Wednesday, 13 April 2011
Dáil Éireann Debate
Deputy Clare Daly: The Private Members’ motion from Fianna Fáil is an indication that one can spin anything one likes. The idea that these people would laud their achievements in education is an insult. Last September we had the outrageous situation, which prevails to this day, where 106,000 primary school pupils resided in classes of 30 pupils or more, representing 21% of the primary school population and which is the second worst pupil-teacher ratio in Europe.
It is quite clear that the last Government had an appalling record in education, but we can safely say the new Government is heading for an even worse record. The decision to pause the allocation of resource teaching hours, on top of the cap on the allocation of employment of SNAs, leaves every child in this State at risk. It is an absolute indictment of the current Government and will probably lead us to a situation where it will be in breach of the minimum standard of education promised to every child in the State. It is quite likely that unless the Government addresses this issue, teachers will be dealing with students with special needs without any resource teaching support whatsoever, while trying to monitor the rest of the pupils in their classes. This will have a devastating impact on the quality of each child’s education.
For the first time, we are seeing a reduction in the number of mature students applying for college. We can see at both ends of the educational spectrum, that far from prioritising education, the Government is diminishing it. This is completely wrong, but the outgoing governing party has a brass neck to claim it did anything differently.
Deputy Mick Wallace: It is very worrying that the new Government does not seem interested in reversing the cuts introduced by the previous Government. God knows that the young people who will suffer the most from this are the least culpable for the financial crisis in which we find ourselves. If we do away with resource teachers for travellers and hit learning support and language support teachers over the next few years, this will have a dramatic effect not just on the kids who would have been getting the special attention, but every other kid as well due to the extra load being put on teachers.
The cuts in child benefit have also caused problems for many of these people, because parents would have used some of this money for books, shoes and uniforms, so they are going to suffer a double whammy. It is hardly rocket science. All of the research shows that the investment in youth has to be the best of all. It shows that for every euro spent on a young person the State saves a minimum of €8 before the child becomes an adult. Even if one did not have a social bone in one’s body, it makes good business sense to invest in youth. Saving €24 million in this regards when the visits of Queen Elizabeth II and President Obama will actually cost more simply beggars belief in terms of where our principles lie. The Irish Penal Reform Trust has emphasised the importance of tackling educational disadvantage, instead of throwing money at the results — crime, poverty, addiction and social exclusion. In fairness, if the Government cares at all, this is something that should not happen.
Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett: Fianna Fáil has some nerve in talking about safeguarding education spending or commending its own record. It is quite extraordinary. Its record includes cutting Traveller education resources, putting a cap on special needs assistance and cutting the co-ordination of rural services for the disadvantaged, in other words, hitting the most vulnerable and disadvantaged sections of society. There are fewer people working in the education system than in 2008, with a drop of more than 1,000 staff. Fianna Fáil can spin all the figures it likes, but the truth is it cut the numbers working in the education system.
Let us not forget the commitment to reduce class sizes to 20, a commitment which was reneged upon. We are now talking about an average class size of 28, but, of course, we know that in many areas the figures are much higher, with 30 to 35 in classes. Other cuts, too, are being targeted such as in the teacher allocations for gaelscoileanna. It is expected that in some schools there could be class sizes of up to 40 in the short term.
The truth is that Fianna Fáil presided over a serious deterioration in the quality of the education system, hitting the most disadvantaged in particular. Significantly, while the figures for teachers have increased in some areas, this is against a backdrop of 10,000 extra children feeding into the system every year. Therefore, the extra resources provided are not keeping pace with the demographic tsunami sweeping through the system. A massive increase in resources is necessary.
Neither the Government nor the Opposition can seriously claim education is important and should be the fuel to help economic growth and recovery unless they are willing to raise the proportion of moneys being spent on education to average European and OECD levels. We spend a much smaller proportion of our national wealth on education compared to most of our European and OECD counterparts, despite the fact that this country has become significantly richer in recent years. That is the real test of how much we put into education as a proportion of national wealth. The figure has been falling. Sadly, the Government has signalled its intention not to reverse the cuts made and has made no concrete pledges to increase the proportion of education spending. That is what we need. All the rest are just weasel words.
Deputy Seamus Healy: It appears, in effect, that the Government is supporting this Private Members’ motion, part of which states Dáil Éireann “believes that education and training will be a central part in economic recovery and job creation in the months and years ahead”. I am wondering how this sits with statements made by Labour Party Ministers in the past couple of days. The Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Ruairí Quinn, says he cannot categorically guarantee that front-line spending in his Department will be protected. The Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy Pat Rabbitte, has been telling us that public service numbers will have to be cut and that others will have to take up the slack. I want to tell him that there is no slack in primary, secondary or third level education. It is an insult to suggest there is to staff who are under enormous pressure in these areas in the general public service as a result of the reductions that have already taken place.
I call on the Minister to deal with the abuse of post-doctoral researchers in Irish universities and the third level education system generally. There are about 3,000 post-doctoral researchers in the universities who are all employed on temporary contracts. They have less security than any unskilled worker in general employment. They are conducting research at the highest levels, nationally and internationally, and making an immense contribution to Irish scholarship and the economy. Typically, such a researcher would have achieved more than 500 points in the leaving certificate examination and have an honours degree and a PhD, having served a minimum of seven years in third level education. With four years spent on training courses, he or she will have accrued 11 years scholarship experience at the highest level. These researchers are being abused. They are not being allowed to obtain full-time permanent employment after four years service. I, therefore, ask the Minister to look at the serious abuse of these post-doctoral researchers.
