Tuesday, 16 May 2006
Dáil Eireann Debate
Ms O’Sullivan: This is a joint motion with the Fine Gael Party. Thousands of families do not know if their children will have a school place to go to next September. Thousands of other families worry their child will go into a class with 30 or more and will not be able to cope. Hundreds of thousands of small children serve their time in prefabs or other make-shift temporary school buildings, hopelessly inadequate to their needs despite living in a modern successful economy.
Like the horrendous and inhumane treatment seen on last night’s “Prime Time Investigates” programme on accident and emergency departments in hospitals, this is a failure of the Government to do what it was elected to do — to plan and manage basic services for the people. The Government takes in enough taxes. Its amendment to the motion simply lists the amounts being spent on educational services. I acknowledge as more money comes into the coffers of the Minister for Finance, more will be spent on education. The percentage, however, of our income spent on education has fallen from 5.4% of GDP in 1994 to 4.6% in 2006. There should be less self congratulation on the Government’s part. The amendment shows its distance from the reality of the situation.
The Government’s job is to spend revenue appropriately, which is hardly rocket science. Other countries manage it with relative ease. They know where population growth will occur and plan ahead for roads, schools, hospitals, leisure facilities etc. that people moving into newly developed homes will need. There is an order and competence about service provision and governments take responsibility for it. Not so in Ireland. The two most likely options for junior infants in rapidly growing communities are a prefab or a temporary building. It can be anything from a scout hall to a disused factory unit, from a rugby club to a marching band room, as is the case in one school in the Limerick East constituency.
It is fortunate if a real purpose built classroom is available before a child reaches sixth class. If a child is born into a family living in part of County Kildare, there will be no room until he or she is nearly six years of age. A child living in one of the burgeoning estates in west Dublin will not know if he or she can go to school in September. If the child does get a place, most likely it will be in a class with more than 30 others. Children attending St. Michael’s in Inchicore know the school will close but do not know if any other school will take them on. Although it is well for the Minister for Education and Science to admonish the Christian Brothers for closing the school, in effect she did little apart from requesting the order to keep the school open.
It is time to change this situation because our children deserve better. Not only do they deserve better, they have a right to it under Article 42 of the Constitution. The Minister for Education and Science and her Department must play a proactive rather than a reactive role. Forward planning is urgently needed. Based on correct data, in conjunction with local authorities, local communities and parents, it will remove the anxiety faced by so many families. Parents can then be secure in the knowledge that their child can take his or her first momentous step into school life with others of the same age in the neighbourhood, in a well-designed classroom with numbers small enough for the teacher to be able to treat them all as the unique individuals they are. It is unacceptable that Ireland has the second highest class sizes in the EU. Despite the promises in the programme for Government, little has been done to address the issue of class size.
Large demographic and societal changes have taken place. In the past, when population growth was slow, local parishes established and managed primary schools. Now we have large amorphous communities where people do not have time to get to know their neighbours. Many want, as is their right, interdenominational or Irish language schools. To their enormous credit, groups of parents have put in long hours establishing schools themselves. Most parents will go to huge efforts to provide what they believe is best for their children. It is, however, extraordinarily demanding and haphazard. All Members know of the experiences of these parents who have established Educate Together schools and Gaelscoileanna. They face enormous challenges with fund-raising, finding temporary buildings and getting school approval which can drag on for years. That is the Minister’s responsibility not the parents’.
No database of pupils exists despite an announcement in 1998 by the then Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Martin, that one would be established. Without such a database, the basic facts and figures are not available to properly plan for education provision. It is not known how many children are in school, will be in school next year or in five or ten years’ time. I recently tabled a parliamentary question asking the number of children in classes of over 20, 30 and 40 pupils this year. The Department could not give me an answer because it still does not have that information at this late stage in the school year. Last year when we received that information, it was discovered that over 100,000 children are in classes of 30 or more pupils. How can one plan for the educational needs of children when the basic number of children in the system is not known? It is not rocket science as it is known how many children are born in the State.
The body with statutory duty to ensure children go to school, the National Education Welfare Board, has not been given the resources to compile this data. It also has been denied the resources to employ a full cohort of welfare officers to look after educational needs. It has been refused permission to hire extra staff for the past 18 months. For example, every year 84,000 children miss more than 20 days schooling while 30,000 miss 40 days. The board, which has the statutory duty to ensure school attendance, has not been given the resources needed to do its job.
An Agreed Programme for Government promised to reduce class size to 20 pupils for every teacher for under nines. However, the Minister told us in response to recent oral parliamentary questions that there is no way the system can deliver anything close to that. Why was it promised in the programme for Government? Was the number just plucked from the air? Either there was never any intention of fulfilling the promise or there was no plan or strategy.
The issue of class size is particularly important for children with learning difficulties. How can the needs of such a child be addressed by a teacher in a class of 30 or more pupils? There is a better way to provide for the education of our children. If we plan and take responsibility, well-designed schools and manageable classes close to where people live can be provided.
The Minister is quoted in today’s newspapers as stating, in respect of the problems within Deputy Burton’s constituency: “I am taking the exceptional measure of recognising a new school”. Why is it exceptional to recognise a new school from its first day? Why are new schools not recognised wherever required by the population? For example, four Gaelscoileanna are housed in temporary premises in my constituency. Two have been in temporary and totally unsuitable accommodation for more than 20 years and 16 years respectively. One of the schools in question is partially located in the band room to which I referred and partially in a building constructed in the middle of the 18th century, in 1769. This building was considered to be inappropriate and unsafe as a school building in the 1960s when the Christian Brothers attempted to use it to establish a school. Nevertheless, it is still occupied by a Gaelscoil.
Why does such a situation exist? Why is it not possible to address the problem in a more holistic, proper and comprehensive fashion? Although the new school accommodation body has been established, it will operate with its hands tied behind its back while the present situation obtains.
Moreover, the recommendations of the All-Party Oireachtas Committee on the Constitution regarding the provision of land for buildings such as schools have not been implemented even though the committee, of which I am a member, stated there was no necessity to change the Constitution to address some of these issues. Although the Taoiseach stated he would do something about this matter, absolutely nothing has been done. The Minister’s Department is obliged to pay enormous sums of money to developers to acquire basic requirements, namely, schools, in growing communities. Houses are being built and money is being made from them. However, basic facilities such as schools are not put in place in time.
Why are parents in an area not consulted about the type of school they want? The recent census could easily have asked that question and garnered that information. Consequently, such information would have been available for any local area in which a need existed. One would have known the wishes of the parents, whether it was for a Catholic school, a Church of Ireland school, a Gaelscoil or an Educate Together school. Instead, parents must establish the type of school they want. Eventually, as I have described, such schools are given recognition and subsequently receive a building. However, by then the first cohort of students have already passed through the school.
