from disadvantaged backgrounds accessing third level education, and rightly so. However, this seems to be to the detriment of the focus on pre and early school intervention. There has been no real discussion on the many children the system has failed.
I recently met teachers in Scoil Chroí Ró-Naofa in Killinarden which brought in public representatives from the area. It was basically a cry for help in the sense that the school tried to highlight the number of children being failed by the system. This could be mirrored in any area of disadvantage and some other areas.
There is agreement that smaller classes are the key. I note that one of the the Planet network documents refers to an optimum class size of 15:1 and that the INTO gives a class size of 19:1 as the optimum. How did the Planet network come up with this figure and what is the thinking behind it?
We discussed the issue of language skills. For children with a speech impediment or other difficulty, the shortage of speech therapists throughout the State is a problem. Children might have to wait over a year to access a therapist. In the meantime, their education has stopped at the early age that is so important for development.
All studies have shown that if there is a literacy problem with both parents and there are no books or magazines in the home, it is important that there is an incentive for parents to go on to further education. It is helpful to children from disadvantaged areas to see their parents doing so. What are the delegation’s views on this?
Some €30,000 worth of damage was caused to a school in my area, which has had a negative effect on the education of pupils and leads to a lack of pride in the school among pupils. On many days, pupils cannot have class because their rooms have been smashed up. This also has a long-term effect on the children. Has the delegation considered this issue?
Much time was spent on the issue of mainstreaming and the setting up of pilot schemes. I know of an educational group for young mothers in Tallaght. While the evaluation of the group was very positive and it was to be a model for other areas, the scheme ran out of money and collapsed. The Minister will say that resources go to disadvantaged areas but, unfortunately, it takes a long time for resources to arrive. My main concern is that many children are failed by the system. The Minister for Education and Science has made a commitment regarding the reduction of class sizes but the situation remains that a school which is two pupils below quota will lose a teacher and must operate classes of 35 or 36 instead of 29. I do not know if the Minister has undertaken any study on this matter.
I welcome the work that Planet is doing and its observation that education is currently undergoing a revolution with the advent of education co-ordinators and so on. However, the reality is that there is still a piecemeal approach and a lack of forward planning in education provision. The problems in education can never properly be tackled unless the necessary structures and funding are in place.
Deputy Hoctor: I welcome the deputation and its valuable input. As a former member of North Tipperary VEC, I was familiar with an investigation undertaken by the CEO and his staff approximately 18 months ago regarding the profile of people availing of the adult lifelong learning programme, particularly adult education classes which took place after regular working hours. The deficiency of applications from males in rural areas was remarkable. What gender breakdown has Planet found in its research and has it identified deficiencies in applications for education programmes from particular categories of people in different rural areas? I am particularly interested in this issue as my own constituency of North Tipperary is largely rural.
Ms Durkin mentioned the situation in areas covered by the RAPID programme and I am particularly interested in the CLÁR areas, which have been recognised as areas of population decline by the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs. Does Planet have a role in providing funding to CLÁR areas? An extremely remote rural parish in my constituency, Upper Church, has made a remarkable drive in the area of adult education through technology and I am interested to learn if similar areas are achieving comparable results.
Most committee members visited Trinity House school, the Oberstown boys’ and girls’ centres and the Irish Centre for Talented Youth at DCU last week. The latter was something of a contrast to the other institutions. Although committee members are often bold enough to visit places unannounced, perhaps Planet might invite us to attend the local partnership. I reiterate Deputy Stanton’s proposal that the committee should contact the Minister for Education and Science to communicate the issues raised at this meeting such as continuity, funding and so on. Perhaps the members of the delegation have other matters which they would like us to raise with him.
I also agree with Deputy Stanton’s observation regarding the tendency of society and even of legislators to dump everything on schools. It aggravated me as a teacher constantly to encounter the prevailing wisdom that all difficulties must be addressed through the schools. This is simply not possible, irrespective of the level of funding.
An element of this and similar initiatives which interests me is the question of how the enthusiasm displayed by the members of the delegation can be maintained in this area of educational endeavour. There is a tendency for all of us to get comfortable in a job, to slip into mediocrity and to impact less as enthusiasm is worn down. Much more can be achieved when the element of excitement and positivity is retained. An initiative in the Oberstown girls’ centre, which will soon be introduced in the boys’ centre, involves a step-down facility which is followed by a continuing care programme. The health boards have also taken on some responsibility in the area of care for children with difficulties. Significant problems seem to arise in handling the situation when children return to difficult home situations and are in need of a support service which will help to prevent them returning to the types of behaviours which led to intervention in the first instance. Planet has done impressive work in this area in north Dublin and I would like to know if it sees this sort of continuing care as part of its remit, although this is probably more in the area of justice than education.
