Significant numbers of children with anxiety problems have failed to return to school since they reopened earlier this year, an Oireachtas committee has heard.
Oireachtas education committee chairman Paul Kehoe said that as a parent and public representative he was aware that the problem of school refusal was a “huge issue”.
“The children who have not resettled back into school . . . they don’t have behavioural problems. If they had, the parents might be happy. But these children have totally gone into themselves, they don’t want to go to school, they don’t have confidence to go back to school and reconnect with friends and teachers . . . this is a huge, huge problem,” said Mr Kehoe.
Director of the National Educational Psychological Service Anne Tanseysaid the service had noticed “quite a bit” of school refusal behaviour, particularly since schools reopened following another extended closure earlier this year.
She said the service was working with individual children and with schools to try to help ease pupils’ anxiety and to boost social and emotional supports within schools.
Mr Kehoe, however, said there was an urgent need for on-site counselling or therapeutic supports for children in schools to respond to issues such as anxiety and bullying.
“The Department of Education can ignore this problem, and think maybe it will go away . . . but it’s not going to go away, ” he said.
The main focus of Tuesday’s Oireachtas committee meeting was on the supports needed to help combat bullying in schools.
Hugh Ahern, a second-year student of the Patrician Academy in Mallow, Co Cork – the youngest witness to date to speak at the committee – said cyberbullying is often more harmful and threatening than other forms of bullying as it "is always with you and there is no getting away from it".
He said each school should be required to have a counselling service for students who need to talk to a professional rather than a teacher.
“This service could be in the school building or the school could refer them on to a counsellor,” he said.
Mr Ahern also called on the department to update its anti-bullying procedures for schools which were published in 2013.
“Some of the policy may be outdated as it is eight years old and a lot of changes have happened since then in relation to cyberbullying,” he said.
“I would recommend a full overhaul of the topic of bullying within the SPHE [social, personal and health education] curriculum and make a more up-to-date curriculum.”
Focus on bullying
The committee also heard of plans to ensure all schools will be inspected on a regular basis to ensure they are complying with official anti-bullying guidelines.
Yvonne Keating, the department's deputy chief inspector, said that all school inspections from January 2022 onwards will include a specific focus on bullying.
This will involve checking the extent to which policies are in place, whether bullying behaviour is being handled in compliance with rules and regulations, and whether they are being sufficiently communicated to the wider school community.
Paraic Joyce of the department said that under the anti-bullying procedures every school is required to formally adopt and have in place a published, readily accessible anti-bullying policy.
Schools must set out in their policy the procedures for investigating and dealing with bullying and the school’s procedures for the formal noting and recording of bullying behaviour.
Where bullying occurs the key focus is to resolve issues and work to restore as far as is practicable the relationships of the parties involved.
The school principal must report regularly to the board of management setting out the overall number of bullying cases and confirmation that all of these cases have been, or are being, dealt with.
These boards must also undertake an annual review of the school’s anti-bullying policy and its implementation.