I want to speak about the importance of investing in and producing graduates at third level which forms an important part of the debate. It is common for everyone seeking access to the public service these days to be treated as a customer. However, students are not customers, no more than primary schoolchildren. A right to a third level education has been established. There is substantial evidence that when third level fees were in place, they were a barrier to participation in college. I cannot go into all of the statistics, but there have been substantial increases, as covered in the report, Who Goes to College?, carried out by Professor Patrick Clancy and others for the ESRI and the HEA. For example, it was found that between 1998 and 2004 the manual skills group had almost doubled its participation rate in college. Before third level fees were abolished, the same studies showed that three income groups, in particular, were in decline as regards their rates of participation in college education. People make assertions that somehow the abolition of fees made the position on access to third level education worse, but that is not borne out by the statistics. Across the board, the figures show that all socio-economic groups have improved their participation rates in college education since the abolition of third level fees.
The core of third level investment should be the teaching of students. Many involved in the third level sector, including some heads of universities, seem to believe the priorities should embrace other matters apart from the teaching of graduates. It is very important that whatever funding is made available for third level investment, the core mission should be producing graduates and ensuring high quality teaching. We should never lose sight of this.
In terms of the need to make savings, we need to look at how much money is being spent on teaching, what lecturers do with their time and where the money is going. This is very necessary. As in many other areas, there are areas in the education system where money has been wasted. That should be the first port of call in saving money at college level.
As regards other initiatives, we should tap into the ESF, as we did in the past, for third level services. That was very successful. We should have a more flexible model of education to help reduce the number of drop-outs from third level, which would bring about savings. We must also look at capping salaries of those at the top levels. The four Dublin ITs have come up with a proposal for one technological university in Dublin, a measure which might also produce savings. There is much that could be done to make savings. It costs approximately €5,200 in social welfare payments for an 18 to 21 year old on jobseeker’s assistance. That money could be used to help that person get third level qualifications. Investing in third level is an investment in our economy and we should not do anything to prevent people from going to college, such as reintroducing third level fees.
Deputy Kevin Humphreys: I welcome the opportunity to discuss education in the House. The motion is timely and I thank Fianna Fáil for raising it and allowing discussion on the issue. Education is critical to the future of society. If we have learned any lesson from the past, we have learned that we must provide people with the skills and training to create an environment that is ready for the economy to grow. I am delighted my constituency colleague, Deputy Ruairí Quinn, has been appointed Minister for Education and Skills. He has a record as a Minister in a previous Government and as a spokesman on education. I believe he will lead change in the education area and he has already hit the ground running.
We need change throughout the system and we must try to bring about that change with the resources we have currently. It is clear significant numbers of extra personnel have been employed in the education area. We acknowledge that has happened, despite what was said earlier. However, return from that investment has been disappointing. It has not delivered. For example, let us look at the OECD report and PISA literacy ranking for 2009. This was a wake-up call for Irish education. It indicated that one in ten children has a serious difficulty with reading and writing. In 2006, Ireland was ranked fifth in the OECD countries for literacy but by 2009, we had dropped to seventeenth place out of 34 countries, a sharp decline. This information is clear in the report. There is evidence also of a decline in literacy standards among teenagers. One in six 15 year olds and up to one in four teenage boys do not have sufficient literacy skills to function in a knowledge intensive society. There is no standardisation of literacy testing at second level. This must be addressed in order to raise levels so that no students fall through the gaps.
Numeracy skills were also identified in the OECD report as being below average. Before the Labour Party became part of Government, Deputy Aodhán Ó Riordáin spearheaded a Right to Read campaign. We now propose that this campaign be implemented to improve literacy skills in disadvantaged areas and target literacy blackspots. Despite all the investment in personnel, the collapse in literacy and numeracy skills demonstrated by the OECD reports are a shocking indictment of the previous Government. Problems with literacy are not confined to primary schools. A further sign of the decline can be seen by looking at the figures for students taking higher level maths and science, where there is a decline in the numbers overall.  Previous figures demonstrate that 40% of students doing junior certificate maths take maths at the higher level, but this drops to 20% for the leaving certificate. I welcome the Project Maths initiative, but more must be done if we are to capture new areas.
In my constituency, some of the biggest employers are tech companies such as Google, Facebook and Betfair. All of these require strong literacy and numeracy skills, as do their support companies. The concerns raised by senior management in Google about the quality of Irish graduates must be a wake-up call for us. They said, “People applying for jobs with impressive qualifications but basic literacy errors in their CVs is an embarrassment”. We need to look at what we are producing and to raise the bar.
The results from the OECD report clearly demonstrate that our education system is nowhere near the best in the world. Concerns expressed last year with regard to grade inflation at third level must also be addressed. There must be nowhere to hide in the education system. We must demand and get the best for our children.
I welcome the change in the administration of third level grants announced today by the Minister. Many Members will have had to deal with parents and students awaiting a response from local authorities as to whether they would get a grant or could afford to stay on in third level education. I welcome the centralisation of the administration to the City of Dublin Vocational Education Committee. The one regret I had when elected a Deputy was that I had to leave my colleagues in the CDVEC. I believe they will do an excellent job.
Deputy Michael McCarthy: I would like to correct a contribution made by a Deputy earlier. The Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy Rabbitte, did not say that the Government would reduce public sector numbers. What he said was that the Croke Park agreement was the only game in town and that if there was not full and wide participation in it, alternatives would have to be considered.
