Seanad Éireann - Volume 168 - 12 December, 2001
School Attendance Officers: Motion.
Mrs. Ridge Mrs. Ridge
Mrs. Ridge: I move:
That Seanad Éireann condemns the Government for its continuous refusal to rectify the disgraceful situation whereby only certain areas have school attendance officers, leaving large areas of population without this essential service.
I know the Minister for Education and Science is aware of the reasons I speak vehemently about this issue. What was rural Dublin 20 years ago is no longer rural Dublin. Certain sections of the Minister's constituency are in the Dublin Corporation area, while large areas are controlled by county councils. The School Attendance Act, 1926, and the school attendance committees which were formed in 1892 observed the differ ence between urban and rural areas. That was fine for urban villages around the city of Dublin, such as Tallaght, Terenure, Clondalkin, Lucan, Swords and Howth, although I am not familiar with the Minister's end of the city. Those villages have grown enormously over the past 20 or 30 years, but they are outside the remit of Dublin Corporation. For that reason, there are no school attendance officers in those areas. I am aware that other county boroughs throughout the country and the old Dún Laoghaire Corporation area had and still have school attendance officers.
The 1926 Act spells out in black and white the obligation on children to attend school, on parents to send children to school and on the school attendance committees to provide for school attendance officers to ensure these obligations are carried out. I am sure the Minister knows that many children from the age of eight are falling through the net and being lost to society. In many cases they descend into a subculture of crime which leads to drugs and probably prison.
I do not understand why such a glaring problem has not been recognised. The gardaí in rural areas, which include the old villages around Dublin, are the school attendance agents. I cannot understand how anyone expects gardaí from stations in Blanchardstown, Clondalkin, Lucan and Tallaght to be school attendance officers. The strength of the Garda unit in Clondalkin has been reduced by almost one third since 1975, but crime has increased by more than one third. It is ludicrous to think that school attendance problems will be dealt with in a meaningful way.
Although we do not often see school attendance officers in the courts, at least there is a system in the city area which involves reporting back to the local authority. The Minister for the Environment and Local Government, Deputy Dempsey, is always asking us as local authority members to use our powers more. I do not understand why certain local authorities have the support of school attendance officers, while major local authorities, like my own, have only nominal support. There is a population of more than 250,000 in the South Dublin County Council area. However, it does not have one school attendance officer. I strongly suggest that someone should do a rain check on how many parents have been brought to court because their children are not attending school. It would be a lonely trawl through the records to find anyone who has been prosecuted recently.
We are resorting to taking children into care when their behaviour is at variance with society's norms. These children could easily be helped at an earlier stage if we had decent school attendance support. It is shameful. We all know that in many built up areas there are some single and married parents who, because of drug or alcohol addiction, do not have access to education and are not able, competent or willing to ensure their children attend school. We may as well condemn those children at seven years of age. It is not unusual to see a number of children playing in  my area on any given school day. I guarantee that when they are 16, they will not be playing. They will still be together, but they will be up to no good. It seems wrong. The fine for non-attendance was 40 shillings in 1926, it is now £2. I do not know how many euros that will be.
It is negligent of us to do nothing. The Minister will probably tell me about the new agency, which I would welcome. However, it will probably not become operational until two years from now. It is possible Fianna Fáil will not be in Government. I am not saying that the objectives of the legislation should be ignored, but there may be different ways of achieving them. In the long run there will be more and more delays and we will be creating out-of-school schools for young delinquents.
I never want to return to the old days when the man from the school went around to homes on a bicycle and if the parents did not co-operate the child was sent into care, usually in what was euphemistically described as an industrial school. If we do not pull up our socks collectively and if we continue to ignore what is happening, we may have to provide some form of custodial schooling in order to save these young people from themselves and from the consequences of the lack of care they have received.
As the Minister is well aware, most politicians have sat on school boards and I currently do so. What do we do with the appallingly disruptive pupils who do not conform, even after 50 chances? They are sent out into the wilderness. If they had been identified sooner we might not have that problem. We should be providing another form of schooling for those who cannot make it through the formal system.
