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Ireland has more than 6,000 children in care. How are they doing in school?

The Irish state is basically raising these children – but how good a job is it doing, asks Professor Robbie Gilligan.

Robbie Gilligan

OVER 6,000 CHILDREN live in the care of the Irish state on any given day. Some are in care for short periods until a family difficulty such as a lone parent’s serious illness is resolved. But for very many others, they are in many senses children of the state – they grow up in care. So how are these children doing? How good a parent is the Irish state for the children it raises?

One thing most parents are very concerned about is their children’s education. They want the best opportunities and the best results for their offspring. So, overall, how do children in care do in education? How many sit the Leaving and how do they fare? How many get to college or university? These are questions the Irish state cannot answer because it does not gather the data.

This gap reflects a general policy blind spot about the education of children in care. And this neglect may not get better any time soon. Just the other day, the Minister for Education, Jan O’Sullivan launched a new National Plan for Equity of Access to Higher Education 2015-2019 (which you can see here).

While this new plan sets out many commendable measures for improving access pathways to education for disadvantaged groups, ironically it is silent on the needs of children in care – the very children for whom the state has a unique responsibility. After all, the state has basically said to the parents of these children: ‘Step aside, we can do a better job’.

Having taken that momentous step, and usually for very strong reasons, it might be expected that the state would then be as vigilant as any good parent in supporting the educational progress of children in its charge.

Any good parent would be anxious to ask ‘how are my children doing in school?’ The evidence suggests that the Irish state is not asking this question in a systematic way so that it can get an overall picture of how well or how poorly children in care are doing at school.

Some years ago the Ombudsman for Children highlighted the importance of this evidence as a starting point for improving the educational experience of children in care. We know that the stresses linked to the reasons for being in care and the stresses of being in care can harm educational progress. So paying attention to the educational needs and performance of children in state care is an important issue. As with any children, education has a big bearing on their life chances later on. If the state wants to help children in care do better in later life, education is clearly the best route.

26/8/2015. Getting Ready To Go Back to School Source: Sam Boal/RollingNews

So is the Irish state alone in this lack of attention to the educational progress of children in state care? Take two young people in care – one in Dundalk and one in Newry, ten miles away over the border in Northern Ireland. The administration in Northern Ireland tracks the educational outcomes for all children in public care and produces an annual report on these. So we can see the overall picture for all children like the child in Newry throughout Northern Ireland, but not for the child in Dundalk or its peers in care throughout the Republic.

In many other countries, fresh data is published regularly on how children in care are faring educationally: England, Scotland, Australia are just some examples. In the US, California has led the way, and only a few days ago US President Barack Obama signed into law the Every Student Succeeds Act, which includes a new requirement that every state must track the overall educational progress of all children in public care. So on the international stage, Ireland would be getting a fail on this test, compared to many of the countries or systems it is close to culturally or politically.

The Irish public has learned the hard way about the abuse and neglect that too often was the fate of children in state care in the past. People might have hoped that lessons would have been learned. But on this question of education and children in state care, it seems not. Part of the problem is a division of responsibility between Tusla – the Child and Family Agency – and the Department of Education and Science. But the bigger issue is a political priority for the welfare of the state’s own children.

Robbie Gilligan is professor of social work and social policy at Trinity College Dublin. 

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