A report in the Irish Examiner on 6th April detailed the case of a Limerick mother who was sentenced to a month in jail for failing to send her son to school. The prosecution was initiated by Tusla, the Child and Family Agency, after the boy missed 23 of 26 school days in the first term of 2014. Following the initiation of proceedings attendance improved somewhat but last year his absenteeism rate was over 70%.
Some years ago I had the opportunity to conduct some research on the issue of school attendance. The problem is multi-causal and ‘one fits all’ solutions are of little use. My examination of the issue included tracking the attendance patterns of a cohort of pupils over their school careers. In the vast majority of cases patterns of irregular school attendance begin to become obvious at a very early stage. Intermittent attendance at primary often results in poor attainment levels. These in turn often prompt disaffection when the pupil is in the early years of post-primary level leading to even poorer school attendance. If ever there is any point in taking a court action against a parent of a pupil with poor attendance patterns, which I doubt very much, initiating it in the case of a 14 year old is almost certainly a waste of time and resources. In this particular case the futility of the approach taken is underlined by the fact that by the time the sentence was passed the boy had reached 16 years of age and was not legally obliged to attend school in any event.
In the last few weeks there were two other interesting developments which relate to the school attendance issue. A report released by the Dept. Of Education & Skills focuses on those who leave the school system without completing the full cycle. In it figure those who were attending post-primary schools in September 2010 were traced to see how many were still in the system one year later with the obvious exception of pupils who had left on completion of the Leaving Certificate programme in the interim. It seems that there were just over 7,500 of these ‘early leavers’. The report does not indicate how many of these were less than 16 years of age. It seems reasonable to assume all those at junior cycle level together with some of the 4th years were in that category. The figures suggest that something over 4,000 children and young people were in breach of the minimum school leaving age regulation. The numbers, like the pupil in the court case, who remain on the books but are, in essence, disengaged from the process, are likely to be multiples of that. Strangely the DES report makes no mention of those who either leave during the course of the primary cycle or fail to transfer to post-primary school. The probability is that there are a significant number in this category also. So, all in all, there are many thousands who leave the education system, or become disengaged from it to all intents and purposes, before the age of 16. A second development was the discussions with between the main political parties and Independent Dáil Deputies regarding government formation. It was reported that one of the points of agreement that emerged from the discussions was to increase the minimum school leaving age by one year to 17. One would have thought that a more urgent priority was to tackle the issue of the thousands of pupils who essentially disengage from the system or leave it entirely before they reach 16 years of age and so are in breach of the current legal requirement. Last year it seems that Tusla engaged in court action in about 500 cases. Even if the argument is advanced that court action may help in some circumstances, clearly they are only scratching at the surface of this issue.
In fairness to those in the education welfare services of Tusla, they, together with personnel in schools, international research makes it clear that tackling pupil absenteeism is a particular challenge. Usually irregular attendance at school is symptomatic of a huge range of other factors which will be different from case to case. In the Irish situation a further difficulty arises from the setting up of the welfare service and the drafting of the Education Welfare Act under which it operates. The Act was introduced in 2000. Unfortunately there is no evidence that the DES gave detailed consideration to the complexity of the issue or made any serious attempt to measure its extent prior to drafting the legislation. Coming up with a solution to a problem without detailed consideration of its nature and extent is never advisable. Inevitably implementation issues and problems arose after the Act was commenced and these have hampered those dealing with the issue since. I doubt that the educational welfare service has had a marked impact on school attendance patterns since it was introduced. Certainly a ‘value for money’ audit would be likely to raise serious questions. On the other hand all is not lost as I’m sure that a lot has been learned in the past decade. Taking this into account it might be a good time to start again.
Hopefully, when a new Oireachtas Education Committee is formed the members will take an opportunity to examine the Education Welfare Act and its implementation. Some amendments to the legislation and a properly resourced welfare service taking a more strategic approach it its role, based on early identification of problem cases and appropriate supportive intervention, might emerge.