I plead for power to be returned to local authorities in both rural and urban areas. It is only a couple of years ago that there were cases of people on the same street living on either side of the city-county boundary and those on the county side did not get the fuel allowance on the basis that they had at their disposal the picking of branches and osiers. I have always thought “osiers” a wonderful word. We now have the ridiculous circumstance in which children in former villages which are now thriving towns are being deprived and that is a terrible social sin. The Minister's heart is in the right place, but that is no good unless an Act is put in place that will give control back to local authorities and allow them to employ school attendance officers with some hope of making a breakthrough.
Ms Keogh Ms Keogh
Ms Keogh: I welcome the Minister to the House. I am delighted to second the motion proposed by my colleague, Senator Ridge, who was referred to at one point as Sister Ridge. I do not know if that was supposed to be a teaching sister or a reverend mother.
Mrs. Ridge Mrs. Ridge
Mrs. Ridge: It was as a school principal.
Ms Keogh Ms Keogh
 Ms Keogh: The Minister is familiar with the arguments we have all rehearsed in relation to cherishing our children equally. As Senator Ridge rightly points out, there is an anomaly whereby some areas have school attendance officers to follow up on truancy while others do not. There are two different systems operating in two parts of the Dún Laoghaire constituency.
If we are to have true equality in our society the education system has a vital role. The Minister believes that, as do I. It feels like a thousand years since I was a teacher and a guidance counsellor and I am constantly amazed and disappointed that in spite of major improvements being made and efforts by every Government, so little has changed for the most disadvantaged members of our society. It is very difficult to break the cycle of deprivation. The mantra of “education, education, education” is essential if our children are to have the future they deserve. The disadvantaged should be on a par with their peers and get the sort of education and opportunities that, thankfully, my children have enjoyed.
The Minister has been quite rightly congratulated for giving the go ahead to recruit a chief executive officer for the new educational welfare board. I remember debating the Education (Welfare) Bill, 1999. I have been so engrossed in the Twenty-fifth Amendment of the Constitution (Protection of Human Life in Pregnancy) Bill, 2001, that I did not have an opportunity to look back through the debates from that time. I remember that when I graduated and was teaching and studying for the higher diploma in education, one of the jobs I went for was that of school attendance officer. I cannot remember the name of the man who was in charge of that area at the time, but he was a very enlightened person and he wanted to have a system of welfare officers. He wanted to get away from having school attendance officers and the type of scenario Senator Ridge spoke of where truants were sent to Artane. It was over 20 years ago and he had that enlightened attitude. I remarked on that when we debated the Education (Welfare) Bill, 1999. It was not a bad Bill, but it is only now that we are recruiting the chief executive officer for the educational welfare board.
Part of the remit of the board is to have educational welfare officers operating at regional and local level and that is great. The service will include the existing school attendance service and its focus will be to assist children at risk and their families to avoid non-attendance at school. In co-operation with schools it will provide a range of supports and measures to discourage absenteeism and early school leaving.
The new approach shifts the focus from punitive sanctions imposed after a non-attendance pattern is already well established. The Minister says it is very important that the new service is available as soon as possible and that it will be of great benefit to children, parents, teachers and schools. He thanks the board for its work to date  and looks forward to further progress. It is no wonder there was a little cynicism in what Senator Ridge had to say about this issue. It does not seem to have been given urgent priority. I do not blame the Minister for that because I do not doubt his commitment, but somewhere along the line, perhaps within the permanent government, as I call it, in the Department of Education and Science, there has been some reluctance to progress this.
My plea is that all the children be treated equally and cherished equally and that the heart-felt plea of Senator Ridge be recognised. I ask that there be school welfare officers throughout the country and support for children and parents to ensure those children get every advantage in their school career and stay in school. If they are not there they are not learning anything or, worse, are out on the streets learning the kind of things we prefer they do not know.
There are areas of utter deprivation in Dún Laoghaire, though people almost laugh when I say it. There is a black spot two miles from my home where two years ago the unemployment rate was 87%, though it is now less than that. It is full of lone mothers. There is a great sense of community there and the area is being refurbished. One knows that the young people from that area will not be captains of industry unless a miracle happens. They will end up two miles in the other direction in the open prison for young offenders in Shanganagh Castle. The Governor of Mountjoy Prison has repeatedly stated the well-known fact that those imprisoned for minor and serious drug offences are illiterate, not numerate, and come from disadvantaged backgrounds. Young offenders are only sent to Shanganagh for six months and the first task is to give them some basic life skills. There needs to be follow-up for these young people. As Senator Ridge said, there is no point in a school attendance officer going to a child's home to find no one there and that officer then has to go away. An integrated service with proper follow-up is needed.