I am delighted to have the opportunity to speak on this important motion. Like all other Members, I have a strong interest in the education area. We have schools in every town and village and these are at the heart of every community. Unfortunately, in recent years many schools and universities have been left with a catalogue of deep-seated problems. This is unjustifiable given the wealth and prosperity the country experienced throughout the Celtic tiger period. However, we are where we are and must now look to right these wrongs within the most challenging of fiscal circumstances.
We in Government must do everything in our power to harness rather than hinder the education potential of our young people. The next generation are currently sitting in classrooms throughout the country and our future prosperity is dependent on them. We need to equip them with the knowledge, capacity and skills to help generate jobs in key areas and get Ireland moving towards the forefront of the international stage once again. Education is the engine that will drive that growth and we must ensure, within the constraints of the economic situation, to achieve that. Piaget, the well-known Swiss philosopher once said that only education was capable of saving our societies from possible collapse, whether violent or gradual.
With regard to the Labour Party’s record in Government in the area of education, 1990s, we and colleagues abolished third level fees. This significant move allowed thousands of people from less well off backgrounds and children from middle and lower income families to access universities. Until then, fees were a huge barrier for people with limited resources and incomes substantially lower than those who could well afford university education. The issue of access to education is crucial and will always underpin and inform the Labour Party’s approach to education.
We must continue to strive to provide world class education in a system based on people’s academic ability rather than their financial ability. Every citizen is entitled to equal access to education and training in science and technology as a crucial pathway to provide them with decent work opportunities. Strong participation levels in education are vital so that we are well positioned to compete in the international, modern economy which requires workers to constantly upskill, reskill and innovate. Education has traditionally been seen as an equalising force in society. I concur with Deputy Humphrey and am confident that Deputy Ruairí Quinn is well positioned as Minister and has a strong ideological philosophy that will drive these values.
A number of positive changes are already in train on the part of the Government which augur well in terms of our vision for education, namely, the creation of a forum on patronage and the critical overhaul of the student grant system announced earlier today. It is a shambles. It is also uneconomic that 66 bodies were means-testing applications for third level grants. I am still dealing with a grant application that has been sought since last September. A system that allows such a process to continue almost into the 2011-12 academic year clearly does not work. An overhaul and fundamental change of that system, as announced, is welcome.
I have two further points. The school building programme is not working. There is not a Deputy in this House who could not point to a multiplicity of projects in his or her area that are hidden and nicely couched in diplomatic language about banding, design and architectural planning. We need to proceed immediately with shovel-ready projects because the investment in the educational infrastructure in this country will reap a benefit for years to come.
Deputy Mary Mitchell O’Connor: While I agree with the Minister for Education and Skills in his support of this Fianna Fáil motion, its wording symbolises everything that is wrong with politics and it shows a complete lack of understanding of education. The motion is self-congratulatory and self-serving and not once does it mention the words “pupil”“child” or “student”. It is all very well doling out a litany of figures but we are talking about young people and our children.
The reality is that our education system is not one of the best in the world as we have been hearing. Last year the OECD report on literacy was a wake up call for this country. However, many good things are happening in education and there are many good, positive developments.
I commend the integration of children with special needs into the mainstream system. This has taken a great deal of time, money and commitment from parents and teachers and it cannot be overturned. The concept of labelling children with special needs is all too cosy and glib. We need to understand that children have varying degrees of special and additional needs. Some of our children with special needs are unable to use toilets, some cannot walk and some are unable to communicate. Many have complex and profound difficulties. Many of these children will join mainstream classes with 28 and 29 more children and will be expected to survive. Our schools will be adapting Darwin’s policy of survival of the fittest within the classroom in 2011. Even in this economic climate this policy is not acceptable in our classrooms.
Our banks are taking €550 million every week out of this economy and we are going to cut educational resources to children who have mild, moderate and profound special needs. We owe it to the children of this country to provide them with a quality education that meets their educational needs. Our children are not responsible for the legacy of debt that Fianna Fáil and the previous Government passed on to them. Their education should not suffer because of failures of banks and the previous Government which sold out their futures. Why should children with autism and special needs suffer? Why should developers who owe €40 million and more not pay back the money owed to this country? Why should senior managers in banks walk off with massive pensions? One should try to explain that concept to parents of children with special needs.
I am not talking about protecting jobs; I am talking about providing children with special educational needs with a fair chance of getting a good education. It is a travesty that children with special needs are now being denied their educational rights. We must protect the vulnerable in our society. There are children in Dún Laoghaire enrolled since September 2011 in primary schools with Down’s syndrome and additional special needs who will have no SNA support and will be in mainstream classes of 28 and 29 children. Parents are extremely worried and cannot sleep at night. As a former school principal who taught many children with special needs, I believe their anxiety is more than justified. What is to happen to these children? Are they to be left at the back of the classroom without the additional resources they deserve or will we take special needs support from one child who has a detailed psychological report and give it to another child with an equally detailed psychological report? Who will make this decision as to which child is more deserving — the parent, the teacher, the principal or King Saul?
I fully understand the problem is that the new Government is constrained as a result of the bailout deal with the IMF and the EU. I understand the Government is unable to overturn the embargo on hiring special needs assistants and resource teachers. We need to streamline our services. Speech, language and occupational therapists should work in the schools to ensure children with special needs can access services daily rather than parents trying to get appointments with HSE clinics on an ad hoc basis.
