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«The Invisible Students Young Parents in Education By Sinéad Riordan, The Centre for Social and Educational Research, Dublin Institute of Technology ...»

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Countering educational disadvantage has occupied a central position within Irish public policy over the last 15 – 20 years but a striking feature of current education policy is the absence of a clear national strategy, policy or funding framework addressing the support needs of young parents who wish to remain in full-time education.7 A coherent strategy or action plan for mapping the school experiences of groups considered ‘at risk’ or vulnerable to exclusion from education including young parents’ has yet to be enacted in Ireland. There are currently no specific policies or guidelines for schools on how best to support pregnant teenagers and teenage parents in full-time post primary education although there are Department of Education and Science (DES) guidelines for schools on how best to accommodate pregnant schoolgirls during state examinations.8 However, assisting persons to remain in education is seen by Irish policy makers as key to preventing persons from "getting caught in cycles of disadvantage’ (Action Plan for the Millennium, 2000:24). The State has repeatedly reiterated its commitment to addressing "educational disadvantage at all levels across the system" (Action Plan for the Millennium, 2000: 25) and to providing children with "a range of educational opportunities and experiences which reflect the diversity of need" (National Children’s Strategy, 2000:53). The question is, to what extent are the needs of young parents in education considered within these broad commitments?

4.1. Policy context Since 1997, a range of policy documents have been published setting out Government commitments to tackling educational disadvantage. The National Anti-Poverty Strategy (1997) saw education as a central mechanism in any efforts to break the cycle of intergenerational poverty. It 7 A number of cross-cutting considerations have been taken into account in compiling this paper. Specific account has been taken of the broader anti-poverty and equality frameworks that underpin current policy particularly: the National Anti-Poverty Strategy (NAPS) whose aim is promote equal access and opportunity; and, the Strategic Management Initiative (SMI) may also play a key role in meeting the educational needs of young parents. Quality customer service and improved service standards are key aims of the SMI which underpin the current modernisation of the public sector.

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identified a need for special supports for teenage parents "to encourage teenage parents to remain in school to completion of senior cycle" (1997:11) and recognised that ‘educational poverty’ could extend beyond material deprivation to include obstacles to equal access, participation and outcomes.9 The National Development Plan 2000 – 2006 (NDP) committed the Government to the development of an integrated programme of education, training and infrastructural measures to promote social inclusion, in part by preventing early school leaving.10 Framework IV of the Programme for Prosperity and Fairness (PPF) 2000 committed the Government to the development of strategies to prevent early school leaving and support optimum participation

in education to completion of upper second level education. It spoke of the need for:

Consideration of a strategy to enable young parents to participate in education and training (Programme for Prosperity and Fairness, 2000).

It identified three specific objectives namely (1) the monitoring of participation rates of specific groups considered most ‘at risk’ of disengaging from the education system, (2) the elimination of unqualified early school leaving and (3) a commitment to ensuring the availability of appropriate second chance education and training opportunities for those who left school early or those who wish to re-enter the educational system. These objectives were to be achieved within the three year timeframe specified by the PPF. Actions have been undertaken in relation to objectives 2 and 3, the most significant being the establishment of the National Educational Welfare Board (NEWB) through the Education (Welfare) Act, 2000. The Act addresses the issues of school nonattendance; early school leaving; poor educational attainment; and, increases the school leaving age to 16 years or completion of three years post primary education (whichever is the later).11 Box Four provides further information on both the Act and the proposed role of the NEWB.

9 This recognition is particularly important with reference to teenage parents as they may display a wide range of levels and types of support needs – they may not experience material poverty or deprivation but may disengage from the educational system due to a lack of social or emotional support.

10 The NDP does commit to investment in a number of educational initiatives that aim to promote greater opportunities in ‘alternative’ education routes, including: a £1.027bn investment in the Back to School Initiative, a Third Level Access Measure provisions for a substantial expansion of part-time options across PLC, Youthreach/Traveller and VTOS programmes. These measures are accompanied by increased investment in childcare under measures co-ordinated by the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform.

11 It requires parents to ensure that their children attend a recognised school or otherwise receive an appropriate

minimum education. Press release. Department of Education & Science, 15th June 2001. Source:


28 Box 4. The Education (Welfare) Act, 2000 and The National Educational Welfare Board The Education (Welfare) Act 2000 & the National Educational Welfare Board

The main aims of the Education (Welfare) Act 2000 are:

1. To assist children at risk namely disadvantaged children, children at risk from substance risk and/or at risk from homelessness;

2. To assist those experiencing difficulties in or out of school; and

3. To provide a range of supports and strategies to discourage absenteeism and early school leaving (in co-operation with schools and other relevant agencies) including specific provision for the continuing education and training of young persons of 16 and 17 years who leave school early to take up employment. It provides for the registration of children being educated outside the regular school system.

The National Education Welfare Board will assume the lead role in implementing the provisions of the Education (Welfare) Act 2000. It will be responsible for developing, coordinating and implementing school attendance policy so as to ensure that every child in the State attends a recognised school or otherwise receives an appropriate education. The Board will appoint Education Welfare Officers (EWOs) to work in close co-operation with parents, teachers, school managers, community bodies and other relevant agencies to promote regular school attendance and prevent absenteeism and early school leaving. The EWOs will replace the School Attendance Officers. The Board will maintain a register of children receiving education outside the recognised school structure and will assess the adequacy of such education on an ongoing basis. The Act imposes an obligation on a school’s Board of Management to consult with EWO’s regarding the preparation of codes of behaviour and school attendance strategies for the school, to include: (a) Rewards for good school attendance; (b) Identification of children who are at risk; and (c) Establishment of closer contacts between the school and families of those at risk (Ruddy, 2000).

