Tuesday, 24 March 1998
Seanad Éireann Debate
Mr. Costello: I welcome the Minister to the House. This motion refers to an anomaly which exists in the Dublin Corporation area whereby, unlike the rest of the local authority, Cherry Orchard and Ballyfermot have no school attendance committees or services. There has been much discussion on this matter in the local authority and with the school attendance committees and officers. Everyone is agreed that we should revert to the situation which existed prior to 1985 when the local authority changes took place in Dublin. All that would be required is to rescind Statutory Instrument No. 270 of 1986 which resulted in changing the boundaries in terms of school attendance. This would mean that Dublin Corporation would be responsible for school attendance throughout the entire jurisdiction and eliminate these two anomalies. Such a development would be welcomed by all concerned.
Local authority boundaries are the responsibility of the Department of the Environment and Local Government, so the decision would have to be made by the Minister in consultation with the Minister for Education and Science. School attendance officers and their staff have made it known that they would be in a position to cover these two areas. These officers visit schools approximately twice per month. An officer is assigned to every school in the jurisdiction of the local authority. Attendance in schools in Cherry Orchard and Ballyfermot is the responsibility of the Garda Síochána. Gardaí are not trained to provide such a service. They can only visit schools once or twice a year. There is no other effective service for these two areas. It is Dickensian when the gardaí are responsible for school attendance. There is no reason why we should not correct this situation as all concerned are in total agreement as to the change required.
When the effectiveness of the school attendance service was discussed in 1994 we recruited eight new school attendance officers. This is why we have a good service and why we are in a position to cover these two areas immediately if the necessary legislative changes are made. The 1985 changes were made for no reason relating to the jurisdiction of the local authority but by outside interests in the Fingal area.
There are other elements affecting school attendance in addition to the availability of school attendance officers. There are problems in some deprived areas, including relationships between the home and the school, homework and so on. There are many issues which give rise to truancy and other matters which need to be resolved by a more enlightened approach to education and a recognition of the greater needs of certain communities. This is an issue which can be addressed immediately before we talk in terms of improving the education system or responding  to other needs. We can rectify this situation if the Minister and the Minister for the Environment and Local Government make the necessary changes, which could be made at the stroke of a pen.
Minister of State at the Department of Education and Science (Mr. Treacy): I thank the Senator for raising this issue. Under existing legislation the school attendance service is provided by school attendance committees in certain parts of Dublin, Dún Laoghaire, Cork and Waterford. In the remainder of the country, including parts of the Ballyfermot/Cherry Orchard area, the service is provided by the Garda Síochána.
It is widely recognised that truancy and non-school attendance is a complex issue which demands a comprehensive, multifaceted solution, best achieved by a mix of legislative, administrative, educational and social measures. An effective school attendance service is certainly a very important element in the range of measures needed to address truancy and non-school attendance. I would like to pay tribute to the excellent and dedicated work which has been carried out for decades and continues to be carried out by the school attendance committees and the Garda Síochána in combating truancy.
However, I am concerned that the law governing school attendance should be updated to take account of modern conditions and my Department is currently engaged in the preparation of draft legislation to deal with the complex issues involved in non-school attendance. Our objective is to bring heads of proposed legislation to Government in the autumn. We hope to be in a position to publish draft legislation before the end of the year. The future organisation of the school attendance service will be among the issues addressed in the legislation. As regards the particular issue of concern to the Senator, my Department currently has this matter under review.
I have already alluded to the fact that addressing the problem of non-school attendance requires more than a school attendance service. To this end a range of special interventions is already in place to support children who might otherwise be in danger of dropping out of the school system. These interventions include: the disadvantaged areas scheme; the home-school community liaison scheme; curricular reforms such as the Junior Certificate Elementary Programme, the Leaving Certificate Vocational Programme and the Leaving Certificate Applied Programme, all of which are designed to encourage and improve retention rates.
I am glad that my Department has been in a position to provide considerable assistance to the  Ballyfermot area under the above schemes. All primary schools in the Ballyfermot area are in the disadvantaged areas scheme and the home-school community liaison scheme and avail of the extensive benefits available under these schemes. Additionally, two schools in the area are in the Early Start Pilot Programme.
I recently further developed the interventions available. For example, I launched an important new initiative targeted specifically at children in the eight to 15 year age group who have dropped out or are in danger of dropping out of the school system. The aim of the initiative is to identify effective models of practice which can be replicated in other areas of disadvantage.
Suitable projects for funding under this initiative will be identified by inviting applications from consortia of youth and community organisations in area based partnerships, working in collaboration with schools where such schools are designated as serving areas of disadvantage or are located in areas which are designated as disadvantaged under the Operational Programme for Local Urban and Rural Development, 1994-99.
We have established the National Forum on Early Childhood Education, which is currently under way. The forum is considering how services in this area can be developed for the future. We are currently reviewing our Department's overall response to the problems of educational disadvantage with the objective of ensuring that all available resources are properly targeted.
I am confident that these programmes, coupled with the legislative measures which we will be bringing forward, will have a major impact on our school attendance problems. Senators can be assured that I, the Minister for Education and Science, the Department and the Government are committed to ensuring the elimination in as far as is possible of truancy or loss of school attendance among young people. It is vital that we maintain young people in education and that they are so retained for as long as possible. I commend the Senator for raising this matter and he can be assured that we are committed to bringing forward the necessary legislative proposals as quickly as possible.
Mr. Costello: Will the Minister consider rescinding the statutory instrument in relation to those two specific areas? This could be done overnight without necessarily awaiting further legislative proposals.
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