Jennifer Cummins’s job is to help prevent pupils from dropping out of school. At a time of huge disruption to the school year and a shift to online learning, her task is more daunting than ever.
"I felt the level of poverty more starkly this year than I did any other year," says Cummins. "It was hard to shake that off."
In recent years, Ireland has been a top performer in the EU in boosting the numbers of young people who complete their schooling. But there are now growing concerns that much of this progress is at risk.
Some schools in disadvantaged areas have reported disengagement rates of 25-50 per cent among students in online learning. The big worry is whether they will return to school when the doors open again.
Despite a successful return to school in September, school staff in disadvantaged areas say the problem of students dropping off began to emerge around mid-term last October and during the run-up to Christmas. School closures have made matters worse, they say, especially among pupils in the early years of Junior Cycle at second level.
“Online learning is very difficult for many of them,” says Cummins. “Unless mammy and daddy can sit with them, it is very hard. Then you have parents who aren’t tech savvy or don’t have wifi. Or there are families where there’s a single divide that has to be shared among maybe five or six children.”
Latest research indicates that the lifetime earnings for pupils in disadvantaged areas are more likely to suffer significantly due to lost school time linked to Covid-19.
Despite remote learning, some children may leave school earlier or with fewer or poorer qualifications.
Groups such as the Ballymun School Completion Programme are doing their best to ensure children are not left behind.
It is one of about 120 projects around the country that provides targeted support for pupils at risk of early school leaving or who are out of school for an extended period.
Research indicates that the national school completion programme (SCP) has played a significant role in helping reducing the gap in school retention rates between disadvantaged – or Deis schools and others since 2002.
There are so many teenage girls and families who now don't have access to period products
This support is continuing throughout lockdown. As well as providing digital devices they also deliver art packs, food packages and provide online Zoom art and cooking classes, as well as weekly phone calls and check ins.
“The digital devices are really tangible and super-important because that is how you link back in but that is only part of it,” says Cummins, who is part of the Ballymun school’s SCP.
“Some families don’t have any books in their house and they don’t have anything to entertain their children, they don’t have games, they don’t have jigsaws.”
Project workers are also delivering sanitary products to families who would normally have accessed them via the completion programme at school.
“There are so many teenage girls and families who now don’t have access to period products,” says Cummins. “They’re delivered home to the girls in secondary or senior primary school, because these products are expensive for families who have very little resources.”
In some cases, project workers provided study desks for students or clipboards where there was no room for one.
When school buildings are open, the programme provides access to homework clubs and study groups, which are vital for children who do not have a quiet place to study.
The foundation of the SCP’s success, says Cummins, lies in the relationships they have with the families. It enables them to engage with those who might be out of reach to the schools.
The fact that they are contacting children via their parents’ devices during lockdown has led to an unexpected upside: in many cases there is a closer relationship with parents than before.
Ray Ó Díomasaigh, principal of Gaelscoil Bhaile Munna, has seen the benefits of this input first hand.
“The relationships that they build up with the teachers, with myself and with the families are incredibly beneficial,” says Ó Díomasaigh. “They are able to give feedback to us in relation to the families they are checking in with every week and they open the channels of communication.”
Ó Díomasaigh says project workers have also helped the school and families prepare for this latest round of remote teaching.
“This time around we sent out a lot of devices that were given to us through our school completion programme,” says Ó Díomasaigh.
“They had a meeting with the teachers first to find out what apps needed to go on them, everything was set up, and so the child has absolutely everything that they need.”
There are still major gaps, though. DCU’s educational disadvantage centre, for example, has highlighted the need for emotional counselling and therapeutic supports, such as play and art therapy, to be made available in all Deis schools.
Ó Díomasaigh says it can be difficult for schools to balance the burden of therapeutic needs with the provision of education.
“We want to help everyone in every way possible,” he says. “But if your primary focus is education, we can’t go into the grey area of becoming social workers.
“SCPs are definitely plugging that issue in some way. But they don’t have enough resources to deal with the families and the issues in every school.”
If there was a way of upskilling parents I think that would be beneficial
While there is a cost to these services, Commins says the preventative nature of them means they could save the State far more in the longer term.
“Most SCPs do not have enough to fund their core staff and the resources that they need,” says Cummins.”What we are expected to do with no extra funding is phenomenal.”
Ó Díomasaigh says it would be valuable to have a support programme for parents as well.
“If there was a way of upskilling parents I think that would be beneficial,” he says. “It shouldn’t just be about throwing money at this and giving all these therapeutic services to the child if nothing has really changed in the house.”
He believes a dual approach, combined with long-term planning, is the key to successfully addressing disadvantage in education.
“While great things have happened and we do have a school completion programme and I’d be lost without it, we should be looking at the bigger picture and planning 10 or 20 years down the road so that the cycle of disadvantage will be broken somehow.”
It’s a pointed backed up by research: the ESRI has found that parents with lower levels of education feel less confident in supporting their children’s home-schooling and are often juggling multiple responsibilities.
“One of the saddest things about talking to the parents is that the failures in their own education are compounded by the fact that they believe they are now failing their own children’s learning,” says Cummins. This is often exacerbated by work commitments.
“Parents feel really overwhelmed, they feel like they are failing their children all the time by not being able to give them their full attention because they have to work as well.”
Overall, Cummins believes providing targeted supports to parents is the missing link to successfully tackling educational disadvantage .
Proportion of "low engagement" in online learning at Deis schools
Proportion of "low engagement" in online learning in non-Deis schools
Proportion of "medium to high engagement" in online learning in Deis schools
Proportion of "medium-high engagement" in online learning in non-Deis school
Proportion of school staff who say lack of access to devices is a problem in Deis school
Proportion of school staff in non-Deis schools who said lack of access to devices was a problem
* Sources: TCD's research report Teaching and Learning During School Closures: Lessons Learned; ESRI's report Learning for all? Second Level Education in Ireland during Covid-19.