In theory it is great that everything mentioned in the Government amendment is promised and that the process of recruiting the chief executive officer for the Educational Welfare Board is in train. I do not know if that is completed. I cannot emphasise enough how urgent this issue is, especially in a society where there is a widening gulf between the haves and have nots. I implore the Minister to take seriously the timely motion our colleague has tabled.
Ms Ormonde Ms Ormonde
Ms Ormonde: I move amendment No. 1:
To delete all words after “That” and substitute the following:
Seanad Éireann welcomes the Government's initiative in enacting the Education (Welfare) Act and establishing the interim Educational Welfare Board, which is currently making arrangements for a new schools welfare service to include the present  attendance officers and put in place the new support service for school children at risk and develop a nationwide service and for introducing positive measures to prevent school leaving and to make attendance more feasible and attractive.
I find the wording the Government's “continuous refusal to rectify the disgraceful situation” in the motion tabled by Senator Ridge disturbing. The Government has enacted the Education (Welfare) Act. Senator Ridge is correct to say we had a haphazard system. I worked in it and dealt with it and I would hate for the new system to be under the remit of a local authority. It is not the place for it because local authorities have not dealt with this issue well. The previous scheme was too large to work and could not be monitored properly. It was very haphazard in that all the corporations – Dublin, Limerick and Waterford – had attendance officers, as they were called, and no other local authority did. Successive Governments did not rectify this, which is why I am delighted the Government is getting it right.
The Government is right to take this matter slowly because this is the first time school attendance will be put on a proper statutory basis and where there will be a national framework for the provision of a service to deal with children who are at risk or are drop-outs. The board must be put on a statutory basis and it is timely that this is done. The Minister has acknowledged this.
The functions of the Educational Welfare Board are to devise a national policy, deal with absenteeism and provide supports for children. Since the Government came to power, a number of supports have been introduced in schools, such as home-school links, using resource teachers to help those who cannot be contained in classrooms, start-up education to assist parents in becoming aware of the importance of their children attending school and the psychological service, which is not yet 100% right, but I know the Minister's heart is in the right place in this regard. These basic support services are in place. While they are not yet in operation everywhere because it is a huge and monumental task to deal with all the small areas where children drop out of school, we have, however, begun to deal with the issue. I am delighted we have targeted funds towards disadvantaged areas for young people who drop out of school at 14, 15 and 16. The task is to lure them back into the system and to set up a structure to do that where they have taken up employment.
Senator Ridge is correct to say that many of those who have dropped out have taken up employment. Many leave school because they get jobs. It is right that the new board will form links with employers to implement a registration process whereby employers will have to notify the board when they employ young people. This will assist in continuing to provide education for these young people of 14, 15 and 16. I welcome that and I want it to be structured well enough that that link between employers and the Educational  Welfare Board will be adhered to. Many young people are lured by these easy part-time jobs from which they get a fondness for money which results in their not wanting to return to education. It is important we educate parents about the importance and benefits of attendance at school and education, and this will be a feature of the new board.
Many new measures are being taken and much is happening. Perhaps Senator Ridge is correct to say it is not happening quickly enough. She is also correct to say that we do not want the old haphazard system. I worked in it and it failed badly throughout the country. However, the system in the Act can work because it is a national framework and there will be education welfare officers who will have a wider remit than attendance officers of old. They will be accountable to the board and this is very important in terms of how they will operate. Linking in with school managers, the psychological service and parents, and managing case studies will be part of the remit of the board.
This is very good legislation. When the board is established and we have the right chief executive officer, the man who knows where he is coming from—
Mrs. Ridge Mrs. Ridge
Mrs. Ridge: Or woman.
