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Tuesday 26 September 2023 Dublin: 16°C
Opinion We have an unacceptably high level of school suspensions and expulsions
There were more than 13,000 suspensions and 145 expulsions in 2015, writes Dr Áine Hyland.

EDUCATION INCLUSION HAS has been a supposed policy priority in Ireland for over 30 years. However, despite this, inequality in education continues to grow wider. This disconnect is either not being addressed by current policy, or current policy is not trickling down into practice.

Let’s be clear, what the current gap means is that children of similar ability will have very different educational experiences based on their Eircode. Children who come from less advantaged backgrounds, who may have equal abilities, will have lower levels of literacy and numeracy, have less access to arts initiatives, are at greater risk of early school leaving and have a lower probability of accessing higher education than their more advantaged peers.

While there is a stated commitment at national level to support pupils who are at risk of early school leaving, there continues to be an unacceptable level of school suspensions and expulsions – more than 13,000 suspensions and 145 expulsions in 2015. Most of these young people are vulnerable and come from disadvantaged homes.

These figures do not include pupils who are on a “limited” or “reduced” school day because of their challenging behaviour, nor does it include pupils who are not enrolled in any school but are in receipt of home tuition hours because no school will accept them.

DEIS scheme

The Delivering Educational Inclusion in Schools (DEIS) scheme which was introduced in 2005 provided additional resources for schools with the highest concentration of pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds (about 25% of all schools). Extra teachers were allocated to these schools, and continuing professional development and extra financial support were also provided.

But the financial cutbacks which occurred during the recession impacted disproportionately on disadvantaged communities. The reduction, and in some cases, withdrawal of funding from community education initiatives, including the massive reduction in funding for Traveller education, are examples of the impact of the recession on educational funding for disadvantaged families.

The recent unprecedented level of homelessness among children, and their placement in hotel accommodation, especially in the greater Dublin area, has appalling consequences in terms of the schooling of these children, some of whom have to travel long distances to get to school every day. The current rate of completion of pupils in DEIS schools is 82.7% – the national completion rate is 90.2%.

The urgency for inclusion in education is not new

Twelve years ago, Educational Disadvantage Committee called for “an inclusive, lifelong learning society in which everyone can achieve their full potential and aspirations without barriers”.

The committee highlighted back then the need to use innovation to link schools and communities together to lift those at risk of disadvantage from educational poverty. It emphasised that schools alone cannot achieve educational equality but pointed out that everyone gains when educational inclusion is achieved as part of a bigger social and economic change agenda.

Take for example, iScoil, a recent awardee of Social Innovation Fund Ireland’s Education Fund. iScoil is an online learning community that offers second-level pupils age 12 to 16 years who have dropped out of school the chance to stay in education and learn in their own way. They are still achieving the same education standards as their traditional peers are, but they are doing it on their own terms because of this innovative approach to offering flexible learning environments.

A case study

After being bullied in school which led to severe anxiety and depression, which ultimately caused her to disengage from school at 12-years-old, Laura was one of the first generation of iScoil students.

Quickly, Laura flourished with a student centred approach that allowed her the opportunity to immerse herself in learning on her own terms and re-engage with the second level curriculum. iScoil also supported her through her sense of isolation, through the learning community and her engagement with tutors and other young people online, while she regained her confidence.

Through this innovative approach to learning, Laura is now studying Veterinary Studies in the UK, a feat unimaginable for her just a few years ago.

The fact remains, the gap between the performance of pupils in DEIS schools and their peers in non-DEIS schools has not been substantially reduced. While the mantra of educational inclusion is regularly repeated, the outcomes continue to be disappointing. We need innovative solutions to the inertia we are seeing in leveling the playing field.

Dr Áine Hyland is Emeritus Professor of Education and former Vice-President of University College Cork. iScoil is one of 10 awardees of the Social Innovation Fund Ireland’s Education Fund, a €7 million fund, one of the most significant recent investments of private philanthropy in programmes that tackle educational disadvantage. 

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