About 1,000 children don't make it to second-level school. Nobody knows how many, having made it, then drop out by the age of 15


Nobody knows how many children are slipping out of the school system in the early years of second-level education. It is known that about 1,000 children fail to make the transition from primary to second-level. Those closest to the problem believe that the figure for later drop-outs must be "a lot higher - several thousands".

Around the State, at least 200 projects and initiatives are working with schools and children on the early-leaving problem. They speak of working in a limbo without any overall co-ordination.

They say that the first need is to learn the facts of the matter - how many students are dropping out, how many are in danger of doing so and which initiatives are having success in persuading them back into education.

The Minister for Education and Science, Micheal Martin, says he is targeting these children. He has earmarked almost £3 million for this year and next to fund an initiative to focus on "structured pilot projects in urban and rural disadvantaged areas" which will cater for young people aged eight to 15 years who are at risk of early school-leaving. The initiative will test models with a view to developing an integrated approach.

Martin plans to introduce legislation next year "to improve our ability to ensure our children and young people remain within the education system for as long as possible". But those working with these young people say they are working in a vacuum, without any sense of overall direction and without sufficient funding.

According to one source, fewer than 15 of up to 200 initiatives which applied to the Department for inclusion in its project were chosen for evaluation.

Sister Nuala Groarke, co-ordinator of the Stay in School project which involves six schools in the Crumlin, Walkinstown and Greenhills areas of Dublin, says forthrightly: "£3 million would not be enough".

Last month the Minister announced plans for a complete overhaul of school attendance legislation in order to increase the school-leaving age and establish a national body to co-ordinate and implement policies on attendance and general education welfare issues.

Those working in the area welcome this move but they believe it is vital to tackle the problem when children are at a young age.

A new national umbrella group has now been set up to push for co-ordination of efforts. The National Early School-Leaving Network (NESLN) is meeting in Athlone next Monday to develop its plans. NESLN says that, despite the many local initiatives, there is "a notable absence of co-ordinated national policy on the issues of early school-leaving and people at risk at government level". It points out that it is accepted that early school-leaving is a serious problem and it aims to raise awareness, lobby decision-makers, promote models of good practice and share good practice.

"Nobody seems to know the extent of the problem," says Brother Paul Hendrick, chairman of the new umbrella group. "There are no hard and fast figures. That's the problem. We believe that, if people were serious about tackling this, the first step would be to find out the extent of it."

Hendrick quarrels with the widely-used terms: "They're not dropouts . . . a lot of kids are kicked out of school. Schools just can't cope. Drop-out is a misnomer."

Addressing a Fine Gael forum on educational disadvantage last week, Richard Bruton, the party's spokesman on education, said that early school-leavers were more vulnerable than others to sliding into a life on the margins, dogged by crime or substance abuse. This places a very heavy burden on the community in both economic and social terms.

Hugh Frazer, director of the Combat Poverty Agency, welcomes the Government's support of current initiatives, but stresses that this year's budget should include substantial provisions to expand them. "Our education system is not providing a significant number of children with the opportunity to realise their potential."Despite an overall lack of co-ordination, a number of initiatives around the country are successfully tackling early school-leaving. Scott Boldt, an American researcher based at Marino Institute of Education, Dublin, has evaluated eight initiatives in a recent report.

Another report by Brendan Devine, a research psychologist on the Stay in School Project, was launched last month by President McAleese.

In his report, Boldt refers to the 18-month-old Life Centre project on Dublin's Pearse Square which targets young people from 12 to 16 years of age who have not made the transition from primary to second-level.

Last May, 10 young people were pursuing various courses at the centre, including five who were studying for the Junior Cert. Young people have been referred to the centre by schools, by the courts through school attendance officers, by social workers and by parents.

In Cork, Boldt writes, the North Presentation Secondary School set out to develop responses to the needs of a few students who were falling outside of the school system in 1994/5. The girls were "presenting behavioural and emotional difficulties", he writes. A support centre was set up for girls who were severly disruptive in class.

The school also runs the Off-Campus Centre, under co-ordinator Jackie Regan. She told Boldt of the sort of provision necessary for children who would otherwise be on the streets. Her experience has made her more aware of "the terrible situations that young people are in".

Boldt says that the eight initiatives which he examined "contribute significantly to the lives of young people". He recommends that they be "strongly supported both in terms of regular, adequate funding as well as by schools, local communities and statutory agencies".

He also recommends that the initiatives' work is "best undertaken with younger age groups". Intervention with young peole over the age of 16 seem to present considerably more difficulties than work with younger people, so priority should be given to work with younger age groups.

Devine recommends that the Stay in School Project "be continued, broadened and expanded" and that it be accommodated by the Department of Education and Science "as a viable and valuable mechanism thorugh which the incidence of early school-leaving can be addressed" The success of the project are "noticeable and tangible so far".

He reports that targeting educational disadvantage with the primary-school age group in mind is channelled mainly through the Department's Early Start Programme, which is set up in 40 pre-school centres; the Disadvantaged School Scheme, which benefits in excess of 50 per cent of schools; the Home-School-Community Liaison Scheme which is in 70 per cent of these disadvantaged schools and the Breaking the Cycle Initiative, a programme of supports for 25 selected schools in urban areas of disadvantage and 25 clusters of schools in rural areas.

Early intervention measures, says Devine, include pre-school intervention, remedial and home/school/ community liaison services, co-ordination with other agencies, guidance and psychological services, consessionary posts as well as targeted measures for schools in disadvantaged areas.

During the summer, the Minister listed for the Dail some of the other strategies which have been put in place. "My department has a range of strategies in place to address the problem in a concerted and co-ordinated way," he said. He listed "curricular reforms to allow students to make choices relevant to their abilities and aptitudes; support for Junior and Senior centres for Travellers; the free book scheme and alleviation of the examination fees for necessitous pupils and second chance education under the VTOS and Youthreach programmes".

The NESLN will meet in in Athlone next Monday between 10.30 a.m. and 4 p.m. to elect a national executive. For information contact Brother Paul Hendrick at the Life Centre, Pearse Street, Dublin 2, or Ann Murphy, at the Youth Support and Training Unit, Clondalkin, Dublin 22.