The committee could raise with the Minister of State at the Department of Education and Science, Deputy Brian Lenihan, who has responsibility across three Departments, this type of integration issue which bedevils initiatives in communities. It is often the case that one Department is helpful while other Departments are less so. I would like to hear of the delegation’s experiences in that area.
Ms O’Donoghue: I thank committee members for their interest and the points they have raised. Regarding the secondment issue, there was a national agreement that secondments would be given and that the posts would be part-paid from 2000 to the end of 2003. Schools need adequate notice with regard to secondments so that plans can be made. We did not discover that the secondments would be renewed until the week before Christmas, which meant that many teachers on secondment were unsure as to where they stood and schools may have been putting pressure on such teachers to make their minds up. We are aware that some people have gone back to the mainstream system because of this insecurity. We were told at Christmas that a decision would be made in March this year as to whether secondments would be agreed for 2004 to 2005 but we did not receive an answer on this point until June. Many teachers had made the decision to return to the classroom because of the difficulty of working in such an insecure environment.
I understand these secondments are being discussed by the Department of Education and Science in conjunction with a range of other secondments out of the system but the situation makes it difficult to plan and creates insecurity for schools and teachers. There is now agreement for people in posts until August 2005 but what we require is agreement until the end of the programme, which is the end of 2006. Otherwise, we will find ourselves in the same situation in April or May next year.
Ms Durkin: Another issue is that there is still no agreement regarding the half-time salary payment for those who are not seconded. Some of the problem is to do with the review of the Department of Education and Science rather than an opposition to cronyism. It presents a bad image that this support is not there, which it actually is but it needs to be clarified. One would expect that the Department would commit until the end of the programme but the results of the review are not yet available and perhaps that is an issue.
Ms O’Donoghue: Regarding the committee on educational disadvantage and the ongoing review, Area Development Management Limited is the national support agency for partnership and, therefore, represented in that group. Partnerships are not directly represented, although some of them have made presentations on particular projects and issues in which they are involved.
Formal meetings on the establishment of regional education structures have taken place between Planet and Mr. Frank Wyse who holds responsibility for the structures within the Department of Education and Science. As a result there is now a formalised system.
Ms Lynne: Planet is one network of chairpersons and managers of partnerships. However, educational personnel working in partnerships and community groups have a network of education co-ordinators. Ms Bernie McDonnell, Area Development Management Limited, works with us in that partnership. We have had meetings at that level with Mr. Frank Wyse and Mr. Ian Murphy. A subsequent meeting took place in Cork to work out an arrangement between officials at the local office in Cork and education personnel from Cork and Kerry. We have, therefore, put in place arrangements for future contact. We expect ongoing contact between ourselves at local level and the regional office.
The meeting in Cork two months ago was preliminary to what would happen in other regions. We have had a number of meetings with officials and we are also working at county level with officials from the Cork office. We are currently establishing an education and training forum under the county development board. As a representative of some of the education personnel in Kerry, I am playing a role in this. It is ongoing.
Ms O’Donoghue: There was a question regarding outside research and whether there has been an outside evaluation of the work of partnerships. There were a number of evaluations and they were favourable. The OECD carried out two pieces of research about the partnerships, as did the ESF. They raised issues which are being addressed.
There was also a question about the relationship with home-school liaison and whether there is any overlap. There is good contact between partnerships and home-school liaison people. Partnerships have helped support some initiatives now managed by home-school liaison. In our own area we have trained parents to be educational home visitors. This involves parents talking with other parents about the issues of starting school or the transfer from primary to secondary or from junior primary to senior primary. This has been successful. We came up with the idea collectively and it is based on an English model.
People involved with home school liaison have access to funding from the Department for the training. We provide money for payment to the parents. The Department is against parents being paid for services. However, in disadvantaged areas it is difficult to expect people not to take a job in Dunnes and to give their time voluntarily. We make a small payment to cover expenses, and that has made all the difference. The number of visits carried out in Clondalkin has run into the thousands and the total cost is small.
There were issues about preventative education. A lot of work is done in that area, particularly speech therapy. According to our research, one in three parents does not turn up for a speech therapy appointment. This is due to appointments being made too far in advance — they are at times that do not suit people who must pick young children up from school. In other countries, the service is provided in the school. The school does not need to employ people; the service can be provided during school hours. However there is a resistance. This scarce resource is wasted when people do not turn up for appointments.
Ms Durkin: I want to pick up on the point that young people may spend only 20% of their time in school and schools can feel there is a great burden on them. We have heard of quality time, that school is all important and we know the influence this can have. I recall a young person once saying to me that if he or she had a leg amputated I would want them at school the next day. I said, “Maybe not quite the next day but I would want you back as soon as possible.” I felt it was good that the message was getting across to this young person.
