Deis controversy: ‘Tipperary’s children deserve a better chance’

Despite high levels of deprivation, the town has failed to benefit from the revamped scheme

Louise Tobin, the principal of St Joseph’s Primary School in Tipperary town. Photograph: John D Kelly

Louise Tobin, the principal of St Joseph’s Primary School in Tipperary town. Photograph: John D Kelly

 

Louise Tobin, principal at St Joseph’s Primary School in Tipperary town, sees how many children are playing catch-up from day one.

“Many simply don’t have the vocabulary or the bank of nursery rhymes that other children would have. They might not have had a breakfast, or won’t have a proper lunch.”

This is where the Deis (Delivering Equality of Opportunity in Schools) scheme can play a crucial role.

It gives extra resources, such as additional teachers and home-school liaison officers, to more than 800 disadvantaged schools. It also provides funding for literacy and numeracy programmes, along with meals for pupils.

When Minister for Education Richard Bruton announced plans to expand the Deis scheme earlier this year, St Joseph’s hoped it would now qualify for it.

Indicators such as unemployment, education levels and family structure suggest Tipperary town is one of the more deprived urban areas in the country.

When the school didn’t make the new list, announced last February, Tobin was dumbfounded. Indeed, no school in Tipperary town qualified.

“It seemed open and shut . . . I was flabbergasted,” she says.

Until recently, Deis schools were identified using surveys filled in by the schools themselves, which made the system vulnerable to “gaming” by principals.

However, a new affluence and deprivation index now uses census data and pupils’ addresses to identify schools with the highest proportions of children from deprived backgrounds. It takes into account a variety of factors, such as social class, educational levels of parents, lone parenthood, parental occupation and unemployment.

Under this new system, a total of 79 schools were added to the Deis scheme for the first time, while a further 30 had their status uplifted from band two to one – which involves greater levels of support.

Records released to The Irish Times under the Freedom of Information Act indicate that many more schools – up to 257 – were also identified as meeting the criteria for Deis support. However, this information was not made public at the time. The irony is that a selling point of the new Deis system was that it would be fair and transparent.

This latest development raises the question of whether these schools were kept in the dark over meeting the thresholds for Deis support.

In a statement, a spokeswoman for the Department of Education said schools were added to the scheme earlier this year based on 2011 census data and the index is being updated with details from the 2016 census.

“If this exercise reveals that any school which did not qualify for Deis in the February 2017 round actually meets the criteria applicable to schools with the highest concentration of disadvantage based on the fully up-to-date information then it will be included, subject to resources,” the spokeswoman said.

“The figure of 257 schools was used at a very early stage of the estimates process to illustrate what additional supports could be given to schools based on a particular financial allocation being made available. The information used to arrive at that number is now out of date and will not be used to inform policy decisions in this area.”

Threshold

Many schools may passionately believe they qualify for support, but have no way of knowing for sure if they meet the threshold.

In the case of St Joseph’s, however, a delegation was told by department officials that they were “in the space” of meeting Deis criteria, but were not being admitted at this time.

The department has previously defended its decision not to publish the outcomes for individual schools under the affluence and deprivation index as it would allow “crude comparisons” to be drawn in terms of relative levels of disadvantage in schools.

It has argued that this would be highly divisive, unfair to parents, students and communities, and place schools in an invidious position.

None of this is much comfort to Tobin or her school.

“We run the school on a shoestring. We don’t ask for voluntary contributions because we don’t want to put parents under even greater pressure. We need extra support,” she says.

“We’re talking about the lives of all of the little children in Tipperary town, coming from disadvantaged homes. This is a chance to help bridge the gap between them and other children. They deserve a better chance.”