Ms Ormonde Ms Ormonde
Ms Ormonde: —and who has a feel for what is necessary to deal with this, it should not again happen that people will drop out of school and slip through the net. Resources are being allocated to back-up services. The amendment welcomes what the Minister has done and asks that he ensure that the legislation is implemented and made work on a national basis so that it will be streamlined for every principal throughout the country and will not be the haphazard arrangement where enforcement was dependent on how well one knew the attendance officer. That system failed. We need a proper, firm and accountable structure which brings together all those who deal with young people at risk to ensure they work together to develop a quality service for the good of young people.
Dr. Woods Dr. Woods
Minister for Education and Science (Dr. Woods): I welcome the points made by Members. I recognise the points made by Senator Ridge and appreciate the existing anomalous position in terms of attendance officers and the Garda. I realise the great importance of this area. On the question of providing a second form of education, Youthreach is very successful in this regard and we supported it strongly in the recent Estimates.
Senator Ridge also mentioned the fuel allowance scheme and the manner in which it varied between urban and rural areas. I did away with that and introduced the national scheme instead.
Mrs. Ridge Mrs. Ridge
Mrs. Ridge: Keep up the good work.
Dr. Woods Dr. Woods
 Dr. Woods: It was interesting that the Senator raised that point. Senator Keogh said she was interested in a job in that field in the first instance and, at that stage, the person in charge wanted to change to welfare officers. Senator Ormonde recognised that the education welfare board can, in effect, provide a national framework. The staff of the schools' psychological service has been increased from 44 to 88, and advertisements have recently been placed to increase that figure to 125. The service is moving forward quite rapidly and by the end of the next year the Government has agreed that we can proceed to a figure of 200. That will be two years ahead of the figure envisaged in the national development plan.
I am proud to introduce a major new development in Irish education, the provision of a nation-wide educational welfare service for which detailed planning is already under way. The initiative is underpinned by the Education (Welfare) Act, 2000, which I brought through the Oireachtas only last year. I know the legislation was discussed before that and Senator Keogh mentioned the year 1998. Various discussions took place but I brought it through the Oireachtas last year.
We know from research that poor school attendance is a common feature of educational disadvantage. The Government in addressing this issue considered that, in addition to the supports already in place, a comprehensive new educational welfare service should be provided. Amendment of the old legislation, under which the existing school attendance service operates, was not considered to be an appropriate way to achieve what the Government had in mind. Instead, major new legislation, setting out a comprehensive new framework, was prepared and has been signed into law. This legislation will see the ending of the old school attendance arrangements and their replacement by a new, nation-wide educational welfare service, incorporating the existing school attendance officers.
The new service, which will be phased in, will work in conjunction and co-operation with a range of education and other services and supports already in place. The phasing in means it will be provided in areas of greatest disadvantage first, before being spread around the country. Examples of existing education supports and services include the 8-15 early school leavers initiative, the stay in school retention initiative, the giving children an even break initiative, the disadvantaged areas scheme, and the home-school-community liaison scheme. The resources going into these schemes are substantial. There are, for example, more than 370 teachers working full-time as home-school-community liaison officers.
I announced the establishment of the new National Educational Welfare Board on 29 May. I established the board on an interim basis in order to enable it to carry out the necessary planning and preparation work for phasing in the new  educational welfare service. I launched the work of the board at its first meeting on 15 June.
The Education (Welfare) Act provides a comprehensive new framework for promoting regular school attendance and tackling the problems of absenteeism and early school leaving in a new and supportive way. The Act forms an important part of my policy to tackle disadvantage in education. One might ask why an interim board is being set up, but the alternative would be to leave my Department to establish the different section. Instead of doing that, we will set the board up on an interim basis and allow it to establish the various necessary elements for the full statutory board, and then convert the interim board into the statutory one. It is a more efficient and quicker way of doing it, and will be generally more effective.
The board will address the underlying causes of non-attendance at school by supporting and encouraging children to attend on a regular basis and by identifying, at an early stage, children who may be at risk of developing school attendance problems. This new approach shifts the focus of school attendance policy away from punitive sanctions imposed after a non-attendance pattern is already well developed. We have put in place a more preventative strategy aimed at assisting children and their families to avoid non-attendance and related problems.
