Presentation to Joint Committee on Education & Skills Barriers to Education Facing Vulnerable Groups: Lone Parents

  1. One Family

One Family was founded in 1972 as Cherish and provides support, information and services to people parenting alone, those sharing parenting of their children, those going through separation; as well as to people experiencing an unplanned or crisis pregnancy. One Family believes in an Ireland where every family is cherished equally, and enjoys the social, financial and legal equality to create their own positive future. Full information on One Family can be found at

  1. Introduction

One Family works towards the full inclusion and integration of one parent families into the fabric of Irish society. Parenting alone, and sharing parenting in new complex and blended family forms, is an increasing and emergent social reality. Many parents will parent alone through the course of their lives, either temporarily or permanently. The traditional ‘breadwinner’ model of family life has given rise to most of our social and economic infrastructure and tends to ignore or evade the multiple, on-going demands of lone parenting. The first requirement, therefore, in removing barriers to economic and social inclusion is recognition and acceptance of the realities of diverse and fluctuating forms of family life.

Lone parents are a group who experience multiple disadvantage in Irish society and access to education is part of that. One Family welcomes the opportunity to submit to the Joint Committee on Education & Skills and appreciates your interest in this important issue.

    3. Data and Research

3.1  Demographics: one in five children in Ireland live in a one-parent family while one in four families are headed by a lone parent. There were approximately 218,817 lone parents in Ireland in 2016[1] which is an increase of over 3,500 families since 2011. Almost 90,000 were single; a further 50,496 were widowed, while the remaining 68,378 were separated or divorced. The number of divorced people in Ireland nationally has increased from 87,770 in 2011 to 103,895 in 2016. The vast majority (86.4%) of one-parent families are headed by mothers but many families share parenting of their children. Overall, recent Census data[2] shows there is a steady increase in diverse families in Ireland and this is replicated throughout Europe.

3.2       Lone Parent’s access to Wealth:

TASC’s The Distribution of Wealth in Ireland[3] report indicates that one-parent families are:

  • less likely to own their own home and face significant barriers to owning property;
  • have savings of €300 on average, which is less than 10% of others;
  • have an average net wealth of €30,600 compared to an average figure of €218,700 for all households.


3.3       Employment Rates:

Available employment figures[4] indicate that the employment rate of lone parents (aged 15-64) is 58.5%, dispelling any myth that people parenting alone are not working.

The employment rate of lone parents is directly linked to the age of their youngest child, as follows:

  • Youngest child aged 0- 5 years, employment rate is 46.8%
  • Youngest child aged 6–11 years, employment rate is 59.8%
  • Youngest child aged 12-17 years, employment rate is 65.6%.

Therefore as children get older parents are more available for work, this is directly linked to the childcare needs of children.

3.4    Education Participation:

Lone parent participation in education has decreased by approximately 20% between 2011 and 2016[5]. The reasons for this trend can be complex and varied, but One Family consistently hear from parents that barriers to accessing education are significant.

A parent’s availability for education may also be inferred from their availability for employment as above. Both situations share many similarities in that the time and work needed to balance parenting and study/work need to be managed.

3.5   Children’s Well-Being:

It is well recognised that the educational levels of parents have direct impact on the lives of their children with the educational level of a mother in particular having a direct impact on the well-being of her child/ren[6].

The draining away of lone parents from higher education therefore is of particular concern. The CSO notes that “higher educational attainment levels are linked with lower unemployment rates. Those with primary education/no formal education were over four times more likely to be unemployed in Q2 2017 (14%) when compared with those who had a third level qualification (3%)”. [7]

International research similarly shows that despite the complex interactions between parental social, economic and educational positions and conditions, the educational levels of both parents are a significant influence on the life expectations and outcomes of their children. Education is a gateway to more sustainable, quality employment which lifts lone parents out of poverty in the longer term. Educational access enables engagement with society generally, to shared customs, beliefs and behaviours, to marketable skills and professions, and to political engagement. The children of lone parents are entitled to such supports through their parents’ access to mainstream social capital.[8]

3.6  Government Policy:

as far back as 2006, a Government Discussion Paper: Proposals for Supporting Lone Parents, put forward a number of actions to support lone parents. Among these recommendations there was an express objective to “Facilitate participation in employment /education and training in a positive and systematic way [9].

3.7   Maynooth University Research:

Twelve years later, in 2017 Maynooth University Independent Review to Identify the Supports and Barriers for Lone Parents in Accessing Higher Education and to Examine Measures to Increase Participation[10] arose from a commitment made in the 2016 Programme from Government.

