Wednesday, 9 October 2002
Seanad Eireann Debate
That Seanad Éireann, conscious of the promises made by Government parties in the general election campaign that no cutbacks in public services were planned, condemns the Minister for Education and Science for increasing third level registration fees by 70%; slashing by €11 million initiatives to tackle school drop out rates; reducing by €6 million information technology development; reducing the teacher training budget by €6 million; failing properly to fund existing policy in the area of adult education; and, in view of the confusion surrounding recent comments made by the Minister on the future of free third level fees, calls on the Government to support unequivocally the principle of free tuition fees in primary, secondary and third level education.
I welcome the Minister on his first formal visit to the Seanad. The amendment proposed by the Government side in no way gives a clear and unequivocal guarantee that we will have free primary, secondary and third level education in the future.
The Minister made many hasty decisions in his previous ministry during the term of the last Government. I suppose he regretted them afterwards when he had time to mull over them. In five months the Minister has outdone his predecessor, whose record was fairly dismal regarding education. He was passive and lackadaisical. As Minister, Deputy Woods brought parents of seriously physically handicapped children through the courts in order to deny them their entitlements to educational services and the right to further their education. Is it not odd that today in Limerick there is a 13 year old autistic boy retained in an adult psychiatric unit? It is an indictment on the Minister that he cannot provide a full-time place for that boy where he will be looked after and provided with the proper facilities to which he is entitled.
The former Minister, Deputy Woods, destroyed the morale of secondary level teachers, particularly members of the ASTI. That litany goes on and on. The current Minister has, in five months, surpassed what Deputy Woods did. His first strike was to increase college registration fees to €670. That came immediately prior to admission and many students had in no way prepared themselves for such a shock, nor had their parents. It is an unfair burden to ask any parent to bear. Many of them are at their wits end in trying to provide funding for their children's college education. The Government had not shown that it intended to increase the maintenance grant by such a derisory amount – 4% on a previously totally inadequate grant.
With the aid and assistance of his spin doctors, the Minister said he would be the pioneer for people who were denied access to third level education because of their disadvantaged status. What did he do? In one fell swoop he substantially reduced the funding that had been made available to provide that access. It was another U-turn, a deceitful move by the Government, consistent with what it has done since it was returned to office.
The Minister said that we will have a full review of the reintroduction of third level fees. He cynically said that hours after the media carried a statement from the heads of third level institutions on the origins of many of their students. That was a misleading article. The statistics, and the deductions made from them, were latched on to by the Minister in a way which misrepresented the truth. It is odd the Minister has allies in the president of UCD, Dr. Cosgrove, the provost of Trinity College and the president of NUI Maynooth. Why have they allied themselves with the Minister's notion? The Taoiseach and Tánaiste recently disowned this – the Minister is going one way while they are going another. One wonders if it is a decoy intended to soften public outrage. The Minister has experienced public outrage, which was unfortunate and unsightly to say the least. He brought it on himself through his indecision and his U-turns.
Does this Government have an educational policy? Does it have any targets, goals or sense of direction about where it is going? The Minister has often said that we value education. If that is the way he values education I shudder to think what is down the road and what students, parents and the disadvantaged will have to encounter under his stewardship.
We claim to be one of the richest countries in the world, but we have one of the lowest rates of investment in education in the OECD. How can the Minister reconcile that? He can, of course, call in the spin doctors to assist him but, unfortunately, they may also get him into a troublesome situation from which he would find it difficult to extricate himself.
I ask the Minister to exercise more caution and move with less haste. As Minister for the Environment and Local Government, he walked away from various muddles he created in terms of the waste strategy and in the area of planning. It emerged today that the social housing scheme he put in place in the Department of the Environment and Local Government is to be dispensed with. Will the decisions he is making now in respect of education be dispensed with in the future? The area of education cannot afford that luxury because we are dependent upon it to provide members of the workforce, on which we pride ourselves so much. If the Minister moved with less haste, he might not be undermined as often as has been the case heretofore and by no lesser persons than the Taoiseach and Tánaiste.
The Minister's record to date shows that he has constantly been bushwhacked by his superiors. I therefore appeal to him to clarify this evening his intentions with regard to the reintroduction of third level fees, access for the disadvantaged – which he has crucially and cruelly reduced – the level of compensation he intends to provide to hard-pressed students in respect of the €670 registration fee and the inadequacy of maintenance grants.
Before dealing with the substance of the motion – I thank Senator Ulick Burke for introducing it – I wish to discuss my experiences in the field of pedagogy. I had the opportunity to work in both the formal and non-formal sectors of education. I worked in a secondary school and as a community development worker and I believe I can empathise with the people who work in these areas.
We must consider the holistic aspects of education before we attempt to make decisions. As Senator Burke stated, we must exercise caution and take time in this regard. We must look at the bedrock of the education system which, on a positive note, rests in the area of family support. This is a non-tangible aspect of the education system and comes in the form of parents who help their children with homework, who take time out to serve on boards of management and who volunteer to help with sporting organisations. In addition, there are teachers who voluntarily involve themselves in extracurricular activities. The assistance these people provide is a massive and positive component of the education system.
