Setting the Context
The 2012 referendum campaign on the rights of the child focused considerable attention on the powers of the State. While it is not the State’s role to rear a child, it does have a role in its protection. Our understanding of the concept of ‘protection’, however, is often limited. A child who is able to leave school at fourteen with only functional literacy, if even that, is not being protected. Similarly, the 1,000 Irish primary school children who never make it to secondary school each year are not being protected. While formal education is not the panacea to the social marginalisation that leads to anti-social behaviour, it is one of the State’s most encompassing influences on the child. School gives the young person somewhere to be. A positive, warm environment where they are encouraged to develop. The great advantage of school for the community is that it fulfils young people, both mentally and physically. A full day of school, followed by sport, followed by some homework is exhausting for even the most energetic child. There simply isn’t the time or the desire to be out roaming the streets.
Unfortunately, what is often overlooked with regard to the broader debate on education is that a teacher cannot teach a child who is not there. Every day spent out of school, makes it that little bit more difficult to catch up. This is especially the case if there is nobody at home helping with homework. Year on year it is increasingly difficult to bridge the missing building blocks. Equally, you cannot teach a child who has been up half the night watching television nor can you easily teach a child who has had no breakfast. It is not the role of the school to put a child to bed or to feed them when they get up.
There are some children whose needs simply cannot be met in the local schools where I have worked. It’s not that they are intellectually incapable but rather that they are just far too traumatised to participate in the school system. They are witnessing things every day that few sane adult could cope with and without a functioning family structure, their basic physical and emotional needs are not being met. Never mind reading, they can’t sit down, they can’t concentrate on one thing for more than a minute and the classroom situation just makes it worse.
Unfortunately, in some local schools there are children who simply should not be there. It’s not that they are stupid or intellectually incapable.They are just far too traumatised to participate in the school system. They are witnessing things every day that any sane adult couldn’t cope with. Their basic physical and emotional needs are not being met. The family is so distressed or troubled and they are coming in here and they are literally spinning off their heads. Never mind reading, they can’t sit down, they can’t concentrate on one thing for more than a minute and the classroom situation just makes it worse. You wouldn’t ask a are veteran to sit in a class of twenty kids for five hours day, they’d go mad.
It is no surprise that the rate of functionally illiteracy is twice the national rate in our prisons. This statistic is repeated around the world and of those that are brought before the juvenile courts in America, 85% are illiterate. Keeping young people, particularly young men, in school one of the best chances we have. While new initiatives are being implemented by the Department of Education and Science, many are based on doing more with less. The ‘One Child, One Team, One Plan’ offers a more structured approach of referrals involving the school, the local school completion programme and education welfare officers. At the same time, however, the number of education welfare officers is being reduced all the time. At one point there were eighty. In 2012 there were fifty-six. As a result, you might have a situation where an entire county has just one officer.