One Family was consulted as part of this review process as a representative stakeholder group. The recommendations of the Review echo One Family’s recent Pre-Budget Submission[11].  The report notes especially that while lone parents have attracted considerable policy attention in welfare, and education and training, with regard to activation measures; much less specific attention has been paid to lone parents in higher education and suggests an urgent need to widen access for these families. The need to improve access to higher and tertiary education has also been highlighted by our colleagues in An Cosán in their recent campaign.[12]

The complexity of the current system of supports was also highlighted in the Review, including the inadequate dissemination of information, guidance and awareness-raising to lone parents regarding the ‘bundles’ of supports that are offered by different government departments and agencies.  The effectiveness of high-support guidance intervention on well-being, career efficacy and employability factors  has been shown in recent research on activation, giving rise to an urgent need to train Intreo case workers in the very complex set of opportunities and barriers facing lone parents .[13]

4  Barriers to Education for Lone Parents

4.1  Work Life Balance:

Balancing parenting responsibilities and managing finances with accessing education is a difficult task, especially so for lone parents, who often do so with half the resources and double the responsibility.

4.2  Lack of pathway to education:

there are well documented additional challenges for young parents who wish to stay in education as well as older parents who wish to return as mature students. There is no clear pathway of progression for parents who cannot readily move from second level to third level education.

4.3 Lack of income to access education:

the income supports that are in place in Ireland are overly complex to access and at insufficient levels to avoid poverty in many cases. One example is that the age of a child generates a barrier to support. Currently, if a child is over 14 yrs, transfer to BTEA is compulsory when a lone parent has moved onto Jobseekers Allowance. As a result of this forced transfer, access to a SUSI maintenance grant is denied to these parents.

4.4  Housing:

Ireland is experiencing a housing crisis with most homeless families being one-parent families. If a family is living in insecure housing they are very unlikely to be able to enter or maintain participation in education. Some financial housing supports are specifically unsupported in conjunction with some educational supports and so access to education depends on housing tenure. This is both unfair and illogical.

Such barriers often result from uneven and contradictory systems of support, such as the clash between being in receipt of Rental Support on the one hand, but excluded by virtue of receiving that support on the other – for example the SUSI grant.

4.5  Childcare:

the challenges for parents in accessing affordable, high quality childcare for their children is well documented. It is extremely difficult to access out of school care as well which may be required for educational participation.

4.6  Inclusion:

single mothers are the most socially isolated people in Ireland[14] and particular efforts must be made to recruit and maintain them in education.

 5. Recommendations to remove Educational Barriers for Lone Parents

Whilst the issue of barriers to education for parents is complex and some structural barriers such as homelessness and childcare require cross-departmental funding and exchequer investment to solve, other issues can be more directly addressed.

5.1  Income Supports:

Lone parents who have transferred to BTEA were particularly highlighted in Maynooth University’s Independent Review as the most economically vulnerable group among lone parent welfare recipients[15]. One Family recommends the following changes to income supports to ameliorate some barriers to education for lone parents:

  • The reinstatement of the student grant scheme (maintenance grant) for BTEA recipients would create a more equitable, less complicated and targeted approach for supporting lone parents in higher education.
  • The student grant scheme should be available for part-time and online education.
  • The rigidity of how SUSI classifies students as being dependent or independent causes difficulty for people parenting alone who access a different housing tenure and may lead to them losing their grant. Reassessment is only in very restricted circumstances.
  • We recommend that SUSI be available to parents engaging in education, regardless of the age of their youngest child (up to a limit of 18). There are several administrative options in how to achieve this. It is important that that once a lone parent is in receipt of One-Parent Family Payment/ Jobseeker’s Transition and the SUSI maintenance grant has begun that their payment continue until their course is completed.
  • In general, the SUSI grant should be reviewed and the levels increased. The maintenance portion of SUSI education grants only provides a contribution towards the costs of participating in education and ignores the reality of caring for children.
  • Additional funding for lone parents either in the form of cash transfers or in the form of universal scholarships for lone parents within Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) should be provided. The Department of Education’s 1916 Bursary Fund offered 200 bursaries for an overall target group of lone parents, first-time and mature student entrants, students with a disability, Travellers, Further Education Award holders, and ethnic minorities. Whilst this is a welcome start, this is actually a nominal and piecemeal response to the education needs of such a huge group of marginalised people, especially those of lone parents. Given that 25% of Irish families are one-parent families, 80 Bursaries set aside for lone parents appears as a gesture, rather than a systemic action towards genuine recognition and educational inclusion.