Why does the Department wait until a patron comes forward before providing a new school? Given the present situation, the Department must display some new and more proactive thinking in respect of such issues. For example, the VECs recently suggested they might become patrons of primary schools as well as post-primary schools. The Minister is the patron of a small number of schools, namely, the model schools. Ireland is unique in Europe in that the Minister for Education and Science and the Department of Education and Science wait to provide a school until someone in the local community can put the resources and numbers together to so do.
Forward planning is required. A significant problem exists, particularly in the commuter belt surrounding Dublin and our other cities. There is a high level of anger and frustration among parents, teachers and the entire school community in such areas. Such schools face a dilemma in that they can increase class sizes and place children in classes of more than 30 pupils. This has happened in many cases. Alternatively, they can seek a new school or can turn children away. Currently, however, they must either opt for large classes or turn children away, because new schools are not provided when needed.
There are many new ways to approach these issues, some of which I have outlined this evening. My colleagues will also raise issues from their own constituencies, as well as highlighting some of the existing solutions. This is not rocket science and has been done in other countries. While it can be achieved with proper planning, this will not be done for as long as the Government, as it has done in respect of many other matters, stands aside to consider the situation, rather than attempting to solve it. There must be a life after prefabs. A system must be put in place whereby schools are provided for children when required. This current situation cannot continue and will worsen without more proactive planning from the Department.
The amendment tabled by the Minister constitutes little more than a congratulation of the Government. This is not good enough, given the problems that exist in our communities. In the interests of our children and the children who will come to the fore in future, Members must see a proper response. Hence, I hope the Minister will take note of the points made in the debate and I look forward to hearing the contributions from other Members.
Members are constantly told that Ireland is one of the most successful countries in the world today. They are informed that it has outperformed the vast majority of our neighbours within the European Union. Day after day, the Government asserts that our State is the economic wonder of the western world, a beacon which many other countries wish to follow and emulate. Undoubtedly, some of our recent success is notable and the amount of funding available to the Government is unparalleled in Ireland’s history. However, considering the state of many of our primary and secondary schools, the evidence of Ireland’s recent success can be extremely hard to see. Put simply, the conditions in many schools are still seriously deficient. In a successful and modern country, it is little short of scandalous that many of our children continue to be taught in such classroom conditions.
Part of the Government’s response has been to allocate prefabricated accommodation to schools. As Deputy O’Sullivan has noted, the Government has tabled a self-congratulatory amendment regarding the amount of money spent. However, I remind the House that from 2000 to 2004, almost €75 million was spent on the provision of prefabricated buildings at primary and post-primary levels. This money should have been spent on the bricks and mortar needed to build permanent classrooms, playgrounds and physical education facilities. Although prefabs do not take the place of proper school buildings, schools are all too frequently forced to use such temporary structures for years and even for decades.
When one also considers the considerable degree of overcrowding in our classrooms, one begins to form a more complete picture of the Government’s commitment to primary and secondary education. Figures released to me in response to parliamentary questions demonstrate the extent to which our primary classrooms have become overcrowded. In the most recent academic year, more than 99,000 children were in classes of between 30 and 34 pupils and a further 9,000 children attended even larger classes.
In 2002, Fianna Fáil and the Progressive Democrats made a commitment to reduce primary class sizes in their programme for Government. However, on taking office, the Minister downgraded this promise to the status of a noble aspiration. Members will be aware that as promises have little value as far as this Administration is concerned, noble aspirations have absolutely no currency.
The overall maximum class size guideline for primary school of 29 pupils is already far too high. However, this is exceeded in schools throughout the country. When questioned on this problem, the Minister is quick to blame individual schools for the larger classroom sizes. She has responded to my parliamentary questions with the explanation that where classes exceed 29 pupils, it is because schools have taken the decision to reduce class sizes elsewhere. This is not always the case and is a cop-out on the Government’s part. If schools allocate teachers to reduce class sizes at junior level at a cost to pupils in senior classes, it is because the Government has not delivered on its promise in the programme for Government.
Parents in many parts of Ireland have realised there is a worse prospect than having one’s child sandwiched into a class of 35 or 40 other pupils, namely, the possibility there may be no room for them in the classroom. For example, Members should consider the recent case in Swords, County Dublin, in which parents queued for days to gain a place for their daughters. The school in question, Loreto College, Swords, already operates above capacity. Although it was designed to serve 500 to 550 pupils when it was built, its current enrolment is 630 pupils. It is nothing short of scandalous that parents should have no option but to queue for days and nights to enrol their child at a local school.
Ms Enright: They do not have a choice. What choice have people in Dublin 15? Some 8,000 new homes have been built in the past nine years. The parents of 200 children, who are due to begin junior infants classes next September, have been told there is no place available at the local primary schools. Such schools have been on departmental building and expansion lists for years. Even a small amount of forward planning could have provided a far greater school capacity for the children of this rapidly growing area and could have provided them with a school, not to mention a choice.
However, as with all aspects of the Government’s forward planning, the Administration has again been found to be seriously wanting. These capacity problems are replicated in many commuter belt towns around Dublin, in counties Meath, Kildare, Wicklow, Wexford and in my constituency, as well as around our other large cities. I wish to focus on that issue. I assume every Member, or most Members, recently completed census forms and returned them to census enumerators. In the run up to the census, we were bombarded with advertisements in the media informing us that the information to be returned was critical for the future planning of essential services. However, many people question why this Government has apparently ignored the growing need for school places in areas of considerable population growth. They want to know why, when sanction was given for enormous housing estates on the perimeter of Dublin city, consideration was not given to the availability of school places. It is clear that many of those now living in commuter belt housing estates are young people who are gaining their first foothold on the property ladder and people who are beginning families. I cannot understand why a clear and realistic assessment of school places was not made at the time planning permission for new housing estates was granted.
Our current problems also result from the fact that decisions regarding new school building and investment are often made according to political, rather than educational, needs. The former Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Noel Dempsey, attempted to introduce a greater degree of transparency into the school building programme by making information available on the Department’s website. However, the situation has now changed and there is a lack of transparency and clarity about the working of the school building programme.
Radical change is now needed. Many schools are in very poor physical condition; overcrowding is endemic, particularly in schools in commuter areas; and hundreds of children are denied a place at their local school. I agree with Deputy O’Sullivan that the structure of the school building programme must be changed. The application procedure for new building and refurbishment works is labyrinthine. Schools languish for years on building lists, with no work being sanctioned. With reform of the programme, schools would better understand how to apply for assistance and how long it would take for their application to be assessed and rated according to real priority.
In addition, every school, once its application has been assessed, should know its place on the programme and the timescale for its improvement works. Some schools have been forced to wait for improvement works for many years and have received little or no clarification from the Department as to when they can expect funding. This arrangement is not good enough and must be changed.