It is imperative we protect our most vulnerable children. We must not let our children with special educational needs go uncatered for. It would be a shocking indictment on this country if children with special needs were left to fend for themselves in mainstream classrooms without the additional assistance they require and to which they are entitled.
Deputy John O’Mahony: I am pleased to contribute to the debate and to support the sentiments of this motion. It was refreshing last night to see the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Quinn, support the motion, which was not what we saw in recent years when everything was opposed by Government when we were on the benches opposite.
Every Deputy agrees and has a responsibility to do whatever he or she can to ensure that spending on education is protected in as far as that is possible. The Minister pointed out last night the difficulties and obstacles that exist because of the current financial situation. However, we all must acknowledge that a high standard, well structured education system can be a vehicle to get us out of our current difficulties.
To turn off the tap now on spending on education, whatever our circumstances, would be economic suicide. We all agree that wastage must be cut out, that money needs to be spent on the provision of special needs assistants, as the previous Deputy mentioned, teacher numbers, resource teachers and value for money school buildings. We all are aware of the scandal in recent years where billions of euro was spent on renting prefabs. The position has improved somewhat in recent years because of the small schools scheme and the devolved grant scheme but there is still wastage. I am currently representing a school in my constituency which sought the provision of two additional classrooms due to a huge increase in its numbers. It was granted one classroom at a cost €100,000 but it was refused the second classroom, even though it has to pay €60,000 in rent. Those are issues that we in government must tackle to ensure money is spent in areas where it should be spent. There are far better ways to get value for money despite some improvements that have been made.
Another issue that is a cause of concern is that of young teachers who are on fixed term contracts. To be blunt, this is a legacy from the previous Government that has been left for us to deal with. Rural co-ordinators and various resource teacher posts were removed. Young teachers are in positions in schools and the schools want to appoint them but they will not be able to do so because the panels have become incredibly long as a result of the cutbacks that were already announced months ago. That issue must be tackled sensitively.
Many of us met with students from USI and heard about the issues that are of concern. Time constraints prevent me from addressing many of them. I welcome today’s announcement on student grants. I hope the new system of awarding grants to students will result in them getting their money early in the year rather than the previous situation that pertained in certain counties in recent years where the first instalment was not paid until March or April. That is not good enough. I am pleased to see there is movement in that regard.
Another issue that arises with third level grants is the underhand way in which the criteria for mature students were changed last year. That will affect the third level institution in my constituency where more than 60% of students fall into that category. The cut will mean many of them will not get their full grant because they will not comply with the new 45 km criterion.
My final point relates to student nurses. The Government has given a guarantee to review the position. It is simply not fair that student nurses are being asked to work for nothing in their fourth year while they come within the staffing allocation of hospitals. In other words, they are preventing registered nurses from gaining employment but they are expected to do the same job for nothing. That is simply not good enough.
There are many challenges ahead. I am reminded of the adage, “From the greatest challenge comes the greatest opportunity”. I look forward to working with the Government to ensure all those issues are tackled.
Deputy Patrick O’Donovan: I welcome the opportunity to speak on the motion before the House tonight which focuses primarily on the areas of education and training. I wish the new Minister and his ministerial team the best of luck. There is no doubt that like every other sector in the country at the moment education faces considerable challenges. The reason is that the Government has been left with an appalling legacy which now needs to be addressed. I listened to the debate last night on the monitor in the office. One could almost smell the hypocrisy wafting up from the Chamber from several contributors who spoke after the Minister for Education and Skills. Their new-found interest in education smacks of total hypocrisy.
I welcome the comments of the Minister last night, especially on literacy and numeracy at primary level because contrary to what was trumpeted in the Chamber last night we have significant problems at that level. I speak as a recently qualified primary teacher. From an OECD perspective we still have children leaving the primary school sector who are functionally illiterate. They cannot fill out a basic form or carry out basic tasks. That is another legacy issue with which we have been left. One must ask what kind of education system can turn out such people. How in the name of God could we be in any way proud of such a record in 2011?
The performance of students in maths is another area of concern. The analysis of examination results in maths and science has become something of an annual event when the junior certificate and leaving certificate results are published. Every year the same people bemoan the fact that grades in maths and science have deteriorated. I wish the Minister well in his endeavours in that regard. He addressed the issue last night.
An area in which I have a particular interest is that of social disadvantage leading to educational disadvantage and non-participation. The State has a duty to ensure that all children are given a fair chance of achieving a decent standard of education. Teachers must be supported when issues present in the classroom. That became evident in the recent past when the area of neglect was brought to book in some high profile cases. Absenteeism, unpunctuality and issues such as the quality of lunch a child brings to school can be signs of underlying problems at home. If children are to have any chance of fulfilling their potential in the education system, teachers must be supported. At the end of the day the child’s welfare must be paramount. Support for parents is required at an earlier stage than is the case currently.
As someone who qualified relatively recently as a primary teacher, I call on the Minister to examine the current arrangements for probation among primary teachers. Recently qualified teachers are finding it increasingly difficult to obtain a position that will allow them to be probated. I am aware of several people from my class in Mary Immaculate College, Limerick, who have had to leave the country out of necessity to get a job. Some of them have left without any sign of whether they will be able to be probated on their return.
The constituency I represent is a rural one and schools have an important place in the community. As someone who taught in a four-teacher school, I am aware of the value provided by small schools to the local community. I urge the Government to try to protect the rural school network. In many places around the country the small rural school is the last piece of social infrastructure that remains.