The following elements constitute the main provisions of the Act. The minimum school leaving age will be raised from 15 to 16, or the completion of three years of post primary education, whichever is the later. As I have already said, a National Educational Welfare Board was established in May this year. The board will develop, co-ordinate and implement school attendance policy so as to ensure that every child in the State attends a recognised school or otherwise receives an appropriate education. The board will appoint education welfare officers around the country to work in close co-operation with schools, teachers, parents, community and voluntary bodies, and relevant statutory authorities with a view to encouraging regular school attendance and developing strategies to reduce absenteeism and early school leaving. The education welfare officers will focus, in particular, on children at risk and those who are experiencing difficulties in school attendance, in order to resolve any impediments to their regular attendance at school.
The board will maintain a register of children receiving education outside the recognised school structure and will assess the adequacy of such education on an ongoing basis. Parents will be required to ensure that their children attend a recognised school or otherwise receive an appropriate minimum education. The board will establish a register of young persons of 16 and 17 years of age who leave school early to take up employment and will make appropriate arrangements for their continuing education and training in consultation with providers and employers, as Senator  Ormonde emphasised. Employers will be obliged to notify the board when they employ an early school leaver, and may not employ a young person who is an early school leaver and who is not registered with the board.
The Act also contains important provisions covering admission to, and expulsion from, a recognised school. It is my intention that the new services will be fully in place as soon as possible. In that regard, I wish to set out the progress made by the board to date. The designate board has moved ahead quickly with the planning and preparatory work for the new service. The board has met regularly and has established two sub-committees to advance current priorities – one to progress matters of staffing and organisational structure, and the other to examine the area of research. In considering the implications arising from implementing the provisions of the Act, the board is aware that a range of interested parties will need to be consulted and it will make appropriate arrangements in this regard as soon as a chief executive has been appointed.
The key resource needed to provide the new service is, of course, staff. The board has, therefore, appointed a firm of management consultants to assist it in identifying staffing requirements and an appropriate organisational structure for the new service. As a first priority, the consultants were asked to develop proposals in relation to the recruitment and appointment of a chief executive. This process has been completed and I recently gave approval to the board to go ahead with its proposals in this regard. The post has been advertised in the national newspapers and the closing date for applications was Friday, 7 December. The requirements for senior management and other posts are currently being identified by the consultants and I understand that the board has placed a tight deadline for the completion of this work.
I intend to put the designate board on a statutory basis as soon as possible, taking account of the views of the board in this regard. This will be done through commencing provisions of the Act, as necessary. A key factor here is that the board will have the necessary legal standing to appoint staff as the planning and preparatory work is advanced.
The new education welfare service is a hugely significant development and is a key part of the Government's strategy for social inclusion. I am determined to ensure that the needs of our children are central to this development, particularly those who are disadvantaged or most at risk. We can no longer afford to be reactive in addressing the problems of school non-attendance and early school leaving. The decision to establish the new educational welfare service is fundamental to meeting the needs of those most marginalised. It will enable us to be proactive. It will also equip us to explore the causes of school dropout and make it possible not only to deal with it more effectively but to prevent it in the first instance.
Having received this update on the current  status of the National Education Welfare Board and how effective its work is becoming, I trust Senators will be satisfied that this matter is being dealt with as a matter of urgency. I commend the Government's amendment to the House.
Mr. Norris Mr. Norris
Mr. Norris: I had not intended to speak on this debate even though it is an important one. Like some of my colleagues, I have been in all day on the abortion referendum legislation and I needed to do some other things. However, fortuitously, as often happens in political life I had a visit yesterday from an old friend who is the uncle of a young person who is in precisely this situation. I would like to ask the Minister about this. Given that I have come in immediately after he has spoken, he will not have an opportunity to reply but perhaps he would be kind enough to get one of his officials to drop me a note addressing this specific problem.
I make no apologies for using this occasion to raise this specific problem because it is indicative of the kind of difficulty that underlies the putting down of this motion. I realise the Minister said we can no longer afford to be reactive in this and he wants to address the issue quite generally. There are certain specific cases. He is concerned about the question of poor school attendance but this man is the uncle of a 12 or 13 year old child who has not been attending school for the last year or 18 months. He has quite severe asthma. His mother, who is the parent of another child, is a single mother and has had serious ill health for the past 18 months.
