Funding cuts hurt supports to keep students at school

Funding cuts are restricting out-of-school supports intended to help reduce the risks of students dropping out, research has found.

The need to pay sessional staff for after-school activities has led to such elements of the School Completion Programme suffering more than others, an Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) review of the programme shows.

It examined the operation of the School Completion Programme, which supports around 36,000 young people in 700 schools and 800 more who are not at school at a cost of almost €25m last year.

It runs in 124 areas with a mix of primary and second-level schools, most of which are in the Department of Education’s Deis programme to combat disadvantage.

While one of the main aims is to promote school attendance among those at risk of leaving school early, supporting students’ social and emotional wellbeing is also a significant element of the School Completion Programme.

But while after-school and holiday time activities are supposed to play a key role in increasing student engagement, staff would prefer to offer more than they currently can or do.

“Reduced provision has particularly affected after-school and holiday provision, which are seen as key in engaging children with school. Of particular concern to school principals are cuts to one-to-one counselling and therapeutic interventions for children in crisis situations,” the authors wrote.

But the analysis of how cuts to School Completion Programme funding in recent years have impacted, shows staffing levels have been reduced, particularly for after-school measures.

ESRI research professor Emer Smyth said schools have the capacity to identify at-risk young people before they come to the attention of other services: “This report highlights the value of providing comprehensive school-based supports for disadvantaged children and young people, and the need to put such supports on a sustainable footing.”

While a mix of models are used across different groups of schools, the ESRI says the optimal approach is a mix of general activities and those targeted directly at vulnerable students. Many schools, for example, allow all students take part in homework clubs but other activities are restricted to those who need other supports in smaller more focused numbers.

The report supports international findings that early intervention, particularly focusing on children at a younger age, can be most effective in reducing costs and early school-leaving. While improvements in primary school attendance and in numbers staying in school to Leaving Certificate can not be directly attributed to the School Completion Programme alone, the authors say it has played an important role, along with other strands of Deis provision.

Impact union’s School Completion Programme branch chair Cáit Ni Mhurchu said the findings were important, given funding fell from €32m in 2002 to €24m, but also for highlighting governance weaknesses.

Children’s Minister James Reilly said findings and recommendations in the review, undertaken for child and family agency Tusla, are being considered and action is already being taken to strengthen School Completion Programme.

Improved integration with staff of other Tusla services is planned, he said .


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