Problems have arisen in education in the past ten years and I wish to refer to a number of them. Income limits for receipt of grants are far too low. I will provide an example of this. A mother with whom I am familiar is a teacher – sometimes when we categorise teachers we forget many of them are also parents – who job shares and she is not allowed to obtain a grant for both of her children who are attending courses in Northern Ireland because of her income limit. In addition, she will not receive compensation for registration fees because they are attending colleges in the North. We are talking here about a parent, who is also a teacher, being discriminated against because she happens to be in the PAYE middle income category. I suggest that net rather than gross income should be taken into consideration.
As a representative from Donegal, I believe the people in my county are being discriminated against. I am familiar with a great institution called Magee College in Derry. In my view the Government is not providing incentives to subsidise students from Donegal who want to attend third level institutions in the North, be it Jordanstown or Queen's in Belfast or Magee College in Derry. If we are wholeheartedly committed to the idea of North-South co-operation and fostering an atmosphere of unity between people on this island, we must give greater consideration to using our education system to build bridges between Northern Ireland and the Republic.
At present, applicants cannot be assessed on their own income until they are 23 years of age. That is disgraceful. Young independent mothers aged between 18 and 21 years who may have two or three children are still means tested on the basis of their parents' income. These young female adults may have been independent from the age of 16 and there is something wrong with the way they are being treated.
Grants are not payable in respect of post graduate study outside the Irish Republic or Northern Ireland. The level of these grants is too low. For people living in Donegal or other Border counties, the position is made worse by the rate of exchange vis-à-vis sterling. In addition, applicants are of the opinion that the grant application process is in no way user-friendly.
I have highlighted the positive and negative aspects of the system and I will now deal with the substance of the motion. Confidence in the education system is being eroded and parents and teachers, who motivate our young people, will withdraw their voluntary services if this continues. Senator Ulick Burke referred to morale among teachers and if one visits any school staff room in Ireland, one will be presented with the same theme, namely, we were let down by the ASTI which did not do its homework. I believe that is letting the Government off the hook.
We must consider the position in which teachers and parents find themselves and also look at the state of the education system. Increasing third level registration fees by 70% and slashing by €11 million initiatives to tackle school drop out rates will undermine the work that has been done in the area of education during the past 30 to 40 years. As a citizen, a representative from Donegal and a person who has worked in both the formal and non-formal sectors of education, I believe teachers, parents and students have been let down to a great degree and I beg the Minister to exercise caution and take heed because we need to examine this matter in a constructive and comprehensive manner.
“welcomes this Government's unprecedented commitment to both capital and current investment at all levels of education and, in particular, to measures to promote increased access to and inclusion in third level education; the development of initiatives to maximise retention at first and second levels; the extensive level of ongoing investment in information technology throughout the education system; the increase in teacher training places and the level of in-service training available for existing teachers; the establishment of a National Adult Learning Council and the provision of significant additional resources for adult literacy programmes.”
Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire. Seo an chéad uair dó bheith inár measc mar Aire Oideachais agus Eolaíochta agus is mian liom chomhghairdeas a ghabháil leis. Tá mé lán cinnte go n-éireoidh go geal leis sna deacrachtaí agus dúshláin atá os a chomhair.
Over the past five years, there has been a spectacular increase in education provision, as the following figures will illustrate. Gross funding has almost doubled in the education sector – the actual increase is 87%. In the same period, capital expenditure has increased almost fourfold. Those are spectacular achievements by any yardstick and provide an irrefutable statement of the Government's commitment to the vital role of education in the development of our economy and the welfare of our people. The education landscape has been transformed over that period in all areas and at all levels. I realise that such facts are not very palatable for people who do not wish to hear them.
Mr. Fitzgerald: I assure the Senator that I will deal with disadvantage in a moment. I take on board some of the points made by Senator Burke and I welcome some of Senator McHugh's sentiments, which indicate a clear understanding of the huge anomalies in the area of grants and maintenance funding for third level education. In relation to Senator Burke's comments, the outstanding legacy of this Minister is one of substance, not of spin. I am happy to acknowledge this on his first visit to Seanad Éireann as Minister for Education and Science.
I wish to explode the myth of cutbacks in education. There are no cutbacks, on any honest assessment based on the simplest arithmetic. Those who do not wish to use plain, simple arithmetic may wish to seek help elsewhere. The expenditure by this Minister, following on from what has been achieved over the last five years, will not be one cent less than was allocated at the start of the year. If there are individual interpretations of cutbacks, I respectfully refer those concerned to the Oxford dictionary or its equivalent in the economic sciences.
Mr. Fitzgerald: Every cent allocated will be spent 2002, including €350 million in supports aimed at tackling disadvantage, which I will deal with more fully if I am allowed. Plain simple facts appear to be causing pain to some on the Opposition side of the House. Perhaps they need a political spin doctor to prescribe an antidote which will relieve that pain, but they should not blame me if the facts cause them discomfort.
Mr. Fitzgerald: Thank you for your protection, Sir. The expenditure will also include €320 million in third level student support. The Government is committed to tackling disadvantage and has a proud record of achievement in that regard over the last five years. I know this Minister will be very happy to be judged on his record when he leaves office in five years time.
Between 1997 and 2002, nearly 19,000 additional student places were created. That may not be very significant to some people but it is very significant to the 19,000 people who secured those places in full-time third level education and enrolment for part-time study, which increased by 41%. There was increased support for third level access, an issue which has been the subject of misguided and inaccurate comment in the media in recent weeks. The figure increased from €500,000 to €24 million in the current budget, an increase of 4,700%. A top-up maintenance grant for disadvantaged students was introduced, with a higher rate of grant set at €4,000 in 2002, and the income threshold was increased by 32%.