We need investment in education. The investment in this scheme has paid off. In other words, we are seeing changes. The participation rates are improving but we have these last laps to go in certain areas. When students leave school before the junior certificate examination it is nothing less than a disaster. School is a protection. I referred to the numbers of young people in Blanchardstown, 80 of whom were in prison. Of 74 males and 6 females attached to a particular project, the vast majority left school early. Therefore, this investment is well worthwhile.
The educational welfare service is a welcome development. I will be in trouble for saying this but I do not agree that the service needs 380 educational welfare officers. It needs more than the number it has currently and that should be done at a more rapid stage. Similarly, I am aware from my contacts with the national education and psychological service that it needs more psychologists to do its basic work. It also wants to break the link between assessments and resources. They spend a good deal of their time doing assessments when different types of screening can be done. It can be obvious also that certain areas of disadvantage will need more resources. We should not get hung up on the question of co-ordinators or on what are, to some degree, micro issues in terms of the full range of education.
My interest is in the Dublin region. We are experiencing very difficult problems in the Dublin region with regard to participation in education. The gap between male and female participation to leaving certificate is widening. It was mentioned that some problems are being experienced in Kerry. These problems are sometimes specific to rural or urban areas but there are cross-overs in regard to the issues.
My one message would be about the investment. It is not like the area of health, which sometimes appears to be a black hole into which a great deal of money is going without any result. There are observable results related to investment in education, which can often be fairly minimal in terms of the investment in, say, roads or whatever.
Ms Lynne: A member asked a question about the substance abuse mobile unit in Kerry. That is a large mobile unit. There is an educator attached to the unit who went to the United Kingdom for ten weeks to train in the use of the system. The unit uses puppets and informal methods to teach children how to say no to alcohol. It is an interactive learning system which builds their self-esteem. A class goes into the unit for a short period and the educator works with them and takes them through issues like bullying and how to say no if somebody asks them to do something they do not want to do. It builds up their capacity to say no and works out those issues through role play.
The unit transfers from school to school. It was in south Kerry and has now moved to the mid-Kerry area. A rota has been arranged for it to visit all the schools in Kerry. This unit is a good example of the credit union, the Leader programme, the community and everybody joining together. A powerful committee was established with some of the people from the urban council in Killarney. There is a request for the project to be extended to the rest of the county. It is working very well and if members want further information I can supply it.
Ms O’Donoghue: To return to the issue of preventing early school leaving and different interventions that have taken place around that, we have come across issues that cause difficulties for parents. For example, we are aware that the language capacity of children coming into schools is decreasing in the most disadvantaged urban areas. We also know from some schools in disadvantaged areas that the average child in a class is three years behind their reading age. They are significant facts for a number of reasons. Because our education system is literacy based, language skills are vitally important. That might not be the case in a system where more technological, hands-on or project based work takes place but because ours is examination driven, those skills are vitally important.
In terms of children’s literacy levels, schools have a fear of making too much information available on the basis that if people think their school is not doing well they will take their children out of the school. However, if a parent does not know that their child is far behind in their reading levels, and they get results that indicate that Johnny or Mary is doing fine and there are no significant problems, those children are not able to cope with national curriculum in second level which depends on having the right standard of literacy. Children move to a situation where they begin to fail without understanding the reason, and their parents do not understand the reason because they had been doing fine. They ask themselves why that is no longer the case. The way information is given to parents and put into the public arena is very important but unless parents have the information and understand it, they do not have any possibility of trying to deal with it.
On the reading age, we ran a pilot programme for children who did not have any particular remedial issue, who were of average intelligence but had poor reading ages. This 12 week after school programme was able to improve their reading ages by, on average, 18 months, which brought them much closer to the possibility of being at the same point as their actual reading age.
We need to examine special interventions in disadvantaged areas. We must first acknowledge that there is a problem and then make interventions that will bring those children up to the national average. One of the problems is in terms of the Department of Education and Science trying to mainstream projects. We do not want to be doing pilot projects endlessly. We want the lessons to be learned but there is not a system whereby that can happen. Regardless of how good a programme is the Department does not have flexible budgets that would allow it mainstream that project. If it does not fit in under one of the funding headings, it just cannot be done. We would argue that there is a need for a flexible budget at a central level that would allow work like that to be continued and supported by the Department financially. Obviously it would need to be a proven programme but it is currently trying to fit things into a box to try to access the funding.
We would also be interested in the Department having more dialogue about problems we have experienced and solutions we have tested and shown to work, and how they might be better incorporated into the mainstream.