Membership of the Board include representatives from key voluntary and representative organisations and statutory agencies. Government departments represented on the Board include the Department of Social and Family Affairs, the Department of Justice and Law Reform, and the Department of Education and Science.

While the Act fails to identify young parents as a specific group requiring support or assistance, its objectives pose a challenge to the education and training sectors to develop appropriate and flexible responses to enable young people aged 16 to 18 years (the age category to which the majority of young parents belong) to continue participating in education.

Young parents are rarely specifically identified by education policies as a 29 group ‘at risk’ of experiencing educational disadvantage or targeted by strategies or initiatives to combat early school leaving or educational disadvantage.

The White Paper on Adult Education, Learning for Life: the White Paper on Adult Education (2000) states that "the Government is committed to maximising second level completion for those up to 18 years old" (40).12 The Paper highlighted the need for, and benefits accruing from, developing "parallel or alternative routes" through education for young people. It suggested that adult education, particularly that provided through the Community Education strand could play a crucial role in "breaking the cycle of intergenerational poverty through targeted interventions with vulnerable parents" (49). It also recognised the shortcomings arising from a lack of ‘systematic data’ on the educational needs of minorities particularly in terms of hampering developments in the setting of benchmarks from which future progress can be monitored (48).13

4.2. Policy gaps and issues Young parents are rarely specifically identified by education policies as a group ‘at risk’ of experiencing educational disadvantage or targeted by strategies or initiatives to combat early school leaving or educational disadvantage. It would appear that there is an assumption that the needs of teenage parents are met through policies addressing the educational needs of lone parents, early school leavers or the general population of children or through policies promoting social inclusion. Teenage parents who are neither lone parents nor early school leavers are even more neglected as it is assumed that their needs will be met through social policies designed for the general population.

Education policies and strategies need to recognise the diversity of needs and life experiences and circumstances amongst teenage parents and that this may require a response through a comprehensive support system involving all relevant agencies. Not all teenage parents will require assistance or support with all these obstacles: some will have extensive family support, generally positive school experiences and may simply require some assistance with childcare expenses or provision. Others may be detached from education for a number of years and have considerable family support but lack adequate accommodation or require extensive financial support.

Both the report of the National Economic and Social Forum (NESF) (2001) on Lone Parents and that of the Joint Committee on Social, Community and Family Affairs, Teenage Parenting (2001) identified a need for specific educational supports for those who become pregnant while at school.

The NESF report called for a more ‘preventative’ approach to tackling the issue of lone parents leaving school early including the mainstreaming of intervention and support projects such as the 12 Although government White Papers and Green Papers do not have any legislative footing they serve to draw together key debates and issues in various fields and act as a guide for potential legislative developments.

13 The forerunner to the White Paper was the Green Paper on Adult Education: Adult Education in an Era of Lifelong Learning (1998). It did not specifically focus upon the educational needs of young parents but recognised the range of barriers to participation in ‘second chance’ or further training opportunities and the value of providing specific supports and outreach strategies in order to reach certain groups. It recommended: (i) easing access to financial supports; (ii) provision of more courses with flexible attendance hours particularly in VTOS, Youthreach and PLC courses; and (iii) increased provision of adult education and training courses to be accompanied by specific supports, clear targeting and effective outreach strategies for specific groups (1998:83).

30 The review by the Joint Committee on Social, Community and Family Affairs (2001) of key issues in education and training for young parents concluded that current support for teenage parents in continuing their education is weak and warned that this could lead to a "permanent detachment" from education and training.

Waterford Student Mother’s Project (2001). The review by the Joint Committee on Social, Community and Family Affairs (2001) of key issues in education and training for young parents concluded that current support for teenage parents in continuing their education is weak and warned that this could lead to a "permanent detachment" from education and training. It

recommended a number of measures ranging from:

• The provision of financial support: it called for the payment of an emergency short-term payment and other financial provisions to young parents to encourage and ease their return to education or training to;

• The preparation and issue of guidelines to all post-primary schools on the care of pregnant and parenting teenagers by the Department of Education and Science; and

• Changes in the criteria for entry to existing education and training programmes: namely, the discontinuation of the age barrier to facilitate the participation of pregnant adolescents and teenage parents.

Unpublished reports in both the South Eastern and Mid-West regions concur with the need for a national policy in relation to pregnant teenagers, teenage parents and education and a financial allowance for teenage parents who are students (Dempsey, 2001; Limerick TPSI, 2001). Other issues identified include the necessity of providing additional financial support for schools to help meet the costs of providing support for students, the need for alternative examination centres for pregnant teenagers circa their due dates and the importance of childcare facilities to enable young parents to continue in education.

4.3. Key factors contributing to policy gaps Contributing to the virtual invisibility of teenage parents as a specific target group for education

policies are the following factors:

(i) The absence of a clear definition of a ‘teenage parent’ in social policy;

(ii) The lack of data available on young parents;

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