The young person went to school until the onset of the mother's illness and there may be some psychological factor related to that. He is a highly intelligent young man who did well at school. About 18 months ago he started to sulk, hid, could not be found, refused to go to school, was awkward and difficult, ran away and no satisfactory explanation has been found. The mother is upset, as is the boy's uncle. They went to the local school attendance officer who is also the policeman involved. In my day that person used to be called the truant officer. This lad, who I am sure is a nice decent policeman, came in, talked to the kid and read him a poem about going to school and left it at that and there has been no follow-up whatever. They feel this attendance officer is useless, that there is nobody else to turn to and they have tried everything.
I believe the mother is guilty of an offence by not ensuring the child is in school. What she was told was that because there is not abuse in the background they will not push it. In other words, if he was in a situation where she was a bad mother, or there was a drunken father or there was physical or sexual abuse the State would intervene. In this situation where this bright intelligent child has not been in school for the past year or 18 months, is receiving no tuition at home and the school attendance officer has been called  in and thought it sufficient just to read a poem, what does the parent do?
I am glad to see the Minister of State, Deputy Moffatt, taking some notes because I would appreciate if an official in the Department could drop me a note. This was in a rural area in the sunny south east. Can anything be done? How can this kid whose mother wants him to go back to school be got back to school? His uncle has tried, the mother has tried, the school attendance officer has been invoked, but perhaps because he was too laid back and easy going nothing whatever happened. This is a real casualty. It is about a kid who is slipping through the net and even though the authorities have been alerted nothing is happening. I would like some assistance if possible because it is important.
To return from the specific to the general, this is a situation where the most vulnerable elements in our society are involved. Many of the social problems we encounter come from young people who drop through the school system. This is an increasing phenomenon. Even from an economic point of view, it is a very wise investment to have a proper service instituted. I was glad to hear the positive information the Minister put on the record but it all very much in the future. To encourage the Government to live up to its obligations on this occasion I will vote with the Opposition. I also know that if you give a little nip to the hand that you anticipate feeding you, it might encourage them a little. I give a slight nip to the hand in the hope that I will get a helpful and practical answer to the questions I have posed, through the Chair, to the Minister this evening.
Mr. Kett Mr. Kett
Mr. Kett: I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Moffatt. Initially when I read the motion tabled by Senator Ridge I thought she was seeking additional manpower to continue with the system as it existed. I was glad to hear that clarified because the 1926 regulations should long since have been removed. It is no longer acceptable that the Garda is chasing young children to find out whether they are attending school. It is similar to the Garda chasing a family for a dog licence.
Tackling educational disadvantage has been one of the key priorities of the Government since coming to office. In times of plenty there is no greater virtue than to look after those most in need and, particularly, those in areas of disadvantage. When a country has sufficient wealth it should target those people. They are citizens of the nation and should be allowed participate in a meaningful way in whatever course they choose to take. We all agree that education is the key to tackling such disadvantage. The Government has invested heavily in targeting disadvantage, considering that in 1997, 1998 and 1999 alone the resources dedicated to education increased by 45%. While more needs to be done, that is a massive increase in any person's language.
The Education (Welfare) Bill which has been alluded to by all speakers is one of the most  important Bills to come before the House in terms of targeting disadvantage. For many years research has told us that irregular school attendance leads to early drop out from school which, as we all know, leads to disadvantage. As Senator Ridge said, disadvantage leads to crime and crime leads to drugs and away they go from there. The targeting of disadvantaged areas is highly recommended.
There is also inter-generational disadvantage of which we all have experience in our constituencies, mine probably more than most in that there are generations of disadvantaged people in the inner city areas. It is a worthwhile exercise to chase down and fight the causes of such disadvantage. Education is one of the key way in which to do that.
Schools have tried in a meaningful way to deal with this problem but it is unfair to ask them to be the sole runners. They need the resources from people who understand the problems that result in children's non-attendance at school in the first place and they also need support to tackle the underlying problems as to why they would want to miss out on their schooling. All the State agencies, the health professionals, the paramedics, psychologists and others, in conjunction with teachers and parents, need to come together in a holistic way to tackle the problem. I think they are doing that. As we speak we see the benefits of it in some of the disadvantaged areas.