It is clear that we must reform the procedures for establishing new schools. Deputy O’Sullivan noted that the Department has traditionally taken a very hands-off approach to the provision of new schools, relying on motivated parents and members of the public to band together and begin a new school, which may, at some later date, gain recognition from the Department. The system is not working.
We do not have time to allow school developments to continue at the traditional slow and unsteady pace in areas like the outskirts of Dublin and other major cities which have experienced a considerable and relatively sudden increase in population. The Department must become proactive when planning the development of schools and the provision of places. In particular, we should evaluate the schools needs of Dublin, Cork, Limerick and Galway, focusing on the demand for school places within the commuter belts.
The commission on school accommodation established by the Department should assume the responsibility for assessing demographic change, the age profile of residents in these urban areas and the number of children of school going age to a far greater degree. Much of this information is available through the census but it must be applied in a proactive fashion and used to provide new school places.
The commission should then advise on the provision of new multi-denominational schools in areas of growing demand for school places. This would mean the issue of school places could be addressed proactively, rather than reactively, as is currently the case. It would also permit a greater degree of flow into multi-denominational schools and so create additional space in existing schools. This work could be carried out by the commission but it would need to work at a much faster pace and requires adequate resources and reform to do so.
Action must be taken on foot of commission reports to the Department. The Murray report on school accommodation in my constituency in County Laois reported that Scoil Iosaif Naofa and Scoil Phádraig Naofa in Mountmellick required two additional classes and lacked proper indoor recreational facilities. These schools have been forced to slice sections of corridors to provide additional classroom spaces. Children with special educational needs are still being taught in school corridors, not even in sectioned off places. Scoil Phádraig Naofa has been forced to turn away children from junior infants this year but this is only prolonging the problem. A total of 900 new houses have been built in Mountmellick in the past five years, while 700 more are in the pipeline. The situation is at crisis point.
We should consider the choice facing parents of these children. It is not an exaggeration to say that every school in the area is full. Children in Portlaoise, which is six miles from Mountmellick, are in the same boat. I know of children who must travel 16 miles to primary school in Clonaghadoo in County Offaly because they cannot obtain places at schools within that radius in County Laois. However, schools in north Offaly, where Clonaghadoo is located, are in the same boat. Edenderry, which is the first stop-off for commuters, has grown phenomenally in the past five years. When the census is published, the town’s population is expected to be in the region of 9,000. It is one of the fastest growing towns in the country but last week, the Department described an application for the establishment of a new co-educational school as premature. Our motion attempts to address this type of attitude. We must plan ahead. I am not talking about planning for ten years into the future; I am talking about planning for next year.
Schools in Edenderry are full. Fr. Walsh, who drew up the application for the new school, was supported by all local organisations and groups and the GAA facilitated the school by offering a temporary site. This is what we should look for. Tullamore, which is 22 miles down the road, is in the same position. In the past two years, two post-primary schools there have been forced to turn away students. The situation was eventually resolved but the schools are still operating at over-capacity.
Dr. Twomey: As the health service has demonstrated, spending money is a very poor benchmark of a Government’s performance. It is crazy for the Government to use the amount of money it has spent on the health service to prove a point. The way in which Ministers tour the country reminds me of minor celebrities. They are certainly not acting like competent CEOs of Departments. The Government is forcing children with special needs to go through the courts and failing to make any impact on the school building programme throughout the country.
Dr. Twomey: I met the Minister on numerous occasions and she has not made any meaningful contribution to schools we have asked her to examine. In the same way as the Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children and the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform must take action, it is time for the Minister to take action on these issues and do what she is expected to do as the CEO of a Department. The Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform would not consider himself a minor celebrity. He regards himself as a major celebrity in the world of politics because he cannot keep his mouth closed.
Dr. Twomey: These Ministers must face up to their responsibilities. Those of us whose children attend school can see that boards of management, parents and teachers do an excellent job. Our children come home and try to use Irish words they have learned in school. These teachers do more to help the Irish language than the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs and his legislation requiring every piece of local authority documentation to be published in Irish. If this money was redirected into schools, it would make a major contribution to education. In the same way, children recognise recycling symbols and know what can and cannot be recycled because they are learning about life in our schools. We should promote and foster this.
It is time for this Government to have a greater vision of what it intends to do for the future, particularly in respect of education. The Minister’s response to this motion is another example of the tripe the Government constantly produces, which focuses solely on the amount of money it has spent. There is no sense of balance, whether good accounting practices have been used or whether value for money has been achieved. The Government simply throws out figures and thinks it can get by but that day is long gone. The Government has wasted the resources given to it over the past nine years, a state of affairs which will come back to haunt it. The Government should show it has a vision for the future of schools and stop forcing children with special needs to go to court to get anything out of it. I receive numerous letters complaining about the Government’s unhelpful attitude to children with special needs and how it does practically nothing for them.
It is time for the Government to face up to its responsibilities, rather than give soft-focus interviews when new school extensions are opened. Ministers should do what they are charged by the electorate to do, namely, act as competent managers of Departments, show vision for the future and look after children who will only spend a very short time in our schools. I hope the Minister takes this message away from this debate and refrains from cat calling across the House in respect of comments made about individual schools or policy. The Government should acknowledge it has failed to achieve certain things and has fallen way behind in certain areas. It should give us a vision for the future or, at least, one that will suffice until next year, when we can possibly provide one for it.
Ms Burton: I am glad the Minister is here. If she could take the time to meet parents in Hartstown, Ongar, Littlepace, Diswellstown and various other rapidly growing parts of Dublin 15, she would learn more in one hour from the frustration, anger and bewilderment of parents about why their children cannot get into schools than from all the population change statistics that her Department can issue.
The Taoiseach and his various Ministers for Education and Science in the past nine years had the audacity to promise class sizes of 20 or fewer pupils under nine years of age. In other words, they promised that no child in junior or senior infants, first, second or third class would have more than 20 pupils in his or her class. It has not happened. Those who made the promise knew they could not deliver on it nationally or in the developing areas which I have the honour and responsibility to represent. It was a crude, headline, vote-buying promise. How could there be classes of 20 or fewer pupils in schools of 1,000 pupils but 32 classrooms, which is the Minister’s model for what the children of Dublin 15 will have? The Taoiseach should apologise for his failure and deception of parents.
Dublin 15 schools are faced with another growing challenge, that is, catering for significant numbers of students for whom English is not their first language or their home language. Throughout primary schools in Dublin West, enrolment rates of international children have soared, so that in the junior classes of a number of schools, international children account for more than 50% of those attending. Currently, the Minister allows two, and in extreme cases a maximum of three, support teachers for two years, but educational research carried out by principals in my constituency shows that two years is inadequate, particularly in an environment where parents do not speak English in the home.
