Seomra Ranga: 1. Can you explain the background to the work of the National Educational Welfare Board?
Clare Ryan: In Ireland, the complex issue of attendance has been the subject of policy attention in recent decades but was not addressed systematically until the Education (Welfare) Act, 2000. This act established the National Educational Welfare Board (NEWB) in 2002 – mandating it with supervising and implementing the provisions of the Act to effectively ensure that ‘each child attends a recognised school or otherwise receives a certain minimum education’ (Section 10).The legislation establishes a framework for promoting regular school attendance, participation and retention as well as tackling the manifold problems of absenteeism and early school leaving. The Act also charges the NEWB with responsibility for children who are being educated outside of recognised schools, for example at home, as well as 16 – 17 year olds who leave school to take up employment.
Since mid-2009 the Board has an expanded remit which includes responsibility for the Home / School / Community Liaison scheme and the School Completion Programme in addition to the Educational Welfare Service. Under the extended remit, the Board is obliged to devise a single strategic approach to maximising student attendance, participation and retention. This work is well advanced and the Board is committed to implementing a unified support service – incorporating the three service strands – for the academic year 2012-2013.
Seomra Ranga: 2. In the current climate of cutbacks, especially in the education sector, would it not be more beneficial, and indeed more economically efficient, to have the NEWB subsumed into the Department of Education and Skills (DES)?
Clare Ryan: The NEWB has a unique statutory remit and it would be important that it maintain its independence in order to perform its important function of protecting a child’s entitlement to a minimum education.
As you may be aware, in June 2011, the functions of the National Educational Welfare Board transferred from the Department of Education and Skills to the newly established Department of Children and Youth Affairs. The Board welcomes the significant opportunity this presents as the new Department is mandated to lead the development of harmonised policy and quality integrated service delivery for children and young people and will effectively drive co-ordinated actions across a range of sectors, including health, education, youth justice, sport, arts and culture. Strategically this Department is positioned to facilitate people to work side by side, thereby providing a coherent Government approach to the development of policy and delivery of services for children.
Given the unique education remit of the NEWB the Board continues to work directly and closely with the Department of Education and Skills in order to support and consolidate the work of schools, in ensuring that children maximise their participation in the educational system. Both the Department of Education and Skills and the Department of Children and Youth Affairs are committed to working collaboratively to secure better educational outcomes for children and young people.
Seomra Ranga: 3. Please explain the rationale behind the decision not to commence the 20 day absence rule until a pupil is aged six. Surely, if a parent makes a decision to send a child to school aged four/five, then it is the state’s responsibility to ensure that that child gets the opportunity to reap the benefits of regular school attendance, despite the fact that the child does not legally have to attend school before the age of six?
Seomra Ranga: 4. It frustrates both class teachers and Learning Support teachers that extra time has to be given to pupils who miss school in order to help them to catch up, while at the same time there are pupils with Special Educational Needs (SEN) who attend regularly and who genuinely need the extra help and support. If a child under the age of six regularly misses school, surely we have a duty not only to that child, but also to the other children that school absence impinges upon?
Seomra Ranga: 5. Another huge concern for many classroom teachers with the rule for not counting absenteeism before age six is that mastery of the infant programme significantly increases pupils’ future academic success. Therefore, the decision not to include a pupil’s absences before age six does not take into account the major implications of absenteeism of pupils in infant classes and undervalues the work of the infant teacher. Is this something that the NEWB can stand over?
Clare Ryan: I will respond to questions 3, 4 & 5 together:
Under the Education (Welfare) Act, 2000, parents are required to ensure that children aged between 6 and 16 attend school regularly. This legal obligation does not extend to children under 6 years of age and Educational Welfare Officers (EWOs) cannot prosecute parents who fail to ensure that children who are under six and enrolled in primary school attend school regularly.
However, schools are required to record and monitor absences for all students enrolled in the school. In addition, schools must report concerns about the educational welfare of individual students including those aged under 6 to the EWO who will then work with the family, the school and other services where appropriate to improve attendance. The powers of the EWO to appeal school decisions regarding enrolment, expulsion and suspension apply to under 6s.