In isolation, that is not enough as the Minister would be the first to acknowledge. Maintenance grants for PLC students were introduced at a cost of over €12 million this year. Over 6,000 teacher training places have been created and the Government has brought the pupil-teacher ratio down to 19:1 at primary level and, effectively, 14:1 at secondary level, although in the latter case it may be 16:1 or 17:1 at recruitment level. That is the single most important criterion used by educationalists over many decades as a measure of equality of opportunity in education. We are very proud of the significant progress in that area.
In the area of disadvantage, to which Senator Burke asked me to refer, the programmes are so wide, multi-faceted and holistic in their approach that I can only sketch them briefly in the limited time available to me. We have targeted an extensive programme of initiatives which have been funded and put in place for early school leavers. The establishment of the Education Welfare Board has been a landmark development which is particularly appreciated by those of us who practised in education in the 1960s and 1970s and observed the inadequate system of school attendance officers then in place. The current holistic approach in this matter is backed up by many other initiatives.
Mr. Feighan: I welcome the Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Noel Dempsey, to the House. I always found him to be a bright, honourable and courageous Minister and admired some the decisions he made in the last Government, many of which he was not allowed to implement. On this occasion however, he is making a grave mistake.
The Government's planned multi-million euro savaging of the Department of Education and Science's budget can be generalised in one term – cutbacks, although Senator Fitzpatrick claims they are not cutbacks. He described himself as vulnerable, but the real vulnerable people are in our towns, cities and rural areas. Pupils and teachers will be affected by these swingeing cuts and the ones most at risk are those in disadvantaged circumstances. Many in the teaching profession have, for many years, highlighted this critical problem and we must protect them. The horrific litany of cuts from the Department's budget includes €6 million from in-service training, €6.2 million from IT research and development, €5 million from structural reform of the Department, €2 million from the second level building programme and a further €1.3 million in miscellaneous cutbacks.
There is a school in Elphin, County Roscommon awaiting an extension – a college which reflects all that is admired in the education system – with enthusiastic and diligent pupils, dedicated and professional teachers and a proud and hard-working parents association. Is the Minister telling us that the people concerned are not worried about cutbacks? They want funding to ensure their extension is built. This case is replicated throughout the county and nationwide. I have no doubt the Department will hold back some of the funding.
The danger is that cutbacks hit the marginalised hardest. Recent reports indicate that the Celtic tiger economy has not bestowed its benefits equally and that the gap between rich and poor is wider than ever – this is true of the education sector too. Unless we fund education to the maximum level, we will not have the education system we deserve. It is imperative the Department recognises the folly of its ways in restricting these vital educational routes and allows everyone participate in the education system and be offered the resources to best fulfil their talents and skills for their individual development and the development of the State.
Dr. Mansergh: I congratulate the Minister on his appointment. I have great respect for his achievements in other Departments and have no doubt he will bring the same spirit of innovation and courage to this Department and make his mark in an area where innovation is much needed.
I regard education, with health and basic income maintenance, as being the highest priority as far as Government expenditure is concerned. During the general election campaign the most important and frequent issues I encountered concerned education.
Some 40, 50 or 60 years ago we had a spartan education system and some of the buildings from that era are very cramped, particularly where schools are eligible for additional staff. That is a priority. There is a brand new school in Ballyclerihan near Clonmel where the population is exploding. The school has fine facilities, but the problem is that the population is doubling and trebling practically every year. Improving the fabric of schools with as much money as possible is investment that will not be wasted, although I appreciate the Minister has his arguments with the Minister for Finance.
I do not pay much attention to hyperbole about savage cutbacks because every mid-year there are adjustments in expenditure. There are some underspends, but normally more overspends and adjustments must be made as a result. I appreciate that the Opposition feels the need to get its teeth into the Government, but the savagery seems to be totally over the top.
Adult education is vitally important. My sister recently returned from teaching maths in England to the Dublin Institute of Technology and observed that one of the biggest differences between the higher education systems was the greater number of mature students in England. This deficit needs to be addressed as a matter of priority. I applaud the Minister's determination to give educational disadvantage top priority.
There has been debate and controversy regarding third level fees. When they were removed in 1996, the Minister at the time thought it was the right thing to do and thought she was emulating Donogh O' Malley, but there was also a strong political motive in that the Labour Party wanted to secure the middle class vote. There was much criticism, not least from the Fianna Fáil benches, on the equity of the provision and concern that it would not improve access for the disadvantaged. However, time passes and, at the time, the unemployment rate was 10% or 11% whereas today it is 4%.
When fees were reintroduced across the water, it seems to have discouraged many from going to college and many of those who went seem to have built up horrendous debts. There is merit in abstracto of devoting one's resources to maintenance. As the Minister said, the very wealthy can afford to bear it as they do in the United States, but, in practice, if fees were reintroduced, the threshold would be far below that of the very wealthy. As I know myself, even if one is relatively well paid, if one has several children going to college over a period of time, it is a huge strain on finances. The Taoiseach and Tánaiste have taken positions on the matter, but when one is debating it, one must examine the potential impact on attendance at university.