The pressure of class sizes is not just about numbers. It is also about the diverse and particular needs of the children in the new communities in places such as Dublin 15. As the Minister represents the area of south Dublin where there are problems of empty classes, I can understand why she does not understand what is happening in the expanding areas. She has not taken the opportunity to go out and see what parents, children and teachers are going through.
Working in classes of more than 30 pupils, teachers are expected to use the new curriculum, which involves children moving around, interacting and so on. They are also meant to cater for special needs children in the context of integration, which we all support. In Dublin 15, there are many classes of 30 pupils with ten or more international children whose English is weak. The teachers, principals, boards of management, patrons, Church patrons, Educate Together and the Gaelscoileanna are making extraordinary efforts to give children the best education, but the Minister’s unstated policy is that large class sizes will continue in Dublin 15 for at least the next eight years. She is creating a strain with which the system cannot cope.
What has happened in Dublin 15 during the nine years of this Government is a shame. These areas were specifically chosen by the Government as development zones and permission was granted and pushed for by Fianna Fáil and the PDs for thousands of new homes. Since the first house was built, local community councils and public representatives have urged the Government to pay attention to future educational needs, but the Department and successive Fianna Fáil Ministers have ignored these messages and allowed one annual crisis after another to build up.
Recently, the Minister’s colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Brian Lenihan, confessed that the Government was caught on the hop. It did not expect that people coming to this country would bring their children with them to be educated here or would have children during their early adult years here. The Government did not understand that when houses were built, there might be the pitter patter of little feet five years later, and that those children of the nation would one day expect to get seats in primary schools as per the Constitution and the Proclamation of Independence. What imagination would be required to convince the Government it is important to deliver education, which is one of the rocks on which we have built our economic success, to children in new communities?
Several weeks ago, the crisis for the Minister was in Littlepace. This week, it is in Hartstown. I spent 1.5 hours on Saturday morning with baffled and bewildered parents. They already had children in the local parish school, which has fantastic teachers and a wonderful principal. However, they received a note in May that due to the pressure of places, the school would only take children who were four years of age before 31 December 2005. In other words, they would need to be four and three quarter years of age before they got school places in September. Can the Minister imagine what this requirement has done to pre-schools in the area? Parents gave up places on the understanding their four and a half year olds could get places in Irish schools, as would be traditionally expected.
The only solution the Government offers is the crude pressure on schools to add prefabs and-or additional streams to accommodate extra demands. Three weeks ago, the Minister belatedly made a rushed announcement about an extra school that will come on stream but we do not know the exact site. I want to know this and the precise amount of land that will be devoted to the welcome school. As I understand it, up to 2,000 children in two primary schools will be taught on a 4.5 acre site. How will the Minister do this because I fail to understand how she will cope?
This is Ireland at its most prosperous. The accident and emergency situation properly gets attention as the most blatant case of public squalor amid private affluence in the world’s fourth richest country. However, the overcrowded primary schools and failure to guarantee places to all children in an area is no less of a scandal. In prosperous Ireland, we have super-sized classes and schools built on sites that are much too small to offer adequate play space. Land is sold to the State by unscrupulous developers at grossly inflated prices because they know how careless and negligent Fianna Fáil Ministers have been since 1997 in planning ahead. These are the developers who feature so prominently at the various fundraising functions of the Fianna Fáil Party. Who is codding whom?
What are the Minister’s plans for Dublin 15? What will she do about the current crisis in Hartstown? Crisis meetings are taking place but parents want an answer. As well as the current situation experienced in the areas highlighted, there is the continuing position of the super-sized classes. According to the Minister’s answer to my question last week, comparing the year on year situation in many schools, there are 89 classes of 30 pupils or more in the Dublin 15 area. Unless the Minister can suggest a worse area, this probably means Dublin 15 has the greatest concentration of large-sized classes. This is like a league of shame on her part in terms of her failure to deliver for our children, who are our future.
All of the schools in Dublin 15 are experiencing greatly increased numbers but are receiving very little extra assistance from the Minister. The school principals, various teaching organisations, the INTO and numerous researchers have told the Minister what she needs to do with regard to international children. I read the amendment tabled by Fianna Fáil. I do not know if it was drafted by the Minister, but it congratulates her for what she has failed to do for children who do not speak English as their first language. It demonstrates political brass neck and brazen cheek of a kind that I would not normally associate with the Minister for Education and Science.
I have not had time to deal with the issue of second level places but as surely as little children go to primary school, eight years later they end up at the door of a secondary school. The Government promised, seven years ago, an additional secondary school in Ongar, where 8,000 extra houses have been built and occupied, but has now deferred the provision of that school for another two years. Once again, parents will be out with banners trying to make the Minister pay attention to their plight.
—commends the Minister for Education and Science on her management of the school building programme which will deliver 1,100 projects over the next 18 months and which has delivered 6,287 projects since 2000;
—notes the initiatives that her Department has taken to ensure that schools are provided as quickly as possible through innovations in the design process and the improvements that have been made in forward planning through greater co-operation with local authorities and the publication of area development plans;
—welcomes the fact that next September there will be 4,000 more teachers in our primary schools than there were in 2002 and notes that these teachers have made an immeasurable difference to the lives of children with special needs, those from disadvantaged areas and those whose first language is not English; and
The amendment refers to planning, buildings and numbers of teachers because the motion refers to those issues. My amendment would have dealt with special needs, international children, the curriculum, teacher training, in-service training and all the supports in place for schools, vision and the future but the motion does not refer to any of those areas.
Ms Hanafin: The amendment directly refers to the motion tabled by the Opposition parties and affords me the opportunity to discuss the Government’s record on investing in education. In moving this amendment, I may share my time with Deputy Peter Power.
The budget for my Department has more than doubled in recent years to just under €8 billion in 2006. This Government has also provided for the largest increase in teacher numbers since the expansion of free education and has put an unprecedented level of investment into school buildings. These are actions of which the Government is proud.
This year, not only are we spending five times what was provided for school buildings in 1997, the innovations that have been made in the design and delivery processes for schools building projects are also helping to achieve an ever greater amount of progress. Before outlining the positive impact that innovations such as the development of standard designs and the devolution of more work to local level have made, I would like to speak about investment in education.
This Government is determined to ensure that every child is educated in a suitable and comfortable environment. Its commitment to this goal can be judged by the investment of more than €2 billion on school buildings during the period 2000 to 2005, with a further €500 million being invested in 2006. In the previous budget, the Minister for Finance provided €3.9 billion in capital funding for the education sector as a whole over the next five years. While the challenge before us in reversing decades of under-investment in school buildings and in responding to emerging needs in new population areas is great, we are making enormous progress.