In addition, where requested, EWOs provide advice and support to parents whose children (up to the age of 18) experience difficulty in securing a school placement or in expulsion situations. Similarly, where it is known that a child – who is under six and enrolled in primary school – is part of a family with established difficulties and has siblings that the Board is already working with, EWOs will engage proactively with this child as part of the overall actions undertaken to address the particular family’s complex needs. In DEIS schools, the School Completion Programme and the Home School Community Liaison Scheme engage with families prior to commencing mainstream education and throughout, irrespective of age. Both these schemes are highly targeted and will prioritise children and families requiring additional supports.
The Department of Children and Youth Affairs is currently considering the benefits and implications of amending the legislation. Such an amendment could extend the prosecution powers of EWOs to parents of under sixes where they are enrolled in a school. The implications of this change need to be considered from a number of perspectives including the constitutional and legislative changes required and the impact on resources.
Seomra Ranga: 6. Can you explain to teachers and principals what process is put in motion when a report is made to the NEWB that a pupil has missed 20 school days? What further action is taken when a pupil misses 40, 60 or 80 school days?
Clare Ryan: All absences over 20 days reported to the Board fall into two categories – authorised and non-authorised or as we generally refer to as ‘non-explained’. The majority of absences over 20 days are explained absences e.g. illness, family reasons etc… and do not need to be followed up by Educational Welfare Officers.
In cases where there is concern around a child’s school attendance, a check is made on the interventions already made by schools and their staff. The latter might include home visitation, additional learning support, attendance monitoring and tracking, modified curricula/timetables etc. A formal case is opened where deemed necessary and an individual attendance plan is developed for the child. Once any underlying problems are identified the Educational Welfare Officer can then seek to address the family’s unique set of circumstances in conjunction with school staff and other local support services.
A key focus for the Board is prioritising children at risk. As already referenced, in September 2009 the NEWB was charged with developing a single strategic approach to attendance, participation and retention when HSCL and SCP came under its remit. As part of the this integration a new case management framework (currently under review to fully incorporate the work of the integrated service strands of SCP, HSCL as well as the EWS) is currently being developed to assist in prioritising children at risk and it differs significantly from past case management practice. A key difference is that schools actively demonstrate that they have attempted to resolve the attendance issues prior to making a formal referral to the NEWB.
The first step is that schools complete a pre-referral checklist to the EWO which outlines the actions that have been undertaken to attempt to resolve the attendance issues internally. This includes outlining the various supports and interventions as described above that have been put in place to remediate the problem. The form outlines a number of stages that should normally be addressed before a pupil will be considered as a formal referral. This process significantly facilitates the Board in identifying children ‘at risk’ of continued poor/chronic attendance or early school leaving.
If the school is satisfied that they have exhausted all interventions and the NEWB is also satisfied that the pre-referral process criteria have been met, a Referral Form is completed by the school and forwarded to the assigned EWO who in turn brings it to an NEWB case management meeting with his/her line manager. If there is consensus that it should be an open case, the NEWB will convene a meeting with the necessary professionals/personnel to agree an individual plan for the child.
Every child is entitled to receive an education and it is parents’ and guardians’ responsibility to ensure that their child attends a school or otherwise receives an education. If they fail in this duty, they are breaking the law and so can be prosecuted.
Taking legal action against a parent / guardian is a very serious matter at any time and there must be a clear view that it will leave the family, and importantly, the child, in a better position. The Educational (Welfare) Act, 2000 prioritises the welfare of the child and it is on this basis that the Board carries out its work.
Because legal action is a very last resort, court proceedings form a very small percentage of the Board’s work. The Board’s main emphasis is on the welfare of the child and the family and on ensuring that concerns and problems are dealt with before school attendance becomes a crisis issue.
A School Attendance Notice (SAN) is the first step in enforcing the law. When a SAN is issued, the EWO then begins a formal monitoring process of the child’s situation, and the parent or guardian is given extensive opportunity to address the underlying issues with the EWO and the school. Occasionally, involving other State services to give additional support to the family may be sufficient to bring about change. In exceptional cases, where there is no progress being made and the child remains out of school, the Board will consider taking a prosecution. Where legal proceedings are served on a family, the cases are heard in the local District Court.
