Hundreds of vulnerable children remain on welfare waiting list
HUNDREDS of vulnerable children on the Education Welfare Service waiting list "risk being left behind by the system", former Justice Minister Claire Sugden has warned
Against a backdrop of Covid-19 challenges she said an ongoing pay dispute has added pressure to the service which now has 773 "unallocated" children identified as requiring help.
They are often flagged through unauthorised absences from school as being vulnerable due to a variety of personal factors.
Education Welfare officers are social work trained and often the first point of contact between families and social workers, assessing their needs, risks, providing individual education supports plans and referrals to other agencies.
"Keeping children in the education system while working to find solutions to their wider and unique personal circumstances is vital to giving these children the best start in life and protecting them from potential risks such as substance abuse and crime," Ms Sugden said.
Education Minister Michelle McIlveen confirmed there are 2,382 children accessing support following an Assembly question by the East Derry MLA.
An average £5,000 pay gap between the officers and other trained social workers in the Health and Social Care Trusts led strike action in May and June.
Ms Sugden said officers are "equally qualified and operating on the frontline" doing "incredible" work.
"If officers cannot be recruited because they can expect more money in other civil service roles then this poses the risk of the Education Welfare Service becoming unsustainable."
A spokesperson for the Education Authority (EA) said the waiting list is "managed and regularly reviewed", with recruitment underway "to address the current service pressures recruitment".
She said "additional resource is expected to be available for schools reopening in September" and the system is "undergoing a transformation project... with the aim of delivering a modernised service that best suits the needs of our children, young people and families".
The EA said it is engaging with staff and unions "to address the current industrial action relating to pay".