Trade union Impact has criticised a decision by Tusla, the child and family agency, to cut all funding for counselling services to the School Completion Programme (SCP) which assists students to stay in school.
SCP worker Michael Smyth criticised the move during a speech to delegates at Impact's education conference in Cork, saying the cut to funding - due to come into effect on September 1st - would have serious consequences for a vulnerable cohort of young people.
Mr Smyth said Tusla’s rationale for the move - that if they could not give it to all 124 SCP projects working in 470 primary schools and 224 post-primary schools, then they would not give it to any school - was bizarre.
“This is an infantile explanation for a decision with savage consequences. Where it hits hardest there are no alternative services available, so the message this sends to the most disadvantaged children in the country is that they’re on their own,” he said.
Mr Smyth told how the SCP was established by the department of education in 2002 with an initial budget of €32 million to provide strategic support to vulnerable children, enabling them to complete second level education.
The programme was transferred to the newly-formed Department of Children and Youth Affairs in 2011 and in 2014 was subsumed into Tusla. It has seen its annual budget cut to €24 million, Mr Smyth told delegates.
He said the ESRI published a report into the programme in October 2015, which found it was effective in its aims.
The study highlighted the programme’s ability to access vital information about the family and home life of children in the programme, the opportunities arising from a less formal communication with children and parents, and the immediate support from the SCP counselling service.
“The ESRI report came after years of very damaging cuts, which means we operate now with only two-thirds of the funding we began with in 2002. Those cuts forced many SCPs to suspend some elements of the programme and that slash and burn approach continues despite our best efforts,”said Mr Smyth.
The ESRI found the cuts curtailed SCP provision at a time of growing need, and that the pattern of cuts was at odds with international evidence that early intervention is more successful - and more cost effective - than remedial intervention when young people drop out of education.
Mr Smyth said the Minister for Education and Skills Richard Bruton, in his address to conference on Wednesday night, had recognised the value of the SCP when he said "too many of our children still fall through the cracks, and are in danger of being left behind".
Contacted by The Irish Times, Tusla had not yet responded to Mr Smyth's comments.