Finally, we are acutely aware that a reduced number of EWOs exacerbated by the moratorium has significant implications for schools and the service. We are aware that this has huge implications for schools and adds increased pressure to support particular children and families. We are deeply conscious that schools may be without a nominated EWO despite our best efforts to reconfigure an already diminished service. We are currently exploring every avenue in order to offer a quality service and ask for school’s patience in this regard. In the interim, where we have gaps, unfortunately, we are obliged to prioritise children who are out of school or those who have no school place. However, if schools have a significant concern about a child’s attendance, please do not hesitate to contact us on email@example.com and we will do our utmost to respond as quickly as possible.
In the interim, and whilst the model of integrated practice is being finalised, we have put in place a number of measures to ensure a service to all schools. In areas where there are significant gaps, the following categories of referral have to be accorded priority.
- No school place
- Refusal to enrol
- Non transfer from Primary to Post Primary School
- Where a student has been expelled
- Court directed work
- Child discharged from residential care without a school placement
- Educational welfare issues combined with child protection/serious child welfare concerns.
In DEIS schools, the HSCL and SCP will ensure a renewed focus on children where there are attendance concerns. If any school has a significant concern about a child’s attendance, they can immediately and directly make a referral which will be responded to as a matter of urgency.
Seomra Ranga: 7. Many teachers and principals feel that making returns to the NEWB in relation to pupil absenteeism is a futile exercise, that they never get any feedback or that the returns never have any effect. Indeed, they feel that this is simply a paperwork exercise completed in order to compile end-of-year statistics for the DES. What is your view on this?
Clare Ryan: Timely and comprehensive reporting of absences is essential in tackling non-attendance and the NEWB has a defined responsibility to ensure comprehensive reporting. Each year we collect two sets of data. The first is the Annual Attendance Report or “AAR”. Since the commencement of the Education (Welfare) Act, 2000, schools are obliged by law to submit an Annual Attendance Report (“AAR”) to the NEWB on the levels of school attendance each year. This data is sent to the Board by schools at the end of each school year, undergoes a series of rigorous validation checks, is analysed and a terminal report produced by the Education Research Centre (ERC).
This report provides very valuable high level national baseline and county information in relation to the number of days lost through student absence, number of students who were absent for 20 days or more during the school year, number of students expelled and the number of students suspended. This national data is published and provides schools with a baseline from which to measure their own attendance levels. It is also employed by the Inspectorate during school inspections. In DEIS schools in particular, attendance data is critical in terms of the DEIS planning framework.
In addition to the “AAR”, under the Education (Welfare) Act, 2000, schools must notify an Educational Welfare Officer or “EWO” in instances where a student has:
- been absent from school for a cumulative total of 20 days or more in the school year;
- a student’s name is to be removed from the school register for any reason;
- a student has been suspended for a cumulative total of six days in the school year; or
- a principal is concerned about a student’s attendance.
Under Section 21 of the Education (Welfare) Act, 2000, recognised schools are required to:
- establish and maintain a School Register and School Attendance Records
- monitor the attendance of all students enrolled
- report on student attendance in certain circumstances
To assist schools with their obligation to report to the Board in relation to the specific criteria outlined in the Education (Welfare) Act, 2000, the Board developed quarterly Student Absence Returns. As part of these returns schools must notify the NEWB of the personal details of each student being reported to the Board and the reasons for non-attendance.
It is important that we are positioned to positively exploit the rich data accrued in order to inform both the service and of course the system but are committed to streamlining the process so that it is more efficient, less demanding on schools, accurate and offers a value to policy and system development. We are currently exploring the optimum way of collecting relevant data so that maximising student attendance, participation and retention remain core objectives of each school.
The NEWB’s School Implementation Group involving nominees from each of the management bodies, NAPD, IPPN, Parents’ organisations and teacher unions provides an ideal forum for sharing mutually relevant information, advice and knowledge as we engage in a number of significant pieces of work, including the development of a suitable process for the collection of Student Absence data.
Developing an Integrated Referral Process
Finally, as referenced in question 6, part of the development of the integrated practice model is the development of a referral model which will incorporate the full involvement of SCP and HSCL. This referral process will significantly facilitate the Board in identifying children ‘at risk’ of continued/persistent poor attendance or early school leaving. The integrated process is due for implementation in the school year 2012 / 13. This implementation will include appropriate management information systems to capture data for the measuring and monitoring of outcomes.
