Why are politicians not talking about school attendance?

There are no votes in ensuring children from lower socio-economic groups get to college, says Jacky Jones

Education costs: Is it fair for most parents to struggle to fund their children’s education, while a substantial number of parents accept child benefit yet fail to keep their side of the bargain, which is to ensure their children become contributors to society? I think not. Photograph: Dave Thompson/PA Wire

Education costs: Is it fair for most parents to struggle to fund their children’s education, while a substantial number of parents accept child benefit yet fail to keep their side of the bargain, which is to ensure their children become contributors to society? I think not. Photograph: Dave Thompson/PA Wire

 

The best proposal in A Programme for Partnership Government is the intention to address school attendance.

“We will reform the monitoring of child benefit payments by amalgamating the two existing school attendance monitoring systems, currently run by the Department of Education [and Skills] and Tusla, to address poor attendance within some families.”

Typically, media commentators, children’s organisations, and Opposition politicians did not bother analysing the proposal properly and immediately assumed that disadvantaged families would lose money.

The Children’s Rights Alliance said: “This is a daft proposal that would seriously undermine the rights of children . . . we are bewildered as to why [it] has been included in the programme.”

A panel on RTÉ Radio One’s Today with Sean O’Rourke show unanimously proclaimed that the proposal was already “dead in the water”. I hope not. School attendance has a huge influence on every aspect of children’s lives, including health.

Public policy makers know, or should know – because the evidence has accumulated over several decades – that educational attainment is a key determinant of health.

A 2006 Harvard and Princeton poverty study found that “there is a well-known, large and persistent association between education and health. This relationship has been observed in many countries and time periods.”

The researchers concluded that “high educational attainment improves health directly, and also improves health indirectly through work and economic conditions, social-psychological resources, and health lifestyle”.

In 2008 a report from the Institute of Public Health in Ireland noted: “A substantial body of evidence clearly shows that those with lower levels of education are . . . at an increased risk of poorer health throughout life”. A 2010 study in 11 EU countries, including Ireland, showed that a third-level education has the most influence on health.

Monitoring attendance

Its latest report, School Attendance Data from Primary and Post-primary schools 2013/2014, showed that more than 50,000 children in both primary and secondary schools were absent for more than 20 days. In addition, one in four students in post- primary Deis (Delivering Equality of Opportunity in Schools) schools were absent for 20 days or more.

No one knows if children aged between 16 and 18 who are registered to attend secondary school, and whose parents receive child benefit for them provided they are in full-time education, actually do so.

Hundreds of children do not turn up to second level at all. Worse, thousands of children leave school in their heads at nine or 10 years of age. This disengagement has serious consequences, not only for future job prospects, but for individual and population health.

Even the HSE, often criticised as a dysfunctional organisation, has an excellent absence-monitoring system. All absences are recorded, individuals are named, and managers receive a report every month. The same can be done for children.

The EWS can intervene early to see what the problem is and offer support. If parents do not cooperate, maybe they should lose some child benefit?

Education costs

Is it fair for most parents to struggle to fund their children’s education, while a substantial number of parents accept child benefit yet fail to keep their side of the bargain, which is to ensure their children become contributors to society? I think not.

The first step in improving educational attainment is ensuring children attend school, achieve a second-level qualification and, where possible, progress to third level.

Third level does not have to be an academic course: the same health benefits are accrued via apprenticeships or other qualifications. Each additional certificate/ diploma/degree adds years to health and quality of life.

Unfortunately, there are no votes in ensuring children from lower socio- economic groups get to college which is why there has been no real effort to boost school attendance and completion. There are not enough college places for middle class children so why bother?

Unfortunately, unless, as a society, we ensure all children achieve at least the Leaving Certificate, we will pay for it down the road. The Department of Education and Skills should have got rid of the Junior Cert altogether when it had the chance. Our prisons and hospitals are clogged with poorly educated people. Why are politicians not talking about this?

Jacky Jones is a former HSE regional manager of health promotion and a member of the Healthy Ireland Council. drjackyjones@gmail.com

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