Within rural schools and small schools the position of principal has become ever more demanding with further administrative burdens being placed on them. Most of them are snowed under with form filling and administration. In many cases the administration can appear to come out of the blue. The reality for a lot of small schools is that they will undoubtedly find it difficult to get principals in the future because teachers will not be prepared to take on the administrative burden that goes with the position and teach a class at the same time.
Previous speakers referred to competence in maths and science. We must also examine the matter from the perspective of third level courses. Employers in the science and engineering areas question whether we are producing the best possible graduates. The type of entry programme for science and engineering courses must be examined. Currently, one can study either of those courses in any university with one science subject and ordinary level maths at leaving certificate level which leads to high drop-out rates. The matter requires examination.
Deputy Robert Troy: I am delighted to speak on the motion before the House tonight. It is fair to say that all Members of the House support the fundamental principle that a first class education and skills training is central to the vibrant life of the country and in particular to our economic recovery and the core task of job creation. Hence the importance of placing the motion for debate tonight.
As a new Member I acknowledge the considerable investment and subsequent progress that has been made in our education system in the past decade. Unfortunately, the statistics speak for themselves. Let me remind the House of the achievements in the education sector. There has been an increase in teacher numbers from 21,000 to 31,700 and a reduction in class sizes. A wide range of special education schemes were introduced, including an increase in special needs assistants, SNAs, from 250 in 1997 to 10,543 at the end of 2010. I remind Deputies on the other side of the House that they now have to power to at least maintain those levels and increase them if they so wish.
Deputy Robert Troy: There are now in excess of 20,000 people in schools working solely with pupils with special needs. That includes more than 10,000 special needs assistants, more than 9,000 resource and learning support teachers employed in mainstream schools, 500 teachers in special classes and 1,100 special school teachers.
We have witnessed a significant increase in investment in the schools building programme from €35.17 million in 1996-97 to €222 million in 2011. That is just in primary schools. I acknowledge that there are plenty of school building projects to complete. The school completion rates saw a dramatic expansion of student numbers at third level rising from 100,204 full-time students enrolled in higher education institutions in Ireland in 1997 to approximately 160,000 for 2010-11. That represents an increase in the region of 59%.
We have the highest proportion of graduates among the 25 to 34 age group in the EU. In 1980, some 20% of all 18 year olds went on to higher education. By 2009, this had risen to65%, a figure we would all like to see improve over the coming years. There has been a dramatic expansion in the number of training places available. This is critical in the current economic climate.
While acknowledging that a lot of good and necessary work has been done in the education sector over the past decade, we all know work remains to be done in the lifetime of this Administration because we must constantly strive for excellence and continue to transform our education sector to meet current and future needs. It is very appropriate, therefore, that we are debating this motion.
I want to highlight the importance of the smaller school, especially in the context of the current value for money review. The smaller schools are primarily rural but not exclusively so. I tabled a parliamentary question to the Minister on this matter and was deeply concerned by the non-committal response. The parents, children and staff attending the smaller schools are living in fear that their schools will be closed simply on a value for money basis and with no effort to take into account the high quality of education available therein, the quality of school buildings, the wider impact on the life of the community, parental wishes and many other factors that are so important. Parents and teachers are very anxious about the length of time the review will take and are worried the Minister has not given any indication of his thoughts on this issue or the criteria on which decisions will be based. He has no predetermined view on the outcome of this review. This is not acceptable to the education partners involved in the smaller schools and they are now living with great uncertainty over the future of their schools. This is leading to schools competing against each other in the fear that, once their number drops below 50, they will be closed. The review must be carried out more quickly than anticipated and outlined by the Minister some weeks ago.
Given our current economic circumstances, it is important to examine ways in which we can improve value for money in all areas of life, and there may be areas in education where resources can be pooled, such as in respect of specialist, clerical and outdoor staff. Facilities can be shared and considerable savings can be made. Everyone would accept this. However, neither my party nor I could support any programme to rationalise smaller schools based simply on a value for money review.
I found myself agreeing with former Taoiseach, John Bruton, this weekend. He quite rightly challenged the Minister of State on his remarks on the teaching of religion in primary schools. While the recent OECD report showing a sharp decline in our literacy results is worrying and needs to be addressed urgently, it is a very simplistic approach to education to infer that this decline in standards is a result of the time given to religious education on the primary school curriculum. Mr. Bruton is right when he says education seeks to prepare children not just for working life but for life as a whole.
I welcome the establishment of the forum on patronage and pluralism in the primary sector. However, the Minister, with his target of having 50% of schools move from the patronage of the Catholic Church, is pre-empting the work of the forum. There is no question the pupil population has become increasingly diverse over the past decade and that there is a need to review the current model of patronage of schools to reflect the richness and diversity of our country today. Schools are very important places and their future requires careful reflection, dialogue and decisions by all parties involved, not just wild target-setting by the Minister, in order that we can have an education system of which we can all be proud.
Deputy Charlie McConalogue: I welcome this motion. It is non-partisan and seeks to gain cross-party agreement and debate on the shape of our education policy and spending over the next few years. During the general election campaign, the public expressed a strong desire for reform of our political system and for debate and conversation between Members that is informed and balanced, as opposed to the traditional rhetoric that is often served up to little purpose.