Seomra Ranga: 8. How does the NEWB promote school attendance, participation and retention? Would it not prove to be a far more effective strategy to focus on the positive benefits of school attendance – organise school talks for parents, give awards to pupils for regular attendance, perhaps even have a media campaign to raise awareness about the positive educational benefits of children attending school regularly from the date of enrolment?
Clare Ryan: The key focus of our work is to support and promote attendance, participation and retention and we are doing this in a number of ways. As mentioned previously, we are currently developing an integrated pathway for children under a common case management framework. This means that any child who has a need for support from any of the strands of NEWB should in the future receive a seamless service. The new framework will be in place for the new academic year 2012-2013.
The Board has placed a huge emphasis on re-engaging the commitment and co-operation of schools. My own appointment in May of this year, having come from the education sector is facilitating this process. As an organisation, we are committed to continuing to build and consolidate strong relationships with schools and school communities so that together we can ensure that the absolute entitlement to education is preserved and protected for all children, particularly the most vulnerable.
NEWB has also commenced work on developing, under Section 22 of the Education (Welfare) Act, 2000, guidelines for schools on the formulation of Attendance Strategies. The guidelines will act as a support to schools and families in offering clarity around roles, responsibilities and process as well as offering a descriptor of best practice in terms of ensuring that children remain engaged in the learning system. This is a significant piece of work which will draw on the experience and knowledge of a range of expertise and will act as an accompanying document to the Guidelines on Developing a Code of Behaviour which was positively received by schools and practitioners around the country.
Finally, we are exploring the commencement of National Attendance Awards for this academic year which will acknowledge the outstanding achievement of so many children who have excellent attendance in schools all around the country. The National Educational Welfare Board has a specific remit for attendance, but we all know that we need to broaden the definition of attendance to encompass the myriad benefits that education offers. Promoting positive attendance means promoting education at home, in school and in the community. It entails schools striving to encourage and inspire children to remain in and progress from mainstream education. It entails families equally assuming responsibility in the firm knowledge that education makes that difference and will endeavour to do everything to ensure the child not only attends but is fully supported in order to derive every benefit. It especially means that systemically, children are wholly supported in this critical process. We will be in contact with schools in the coming weeks to outline how the awards will work but advise that a range of certificates (bronze, silver and gold) will issue to schools who have an intimate knowledge of their students, can determine the threshold for recipients. Equally full attendance will be acknowledged and it is envisaged that a sample number of students from around the country will be formally presented at a national ceremony.
Seomra Ranga: 9. Teachers feel that some parents treat the 20 day absence rule as more of a “target” or an “entitlement” and allow their children to miss up to 19 school days during the year. How can the NEWB help schools to address this situation and demonstrate to pupils and parents that 19 days absence still represents a pupil missing out on almost one month of school?
Clare Ryan: The Education (Welfare) Act, 2000 states that schools must inform the NEWB if a child misses 20 days or more during an academic year. In recognition of the central role of parents in providing for their children’s education, the Act also states that parents shall send their children to a recognised school on each school day or otherwise ensure that they are receiving an appropriate minimum education. Schools can communicate this important point to schools through their Admission’s policy, the school’s overall attendance strategy and through its code of behaviour. Tangible examples often help explain what the implications are for children – taking a child out of school for twenty days over 14 years equates to a year and a half of missed school.
Seomra Ranga: 10. Teachers also know that there are some parents who allow their children to miss up to 19 school days on a consistent basis year after year, knowing that a report will not be made to the NEWB unless a 20th day is missed in a school year. Should there not be a requirement to make a report to the NEWB after a cumulative total of days absence has been reached within, for example, a three-year period?
Clare Ryan: The cumulative notification figure of 20 days per academic year is set out in the Education (Welfare) Act, 2000 and any amendment to this would require legislative change. The reality is that the majority of absences over 20 days per annum are explained absences and illness is often a factor.
With regard to the proposal of a cumulative three year period for absences over 20 days – the likelihood is that most children would miss a cumulative of 20 days due to illness over three years and reporting this would place an unnecessary administrative burden on school.
Seomra Ranga: 11. Some parents, perhaps understandably, believe that taking family holidays during term time is acceptable due to the hugely increased prices for holidays during standardised school holidays. Does the NEWB see any role for itself in discouraging this practice, given that the pupils are still missing out on instruction time?