The purpose of the Education (Welfare) Bill is to provide supports. I was glad to hear the Minister address the matter of the development of local welfare officers and urge him to put these positions in place as quickly as possible. I am confident that he will commit to financing the educational welfare board to the tune of £4 million in the first three years of its existence because if we do have a board, it will need resources.
Parents also have a key role to play. This cannot be ignored. The education welfare Bill assisted school principals in maintaining a register of students. We will now have increased numbers of education officers who can be notified when there is a problem and provide support for students with difficulties. There should also be liaison with other schools on best practice. All these are elements of preparing and implementing a school attendance strategy to encourage regular attendance. When in place we will have a system which will put us on the right road. I am happy that the Minister expects we will have that system up and running sooner rather than later.
The idea that we have in place a comprehensive national system to ensure children of compulsory school-going age attend school and that if they do not, they receive a basic assessable minimum level of education is welcome. The greatest blot on the copybook of all Governments is the fact that it took us so long to introduce proper psychological assessments. I do not know how teachers and parents managed in the past  without proper assessments of children or how they could have prepared any kind of meaningful learning programme for the children who needed them.
There is no longer any valid or acceptable excuse for any child leaving the education system illiterate or innumerate. The OECD report, published last week, showing that we are top of the list when it comes to literacy, was welcome in that respect. There is no valid excuse for the fact that 3,000 pupils drop out of school before the junior certificate or that 8,000 drop out before the leaving certificate. The system we have now put in place will, I hope, support and assist in this matter. I hope also the Government, education authorities, parents and anyone else involved will participate in a meaningful way.
Mr. O'Toole Mr. O'Toole
Mr. O'Toole: I am glad to have the opportunity to say a few words on the motion. I am in somewhat of a dilemma between the motion and the amendment as I do not fully agree with either. While I accept the comments made by Senator Ridge and support the arguments she made, depending on the 1926 Act is like looking to the past.
Where I disagree with the motion is that I do not wish to see the 1926 Act extended. For many years we have tried to have it changed. Since about 1930 the INTO has tried to have it amended. In 1942 the Government finally agreed and a new school attendance Bill was published. It was challenged and referred to the Supreme Court on the basis that it fulfilled the constitutional requirement to ensure a certain minimum standard of education was achieved. There is a constitutional imperative to ensure a minimum standard is achieved at primary level. There was an attempt made to define what was meant by a minimum standard. In 1942 the great Catholic right wing of the time decided to test the legislation in court where it was found to be an interference with the rights of the family and the rights of parents to decide what the minimum level was. The legislation was never enacted and we have struggled on with the 1926 Act ever since.
The Education (Welfare) Act is a huge improvement in its vision, but we have yet to see it in action. It is correct in its vision. I agree that it was inappropriate and wrong for gardaí in uniform to act as school attendance officers. I agree with Senator Ridge that it is far better to have school attendance officers who have done an extraordinary job for which they deserve recognition. They received little support during the years, but have developed their job professionally and taken a proactive interest in school attendance. They have served us well and will now move on to a new role. Gardaí never wanted the role of school attendance officer and always felt it was inappropriate that they should go to schools with the symbols and semblance of authority to talk about a six or seven year old child who was not attending school.
 The Act places a significant additional burden on principals and classroom teachers. It requires every school principal to keep a separate account of attendance. It does not simply count the roll, but requires the principal to keep an account for each individual child which can be looked at in case of difficulty. The school is also expected to adopt a proactive school attendance policy. We agree that these are fine provisions but on behalf of principals and class teachers this additional work should be paid for. This is chain management where additional work is required. It is a positive policy that is moving forward and developing from a need, but we must ensure it is paid for.
In the recent benchmarking review the benchmarking body stated that in the claim I articulated on behalf of the INTO I was seeking a 92% increase for certain school principals – the highest claim received by the body on behalf of any group of workers in the public service. Primary school principals have shown a need to be rewarded in this way. The amount is not as big as it sounds because it is 92% of a small figure.