I do not know how much the reintroduction of fees would improve access for the disadvantaged but more needs to done in this area because, between the universities and the State, we have not yet devised a system whereby those from the lower socio-economic groups can access third level education. I applaud the Minister's determination to reflect on this and try and do something meaningful within the limits of the resources at his disposal.
Mr. Bannon: I join other Members in welcoming the Minister for Education and Science to the Seanad. In my dealings with him as Minister for the Environment and Local Government I found him a good listener. At times he had a change of mind and I hope he changes his mind in regard to his proposed cutbacks in education.
Our education system has been successful at producing well-qualified young people. Much of our prosperity over the last decade can be attributed to this skilled and educated workforce. What effect will the increase in registration fees have on our students? The cost of putting a child through third level education is huge. The cost of accommodation and living expenses since the withdrawal of fees has increased hugely and places a great burden on families, especially parents. All parents want their children, if they have the ability, to get well-paid jobs. However, the increase in fees just places another burden on them This burden is especially felt by families which have two or more children attending college. No student should have to leave college because of an undue financial burden. An investment in education will always be of benefit to the State and society.
It is ironic to consider that we have built our success as an economy on having a highly skilled and educated workforce, but now the Government is attacking the future source of a skilled labour force because it got the figures wrong in the last budget and increased spending at a higher level than possible. At the same time as increasing fees, the Government is attacking the areas where most investment should be placed. Young people are dropping out of school without completing their formal education and we are all aware of the social problems this has caused to certain sections of the community. It is important that we invest in the future of all, especially those who come from a background where extra help is needed. Otherwise, as experience shows, it leads to problems in other areas for the State. This cutback shows the extreme short-sightedness of the Government.
We all accept that the Government has overspent this year and there is a need for cutbacks to ensure the financial health of the State. However, where were the increases spent? I do not see any major improvements in any area of Government expenditure. Where have the increases on education been spent? Has all the money expended already been spent efficiently and effectively?
Parents want to ensure that their children get a good education. At the same time they want to ensure that their taxes are spent well by the Government. Recently I heard on “Today with Pat Kenny” an angry parent, from Meath, complaining that, on the Wednesday before the Nice referendum, the primary school his child attends will close for a teachers' training day and will close again on Friday to prepare for the referendum as the school is used for polling. Is this an effective use of taxpayers' money? Is the school or the Department effective in ensuring reduced disruption to children's education? People are angry because they have seen an extra 20% of their money spent this year, but the level of service has not increased by an equal amount. Then, when the Government gets its sums wrong and tries to correct the problem, it attacks the people who have paid most already – the taxpayer and the most vulnerable in society who may not be in a position to voice their opposition.
As the Government introduces cutbacks to the education budget, is it still considering buying a new Government jet? Earlier in the summer there was talk of a new jet being needed. Has this idea been shelved?
Minister for Education and Science (Mr. N. Dempsey): Tá áthas orm a bheith anseo anocht le cúrsaí oideachais a phlé. Ba mhaith liom mo chomhghairdeas a ghabháil leis an gCathaoirleach agus le gach Seanadóir as ucht bheith tofa mar Sheanadóir.
I thank the Fine Gael Members for putting down this motion. It is clear from their contributions so far that they need to be brought up to date on what is happening in education because they are misinformed. Senator Burke mentioned my spin doctors. They are obviously not doing a good job since he managed to get everything so wrong. As Senator Fitzgerald pointed out, there are no cutbacks in education. There is no withdrawal of services, no course that was due to take place has been withdrawn, no teacher has been sacked, no pupil has been removed from a school and no disadvantage scheme has been cut in any way. Adjustments, as happen during the course of any year, have been made. Nobody would want me to leave money sitting in the education budget unspent or to hand it back to the Minister for Finance at the end of the year. I intend to spend every cent that was allocated to the education budget before the end of the year. I will not leave money lying around, particularly money that is going towards tackling disadvantage.
I am delighted that we are having this debate. During the three and a half of the months I have been Minister for Education and Science we have debated disadvantage and unfairness in the system. It has been about people who have been able to buy their way into the system, retain places and get an advantage. People have talked a lot about those who cannot get access to primary, second level and in particular third level education. If I have done nothing else I have started a debate on educational disadvantage. When was the last time there was debate in either House about educational disadvantage? I intend to ensure the debate on the problems we face on education, and those of people from less well off backgrounds, continues. In the past we have not had the courage to stand up and take a look at things that have been taken for granted.
Senators on the Opposition side talked about problems with maintenance grants and money. I work in the real world and we must all work there. There are limits to the amount of finance any Minister or Government can get. We have to spend the money available to best effect. I will put as much of the money as I can into tackling disadvantage. I hope everybody who wants improvements in education and the tackling of disadvantage will back the moves and will not support the vested interests that have held us back, ensured that changes cannot occur and hindered those at the bottom of the education pile. Those who are excluded will remain so if public representatives do not make courageous and positive decisions.
I ask Senators who believe that the third level education of the very wealthy should be subsidised to make clear their feelings. If we adopt such a policy, however, it will be at the expense of those who may not reach second level education and who do not have a hope of seeing the inside of a university or a third level institute. It is time to call a spade a spade in relation to these matters.
Senator Ulick Burke said that I had to withdraw certain plans when I was Minister for the Environment and Local Government and suggested that I would have to back down again. I do not think my record was as bad as he seemed to suggest.