Clare Ryan: The Board advises that taking a holiday during term time means that children miss important school time – both educationally and for other school activities. There is a direct relationship between attendance and attainment. The NEWB believes that every day counts in a child’s education and strongly advises parents against taking their children out of school for holidays during term time for this reason.
Seomra Ranga: 12. In a school where 98% of the pupil cohort attends school regularly, how can the NEWB support that school in ensuring that the last 2% get their chance to also benefit from regular school attendance?
Clare Ryan: The Board supports schools around attendance matters in a number of ways including through direct liaison with Educational Welfare Services, and through initiatives supported by the School Completion Programme and the Home / School / Community / Liaison Scheme.
As mentioned earlier, the NEWB has commenced work on developing, under Section 22 of the Education (Welfare) Act, 2000, guidelines for schools on the formulation of Attendance Strategies. The guidelines will act as a support to schools and families in offering clarity around roles, responsibilities and process as well as offering a descriptor of best practice in terms of ensuring that children remain engaged in the learning system. This is a significant piece of work which will draw on the experience and knowledge of a range of expertise and will act as an accompanying document to the Guidelines on Developing a Code of Behaviour which was positively received by schools and practitioners around the country.
As stated, we are exploring the commencement of National Attendance Awards for this academic year which will acknowledge the outstanding achievement of so many children who have excellent attendance in schools all around the country.
Seomra Ranga: 13. What positive benefits do the School Completion Programme (SCP) and the Home School Community Liaison (HSCL) Scheme bring to ensuring regular school attendance?
The Home School Community Liaison Scheme (HSCL) is a major mainstream preventative strategy targeted at pupils at risk of not reaching their potential in the educational system. The underlying thrust of the scheme is to work respectfully with the salient adults in the child’s educational life whilst seeking direct benefits for the children themselves.
The School Completion Programme (SCP) is also targeted at children and young people who are at risk of early school leaving. It focuses on implementing a range of social and development services from after school and out-of-school supports, including sport and leisure activities as well as supports that target home and community life.
Both services provide valuable supports to schools in DEIS areas. The mandate of the Board to integrate the Educational Welfare Service, the Home/School/Community Liaison Scheme and the School Completion Programme offers the opportunity of redeveloping an integrated service model which would respond to the complexity of issues that impact on attendance, participation and retention.
During the past 2 years in particular there have been locally based initiatives which have demonstrated integrated practice working at its best. These include: working with Care Teams in schools to create an environment that is conducive to good attendance and participation; building good relationships with school management and staff to improve integrated working; impressive team work by HSCL, SCP and EWS; positive initiatives to encourage pupils attendance; targeting of children and tracking their progress; whole community initiatives which have involved other agencies/providers; group work with parents that will enable them to support their peers; work with the traveller community supporting participation and retention and leading to positive outcomes; and promoting a culture of inclusion and using a strengths led approach to assessing needs, rather than a deficit model.
Message to Schools
I would like to take this opportunity to sincerely thank schools and their staff for their support of the National Educational Welfare Board. Whether that support is towards our Educational Welfare Service (EWS), Home / School / Community Liaison Scheme (HSCL), School Completion Programme (SCP) or indeed for ensuring that our requests for data and school returns are processed, I am very appreciative.
It is important to note that if you have a significant concern about a child’s attendance or need advice or assistance around attendance, participation or retention, please do not hesitate to contact us on firstname.lastname@example.org and we will do our utmost to respond as quickly as possible.
Clare Ryan, CEO of the National Educational Welfare Board (NEWB), began her career in Patrician College, Finglas and served as Home School Community Liaison Co-ordinator. She also worked as the National Co-ordinator of the Early School Leaver Initiative and Assistant National Co-ordinator of the Leadership Development Service (LDS) with responsibility for social inclusion. She previously held the position of Principal at St. Leo’s College, Carlow and has worked as an associate with LDS both in facilitating in-service for newly appointed Principals and Deputy Principals as well as lecturing and tutoring on the Post-Graduate Diploma in Educational Leadership with NUIM/LDS.
Seomra Ranga would like to thank Clare for unreservedly accepting the invitation to partake in the interview series on the website. She accepted the invitation without hesitation and did not request any subject area to be out of bounds for the interview. She has given very comprehensive responses to the questions put to her which I hope will generate lots of talk, discussion and debate. DQ
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