FINANCIAL difficulties are leading to children missing school on a regular basis, according to staff working with families to address poor attendance.
The National Educational Welfare Board has seen direct evidence of the recession’s impact, with problems in households as much a cause of absenteeism as parents simply neglecting to send children to school.
Michael Doyle, who is the board’s manager overseeing more than 900 schools in Leinster North and parts of Dublin, gives a recent example of a second level student his staff were involved with who was often missing school two days a week.
“She was being taunted by her peers because of her unkempt appearance and her uniform wasn’t washed as regularly as it should be. When we eventually gained access to the family home, we discovered they had no electricity,” he explained.
“We approached the school’s pastoral care team and the St Vincent de Paul and were able to address the issue of non-payment of the electricity. Because the voice of the child was heard, there was an instant improvement in attendance.”
Schools are obliged to report to the NEWB where any student has missed more than 20 days in a year, but Mr Doyle said priority is given to cases other than those where illness or other explanations are given. “We primarily work with two groups of parents, the first are those who are unable to ensure their children are in school regularly because of a range of issues. There could be psychological issues, or financial pressures, addiction, or acrimony because of parental separation.
“The other group are the ones we tend to end up in court with, parents who we feel are neglecting to send their kids to school despite all the interventions.”
Schools are often critical of the amount of paperwork they are obliged to give the board on student attendance, although new procedures are about to be introduced to ease the reporting burden. But because of staff restrictions and other resourcing issues, the board has not been able to deal with all such cases in some parts of the country, an issue which was the subject of a report by the Comptroller and Auditor General.
Since 2009, the board has taken oversight of Department of Education services, including the school completion programme and around 450 home school community liaison co-ordinators. These staff work directly with families to encourage greater participation by pupils, often improving attendance simply by getting parents more involved with their children’s homework, although dozens of rural schools are to lose this service next September.
Mr Doyle said the increased interaction between education services, as well as others such as social workers, is beginning to reap rewards. The working methods which have been piloted in 79 schools, are also likely to make the NEWB’s service more efficient.
“If we are satisfied that the school has made all reasonable efforts before contacting us, we would hope to take up less of a principal’s time on reporting and instead, ask them to refer cases they are most concerned about,” Mr Doyle said.
“The hope is that schools and ourselves will be able to prioritise the most urgent cases and that they will see shorter turnaround time for us dealing with cases from start to finish. We’re also anxious to involve parents and children themselves in drawing up a new plan, it’s really important that the child’s voice is listened to.”
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