To date in 2006 I have announced the first tranches of a programme which will see building projects carried out at more than 1,100 schools. I have also announced my plans to provide 23 new post-primary schools and four new primary schools under a major expansion of the Government’s public private partnership programme from 2006 to 2009. The new schools building programme, as announced, means we can ensure that we have a rolling system of building, planning, architectural planning, design teams and of going to tender to ensure that everything does not happen at the beginning of the year. In this way, expenditure by the Department is rolled out through the year, thus ensuring we get best value for money.
The Government’s achievements in the period 2000 to 2005 speak for themselves. At primary level, €1 billion was spent allowing the completion of 63 new schools of up to 16 classrooms in size, 246 large-scale refurbishment and extensions at existing schools, 63 small primary schools modernised under the small schools scheme, 55 schools provided with permanent extensions in lieu of prefabs under the permanent accommodation scheme and 4,351 smaller-scale refurbishment projects largely delivered under the summer works scheme. At post-primary level, with spending of €1 billion, we have provided 19 new schools, 129 large-scale refurbishment and extensions at existing schools and 1,361 smaller-scale refurbishment projects were completed.
Not only have all these projects been delivered in a relatively short space of time, many more are in train as we speak. My Department is delivering more than 160 large-scale primary schools building projects which are either already at construction or authorised to proceed to tender and construction. A further 225 primary schools are being modernised through the small schools scheme. At post-primary level, my Department is delivering more than 60 large-scale school building projects which are either already at construction or authorised to proceed to tender and construction.
Many schools have also been refurbished through the annual summer works scheme and almost 800 will have summer works projects done this year. This innovative scheme, which allows schools to get small projects done over the summer holidays, did not exist when this Government came into office and schools were waiting for many years for improvements such as rewiring, new roofs or windows. Now when the school gates close for the summer, the builders move in and the students come back to an improved environment just a few months later.
The level of work being done under the schools building programme is at an all-time high. While increased investment has been a central reason for this, changes in how projects are managed have also made a major difference. This Government has put a particular emphasis on devolving the delivery of many school building projects to a local school management level and since the start of 2004, where possible, all small-scale projects are now delivered in this manner.
My Department has also reduced the red tape for schools for large-scale projects by keeping its interaction with schools to the initial stages in setting the parameters for the projects and then devolving the delivery of the projects through the planning permission process, tendering and construction to school management authorities. In setting the parameters for large-scale projects in the initial stages of design, my Department has recently started evaluating these designs at meetings with schools and their design teams, rather than the traditional method of correspondence. Already this approach is receiving very positive feedback and is speeding up the design phase of the projects.
In addition and in accordance with best practice standards, my Department has developed a standard school design for eight and 16 classroom schools that can be repeated in locations throughout the country. This will result in speedier delivery of projects, savings in design fees and land use savings arising from the use of the two-storey design. Two of these projects have been completed, construction is under way on another and a further 19 are scheduled for delivery as part of the current schools building programme. Among these are two new 16-classroom schools in Dublin 15 which are scheduled to be built for September 2007. These projects were advertised last week and will be using the GRD design with quick build methodologies to achieve the projected completion date.
Another innovation has been the introduction of design and build contracts. Traditionally, separate procurement processes were used first to design and then to build new school buildings. These two processes can be combined into one under a design and build contract. This was the approach used by my Department to provide a new 16-classroom school on a greenfield site in Griffeen Valley in Lucan within a 13-month timescale. The school was delivered on time and within budget through a combination of traditional and modern system-build technologies executed on a fast-track, five-month building programme. A similar approach was used last year to deliver a new 24-classroom school in Diswellstown which was completed earlier this year. My Department is moving forward with this approach for the provision of new primary schools in Adamstown and a new post-primary school in Phibblestown.
Ms Hanafin: Instead, where possible, grants are provided to schools under my Department’s permanent accommodation scheme which enables schools deliver a permanent solution to their accommodation requirements. More than 140 schools are being dealt with in this way. It is impossible to eradicate the need for prefabs, as schools often come to my Department with only a few months notice of the need for extra accommodation for the next school year. Prefabs can be the only option in some cases. Nonetheless, the amount spent on prefabs by my Department is kept to an absolute minimum. Over the past five years, expenditure on temporary accommodation represented approximately 4% of the total capital expenditure on school buildings. Last year, it was less than 1.5%.
We do all we can to provide extra permanent accommodation rather than prefabs where possible. Where schools are in prefabs because they opened with temporary accommodation in that environment, we work hard to meet their accommodation needs in a permanent way as soon as possible after they have proven their viability and received permanent recognition as a school.
Ms Hanafin: We also do our best to enable new schools in developing areas to open in high quality permanent accommodation from the start. The new primary school in Griffeen Valley in Dublin was provided in this way, as will the new school in Adamstown.
Another development which has made a major positive difference in developing areas has been the abolition of the local contribution to the building costs for State-owned school buildings, which previously cost up to €63,000 per school. An active programme of site acquisition also enables sites for schools to be provided by the State.
Ms Hanafin: Some local authorities are extremely good about meeting their responsibilities. However, others do not designate sites for schools and do not provide from them when planning for housing. Members of local authorities who actively oppose the zoning of areas which might be suitable for schools have caused further difficulty in areas.
Ms Hanafin: A further innovation in recent years has been the introduction of a new model for public private partnerships in school provision. In parallel to the conventional approach on the delivery of major capital works in schools, my Department procured five post-primary schools through the PPP arrangements envisaged in the national development plan.
Similar to design and build contracts, the main benefit of PPP projects is the better transfer of risks regarding time or cost overruns to the private sector rather than leaving the Exchequer open to the potential for additional costs on projects. In addition, the financing element of PPPs means the capital and operation costs of the project are spread over a period of approximately 25 years.
Drawing on the experience gained from the first pilot education PPP in Ireland, l announced plans last year to provide 23 new post-primary schools and four new primary schools under a major expansion of the Government’s PPP programme from 2006 to 2009. Under a new initiative, a number of primary school building projects are to be delivered using that model in a campus-sharing context with a new post-primary school. The first school bundle under this programme will commence shortly.
As I detailed, a great many improvements in how we deliver school building projects have taken place in recent years. Together with unprecedented investment, these innovations have enabled an unprecedented level of progress to be made in modernising our school buildings. Naturally, as I stated at the outset, modernising the facilities in all our 3,200 primary schools and approximately 750 second level schools is no easy task, given the historical legacy of under-investment in this area. However, most schools in the country recognise we are getting there.
I mentioned earlier that when we came into office, forward planning for school provision was virtually non-existent. I would like to set out how much that too has changed over the past few years. My Department recently adopted an area based approach to school planning where, through a public consultation process involving all interested parties, a blueprint for schools’ development in an area for a timeframe of approximately ten years is set out. The areas covered in the pilot phase of this new approach to school planning include the rapidly developing areas of north Dublin, south Louth, east Meath and the N4-M4 corridor running from Leixlip to Kilbeggan, including all rapidly developing towns and villages in that belt.