Mr. N. Dempsey: Although I hope I will not have to do so, I assure the Deputy that I will not go down without a fight in relation to tackling educational disadvantage. My colleagues in Government are committed to tackling disadvantage.
Mr. N. Dempsey: I hope Members on all sides of the House are similarly interested in the struggle against disadvantage. I ask them not to conceal the nature of their opposition to my proposals or attempt to dress up their affection for vested interests and the wealthy as concern for students.
Senator Fitzgerald spoke of the Government's record. I am sure he does not need to be reminded that the Fianna Fáil-Progressive Democrats Government increased gross funding for education by 87%, the largest increase in this country's history. The money has been well spent, by and large, but I am keen that we re-examine the allocation of funds for tackling educational disadvantage. The massive sum of €5.5 billion will be spent in 2002. I welcome the fact that Senator McHugh agrees that we should review how €350 million per annum is allocated for student supports. I intend to examine how this funding can be used to help those on the margins of the income limits, such as those excluded because their income is slightly more than €21,000 per year. I agree that these income limits are too low, but I have just €350 million to spend in this area. I will lobby for extra money, but adjustments will still have to be made.
Mr. N. Dempsey: Improved access for all socio-economic groups to third level education relies on increasing the number of available third level places. The Government's record in this regard since 1997 has been outstanding: full-time student numbers at third level exceeded 126,000 in the 2000-01 academic year.
Mr. N. Dempsey: This represents an increase of nearly 19,000, or 17%, on the numbers for 1996-97. Departmental expenditure on access measures to tackle disadvantage at third level has increased from €508,000 in 1997 to €24 million in 2002. I ask Fine Gael and Labour Senators to consider this statistic as an indicator of the performance of their parties while in power. In addition to increasing allocations for the fund for students with disabilities and the student assistance access fund, new measures have been introduced following the report of the action group on access to third level education. The group's most significant recommendation concerned the introduction of special rates of maintenance grants for disadvantaged students, commonly referred to as “top-up” grants. These recommendations were acted on without delay and were introduced with retrospective effect from the 2000-01 academic year. The annual income threshold for the special rates was increased by 32% and the special rate of grant for students residing more than 15 miles from college was increased to €4,000. It is expected that the number of students qualifying for the “top-up” grant in 2002-03 will double to 7,000 and I hope that figure will increase substantially during the next four years.
The action group's recommendation of a new millennium partnership fund for disadvantage, providing assistance to partnership companies and community groups, was implemented with effect from the 2001-02 academic year. The total allocation for the 2001-02 academic year was €1.2 million, with 37 partnerships and community groups receiving money. The allocation for the fund will be increased to €2 million in 2002. The Government introduced a maintenance grant scheme for students on post-leaving certificate courses, which is expected to cost over €12 million in 2002. Since the 1999-2000 academic year, the higher, non-adjacent rate of maintenance grant is payable to all eligible mature students. In 2000-01, an access officer post was established in each institute of technology to enhance access by disadvantaged students, putting the institutes on a par with the university sector.
I wish to make clear that students who are eligible for means tested student support will not have to pay the €670 charge levied by third level institutions to defray the costs of registration, examinations and student services, as it will be paid on their behalf by my Department or through local authorities and vocational education committees. This means that at least 37% of students in universities and 47% of students in institutes of technology will not have to pay the charge. The increase in the charge must be viewed in the context of the overall package of measures I announced earlier this year, aimed at increasing and improving student support schemes for the 2002-03 academic year. The Government will spend €370 million on student supports, including free fees, in 2002. The measures announced are a clear indication of the Government's commitment to enhancing access to third level education.
Mr. N. Dempsey: Our overall approach to tackling educational disadvantage has been framed within the context of the national anti-poverty strategy. The NAPS approach is based on continuum of provision from early childhood though adulthood, with a focus on preventive strategies, targeting and integrated community responses. Challenging and ambitious targets have been set under the key headings of school literacy, adult literacy and school retention, designed to bring about an education system which allows all citizens to realise their full potential.
The strategies and programmes being implemented to achieve the NAPS targets will build on the comprehensive range of measures put in place to counter educational disadvantage. At school level these include the Early Start programme, which will receive €4 million this year, and the Giving Children an Even Break programme, which involves a targeted support package for disadvantaged children at primary level. The latter scheme applies to 2,320 schools, includes the appointment of over 200 additional teachers and will ensure that the maximum class size in junior classes in designated disadvantaged schools will be 20. The expenditure for this programme, combined with the resources dedicated to the Breaking the Cycle project in 2002, the support teacher project and the disadvantaged areas scheme, will be about €36.7 million.
The early school leaver programme at primary level and the stay in school retention initiative at second level have been merged into an integrated School Completion Programme, involving in excess of 370 primary and post primary schools in 82 clusters and with a budget in 2002 of about €15.4 million. The National Educational Welfare Board was established with a budget of €4.3 million to promote regular school attendance. A wide range of other schemes and initiatives, including those for children of Travellers, non-nationals and other vulnerable groups, has been established to complete a huge programme aimed at tackling disadvantage in our schools.
