New truancy service faces early problems

 

Schools are likely to face severe problems in September dealing with the thousands of pupils who are believed to be absent from school without good reason every day.

Yesterday school attendance officers, who are responsible for tackling truancy for local authorities in Cork, Dublin and Waterford, completed their final day.

The local authorities have been operating this service since 1926, but there are growing concerns that its replacement will not be able to handle the scale of the problem, at least initially.

The officers will now become part of a new national service, the Education Welfare Board, which has responsibility for the problem from July 5th. However, the new service is beset by problems and so far has recruited virtually no staff.

School managers, principals and several attendance officers are concerned that in September there will be virtually nobody to tackle the truancy problem, which is particularly acute in socially deprived areas, where some schools have almost 30 per cent non-attendance rates.

Under the Education Welfare Act gardaí will no longer have any role in tackling truancy. Without their involvment and only a skeleton staff working for the new board, many teachers and school principals are deeply worried about what is going to happen.

In its latest newsletter, the Irish Primary Principals' Network (IPPN) claims major problems are likely to arise in September.

"It appears that it will be very difficult to enforce school attendance over the next year given the Garda withdrawal from the service and the time it will take to recruit such a large number of staff," Mr David Ruddy, a barrister and principal, wrote.

It is estimated that a truly national service will need almost 350 people, and with most teachers on holiday the chances of recruiting suitable staff over the summer is very slim. An interim chief executive, Mr Eddie Ward, is the only staff member so far recruited.

Another problem is that the board has failed to reach agreement with the 34 existing attendance officers on a new salary scale. Training has also not been given to these attendance officers who become education welfare officers in September.

Ms Fidelma Collins, for the attendance officers, said she remained confident a deal could be reached, but she was disappointed agreement could not be reached earlier in the year.

She said there could be problems in September, particularly in the areas where the Garda used to operate. "However, I remain confident things will work out, and we are glad this service is coming into being. We have been looking for it for many years," she said.

Gardaí have been handling the truancy problem for many years outside the main city-centre areas. But their resources have been stretched in areas such as west Dublin, Limerick and Tallaght where the schoolgoing population is large.

The school managers' association, the Joint Managerial Body, also expressed concerned about the situation. The group, which represents the majority of school managers at second level, said its members had not been given the resources or training to carry out the functions required under the new legislation.

Its general secretary, Mr George O'Callaghan, said school managers would not be operating the Act in September. He said the new duties required of school managers such as tracking persistently absent pupils and preparing reports on absenteeism generally would not be done because the Department had refused to provide funds to help principals.