This approach is on top of the normal planning procedures undertaken in my Department. The process of assessing the need for new or additional educational facilities at primary or post-primary level in any given area entails consideration of all relevant factors, including enrolment, demographic trends, housing developments and the capacity of existing schools to meet the demand for places.
Liaison with existing schools is an important part of the process also, as the school authorities usually alert my Department where, in their view, the need for additional accommodation is anticipated. In this way, every effort is made to ensure there is adequate existing provision, or that timely arrangements are made to extend capacity or provide new infrastructure where necessary.
Ms Hanafin: ——students come. Ready-made families move out of the city or move to the periphery of the city, for example to Kildare or Meath. It is not only young new couples who might seek a school in five years’ time. The requirement for provision is also immediate.
In addition, under the provisions of the strategic development zones, it is generally the position that sites must be reserved for schools and that the schools must be developed commensurate with housing and other developments such as community facilities. These zones anticipate that local authorities will measure up to their responsibilities.
Over and above the statutory consultation provisions on draft area development plans where my Department causes sites to be reserved for school provision, in recent years we have worked to strengthen contacts with local authorities to enable informed decisions to be made in planning future educational provision. For example, a specific forum, the Dublin school planning committee, chaired by officials of my Department, interacts with Dublin local authorities.
This forum comprises representatives of the local authorities in Dublin, together with representatives of the patron bodies of primary schools, and it works proactively in monitoring demographic changes and their likely impact. Taken in combination, I am confident the measures outlined improve the speed and effectiveness of the response to emerging needs in all areas including those which are rapidly developing.
I will turn to the issue of teaching resources. I am glad of this opportunity to spell out once and for all the unprecedented increase in the number of teachers in our schools in recent years and the extra support now provided for children with special needs, those from disadvantaged areas and those who need help with their English, to ensure they can reach their full potential at school.
The incredible progress made in this area in recent years is evident from the fact that next September no less than 4,000 extra teachers will be in our primary schools, compared with 2002. Not only is the average class size in our primary schools down to 24, but there is now one teacher for 17 pupils at primary level, including resource teachers. The majority of the extra teachers hired in recent years have rightly been targeted at providing support for children with special needs, those from disadvantaged areas, and those with English language needs. They have made an immeasurable difference to the lives of those children, while also providing vital backup for mainstream classroom teachers.
Each of these areas is, and must be, a major priority for me and this Government, even if the scale of the resources needed to support these children could not have been predicted a few years ago. If we had put all these extra teachers into mainstream classrooms instead of targeting them at these priority areas, they would have done a lot to reduce class size in our schools even further. That number of teachers would have met the Government commitment.
Ms Hanafin: Instead, we decided to put those resources where they were badly needed, in special education, areas of disadvantage and language support and ensure those pupils had the teachers to support them. I am proud of the choice we made in this regard and I challenge any Member to state in good conscience he or she would not have prioritised those same people and would have done it differently. In doing that we addressed those priority areas and will continue to address them. We are also taking action on class size, by providing the extra teachers this year and next year——
Ms Hanafin: What we did was meet each of those priorities, which any Government would be proud to stand over, and I am proud we made those our priorities. They are the children who needed our support most. If Deputy Burton would have done any differently, I would love to hear it.
I accept some schools have particularly large class sizes. That is not indicative of every school in every county around the country. The national average class is 24 and the staffing is on a general rule of at least one classroom teacher for every 29 children. Some schools, such as smaller schools, have a much more generous allocation.
It is important to remember that there are a number of different reasons that a school may have large classes in a given year. These include a significant fluctuation in enrolments from year to year or a decision by the school principal not to have multi-grade classes in some cases. Regardless of the reason there is a large class in a particular school one year, it should be noted that in the majority of cases, this is not repeated in the following year. In the main, the same schools do not have large classes year after year and so the same children are not in large classes year after year.
I previously mentioned that schools are staffed on the basis of a general rule of one teacher for every 29 pupils. A scenario where some classes in a school have class sizes of greater than 29 may arise because of a decision to use the teaching resources to have smaller classes at other levels. Indeed one can often see that if a particular school had a class of 35 in a grade, which no school should have because staff numbers are there, the answer would be that there is another class in the same school with a much lower than average number of pupils in it.
I accept that splitting classes may not always be an option in every school as there might be a large group in junior infants and a small group in sixth class and so on. Where it is possible, principals should consider the benefits of having smaller multi-grade classes as against having large differences in class sizes at different levels in the school.
Ms Hanafin: It has come to my attention that some schools are not using all their teacher allocation for mainstream classes. I could name schools where a teacher is allocated full-time to do art and another may teach technology full time. Another teacher may be used as a non-teaching deputy principal. These teachers are allocated for mainstream classroom teaching and they should be used in this fashion.
There are a number of factors relating to class size, but it is important that we have secured funding and I have already begun, through the issuing of the schedule, to allocate more teachers for mainstream classes to reduce class size this September. I have a commitment from the Minister for Finance, Deputy Cowen, to reduce class size the following year.
Ms Hanafin: It will ensure that by the school year of 2007-08, the general rule will be a classroom teacher for 27 children. It should be stated that in two-teacher schools, it is possible to have a second teacher for only 12 children.
Ms Hanafin: The public can see that not only are we continuing to tackle our own major priorities, but we are doing it for the children with special needs, disadvantaged learning difficulties and the mainstream class. I have consistently stated our priorities and we have delivered very strongly not just in the area of special needs, but also in the areas of disadvantage. With regard to the DEIS report, last year I announced extra resources for our most disadvantaged schools.
Some 640 primary schools — 320 in urban or town areas and 320 in rural areas — and 200 second level schools have been identified to benefit from the new plan. Key measures to be implemented under the action plan include targeted early childhood education provision for 180 urban or town school communities, extended availability of home-school-community liaison and school completion programme services and the 180 urban and town primary schools with the highest concentrations of disadvantage will be targeted to benefit from maximum class sizes not only of 20:1 in junior classes but 24:1 in senior classes.
Measures will be implemented to enhance student attendance, educational progression, retention and attainment. Measures will be put in place to support the recruitment and retention of principals and teaching staff in schools serving disadvantaged communities. Central to the success of the action plan will be an increased emphasis on planning, target-setting and measurement of progress and outcomes to ensure that the increased investment is matched by an improvement in educational outcomes for the children and young people concerned.
Another group of young people that need extra support to enable them to make the most of their time at school are those with special needs. It is the progress that the Government has made in this area of which I am most proud. There are now more than 5,000 teachers in our primary schools working directly with children with special needs, including those requiring learning support. This compares to less than 1,500 in 1998.
