'What happens in the home impacts on the school'

Education Profile: Mary Linehan is a home-school liaison officer who provides a crucial link between the two worlds most important in a child’s life – and the recession means she’s now visiting families who would never have needed her help in the past says Grainne Faller.

‘Partnership is brought about by commitment to the demanding and painful work of human relations.’’ The words of the late Dr Concepta Conaty – founder of the home school liaison scheme – ring in the ears of Mary Linehan as she takes a deep breath and rings the doorbell. Her job as a home-school community liaison co-ordinator is bringing her to bigger houses these days.

“You have to have the right attitude when you come to somebody’s door,” says Linehan, a former teacher in Scoil Mhuire National School in Newbridge. “I am calling to people these days who have never had contact with any kind of social services before.”

Mary, a qualified primary teacher, joined the Home-School Community Liaison (HSCL) scheme last year. She says the job is changing fast as a new layer of people enter the poverty trap and their children, subsequently, feel the pressure. These pressures don’t stay outside the classroom door.

“It’s not just about poverty and disadvantage, though,” Mary insists. “What happens in the home impacts on the school no matter what your financial situation is.”

The apparently obvious relationship between what happens in the home and in the classroom is a relatively recent component of education policy in Ireland. It all started with Dr Conaty. Her work as a principal in schools on Dublin’s northside taught her the value of bringing parents into the education process, especially in areas of disadvantage.

Dr Conaty, who went on to complete a body of academic research on the subject of educational inclusion, began by inviting parents into the school to take basic courses. In 1990 she was approached by the Department of Education inspectorate to set up a pilot home-school liaison scheme in 55 schools. Over the next 20 years, under her leadership, the network flourished and took root in 650 schools.

The HSCL scheme is in transition. Dr Conaty died in March 2009 and due to the moratorium on recruitment no national co-ordinator replaced her. In the meantime, responsibility for HSCL has been given over to the National Education Welfare Board, along with the two other key services for educational disadvantage, the School Completion Programme and the Visiting Teacher Service for Travellers.

Mary Linehan agrees with the concept of integrating supports, and says that on the ground there is a lot of cooperation between different services. However, she hopes that there is no weakening of the Home School Community Liaison Scheme in the process.

“Sitting at a kitchen table and talking with a mother about the good of her child is at the core of what we do,” says Mary, who left teaching for a spell to set up the Smashing Times Theatre Company before returning to education. “This is life affirming work.”

Mary admits that when she took up the role last year she worried about how she might be received on the doorsteps. “It’s all about finding the common goal. I continue to be surprised at how open parents are to letting us into their lives.”

The challenges are many and growing, she says, and schools that would not have qualified for disadvantaged status in the past are probably coming closer to it now. “There’s an entire sector that has never been involved in social services but need them now. Families in the construction sector, for example. Often we are the only people going in there.”

On the flip side, she says, there are many, many families for whom the Celtic Tiger was always just a notion.

Mary fears words like disadvantage and marginalisation, because she feels it puts some people off accepting support. She doesn’t want people to see her on the doorstep and assume that are different from other parents because she’s there.

“There are so many issues that provide cause for concern in schools, that affect pupils’ ability to learn and progress,” says Mary. “It could be due to family breakdown, substance abuse issues, job losses; issues that can hit any family at any time.”

“Ultimately, everyone has the good of the child at heart.”

Mary recalls how, as a teacher in the classroom, she would always know when something was wrong with a child, but did not have the power to do anything about it beyond the walls of the classroom. “It was such a relief to be able to pick up the phone and ask the home school liaison to get involved.”

There’s more to the job than putting out fires. Clusters of HSCL coordinators meet regularly to devise positive ways to get parents and the wider community involved in their local schools. Mary runs well-attended classes on positive parenting, building self-esteem and healthy living.

“These kinds of initiatives make a big difference in the community and they are replicated all over the country. If you teach a parent healthy cooking skills, or help her to find the time and motivation to get fit, it raises her self esteem and that impacts on the whole family.” She also points out that by going into homes, schools often make first contact with the lesser-spotted stakeholders in education – fathers.

Broader communities have a role to play too, she says. Newbridge is currently home to a project called “Our School, Our Town”, including input from artists, community voluntary groups and older people, and comprising sculpture and heritage trails, photography exhibitions and literacy projects for both children and parents.

In this way, the effective home school liaison often stands at the epicentre of community relations, not just at the juncture between parents and schools, says Mary.

If the home school liaison is the first to approach the family, it can often lead to valuable engagements with other services, from bereavement counselling to budgeting support to social welfare. There are also many committed and skilled people working for the community who are willing to help if connections are made, says Mary.

“I have a lot of heroes around here, such as Terry Moore and Peter Hussey who run the Culture Factory and the Kildare Youth Theatre. They have no salary or state help but they make things happen anyway.”

Mary worries about the future of home school liaison work at a time when it is more desperately needed than ever. “There is a lot of talent in the system, but now we are under the National Education Welfare Board we are not as certain of our role and future.”

In dark times, says Mary, the home school liaison scheme can shine a light.

“This is an interesting time in Irish education. We are looking at systems that haven’t worked. We have laboured under a top down approach that is broken. Dr Conaty’s approach was the opposite. It was all about empowering people at the bottom, enabling dialogue. It’s a great model and it works. It’s just what we need right now; something simple, but revolutionary.”

The Home School Community Liaison Scheme: 20 years on

This year the Home School Community Liaison scheme celebrates its 20th birthday. Its visionary founder, Dr Concepta Conaty, died in March 2009, and since her death no one has been appointed to replace her as national co-ordinator.

Meanwhile, the system of home school liaison, which sees the appointment of a dedicated staff member to act as an intermediary between home and school in areas that are designated disadvantaged, has moved under the auspices of the National Education Welfare Board.

When Dr Conaty was asked by the Department of Education to pilot her scheme in 1990, she had officers in 55 schools. What is the status of the service today?

Each primary or post primary school included in DEIS (Delivering Equality of Opportunity in Schools) participates in the HSCL Scheme. 450 local HSCL and rural co-ordinators are deployed to undertake liaison duties involving 152,000 children in 881 DEIS schools, targeting in particular 50,000 most at risk families at a cost of €31 million per annum.

Most home school liaison co-ordinators are appointed to primary schools, although there are about 200 post primary schools in the scheme

The National Coordination Team comprises a national coordinator and five regional coordinators.

Due to the moratorium on recruitment in the public service, there is currently no national coordinator for the scheme.


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