Moving on from this, there is a need to recognise that in disadvantaged areas school attendance can depend on many things. As a rule of thumb, if a child is consistently late for school, we can be almost sure that it is the fault of the parents. It is rarely the child's fault. That is not to say that we must blame the parents, but there is probably a significant problem in the home. Perhaps the children are not awakened or sent to school on time, or they have not slept because the television has been on all night or they have not had breakfast and are tired and hungry. One of the points teachers have made on a number of occasions is that there are certain areas where it would be useful to provide a meal in school for children and that this would ensure school is more attractive. This is done all over the world.
Another facility is what is called a “calm room,” effectively a room where a child can, if necessary, sleep where he or she has got no sleep at home. A child who is tired cannot learn, a child who is hungry will not learn and a child who is both tired and hungry will certainly not learn. This is an issue that has been brought to our attention by teachers time and again.
A number of speakers have referred to the importance of the psychological service. I want to make two simple points on this issue which any lay person would grasp. The psychological service is crucial. It is fundamental to identifying problems and moving forward. Credit is due to the Minister and his predecessor for starting and moving the process forward. While there has been significant improvement, it is not hitting all bases. One of the main problems is that the psychologists assigned to schools are carrying out a major round of testing and identifying the problems children are experiencing. That is important work, but because they are spending all their time  and there are not enough of them doing it, they do not have time to become involved in programmes to help the children concerned deal with their problems, whether they arise from a learning, emotional or other difficulty.
A pilot programme, whereby teachers do most of the testing, was introduced recently in the Monaghan area. Teachers can carry out a certain number of tests. While they are not psychologists, they have studied psychology and can carry out a certain amount of educational psychological testing and thereby take a certain level of work from visiting psychologists. Visiting psychologists can pick up the slack and determine what it is that a child needs.
Having decided what a child needs, he or she should get it. However, what the Department is doing is disgraceful. It calls in an inspector to approve the meeting of the needs of a child identified by the psychologist. That amounts to time wasting for the child who needs support, it defers dealing with the issue and is a crude method of controlling finances. The authority should be dealt with at school level. If a psychologist identifies what a child needs, that is what the child should get – end of story.
A psychologist is assigned to a number of schools. He or she should be available to interact on a regular basis with the principal, school staff and parents in order to ensure the child concerned is making progress.
School is an attractive place for children. It is the place where they can find comfort, be relaxed, will not be hungry or tired and where their difficulties will be identified, problems assessed, needs articulated and a programme established and put in place for them. That is what teachers, principals and parents want and what pupils need, but there are too many gaps. The waiting list for psychological assessment is unreal in certain parts of the country. The practice of waiting for the inspector to approve additional resources is unfair, unrealistic and takes too long. The level of resources being made available is not adequate. That is the downside.
Senator Ridge has raised an issue of significant importance at the core of the learning process. It is an issue of concern for schools in many parts of the country, not just in the Dublin area. These problems can be found in many areas of the country. While generally found in urban areas, significant problems have been found in rural areas, often in remote areas where children can get lost in the system. That should not happen.
I thank Senator Ridge for tabling the motion on which I am delighted to have been able to speak. I hope the Minister, while indicating he will not accept it, will take on board the sensible points made by the Senator to ensure the problems she identified will be resolved through the provision of additional resources in the areas required.
Mrs. Ridge Mrs. Ridge
Mrs. Ridge: I acknowledge the good advice and positive response of my colleagues and the Mini ster's courtesy and helpful approach in this matter. My colleague, Senator O'Toole, and another speaker identified that the key issue in this area is that of time. Young lives go by very fast. If one loses a child at the age of seven years in the system and cannot reclaim him or her until the age of 13 or 14 years, there is not much value in it. I emphasise that the school population is very high in the urban areas about which I spoke. There are many children at risk who are not attending school and nobody has taken up the slack that  arises from parents not knowing or caring where their children are. We owe it to the young people concerned to give them some chance. It will be only a slight chance, but it is better than not giving them anything. I will press the motion purely on the grounds of the need to address the matter speedily.
I sincerely welcome the Minister's proposals for the new educational welfare board and thank my colleagues for their contributions.
Tellers: Tá, Senators T. Fitzgerald and Gibbons; Níl, Senators Coogan and Ridge.
Amendment declared carried.
Motion, as amended, put and declared carried.
Seanad Éireann 168 School Attendance Officers: Motion.