TIERNAN O’Neill points to a graph in a report by three Limerick academics that he says lays bare “the stark reality” of the difficulties faced by children growing up on many of the city’s council estates.
How Are Our Kids? - by Eileen Humphreys, Des McCafferty and Ann Higgins - is based on hundreds of interviews with parents and children living in regeneration areas.
The graph referred to by Mr O’Neill concerns the total difficulties scale, an internationally recognised barometer that collates the behavioural, emotional and other problems faced by children. It shows kids in Moyross, Southill, Ballinacurra Weston and St Mary’s Park are four to five times more likely to be in the abnormal range than their average peer in Ireland and the USA.
As principal of Corpus Christi National School in Moyross, the report’s findings on the daily stresses endured by many of Limerick’s children are not news to Tiernan O’Neill.
“But this piece of research certainly does quantify a lot of what we already knew and shows how far we have to go to bridge the gap,” he says.
How Are Our Kids does inform the new regeneration plan - and this is welcomed by Mr O’Neill.
“If anybody asks me about the children in these communities, I point to that graph because it tells them all they need to know. Limerick might be an outpost on the west coast, it is a small city, but when you look at the issues that are presenting in the regeneration areas, they are four and five times the Irish or US average. It is a pretty shocking indictment of what has gone on in the city over the last 30 years.”
While regeneration might no longer be focused on bricks and mortar, Mr O’Neill feels that this might not be such a bad thing.
“To me the crux of regeneration is not about building houses, it’s about building communities and building people,” he says.
While this will require huge resources, Mr Tiernan believes the benefits will save money in the long run.
“The old saying of penny-wise and pound foolish is, I think, very, very true,” he says.
“If you look at the cost of keeping a young person in what was formerly St Pat’s detention centre, that is €100,000. Why not bring that back 10 years and spend half of that when the child is seven or eight years of age? But we don’t think like that very often unfortunately.”
Schools such as Corpus Christi, he acknowledges, do get a lot of support through the Department of Education through the DEIS programme. But regeneration must not be about dealing with children in isolation and not doing anything for the wider family after the school bell rings.
“I think what we now need is a more co-ordinated approach that draws together all the state agencies so they are no longer working within their own silos but actually seeing this as a unified effort to tackle the realities on the ground,” he says.
“On the ground, across the regeneration areas, I think you are seeing more interagency work and co-ordination of services but I think it is important that we look at the overall structure and that this should be enshrined in the government approach and even in legislation. We can’t just leave it up to personalities and individuals on the ground finding ways to engage with one another. This ought to be the way of working the way of doing business in Limerick city as a matter of course. It does work when that approach is taken and we see that on a daily basis with the families we are engaging with.”
While DEIS primary schools do get extra supports and interventions for children with behavioural problems, Mr O’Neill says he does worry for children once they progress to second level.
“Once they hit secondary it is a very different, exam-focused system. And a lot of these kids unfortunately are like volcanos and eventually erupt. The eruption then leads to major issues like suspension, expulsion and early school-leaving,” he says.
“In fairness to the secondary schools, they don’t have the funding streams for interventions to engage with the high-need children. The only option they have often is to exclude them, which doesn’t solve the problem in any way.”