The total intake of colleges of education for primary teaching in the 2001-02 academic year was a massive 1,461. This was made up of 1,000 students on the three year undergraduate course and 461 students on the 18 month postgraduate course, which commenced in February 2002. This was the highest ever intake and compares with an intake of only 500 in the 1996-97 academic year under the rainbow coalition, which slashed teaching places. We are suffering as a result of that short-sighted decision. The Government is repairing the damage by making record numbers of places available in primary teaching. There was a total of 3,741 students in the teacher training colleges in the 2001-02 academic year – 3,000 on the undergraduate course, 280 on an existing postgraduate course and 461 on the new postgraduate course. A total of 1,280 primary teachers graduated in 2002.
I refer to adult education which provides a second chance to people. The White Paper on Adult Education, Learning for Life, is the basis of Government policy. There has been a significant increase in investment in adult literacy to a total of €2.9 million to maintain expansion of the scale, scope and quality of provision, including the use of television to reach people in their homes. In addition, 6,000 part-time places were provided under the back-to-education initiative, beginning this year at a cost of €6.31 million with a full year cost of more than €17 million. This represents the largest increase ever provided in further education and is designed to promote increased flexibility and responsiveness of the system for those with less than upper second level education.
The National Adult Learning Council has been established and a network of community education facilitators put in place. They will support the development of community education models and help community and voluntary groups to access funding. A third phase in the expansion of the adult educational guidance service is under way with a view to providing a service, at this stage, in 26 areas.
These measures are in addition to the continued provision of some 3,800 Youthreach and Traveller training places for early school leavers, 5,700 VTOS places for the unemployed, more than 27,000 post-leaving certificate places, and 22,700 adult literacy places. Given all these developments, it will be clear that, not alone have I continued to fund existing provision in adult education, but have provided for major increases and enhancements to widen access and increase participation in this area.
The level of teaching resources has been increased dramatically with the continuing support provided by the Government. More than 3,000 additional teaching posts have been created since 1997 – 1,855 at primary level and 1,225 at second level. This has led to a significant reduction in the pupil-teacher ratio. If one compares 1989, 1998 and 2001, there has been a dramatic improvement from 27:1 in 1989, 21:1 in 1998, decreasing to 19:1 in 2001 at primary level. The figures also show a substantial improvement at second level from 17:1 in 1991,15:1 in 1998 and down to 13.9:1 in 2001.
The Government has also made huge strides in the area of school funding. At primary level the capitation grant was increased from €57 in 1997 to €101 in 2002 and grant assistance for secretarial and caretaker services was doubled in 2001 to €102 per pupil. In addition, a grants scheme for minor capital works has been introduced, with expenditure in 2001 in excess of €33 million. At second level the capitation grant has been increased from €224 in 1997 to €266 in 2002. In addition, the second level support service grant was increased from €25 to €99 in 2001-02 and the annual minimum grant for smaller schools was increased from €5,078 to €19,087, which will provide support for the school development planning process.
With regard to school infrastructure, a major investment programme is currently under way to upgrade primary and post-primary school buildings right around the country. Expenditure on school buildings has risen almost fourfold from €124 million in 1997 to €608 million in the 2002. More than 850 primary and secondary level school projects are being processed by the Department.
Mr. N. Dempsey: The projects are a mixture of greenfield developments and refurbishment and replacement of existing buildings, at primary, post-primary and third level. In addition, public-private partnership contracts have been concluded for the provision of five new state-of-the-art post-primary schools catering for 3,500 students. These schools are located at Tubbercurry, Ballincollig, Clones, Dunmanway and Shannon. The schools in Dunmanway and Shannon will be ready to open by the end of 2002.
Given this unprecedented level of commitment to both capital and current investment at all levels of education, I am bound to reiterate what I have said previously about the provision for education in the current financial year. Expenditure on education services this year will not be one cent less than the amount provided for in the 2002 budget. What will change is the distribution of the budget over expenditure areas, mainly because some programmes have developed at a faster pace than expected while others have been somewhat slower, primarily because of the need to ensure good planning and effective implementation.
The Government's track record in education is second to none. We will continue to invest heavily in education. We will continue to invest in our children's futures. We will continue to ensure we have a workforce that is highly skilled and adaptable to change. In doing so, we are committed to ensuring everyone, whatever his or her social or economic circumstances, has an equal opportunity to participate fully in education at all levels. I commend the amendment to the House. I thank Fine Gael Members for giving me the opportunity to outline the extensive education programme we have in place.
Dr. Henry: I welcome the Minister to the House. He is as committed to his task as he was in his previous Department. He is welcome to set out the great achievements of the previous Government in education, but it would have been sad if, during what the Taoiseach described as one of the golden ages of Ireland, there had not been increased investment in education at a time of unprecedented prosperity. It has been pointed out by Ministers and others that our great prosperity was due to our efforts to educate many, particularly at third level.
I attended third level when less than 10% of those who completed second level managed to continue their education whereas nowadays almost 50% of students who complete second level take up a third level place. There has been a dramatic increase in the uptake of third level places. Sometimes we are apt to forget that primary and secondary education is extraordinarily important also because one cannot reach third level without completing these levels. I am glad the Minister concentrated on both.
There has been a great deal of upset within universities, particularly among students, about the possibility of reintroducing third level fees. Perhaps the Minister was thinking out loud when he raised this. When fees were abolished by the then Minister for Education, Niamh Breathnach, universities were less than enthusiastic because they could see that they would not be in a position to increase fees as they would be beholden to the Government. This is what transpired and there is a considerable shortfall in many disciplines because the fees support provided by the Government for third level institutions has remained static. This has resulted in an increase in the number of students at lectures and a reduction in the number of staff employed while certain posts have been frozen until funding can be provided to fill them.
