I asked Minister Zappone about her views on the school completion programme, the status of the employment audit and the status of school completion programme as a community response strategy, as outlined in the ESRI report.
Deputy Maureen O’Sullivan asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs her plans on the future of the school completion programmes; the status of the employment audit; and the status of SCP as a community strategy response as identified in the ESRI report.
Deputy Katherine Zappone: The ESRI review, to which the Deputy refers was, as she is aware, conducted in 2015. It recognised the important role that the school completion programme plays in working with children at risk of dropping out of school. However, the review also highlighted the need for a fit for purpose structure with effective governance and employment models in place. The report suggested that the governance and employment structures adopted by Tusla will be key in meeting the future objectives of the programme nationally.
Following the ESRI review Tusla commissioned an employment audit, which is what the Deputy’s question is about, to be carried out to examine the issues raised in the review. The employment audit pointed to important issues regarding the employment status of the school completion programme staff around the country. For example, some 55% of staff had no employment contract or inappropriate employment contracts.
In response to the employment audit, Tusla’s educational welfare service undertook a series of initial steps to address these matters. First, a specialist firm was contracted to provide human resources and industrial relations advice and support to the local management committee chairpersons and school completion programme co-ordinators. This firm is providing an ongoing 24/7 service via phone. Second, a suite of appropriate contract templates was developed by a specialist human resource firm, to be used by the local management committees for the various full and part-time positions on school completion programmes. Third, governance training for local management committees and school completion programme co-ordinators has been provided by The Wheel, which is now complete. Fourth, Foróige was contracted to conduct a staff learning needs analysis. This was followed by a continuous professional development programme in response to the training needs identified. Foróige also provided day to day management of the school completion programme nationally on behalf of Tusla’s educational welfare service for a short period. This was to allow Tusla to reinforce the structure of its educational welfare service by hiring additional resources.
The board of Tusla has also considered a number of other options to address the governance and employment issues. An expert panel has been put in place to consider those options in detail and it will be reporting to me in due course.
Deputy Maureen O’Sullivan: I thank the Minister for her reply. I have been contacted by school completion programme co-ordinators who are concerned about the audit and about not having heard fully from the audit people as to what is envisaged. There are rumours about closures and amalgamations. They are into the holiday season now and will return at the end of August. I want to acknowledge the great work the school completion programmes do and the gaps they filled in the recession years when there was a loss of language teachers and visiting and resource teachers for Travellers and the way in which they supported after-school clubs, business in the community and team parenting programmes. I sometimes wonder when audits are carried out by outside agencies if they get a good sense of the work that is being done on the ground, particularly given that we are talking about very disadvantaged areas. Is the Minister committed to the school completion programme as a strategy to address educational disadvantage?
Deputy Katherine Zappone: I thank the Deputy for her question. I am fully committed to the school completion programme as a strategy to address ways in which we can support our young people to stay in school, particularly in disadvantaged areas.
Regarding the audit which was conducted a while ago, I have described a number of steps that have been put in place working with school completion programmes on the ground during the past year and a half in order to begin to provide the support that will be required to ensure their effectiveness as we move forward. The employment and contract issues are serious. I appreciate there are rumours and concerns about what is happening. A process has been put in place to support them on the ground. I also put in place an expert panel, comprising officials from my Department and from the Department off Pubic Expenditure and Reform and Education and Skills and senior staff from Tusla, which is chaired by the CEO of Tusla. It is examining various issues with respect to the way to put in place the best model for the school completion programme in order that we can move beyond the employment and governance concerns and effectively ensure that our children stay in school as long as possible.
Deputy Maureen O’Sullivan: I acknowledge the progress that has been made in the retention figures and in the progression to third level. However, both the Minister and I represent constituencies where progression to third level is way below the national average. School completion programmes play a role in that respect. When an audit is carried out or new measures are being introduced, there must be engagement with the people working on the ground and we must have their involvement at all levels. I am referring to the school completion programme co-ordinators and the people who support them in the schools. Sometimes they get lost in audits and reports as we move forward. With respect to what has emerged now and the plans for the future, I ask that the school completion programme co-ordinators are involved in that process and that they will be engaged with on every aspect of that. That is my ask, namely, that from today they will have direct input into that process as we go forward.
Deputy Katherine Zappone: My understanding is that they have been not involved only in terms of the review but perhaps, more importantly, subsequent to it in the various steps that Tusla has put in place and various training and engagement that is under way throughout the different programmes throughout the country. If the Deputy has information that this is not happening, I would be very keen to be aware of it. The Deputy can talk to me, write to me or email me about that. I completely agree with her that they should be the ones who are informing the process. My understanding is that they have had that opportunity. This group is meeting. We are trying to review what are the best elements that should be in place in terms of the best model and moving it forward. If I have any concerns whatsoever that the people on the ground have not been sufficiently informed of that, I will certainly find other ways to ensure that they are.