One out of every five primary school teachers is now working specifically with children with special needs. In addition, there are more than 1,000 teachers in special schools and in the region of 600 teachers in special classes attached to mainstream primary schools. There are also more than 7,100 special needs assistants, up from almost zero less than ten years ago. My Department spends over €30 million on school transport for special needs pupils. Over €3 million is now allocated towards specialised equipment and materials for pupils with special educational needs. This is up from €800,000 in 1998. These are children which need even more support.
The level of resources being made available by the Department to support students with special educational needs in the second level system has also grown significantly not only at primary level but also at second level. At this stage approximately 1,650 whole-time equivalent teachers and 1,100 special needs assistant posts have been allocated to second level schools and VECs to cater for the special educational needs of students at second level.
Another area of significant growth in recent years is support for children whose first language is not English. In the current school year, 562 whole-time equivalent language support teachers are in place at primary level and 262 whole-time equivalent teachers are in place at second level to support such pupils, representing an investment of €47.5 million. There are therefore more than 800 teachers teaching English only to international children who have come into our schools. That could not have been anticipated even five years ago. It is a significant and important investment, which allows those children to be integrated into the schools.
Ms Hanafin: I recognise that these more than 800 language support teachers are only one part of the equation. Having met principals in the schools which have such large numbers of international children, I recognise that further help is required, particularly with the parents of these children with regard to issues such as cultural differences. These families may not have English, which could put pressure on the children. I am working on a local level and on national policy to address needs associated with this.
There is no escaping the reality that since coming into office, we have placed the highest priority on improving educational provision. We have consistently and substantially increased investment throughout the sector and we remain absolutely committed to our planned programme of continued improvement. This continued improvement is to be seen in the provision of appropriate accommodation and in ensuring that the children who need most get the most. These are children with special needs, children from disadvantaged areas and children with English language needs. We are ensuring that extra teachers are going into the schools, with 4,000 to be put in place in primary schools alone.
We are ensuring that by supporting those teachers through in-service training and investment, we are not just discussing numbers of teachers or buildings, we are ensuring that the top quality education provided within our primary schools continues. That is a priority for Government. I am happy to move the amendment setting out our achievements to date.
Mr. English: I am glad to have a chance to say a few words on the education sector, mainly dealing with class facilities and sizes. The Minister mentioned that the issue was not about school buildings or numbers of teachers, but also the quality of education.
Correct me if I am wrong but discipline is a major problem in schools. The handbook recently published and handed out to new teachers gives no guidance on how to control a class, so could some tips be added to it to give new teachers a chance as they try to teach in the big bad world?
Although it is not related to education I must mention what happened near Delvin today where another bus caught fire, although I do not blame the Minister. We are told the bus was 16 years of age. I compliment the bus driver on her quick action to ensure nobody was injured. I also compliment the pupil who raised the alarm. There must be change. How many more times are we to have accidents involving buses? I do not blame any one person but I call on those who have the power to stamp it out to do so once and for all. I ask the Minister to use her office, along with her colleague, the Minister for Transport, to devote extra effort to this cause. The people who own buses, be they private or public, such as Bus Éireann, must go the extra step to ensure their buses are safe.
There may be other reasons for what happened this week but most buses are not fit to be on the roads. We must question the process of testing buses for suitability. The system whereby they are given certificates of roadworthiness needs to be reviewed and higher standards demanded. I urge those who operate buses to forget about profits and costs and to think about people’s lives, especially young people’s lives. In a few days’ time it will be the anniversary of the tragic crash in which five young girls lost their lives. The pain those families are going through is immense. Their school, Loreto, has launched a campaign entitled Life is Precious to try to raise awareness of the dangers of buses and other forms of transport and of the fact that life is a gift. I ask those who operate buses to listen to the young girls from Loreto and the parents of those who lost their lives last year. The message must go out loud and clear that we cannot take chances or short cuts and we should come down like a ton of bricks on any operator who takes a short cut by putting an unworthy bus on the road, or even one that is too old.
The Minister said that prefabs were not meant to be a long-term solution and that there was no reason they should last forever. When I was in high infants at Bohermeen national school, I remember two prefabs arriving on a crane. That was more than 20 years ago. Last week the same two prefabs were replaced by two new prefabs so the school is into its 21st year with prefabs. They may not be meant for the long term but that is what they become.
Modern prefabs are not too bad but the older ones were terrible, too cold in the winter and too hot in the summer. They were uncomfortable and cramped and unsuitable for people to learn in. We try to teach our young people to have respect for people and property but we force them into prefabs and other run-down buildings to be educated. That must stop because it sets a very bad example. The Minister talks about the billions being spent. We have more taxpayers’ money to spend now so it is nothing for the Government to be proud of. However, it presents an opportunity to get things right but many schools do not have the facilities they need to teach their young people properly and where those young people can learn respect. The Minister’s offices are always kept in good condition and our children deserve the same.
Some county councils, such as my own in Meath, are doing a good job trying to reserve sites but a problem is created over who buys a parcel of land while we wait for the Department of Education and Science to wake up and realise that a school needs to be built. Some councils, my own included, buy a site to hold on to until the Department of Education and Science decides it wants it. Councils cannot afford to do that and it is not their job. Will the Minister go a step further and buy sites? If they are not required for schools, they can be sold again.
The Department of Education and Science should be proactive and have them ready for schools. The Minister said Navan was an example of a growing town with many new families but they did not arrive over one week. They have been arriving over ten years. In Johnstown more than 200 new families have moved in but that has happened since 1996. We have had years to realise it and build a school but St. Stephen’s is still in temporary accommodation. Two other schools, Naomh Eoin and Navan Educate Together are also in temporary accommodation. That represents a lack of planning on the part of the Department of Education and Science and councils but when land was zoned as far back as 1997, it should have been recognised that houses would be built and a school would be necessary.
I am delighted the devolved grant scheme for building schools was introduced because it was my idea and was proposed in one of my first speeches in late 2002. I made the suggestion to the then Minister, Deputy Noel Dempsey, and he took it on board. The scheme, however, was meant to provide enough money to get the job done. It was not meant to leave schools €150,000 or €200,000 short and having to spend their summers holding golf classic tournaments or tea parties to raise funds. There is still a gap which the Minister should review. She should consider providing that little bit extra to get the extra facilities built so that our children can have the chance of a proper education.
Mr. Crawford: I record my thanks to the Minister for providing an increase in devolved grants to No. 1 school in Cavan, which is a listed building. Nobody would deny there has been progress but I cannot help thinking that in the mid-1980s, my party leader, as Minister of State at the then Department of Education, opened the school in Latnamard in the parish of Aghabog where I live. Work was being done even when money was very scarce and, while there has been continual progress, much remains to be done.