Since the start of this Dáil term, the outgoing Government has on many occasions been blamed for the position we are in. This is fair and the parties that formed that Government were defeated heavily in the general election as a result. Anyone who wishes to point a finger, however, must also examine his own position at the time in question. As easy as it is to say we are in this position because of the actions of the previous Government, we must acknowledge it was not acting in isolation. It is actually the political system that contributed to the circumstances we are in. All parties were advocating a similar policy at the time in question. What the former Opposition parties were advocating would also have fuelled the fire. Although it is absolutely fair to point to the economic and policy decisions of the former Government during its term in office, one must also comment on the policy platform of the parties that comprise the current Government and determine whether it is different from that of its predecessor. I welcome that the current Government has adopted a more non-partisan approach to this motion than is normally adopted. We need to see more of this approach, whereby parties can agree on a matter of policy.
Since the formation of this Dáil, much parliamentary time has been taken up by the very stark issues facing the country owing to our national expenditure deficit, bearing in mind that the banking system is not servicing businesses or citizens and is putting exceptional demands on the country because of recapitalisation. However, it is important that, in the midst of this, we continue to focus on the policy areas that will be critical to the development of our people in the medium to longer term, and to the health of our economy and society in future years. To this end, this motion on education hits the nail on the head. It ensures we draw attention to the need for maintaining investment in our education system in order that young people get a proper start in life and the opportunity to develop their specific talents to provide the country with the oxygen of an educated and attractive people that will see the country develop and prosper. Although we now face some of the most difficult times the country has seen in decades, it is the legacy of investment in and prioritisation of education in recent years that is at the heart of what is good about Ireland at present.
Some 14% of the workforce is unemployed, representing a massive challenge that must be addressed. Many of the jobs that exist, however, are a result of Ireland having been able to attract investment to sectors where having a well-trained and educated workforce is essential. The jobs came about, therefore, as a result of the investment in education in recent years. Many of the areas in which we continue to do well are areas that rely on education and skills. Knowledge intensive industries operate in some of our strongest sectors and represent our greatest opportunities for the future. It is clear that when assessing how Ireland can recover, export-led, knowledge intensive industries will be essential. For that reason, it is critical that Parliament signals that education will be a priority when vital fiscal decisions are being taken.
There has been significant progress in the education system in recent years. The expansion in the number of primary teaching positions from 21,000 to 31,700 has been enormously beneficial. Admittedly, this occurred at a time when student numbers were also increasing, but the overall pupil-teacher ratio has become significantly more favourable.
There has also been a marked increase in support for children with special needs, with the number of special needs assistants rising from 250 to 10,000. Every one of us knows how this has affected students with special educational needs. At second level, the school completion rate has continued to increase owing to a range of measures introduced. The number of students now attending third level has increased massively. That is not to say we can roll back in any way. On the contrary, we need to continue to push for more investment, particularly at a time when circumstances are difficult.
Deputy Michael Moynihan: I am glad to have this opportunity to speak on education and the future of our education system. With few exceptions, we have built up a very good education system over many years. Decisions made by various governments have contributed enormously to it. One should consider the 1950s, one of the very difficult decades for this country during which the vocational educational sector was established and rolled out throughout the country, to ensure that in difficult times we do not lose sight of the necessity for education and its importance.
I raise the issue of rural schools, the value for money of schools with fewer than 50 pupils and the emphasis on centralising not only in education but throughout the spectrum. There is a notion that we should centralise everything irrespective of the consequences for communities. Decisions to centralise in all sectors of society have not done society, the Irish countryside or the State any good. We must consider the overall context and while we realise that money must be saved throughout the spectrum and that money will have to be found to ensure we balance the books in the coming years, we must look at the long-term consequences.
In recent years there has been a continuous attempt to centralise everything, which started with the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, local authorities and groups such as An Taisce stating that it was no longer possible or sustainable in a development plan to have one-off housing in the countryside, that we should all live in cities, towns or large villages, and that it was necessary to follow this policy from the top to the very bottom. We have seen the disastrous consequences of this.
In the late 1960s there was an attempt to centralise and remove clusters of schools from small communities and take the life and soul from those once vibrant communities, which had the basic infrastructure people need in a community around which people can build. If one examines small communities, not only in rural settings but in urban settings, which build around a nucleus such as a school, one sees that by and large they are free of social problems.
We are left with the legacy of decisions taken in the 1960s to build huge apartment blocks on the fringes of cities, not only with regard to education but also with regard to social services, justice, the Garda Síochána and health services. We do not look back and evaluate the decisions taken at that time or the decisions taken on areas of huge growth and spatial strategies, which left out the tiny hamlets. Those tiny hamlets have stood society exceptionally well. This is not only the case in Ireland. We have seen the disastrous consequences for the English countryside of the policies pursued there, and if we are to be serious about learning from the mistakes of the past, particularly the past seven or eight years, we have to look at all aspects and not only one specific aspect and reverse the policies and decisions taken.
With regard to decisions on closed school routes, many boundary changes and catchment areas, particularly with regard to primary schools and in some instances post-primary schools, were put in place in the late 1960s and early 1970s when the last major drive for rural schools was in place. Approximately six years ago, the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Education and Science attempted to conduct a review of all of the boundaries. It asked for submissions, which were received prior to the 2007 election, but they were not pursued subsequently. The boundary catchment areas for national and primary schools need to be examined because society has changed much since the rules were put in place.
If any decisions are made by the Department of Education and Skills with regard to smaller schools they should not leave legacy issues down the line. These communities do not cost society as much as the large urban centres which we as a nation, and the world, have strived to create with disastrous consequences.
Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív: Tááthas orm go bhfuil deis agam labhairt ar an ábhar fíor-thábhachtach seo. Sílim gurbh é Tomás Dáibhéis a dúirt “Educate, that you might be free”. It was interesting that much of what happened to bring about independence here was because of a widening circle of people who were educated and could see new horizons and a new vision for the country. I thank all of the Deputies who took part in the debate. As was mentioned yesterday, the motion was tabled with the intention of enabling the first debate on education in the Dáil. It was framed in such a way as to be capable of support across the House.
It is clear from the debate that there is full agreement that policies on education and training will be central not only to economic recovery but to the well-being of our people. One of the big mistakes we have made in recent years is to think all the time that everything is measured in GDP. The well-being of a community, society and nation is a much wider concept than GDP. Even within GDP there is a question of spreading the wealth. There is no point in having a high GDP if parts of our communities suffer huge deprivation. At present, the greatest divide in our society is the educational divide. Access to educational achievement and the aspiration to educational achievement is where we find the greatest barrier to opportunities and choice in the lives of those growing up in socially deprived areas.
I thank the Minister for his contribution, which was constructive and welcome. I also thank him for the comments concerning the motion and the mention at the end of his speech that he commended it to the House. In light of this, it would be more appropriate for the Government to do as we do when we believe the Government is right and support the motion in the House tonight and get over the idea that an Opposition proposal must be opposed and that we in opposition must automatically oppose a Government proposal. We speak all the time about using our heads and getting away from the old rotes and habits. Tonight is a perfect opportunity for the Government to state that this is a fair motion and is something it can buy into, and show there is solidarity in the House when we agree on issues. As stated yesterday by my colleague, we also welcome the Government’s minor amendment as it corrects a clerical error made when the motion was submitted.
The Sinn Féin amendment contains much of the “same old, same old” approach. There is no consciousness and nowhere are we told from where the resources will come. There is the usual bowing to those who are disadvantaged in society, but there is no statement that those who are well-off should make some contribution so we can transfer money within the education system to those who are less well-off. We have to challenge the view that divorces every individual motion from any concept of where the money will come from because no matter how wealthy the country ever was or will be there will always be a finite amount of money to spend.
I totally reject Sinn Féin’s statement, made by Deputy McLellan, that improvements in the education system were only spin. When children went to the three teacher schools of 15 or 20 years ago, those schools had three teachers. However, I recall being asked to open a two teacher school and when I arrived the príomhoide said: “Ba mhaith liom go gcasadh tú leis an bhfoireann” and invited me to meet the staff. I thought she was codding because I expected there to be one staff member. While I was aware of the facts in education, I did not associate them with the place I was visiting but there was a caretaker, a secretary, learning support teachers, resource teachers and SNAs. There was a line of staff.
That was not the case in the 1980s or 1990s and anybody who pretends otherwise never went to such a school in those years. There has been an enormous increase in numbers. The figures are provided in our motion and they stand up to scrutiny. There has also been a huge increase in resource and learning support teachers in that time, and rightly so. Of course, we would like to do more but we must live within our means.
Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív: On the other hand, if GDP increases but there is huge demand on the health, social welfare or other budgets, is Sinn Féin saying that education must get the money regardless of what happens, in a zombie fashion and without considering all priorities and competing interests and demands? Undoubtedly, if there was a motion on health before the House next week, there would be an amendment from Sinn Féin stating that more should be spent on health. If there was a motion on social welfare, that party would state there should be no cutbacks in social welfare and, in fact, the rates should be increased. One cannot do all that with a finite amount of money.
It is about time people explained exactly how they will square the circle and how they will get all the money required to provide the services they are promising. Ultimately, the only way to do it at present is to borrow more money, but then Sinn Féin tells us not to be in hock to foreign bankers by taking more money from them, as we owe them more money and lose our independence. Its members are very critical in that regard. I do not like losing my independence either, but there is only one way for a state or an individual to retain their independence and that is by not living beyond their means. Otherwise they come totally under the control of those who are providing the money. While all of us would like to spend more on education, we must state exactly how we will do it.
My view on spending in education is another area where I fall foul of my colleagues in Sinn Féin, even though I have much sympathy for many of their views. When money is scarce, those who have most should pay most and those who need most should get most. When one talks about universal rights, no fees and no charges for people who are multimillionaires, that means robbing money from the poor to provide a free service for people at the top. That is the logic of what one is saying. I attend student debates in Galway and I have challenged the students in the university. They talk about student fees and say they cannot be applied to people with incomes of, for example, more than €120,000 per year. They are all concerned about that. My argument is that they are not half as concerned about the children of Tallaght, Ballybane or in RAPID areas who never get an opportunity to go to university in the first place. If they are really concerned about the disadvantaged and deprived in our community, that is where they should focus their attention. That is where the resources are needed.
The reality in our society is that before children even get to school, the area in which they are born largely determines their outcome educationally. One of the big challenges for the education system is that it cannot operate in a vacuum. Schools with relatively less resources are achieving far better results, irrespective of the parents’ education, according to the areas in which they are located. Statistics clearly show that rural areas and rural counties have a much higher number of children receiving third level education than urban counties. Counties Galway and Mayo have a higher number of people in third level education than the average for Dublin city. That is a frightening thought because of the distance those counties are from the universities.