5.2  Complexity of Supports:

the complicated nature of the current systems of supports can block access purely on a bureaucratic level. We recommend stronger dissemination of information, guidance, and awareness-raising regarding the ‘bundles’ of supports offered by different government departments and agencies to parents.

We also concur with Maynooth University’s recommendation that there is a persistent need for training and awareness for Intreo case-workers who operate frontline services and supports in the Department of Employment Affairs & Social Protection[16].

We are concerned that supports and payments from two government departments interact with each other in a negative way and we strongly recommend that the Department of Education & Science collaborates with the Department of Employment Affairs & Social Protection in order to ensure that parents can access education irrespective of their housing tenure.

5.3 Access Pathways:

Taking an education-first approach will result in improved employment rates for one-parent families in the longer term. Jobseeker’s Transition (JST) payment recipients are a distinct group with a specific set of needs. The time spent on JST is a unique opportunity to invest in a package of supports and services to ensure that these parents can access education or employment. Broadening access to JST will also allow parents with older children to enhance their employability through further education and training. These recommendations would remove a number of structural barriers which currently prevent lone parents from accessing education.

The provision of specialist bridging programmes such as One Family’s New Futures and New Steps for lone parents[17], which directly support progression, job-readiness, and incorporate wrap-around parenting and family support services, offer an example of a genuine way into heretofore exclusionary educational institutions.

5.4  Pro-Active Inclusion:

Lone parents are a considerable body of potential students who are systematically excluded, since the requirements for their participation are not being met. The profile and needs of this large student cohort should be  integrated explicitly into the ethos of each Higher Education Institutions (HEI). This needs to be visibly stated by colleges and universities, who have the responsibility of welcoming people who are parenting alone onto campuses. There is a need to provide lone parents with tutoring that generates both the technical skills and ‘cultural’ competencies required for higher educational engagement. Like other students, they need the tools to succeed.

While there are established Access to Higher Education programmes available across the networks of further education colleges, Institutes of Technology and Universities, there is a need to meet the specific needs of students, current and potential, who are lone parents.

5.5   Housing Tenure:

The ability to access and stay in education should not be linked to housing tenure, indeed education is a route out of homelessness into independence and security for lone parents. The following recommendations are critical for access to education for lone parents:

  • Allow those in receipt of Rent Supplement to engage in full time education. This would remove a number of structural barriers which currently prevent lone parents from accessing education.
  • Address the anomaly by which lone parents in receipt of Rent Supplement cannot receive their One-Parent Family Payment or Jobseeker’s Transition Payment and the SUSI maintenance grant on taking up an education or training course.
  • Ensure all lone parents in receipt of Back to Education Allowance can receive the SUSI maintenance grant to help meet the costs of accessing education.

5.6   Childcare:

The provision of affordable, accessible and quality childcare, including early years and out-of-school care are pre-requisites for lone parents’ ability to engage with work or education. Childcare costs in Ireland are the highest in the OECD for lone parents and the second highest for couples.[18] One Family makes the following recommendations:

  • Increase accessibility so that families in every county can access subsidised and affordable childcare, with particular emphasis on access to out-of-school care.
  • Reach the European average of investment in early years education and care so that labour market participation for parents, mothers and lone mothers, can be a reality and their children can benefit from high quality learning. Ireland ranks lowest among 28 EU countries for investment in pre-primary education. Ireland currently invests about 0.1% of GDP, considerably lower than the EU average of 0.8% [19]  Investment is required to address the poor infrastructure of childcare and the crisis in the lack of childcare workers.


[1] Census 2016

[2] Census 2016


[4] CSO QNHS Q2 2017.

[5] Census 2016.



[8] Erola, J et al, (2016),  Parental education, class and income over early life course and children’s achievement, Research in Social Stratification and Mobility. Volume 44, June 2016, Pages 33-43, Elsevier. Open Access:






[14] Margret Fine-Davis, Attitudes to Family Formation in Ireland: Findings from the Nationwide Study, Dublin, Family Support Agency and Social Attitude and Policy Research Group, Trinity College, December, 2011

[15] Byrne, D., Murray, C. (2017) An Independent Review to Identify the Supports and Barriers for Lone Parents in Accessing Higher Education and to Examine Measures to Increase Participation. Maynooth University. DSP, DCYA, DES.  “

[16] Ibid (p.13)


[18]  OECD, ‘Ireland Economic Survey of Ireland’, September 2015