New education board will deal with truancy

 

A new inter-departmental National Educational Welfare Board will be set up next year to deal with truancy and other related problems, the Minister for Education and Science, Mr Martin, has announced.

While there are no national school attendance figures it is estimated that in Dublin around 1,600 children play truant from school every day. School attendance officers believe a significant element in this relates to parents not sending their children to school.

The new board will be set up by legislation which will also increase the school-leaving age to 16, or the completion of three years of junior cycle, whichever is later. This will affect 5,000-6,000 children.

Mr Martin said the problem of non-attendance was a complex one largely caused by dysfunctional families. Dealing with it would require a huge input from the Department of Education, the Department of Social, Family and Community Affairs, the gardai and the health boards.

For this reason all these agencies, or the Government departments responsible for them, would have to represented on the new board. It will co-ordinate State services to children with school attendance problems.

One of the main complaints in this area was the lack of co-ordination between State agencies dealing with the care and welfare of schoolchildren from problematic family backgrounds. Mr Martin said the board's education welfare officers would eventually operate nation-wide. At present around 40 school attendance officers operate in Dublin, Dun Laoghaire, Cork and Waterford only. Elsewhere the gardai are responsible for dealing with truancy.

He said the board's emphasis would be on "assistance to schools, families and children, rather than penalties for non-attendance". However, the legislation would allow fines for persistently offending parents, and the Minister said he was "reflecting" on provision for prison sentences, which exists in the present 72-year-old legislation.

The board would also be responsible for finding "alternative school accommodation" for non-attending children. Programmes would have to be "tailored to the needs of the child", and he noted the example of one primary school which had successfully set up a sixth class for persistently non-attending children, with a "much more innovative curriculum".

Mr Michael Doyle, a spokesman for the school attendance officers, welcomed the proposed legislation's emphasis on the non-attending child's welfare rather than treating truancy as a criminal offence. He hoped it would lead to more special schools and special classes in mainstream schools.

The secondary teachers' union, ASTI, welcomed the raising of the school-leaving age. However, its general secretary, Mr Charlie Lennon, called for more resources to match the extra numbers who would be staying on in school as a result.