Addressing Drop Out Rates
Over 10% of Irish school children will never sit their Leaving Certificate. Over one thousand will not even make it into secondary school. In fact, the only thing more disheartening about these figures has been the government’s response to drop out rates and subsequent educational challenges. The tragedy that a quarter of all Irish adults scored in the lowest possible level of literacy in The International Adult Literacy Survey (2006) is only dwarfed by The Prison Adult Literacy Survey: Results and Implications (2003) which showed that this figure is double amongst our prison population.
There are many factors that affect one’s ability to learn and excel at school. The most prominent of these - support, encouragement, diet and sleep - all occur outside of the classroom. Studies have repeatedly documented how even small things in the home, such as a bedtime story, can play a significant role in a child’s development. Equally, a teacher can only teach the child that is present and in a frame of mind to learn. Any number of outside influences can contrive to ensure that little academic progress is made, if at all, especially, if an at-risk child sits in a classroom amongst twenty-nine others.
Our response to these issues must be holistic as the issue of formal education is broader than one might think. In fact, the very first principle underlying the recommendation of The Joint Oireachtas Committee on Education and Skills’ ‘Staying in Education: A New Way Forward’ (2010) is that ‘Early school leaving and its related problems of poverty, deprivation and exclusion should be understood in a holistic context that is much broader than the education system. Early school leaving is symptomatic of societal inequality in Ireland generally.’
There are three new departures we can make to tackle this problem. Firstly, we must focus on the support a child receives outside of school. Most disadvantaged communities in the country are relatively small. We need to identify these geographical areas and offer a service above and beyond the current level of support. This can be done creating an over arching, multi-agency strategy enacted by a dedicated team of professionals exclusively for that region.
Current all state services are governed by identical rules and regulations. We need to adapt to the reality on the ground and try something new. For example, social workers are unavailable after 5 p.m. during the week, or at all on weekends, in most of the country. The detrimental effect of this becomes more and more apparent when one considers the times at which support is most needed. Community Gardai are able to serve as community only when they have fulfilled all of their other duties, while child psychologists, nutritionists and speech therapists rank somewhere between urban myth and legend in many areas. Even during the standard working day when the services that do exist are working with exactly the same young people, there is little or no co-ordination.
The simple truth is that if a child is not being offered the opportunity and support to attend school in the modern age, the consequences for both him and society will be detrimental. The cost of piloting a scheme like this would be comparatively slight given the fact most of the structures are already in place. We need to accept that the classroom is only one piece in the educational puzzle.
The second step would be to establish smaller class sizes. The advantages of this are clear, especially in environments where challenging behaviour is common. We should expect the highest standards from our teachers, but not impossible ones. According to the INTO, the current class size at primary level is 24.5 pupils. Government promises have come and gone, even during the boom, and the proposed ratio of twenty pupils to one teacher is now as credible as Anglo Irish Bank. That said, with up to eight hundred teachers applying for each job at the moment, there has never been a better time to pilot an innovative solution.
Lastly, we must celebrate achievement over retention, or at least put it on the same pedestal. Like the dole statistics, school retention figures are often massaged, opaque and confusing. Many students on school registers are there only figuratively speaking and while it is far more preferable that a young person is engaged in some way, he will more than likely leave our education system with literacy skills well below his peer group, if at all. Equally, working with a young person for two hours a day may prove to be the crucial focus in his life, anchoring the day and offering a reason to get up. This, in itself, is reason enough to continue the provision. It is a disingenuous stretch, however, to argue that this young person is still at school. Our work in this regard should continue, but it should not be the banner under which we celebrate our successes. We need to focus on a different type of achievement.
In short, we need to support those who do reach third level as their achievement is the seed for so many others. When a young person does break the cycle of educational disadvantage the knock-on effects are tremendous. The curiosity and excitement generated in the community has a greater effect than a thousand leaflets or guest speakers or government campaigns. College is suddenly real and attainable. Our response to this is again bizarre. Bank of Ireland and schooldays.ie put the average cost of going to college at over €9,000 per year for a student living away from home. The maximum maintenance grant is €3,250. This discrepancy doesn’t need underlining, especially as when the figure was cut by 5% in the 2010 Budget. Beginning college is a difficult transition for even the most accomplished and supported student: well publised drop out rates highlight this year after year. Tutor or peer support programmes in colleges, where they do exist, are sporadic and vary greatly in their effectiveness. Again, there is no firm policy or commitment. College is a challenge for every young person, why we choose to make it more difficult, especially for those who have already overcome more than most to earn their place, is inexcusable.
The global economy is forever changing and outsourcing will continue unabated. Having a Leaving Cert will be an absolute minimum for an entry-level position in the modern workplace, just as a masters is assuming a degree further up the chain. Education will be the cornerstone of the future and we cannot be mired by the intransigence of the past. We have to be willing to risk new pilots, engage new thinking and most of all, believe we can do better.