Thursday, 28 September 1995
Dáil Éireann Debate
3. Ms Keogh asked the Minister for Education the schemes, if any, under the aegis of her Department that have been cut back; the criteria applied in arriving at the decisions made; the level of expenditure that will be saved; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [13647/95]
Ms Bhreathnach: I indicated in reply to a parliamentary question on 20 September, there is no reduction in the 1995 Education budget as provided in the Estimates for 1995. The Government reviewed its financial targets in June 1995 and decided that in order to meet its overall budgetary targets in 1996 it was necessary to control public sector expenditure. In this context proposals for the 1996 Education Estimates have been compiled in my Department and are currently the subject of discussions at official level with the Department of Finance.
In preparing the Education Estimates it is the practice to critically examine enrolment data and estimated financial requirements of all schemes and programmes funded out of the Education Votes. This is to ensure that their budgetary allocations are such as to enable them to be implemented with  maximum efficiency and cost effectiveness.
The Deputy refers specifically to cutbacks in schemes under the aegis of my Department. There are no financial cutbacks in 1995 in any of the schemes operated by my Department. In some cases where VTOS courses relate to the 1995-96 school year, it has been necessary in order to meet the 1996 financial target, to reduce the intake in September of this year to last year's intake which is below the expansion of places which was originally planned.
I should also remind the House that since I took up office there has been a major expansion in activity in the VTOS programme. The average number of places taken up in 1992 was less than 2,000. By 1995 this had more than doubled to 4,300. The volume of activity in VTOS will not greatly change in 1996.
To effect savings in 1996 it was proposed also to limit the increase in child care assistants to 70 instead of 100 as originally announced. However, having reviewed the resourses available to me I have decided to approve the 100 posts as planned. As the 1996 Education Estimates are at an early stage of negotiation the Deputy will appreciate that I am not in a position today to speculate about possible changes in schemes under the aegis of my Department.
Ms Keogh: I thank the Minister for her answer, but she has not properly addressed the question. What are her priorities regarding prospective cutbacks? The criteria appear to be cost effectiveness rather than what is needed in schools. Would it not be cost effective to have a decent school psychological service, particularly in the light of recent cases of child abuse? Intervention at an early age would, perhaps, prevent these awful scandals. Will the Minister make the provision of a psychological service a priority in the context of her budget?
Would the Minister not also agree that it is extremely difficult for schools to plan and for teachers to have some confidence in the programmes upon which they are embarking when the  Department keeps stepping in and out? I am glad the Minister allowed the child care assistant posts to remain.
Ms Bhreathnach: There are priorities, and a Minister has a certain amount of flexibility in drawing up a budget. My first priority is to retain total confidence in a system that will be able to educate our young people to perform in a changing society.
Regarding the psychological services, there have been many changes in the educational system and a network of support is being put in place. Funding for that has been increased each year. In the last year the psychological service got quite a big increase in funding and 100 extra guidance counsellors were appointed. There is a particular role for guidance counsellors not just in guiding young people through the points system but in regard to personal guidance; we have set up a guidance institute and are bringing forward recommendations in that area. The remedial service has been introduced to second level schools. There is now home/school liaison which creates a link between home and school. Sometimes children who need the remedial service also need guidance and psychological services. A network of  support is being put in place. I can assure the Deputy that any funding or increase in funding that comes to the Department is very much targeted towards those who need it most. Sometimes it is quite helpful when Deputies criticise decisions that have been taken. None of us would say that the Department of Education wastes money but rather that it never has enough.
Ms Keogh: I have some sympathy with the Minister in that I agree that the Department of Education can never have enough money to spend in some areas. However, I challenge her budgetary policy in the Department. We have introduced a free third level education scheme but we still do not have an adequate psychological service and children suffering from behavioural problems may have to wait up to two years to see a doctor. Such children may present with disorders because of child abuse. That should focus our minds on what we are doing within our educational service. The Minister got her priorities wrong this year. In the upcoming year she should look again at primary level education and particularly at those damaged children.
Ms Bhreathnach: I agree with the Deputy that we should focus our minds. There is much evidence in the record of the House of the dramatic increases in funds that have been allocated. We will keep increasing them but we need the support of the House.
It is disingenuous of the Deputy to suggest that the free fees initiative took funding from another sector. Let me remind the Deputy that it was the abolition of the covenent tax relief that funded the introduction of free fees. However, that kind of distraction will not cause me to fall out with the Deputy when she asks me to focus my mind on those in primary school, particularly disadvantaged children. From my early days here, when Members of the Deputy's party ridiculed me as the Minister for the disadvantaged, that has been my  priority and will continue to be as we focus our minds on the budget of 1996.
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