Hundreds of families struggle sending children to school

ONE of Education Minister Noel Dempsey’s key aims since his appointment has been to eliminate disadvantage in the country’s education system.

But responses to a Society of St Vincent de Paul survey show that hundreds of families around the country are struggling to send their children to school.

These are the people who know little about the benefits of the Celtic Tiger and have been living from day to day while the country enjoyed an unprecedented period of prosperity.

Many of the parents who can barely afford to put proper uniforms on their children every morning or don’t have the price of their school books never prospered in the classroom themselves.

This, it was found, often makes it more difficult for families to take the confidence to get involved with the child’s education and interact with their teachers.

One of the key recommendations of the SVP report is that parents are given an opportunity to avail of second chance education, a view strongly backed by the National Parents Council (Primary).

“If you find that children whose parents haven’t done well out of the education system aren’t doing well either, we are letting them down,” said council chief executive Fionnuala Kilfeather.

“We need to make it much easier for parents to have a second chance at education but more childcare has to be provided for that to happen. There’s also a need for parenting courses, from birth on, to help parents be able to do a good job,” she said.

The pressure of low incomes often forces parents to encourage older children to leave school and take up a job to help support the family. Early school leaving is one of the biggest challenges facing Irish society and many Government schemes are in place aimed at tacking the situation.

Education Minister Noel Dempsey has questioned the sense of having a number of these schemes in place, when their work is very often overlapping, and Ms Kilfeather agrees.

“We’re inclined to look at the resources being put in but we need to concentrate on what actually works for children. In some cases, there is no evidence of any benefit,” she said.

She also says that, while the various support measures that are available are welcome, there is a danger that children could be made to feel different as a result.

“People have to be treated with respect in how they get access to help. Schools should be reviewing their policies about things like tours and extra curricular activities and make sure they are open to all families without people feeling stigmatised about how they take part,” she said.

There is also concern among parents that teachers sometimes have automatic expectations about children from poorer families, which is very often unjustified.

But teachers themselves have for a long time been concerned about the question of disadvantage in the education system. They are critical of the high pupil:teacher ratio in schools in disadvantaged areas, something parents raised in the SVP survey.

Irish National Teachers Organisation general secretary John Carr said, not alone is it hard to get trained teachers to work in these areas, but it is equally difficult keeping them.

“One in 10 posts in disadvantaged schools is filled by people with no teaching qualification, substantially higher than the national average of 3% of classes being taught by such people.”

Clearly, the crisis in teacher supply is affecting disadvantaged schools disproportionately.

In non-disadvantaged schools the class size is 29, while in disadvantaged schools it is 27, a figure the INTO would like to see dropping to 20. The Government has increased teacher training places in the last few years, but it remains to be seen if it will swing the balance.

There are other issues, such as resource teachers and learning support staff, which are also of huge significance for schools in disadvantaged areas, although the Government’s record on these personnel has drastically improved in recent years.

But psychological and other assessments are hugely backlogged, meaning some children are waiting years before they can avail of services they should have from the day they first walk into the classroom. This was highlighted by parents in the SVP survey, with many speaking about the frustration of sensing their child has a learning difficulty but not knowing what it its.

“However, because of delays with assessment, they and their children learn to put up with the problem and in time it can even slip down their own list of priorities. Indeed, they can be later blamed for not caring enough about their children’s education. Therefore, early assessment and intervention is vital,” the report said.

It is not something that is going to be resolved in a year or even a decade, but without real and concentrated work, educational disadvantage will remain a problem in Irish society.

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