When one examines it further one finds that in middle class areas of Dublin a high number of children go to third level education, but the RAPID areas are total blackspots. In some of them only 10% of children get an opportunity to go to third level education. That is where the resources should be focused. I sometimes think that those who have had all the educational advantage are quick to say that more should be spent on education, but what they really mean is that money should be spent on the advantaged. They do not really mean it to be spent on those who suffer the greatest disadvantage.
This leads us to the fundamental question raised by Deputy Moynihan. There are policies being promoted by various agencies and Departments — I am not referring to political people in this case — that see as the solution to every problem in this country driving people out of the countryside and into towns, cities and villages. The idea is that the more one can get into the city, the more one can measure success. The only vision they have of economic growth is through cities. The problem is that the greatest areas of disadvantage in our State are in urban areas. The areas of the greatest drugs misuse and social problems are all urban ghettos. It is totally unfair to the people in those areas that we have devised social and planning policies which have led to this segregation in the cities. Unfortunately, there are huge, powerful interests in this country and a large number of influential NGOs that cannot see beyond this policy.
If one examines the students at universities in this county, one will find relatively few from the urban areas near those universities, for example, in Tallaght, Blanchardstown and so forth, relative to their rural neighbours. Two things have worked in rural areas. The first is the make-up of the society itself. Irrespective of the parents’ backgrounds and their personal educational attainment, education is put at a high premium. Hence the phenomenal success of the small schools of rural areas in terms of access to third level education.
I once conducted a survey in a small three teacher rural school over a ten year period. The results were very interesting. It was before the SNA and extra supports that are now available. Over a ten year period 70% of the children who had gone to that school had gone on to third level education. A further 20% had secured a craft and only 10% left with just the leaving certificate or some other lesser qualification. I also assessed over that ten year period how many of the parents had received a third level education, but it was only a handful. The trick was not that the parents had an education but that the common denominator in the community was the high value put on education. When one examines the urban deprivation issue, one finds that as few as 10% of children are going to third level. Equally, few of the parents received a third level education but the dividing factor is the nature of the society.
Any Government that tries to close the rural schools, under whatever guise, will make a huge mistake. Why break that which is working? Why not concentrate on the part of our education system that has not been put into the total community context? There is one good model in Dublin, St. Ultan’s, where the babies, toddlers, after-school care and all the supports are in a single building. It is trying to deal with the social deprivation issue. If we wish to solve problems, let us go to where they are and not create problems where they do not exist.
If one examines the investment in these small schools, one sees a result of 70% or 80% of pupils who attain their life wishes in terms of choice of careers and so forth. There is huge investment in Deis band 1 schools and that is right but, because it is disconnected from the social problems in those communities, one finds that despite the big investment few of the pupils gain what they should from education. I believe that if the Minister for Education and Skills is genuinely concerned about the impact of education on the divide in this society, he will not waste much time worrying about the rural areas where it is working but will concentrate his efforts on trying to deal with what has been an intractable problem, how to ensure that a child born in certain areas in this country will have the same chance as others of having a choice about what they do in life, be it third level education or otherwise. I am not saying everybody should wish to go to third level. They should have the same choice and the same opportunity and what will happen in their life should not be predetermined at the date of their birth by the community they grow up in and the education structure which surrounds that community. That is the real scandal in education in this country. As I stated, I cannot understand why there seems to be a fixation in the Department of Education and Skills and in other sectors with breaking something that has been working quite well.
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|Doherty, Pearse.||Ellis, Dessie.|
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|Cannon, Ciarán.||Carey, Joe.|
|Coffey, Paudie.||Collins, Áine.|
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|Conlan, Seán.||Connaughton, Paul J.|
|Conway, Ciara.||Coonan, Noel.|
|Corcoran Kennedy, Marcella.||Costello, Joe.|
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|Donohoe, Paschal.||Dooley, Timmy.|
|Dowds, Robert.||Doyle, Andrew.|
|Durkan, Bernard J.||English, Damien.|
|Farrell, Alan.||Feighan, Frank.|
|Ferris, Anne.||Fitzgerald, Frances.|
|Fitzpatrick, Peter.||Flanagan, Charles.|
|Flanagan, Terence.||Fleming, Sean.|
|Gilmore, Eamon.||Griffin, Brendan.|
|Hannigan, Dominic.||Harrington, Noel.|
|Harris, Simon.||Hayes, Brian.|
|Hayes, Tom.||Heydon, Martin.|
|Humphreys, Heather.||Humphreys, Kevin.|
|Keating, Derek.||Keaveney, Colm.|
|Kehoe, Paul.||Kelleher, Billy.|
|Kelly, Alan.||Kenny, Seán.|
|Kirk, Seamus.||Kitt, Michael P.|
|Kyne, Sean.||Lawlor, Anthony.|
|Lenihan, Brian.||Lynch, Ciarán.|
|Lynch, Kathleen.||Lyons, John.|
|McCarthy, Michael.||McConalogue, Charlie.|
|McEntee, Shane.||McFadden, Nicky.|
|McGinley, Dinny.||McGrath, Michael.|
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|Mathews, Peter.||Mitchell, Olivia.|
|Moynihan, Michael.||Mulherin, Michelle.|
|Murphy, Eoghan.||Nash, Gerald.|
|Naughten, Denis.||Neville, Dan.|
|Nolan, Derek.||Noonan, Michael.|
|Ó Cuív, Éamon.||Ó Fearghaíl, Seán.|
|Ó Ríordáin, Aodhán.||O’Dea, Willie.|
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|O’Sullivan, Jan.||Penrose, Willie.|
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