I will talk about overcrowding in some schools. It is not so long since we held a meeting in Urbalshanny national school in north Monaghan. It is an excellent, quite recently reconstructed school that many people want to attend. However, the fact that class sizes are as high as 40 is not acceptable. It is important that the Minister makes every effort to reduce that figure, not just from the point of view of the pupils but for the sanity of the teachers.
I wish to concentrate on the small village of Rockcorry, three miles from my home in County Monaghan. There are four full-time teachers and two remedial at Scoil Mhuire. It has two classrooms and two prefabs, one of which is 15 years old, although the other was replaced last year. It includes a classroom and an area for a remedial teacher and the office is a wooden hut. I appreciate that Scoil Mhuire has had problems getting agreement with planning officials from the county council on a site near Rockcorry village but several housing estates have been built since and there were no problems obtaining planning permission for those. One wonders what the planning regulations are and how realistic they are. A school has been sought for at least 15 years from even before I came into this House. There are 90 pupils in the school and they deserve better. I hope in the next year we can effect a constructive conclusion on that matter.
In the same village there is a Church of Ireland school and I appreciate the help it has received in the past. Again, however, it is growing in numbers. There are 34 pupils and two full-time teachers, one part-time and one remedial. There are 17 junior pupils in one small room in the downstairs part of what is a two-storey building. According to any regulations it is totally inadequate.
The real reason for my raising it at this moment is the problem it has with remedial teachers. I have raised it a number of times in the House and written to the Minister’s Department on many occasions. A young boy with learning difficulties has attended the school for two years and he needs more one-to-one tuition than he receives. The fact that he does not receive it is causing problems in the school. The psychologist recommended he get one-to-one teaching for two and a half hours per week from a resource teacher but the Department did not grant that. It is a serious situation and he has had to be kept back for a year. The parents are very annoyed and I ask the Minister to review the situation. The answer I received from the Department was that because it was a relatively small school, there should be no need for a direct remedial teacher.
For what do we pay psychologists? We should ensure action is taken on foot of their reports. I urge the Minister to ensure that the needs of schools are met regardless of the number of pupils they may have. A school may have a significant number of children with special needs because parents are attracted by its small size or excellent teachers. I urge the Minister to address this issue as a matter of urgency.
I appreciate the allocation of €47.5 million towards the teaching of non-nationals, a vital function. This type of tuition is needed in virtually every school in County Monaghan, not only its larger schools, because many foreign families have moved to the area to work in the poultry, mushroom and other industries. I support the measures introduced by the Minister in this area. The money has been well spent. Immigrants have made this country a great deal richer and have justified the expenditure of these funds of their own right.
Mr. Durkan: I do not seek to criticise this Minister but every time a Minister addresses the House, he or she informs us that more money is being spent than at any time in the past, as if this was a major achievement. I cannot envisage circumstances in which a Minister could expect to get away with spending less than in the past. After all, house prices have increased tenfold in the past decade. My response on hearing that more money is being spent than at any time in our history is to declare: “so what”.
County Kildare is a microcosm of the national position in terms of the school building programme. It may not have been the Minister’s fault but someone is to blame for the current problems in my county because population changes were clearly projected a decade ago when the census figures and county development plan were made available to the Department. To take the Naas-Kildare-Sallins triangle as an example, we have been scurrying around for 12 months in search of a site for a school for Kill when it was well known ten years ago that the area would be a building site a few years hence. Despite the obvious health and safety problems, we managed to get a site at the last minute but much work remains to be done. It is even more serious that despite the Department being aware that the population of the area would increase, we have had a prolonged fight in every case. With most schools overflowing, we also have a daft case where a school will not reach a full complement of students because of the various criteria that apply. The Minister must take steps to address this.
Another school in County Kildare has too few teachers because the number of teachers available to schools is calculated on the basis of enrolment in the September of the previous year. The influx of population in the locality resulted in such a large increase in pupils that the only way to provide supervision was to close one room and bundle pupils into another room.
Mr. Durkan: Yes, the question in these circumstances is whether one leaves children out in the cold or changes the rules. I have written to the Minister on this issue calling for the rules to be changed.
Recently, I learned of a case of children at risk, a serious issue. The Departments of Education and Science, Health and Children and Justice, Equality and Law Reform share responsibility for these cases. When I raised the matter, all three Departments took cover by arguing that they had no responsibility in the matter. I have tabled parliamentary questions on the same case five times and held an on-site meeting with the individuals concerned. To be fair to the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, the juvenile liaison service eventually took action in the case. What does this say about the National Educational Welfare Board which also has responsibilities in this area? How is it structured? How many staff does it have? In County Kildare, for instance, one member of staff is responsible for roughly 35,000 children. Have we gone daft? We are placing children at risk because it is impossible for the National Educational Welfare Board to succeed in such circumstances.
We hear much talk about Scoileanna lán-Ghaelacha, and the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Deputy Ó Cuív, regularly features on the news talking of his love of the Irish language. All the scoileanna lán-Ghaelacha in my constituency are located in prefabricated buildings and will soon enrol a second generation of children. Rather than boasting about the money being spent on this area or how well matters are progressing, the Minister should set new standards by indicating that we will do much better than heretofore.
Mr. O’Dowd: I welcome the constructive points made by Deputies and propose to make several points which reinforce the sentiments expressed by my colleague, Deputy Durkan, and shared by Deputies from constituencies experiencing rapid, massive increases in population.
On the issue of planning, which the Minister discussed, as areas on the east coast rapidly develop and planning permissions are granted, it sometimes takes local authorities some time to draw up their action area plans. Trigger mechanisms agreed among the Departments of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and Education and Science and local authorities should be put in place, particularly as we already know the areas in which growth will take place. Once planning permission has been granted for a certain number of houses, these two Departments and local authorities and residents should immediately get together to sort out the issue. Schools should be planned as houses are being built.
A silly argument is taking place in County Louth about the views of the Department of Education and Science versus those of the county manager. The whole issue should have been agreed earlier and should not have entered the public domain. If the triggers I propose were in place, action would be taken and a resolution found almost as soon as houses are built.
On the one hand, the Minister lectures the local authorities about their obligations while, on the other, the local authorities lecture her about her obligations to provide money for school sites. The issue needs to be resolved between the Departments of Education and Science and the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, and funding must be secured for schools. I am astonished that, with the exception of development charges, developers who make millions of euro from building houses on development land make no real contribution to necessary infrastructure, particularly in education. This needs to change.
As our population changes, particularly as the numbers of new immigrants increase, primary and secondary schools have an important role to play in integrating different communities, religions and races. Ireland is fast becoming a multicultural society. I laud the commitment of teachers to make this change a constructive and positive one, but this may not always be the case. I am concerned that with immigrants tending to earn less and work in poorly paid jobs, a greater proportion of them will live in social housing than in affordable or other types of housing. A plan must be drawn up to ensure our new communities are integrated in society and the education sector must lead the process of change.
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