Ms Lynne: It is true that the majority of people involved in adult education are women. Our experience in south Kerry and throughout most of rural Ireland would be that males get involved in practical type training, which is fine. What needs to be built into training is the additional development of the person other than just skills transfer. The majority of men would be involved in safe pass and forklift training and obviously the IT sector would be involved at that level.
We must introduce measures to allow young people and adults who have dropped out of education get back into education more easily and obtain qualifications. We should not close the doors to them in that regard. We must develop greater numbers within the Youthreach and the VTOS initiatives. It is disappointing to see the PLCs being capped and so on. I would like to see a release of those places because it is through those programmes that people return to the system and get a qualification that enables them to move on to third level. It is very important that we allow centres to have that flexibility and BTEI capacity. A number of welcome measures, particularly in adult education, were introduced by the Department in recent years. It is disappointing that funding in respect of them is being capped and held at that level, especially when a recent report on enterprise highlights the need to continue to build capacity among adults and the importance of offering them opportunities to build their skill levels. That is an important aspect.
Ms Durkin: I do not know whether we mentioned the millennium fund for disadvantage, which is a third level support scheme administered by the Department of Education and Science. There is funding for third level support for adults throughout the partnership areas and the community groups, and this has been useful. The fund was capped at €1 million and has stayed at that level over a number of years. Like everything else, this fund is under review. There is a danger that so much time is spent reviewing projects that it leads to a form of paralysis. A review should be carried out, but then action should be taken. This is not happening in other sectors in the case of roads and other areas of infrastructure where the process is moving ahead. However, for some reason there seems to be some stalling in this area. Maybe this review was necessary within education but some decisions need to be taken now. Visible support needs to be given. There is more funding available under this measure and why should it not be used for education?
Ms Lynne: Not in terms of education. The only programme directly related to them is the new rural social scheme that is only now coming into play. It is an addition in terms of providing employment for people. Apart from our giving additional points when we access applicants for the millennium fund, we give an applicant an extra point if he or she lives in a RAPID or CLÁR area in the county. We find that everyone living in a CLÁR area is not necessarily educationally disadvantaged. We must have other criteria than the criterion of simply living in a remote rural area by which to judge an applicant. That criterion does not necessarily mean that one is educationally or financially disadvantaged, but it is one of a number of criteria we would use in assessing applicants for awarding this additional grant for education purposes.
Acting Chairman: I thank all the representatives for their presentations and for answering our questions. We all found the discussion informative. A number of issues were raised on which we want to make representations to the Minister responsible. It would be helpful if we could get agreement on that before we finish the meeting. One issue was to ensure that secondment is confirmed up to the end of the programme in 2006 and the other issue was in regard to the part-payment of non-seconded staff, which is also insecure.
A suggestion was made that there should be a flexible fund to facilitate proactive programmes of work that do not necessarily fit into the system. I am not sure whether the committee wants to include that suggestion in its representations or to stick with the main issue of ensuring the funding of the programme.
Deputy Stanton: I wish to express general support for what the networks and groups are doing. We should include in our representations that there should be increased support for their work. Perhaps when the Minister appears before the committee when we are dealing with the Estimates, we could discuss this with him and explore if there is a way of incorporating that kind of flexibility into the Department’s budget for this area. The debate on the Estimates might be the appropriate time to consider that. It is in order that there should be general support for the work being done, which on a euro for euro basis seems to be of benefit.
Deputy Crowe: What is the point in having pilot programmes that work if we do not know to where they progress from being pilot programmes? If there is not the required flexibility in the allocation of funding in this regard, this process is a waste of time. We should raise this issue with the Minister and get a response from him on it.
Ms Lynne: I would like to emphasise that partnerships have suffered from budgetary cuts in their programmes. That is impacting heavily in a negative way on their capacity to deliver programmes to the people. I would like if the committee could support an increase in the budgetary allocation for this work because the budgetary cuts are impacting locally in that we cannot deliver the programmes to the people who need them.
Mr. Carty: Deputy Killeen raised the issue of the committee visiting various partnership projects across the country. We would welcome that as the representative body of the partnership network, Planet. We would be happy to facilitate that with the Clerk of the committee. That would be of some value. It would be of major benefit for the members of the committee to gain visual knowledge of what is being done in a rural and an urban context.
Acting Chairman: In regard to a visit to Oberstown Centre, I discussed with the chairman before he had to leave a proposal that we should also contact the Minister of State, Deputy Brian Lenihan, in regard to the building project in Oberstown, particularly the Oberstown Boys’ Centre, of which we were made aware last week. I propose that we would also contact him in that regard. Is that agreed? Agreed.
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