It is not just the rich who will have to pay if third level fees are reintroduced. Previously, someone who was not rich but certainly not poor with three children in third level education at the same time found it very difficult. To keep up with international standards many students have to pursue postgraduate study. These studies are not just of advantage to the students involved, they are also of advantage to all of us because we must produce the types of people we need to work in our industries. Education is not just of benefit to oneself, it is also of great benefit to all of us.
The Minister mentioned he has made a particular effort to ensure computing and information technology skills are well developed in second level schools. That is important, but it is also important that the problems in science and higher mathematics are addressed. There has been a fall-off in the intake into universities in both areas which are extraordinarily important for the types of industry we have attracted to the country. The pharmaceutical, biotechnology and light engineering industries are becoming desperately short of skilled personnel. It will be very serious if we have to import people from other countries to address these shortages.
There has been a dreadful falling off in the number of students taking higher level chemistry, physics and mathematics. Fewer than 10% of students now take the first two subjects at leaving certificate level. Only a few years ago the figure was 20%. We must examine the reasons we are so short of teachers in these areas. Even recently there was not too much in the way of employment for mathematics and physics graduates, but now there is a huge range of opportunities for them. I met a physics graduate from Trinity College who told me he was going to South Korea to design computer games. It is a first class job and I was delighted for him, but if we lose enough people with such skills, we will be in a bad way. I heard someone suggest we should bring in science and mathematics teachers from eastern Europe and Russia where there is a surplus. Has the Department addressed this issue? It is vital that we do so because otherwise we could leave ourselves sub-skilled in these areas.
There was a huge drop in the number of students taking computer science at university this year. Trinity College was asked to expand its IT department five years ago, but this year its enrolment dropped from 3,000 to 1,500. That is a terrible drop in such a short space of time and staff will have to be laid off.
The Minister stressed the Department's role in tackling lack of access to education by those who are disadvantaged. That is only right. I particularly applaud the decision to set up the Committee on Educational Disadvantage under the Education Act, 1998, and I am delighted professor Áine Hyland is acting as chair. She is a close friend and will hear from me on the subject; there could not be a more committed person in the role.
The access programmes to universities have been a success. I am glad to see the role of access officer has been extended to the institutes of technology. It is a pity that they try to make themselves more like universities. The French polytechniques would not do this. They absolutely insist on the roles they have. It would be a great pity if we all ended up producing the same people. It is more worthwhile trying to produce the broad spectrum of people needed.
I know most about the Trinity College access programme. I attended the certification ceremony in July. It was extraordinary, there was a very large cross section of people, some quite young and some quite a bit older and with good qualifications such as apprenticeships. Four of them had gained places in the university starting in October. I was walking out with a woman, her husband and two teenage children and pointed the way out through the Nassau Street gate. She told me that she wanted to walk around with her family for a while in order that she could show them where she would be studying. It was lovely to see someone so proud of the achievement. I have also met people who came from places like Dunshaughlin community school, where one person out of a year of several hundred went on to university. This area must be addressed and I am delighted to see the Minister doing so.
I have one quibble. The Minister said there have been no cutbacks in courses. A course was established in clinical psychology in Trinity College for 12 postgraduate clinical psychologists. There are 50 vacant posts in the health boards which are trying to recruit internationally to fill these posts. There is a shortage of clinical psychologists to deal with people before the courts, especially children, and those in the prison system and other areas. The Northern Area Health Board of the Eastern Regional Health Authority was to fund this course for 12 people. The staff were put in place at considerable cost and of the 12 students selected, some had given up jobs. The course was cancelled at two weeks notice. That is extremely counterproductive.
Ms Ormonde: I welcome the Minister and wish him well in his new portfolio. I know he will be competent in this post because he comes from an education background and no area of first, second or third level education will be daunting for him.
When I was involved in second and third level education in the 1980s, I remember the dark days of cutbacks, high unemployment and massive emigration. Since then there has been a transformation and everyone has a good social and economic life. We should be committed to giving every child a good start in education, which is what the Government has done in the last five years. We have ensured every child in every primary and secondary school will have access to third level education. I know this because I was spokesperson on education in the last Seanad and I am delighted to highlight the achievements of the last Government, achievements that will continue under the present Administration. I want to remind the House of what was achieved under the Education (Welfare) Act, 1999.
Ms Ormonde: I can make a contribution on any aspect of education and if the Senator wants to contradict me, we can have it out. I want to highlight the Education Welfare Board established in 1999 which put in place welfare officers to deal with regular attendance. We have also created the statutory advisory disadvantage committee to deal with integrated education, which I am pleased to say is what we want, starting at primary level with Breaking the Cycle, home schooling, remedial teachers, resource teachers and career guidance people. All of these people will be working together in harmony to make sure that any black spots in our primary education system will be identified and our psychological services will be able to assess children before they move into second level education. I am very pleased that it is beginning to work. It may not have fully integrated into the system yet, but the concept is there and it will work because we are putting in the resources and money. It is great news and if we do not do it that way, we will not tackle disadvantage. Disadvantage has to be tackled at six years of age so that by the time children are in second level schooling they are well established and able to take part in any class or school subject.
