Despite numerous action plans and strategies, child poverty in Ireland remains unacceptably high. In 2015, approximately 130,000 children were growing up in impoverished circumstances. SVP members know the stark reality behind this statistic; children who regularly go without basic necessities such as nutritious food, clothing and heating. Poverty also prevents children from participating fully in school and social activities and ultimately limits their true potential. The Growing up in Ireland study - a national survey of over 19,000 families - shows that differences in educational between advantaged and disadvantaged children emerge early and persist throughout childhood. SVP argues that without a concerted investment in educational services throughout the trajectory of childhood, the cycle of poverty and disadvantage will persist.
Good quality early years care and education, ensures children, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds, get the best possible start in life. As well as the developmental and educational benefits, affordable childcare is an important measure to make work pay for low income families, and therefore secures a better standard of living for children. Over the past number of years, SVP have pressed the Government to increase investment in early years services and significant progress has been achieved with the introduction of the Affordable Childcare Scheme in Budget 2017. Ongoing work with the Department of Children and Youth Affairs will continue to make sure the scheme supports the most vulnerable through investment in affordability and quality.
Although increased spending in the early years sector is welcome, it must not be at the expense of services for older children. Indeed, middle childhood is a time where school experiences shape long term expectations and outcomes. An ongoing concern for SVP members on the ground is that school costs prohibit children from participating in school fully. SVP has continually advocated the need to reduce the financial burden of school related costs, such as books, uniforms, school tours and ‘voluntary’ contribution, on low income families. For example, in 2011, SVP ran a public campaign to highlight unnecessary school book edition changes. It resulted in a code of conduct from publishers which they promised less edition changes. Despite this success, the issue of school costs still prevails. Successive cuts to the school capital grants over the past six years means that schools are struggling to cover day-to-day expenses. One possible implication is that parents will be asked by schools to make up the difference. Over the coming year, the Social Justice team will be advocating that these cuts are reversed.
The main way disadvantage is addressed in schools is via DEIS (Delivering Equality of Opportunity in Schools). SVP acknowledge the good work carried out under this programme but believe that tackling educational inequality solely through DEIS is limited; many disadvantaged children do not attend DEIS schools. The new DEIS plan, announced in February, proposes tapered funding based on differing grades of disadvantage. While this is welcome, we still need a system where all disadvantaged children, regardless of the status of their school, have access to key supports, such as educational psychologists and additional teaching resources.
Adolescence and early adulthood
One important aim of DEIS is to combat early school leaving and since 2008 rates have declined significantly. However, transition to third level education for disadvantaged groups remains low. While post-primary measures to support transitions to third level are relevant, costs associated with further education are a significant barrier. Increases in fees, changes to the adjacent rate grant, limited supports for part time students and the rising cost of living means that for many young people, college is not an option. It is expected that a new funding model for third level education will be introduced in 2018. It is not yet clear what this model will look like but SVP will advocate that equity, accessibility and affordability are central to the proposed changes.
Ambition and investment
In February the Action Plan for Education 2017 was published. Although the plan recognises the transformational potential of education, it falls short on a number of areas including measures to address school costs, early disadvantaged and third level access. If the Government are truly committed to addressing childhood inequality it needs to be more ambitious and this ambition needs to be backed up with significant investment across the life course.