The other area worth mentioning is adult education and what has been done in that area over recent years. We have brought in post-leaving certificate course, the VTOS programmes and lifelong learning programmes. There is a scenic route for those who cannot get to third level immediately, but can enter via certificate and diploma courses before going on to get their degrees. That could not happen without investment and I am grateful to the Government for acknowledging that. If one went to any community college tonight one would see that it is absolutely top heavy with post-leaving certificate courses and all sorts of lifelong learning programmes, which is a pleasure to see. To say that money was pulled back and that there will not be investment in adult education is wrong and I do not know how the spin doctors came to that conclusion.
The Government has invested over €50 million in implementing the schools IT 2000 project which was launched in November 1997. Private funding was also attracted to the project and Eircom invested €20 million under the information age schools initiative for the provision of Internet access to schools. I could go on. There is huge investment and there are no cutbacks. Anyone who wants to have access to third level education will have it if they get the qualifications and the points. Let there be no doubt about that.
Ms Ormonde: What we have to do at second level is prepare children to allow every single one to have that access to training and resources to bring them up to standard to get into third level education. That is a fact of life, it is reality. I only deal with facts; I am good at them and that has always been my forte.
Ms Ormonde: I do not need them, but I want to make sure I get the right facts. In the special education area we increased the number of special resource teachers from 104 to 1,550 and the number of special needs assistants from 300 to 2,821.
Ms Ormonde: We have also made efforts to reduce the pupil-teacher ratio and introduced a programme of psychological services. I am the first to admit it is still weak and I will be telling the Minister that I want to ensure there are educational psychologists in every region providing us with links to the schools. We have not got it right, but we will because I will make sure that we do. I will be pushing the Minister to ensure that every area will have a psychological service, if necessary, in its schools. I have nothing more to say, the facts are there. We will continue with what we did between 1997 and 2002 and this Administration will get it right. There are no cutbacks and no one will be able to say that anyone has been deprived of access to first, second or third level education.
Ms Terry: In his report the Minister said he will tackle disadvantage and of course we welcome that. I reject his suggestion that anybody on this side of the House would not do everything in their power to tackle it. We want equal opportunity for everybody, which means providing the resources to allow everybody the opportunity to get into third level education. That has not been the case.
I direct my comments to the Minister's proposal to reintroduce third level fees. Has he lost sight of the people on the ground? Driving around in a ministerial car has taken him away from what is happening in the houses of people who are hard pressed to live from day to day even when there are two people earning in a home. The reintroduction of fees is unacceptable to people who are hard pressed to look after their families. Are we to go back to the day when I finished my own second level education and my parents could not afford a third level education for me? I think we are and families will have to make choices. The strains on families today are greater now than they were when I was growing up and they now have to provide homes for their children as well. The Senators opposite know that Government is telling parents they have to pay for education and houses and it is quite unacceptable.
I am glad that children growing up today have a wonderful sense of looking forward and of expectation that the world is their oyster. That is what we have told them they can have. By providing free third level education the opportunities are there for them. We are going to take away those opportunities if the Minister proceeds with this.
We are all in favour of tackling disadvantage at primary and secondary level, but money has been put in and we have not got results. Those children are not getting to third level education. It is not just about money in schools. Education is something a large section of our community cannot aspire to because there are other problems locally and in their homes. Their parents may not have jobs, and there will not be a history in their families of going on to third level education. We also need to tackle crime and housing, two of the many issues that have to be tackled to enable people to stay in education and to progress.
I live in an area with families who are very disadvantaged and families on middle incomes who are struggling to look after their homes, their children, their children's education and who in a few years' time will have to provide them with homes too. If we proceed with these cutbacks, more areas will be disadvantaged. The money should be put into primary and second level schools to enable children to do well. Children in our community should not be deprived of the opportunity to get a third level education. I live in an area where there is high employment, but I know those people will struggle and make choices which mean some of their children will not go to third level institutions.
Children in my area attend a substandard school. The previous Government, which was made up of the same parties, told the people that Coolmine Community School would either be refurbished or rebuilt. I could give the Minister of State a list of primary schools in my area where many children are in prefabricated buildings. That is unacceptable in this day and age. Such buildings are overcrowded. Several young non-national children are in many of the schools in my area. They need extra resources. That is a new community which must be given equal opportunities.
There is a special school in my area, St. Vincent's on the Navan Road. The parents of the children who attend that school march outside it in the mornings or afternoons and disrupt traffic because it is proposed to remove it from the jurisdiction of the Department of Health and Children and make it the responsibility of the Department of Education and Science. The parents do not want that. Many of these children need the health supports they already receive. They will not benefit from educational supports to the same extent. The Minister should listen to the parents and give them what they want.
There is a lot to do and many issues must be tackled. One such issue is the provision of schools in developing areas. If we know that several thousand people will live in an area, we should plan for schools. Parents should not have to protest and march to get the education they need for their children. These are the issues which must be tackled because they are bothering people every day. I ask the Minister of State not to reintroduce third level fees and not to reduce the number of people, whether they are young or mature students, who want third level education or literacy skills.
Ms O'Rourke: I am happy to speak on the amendment and on the important topic of education. I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy de Valera, to the House. I listened carefully to the Minister's contribution and to most of the contributions. We have had an interesting day because the House discussed reform of the Seanad until 6 p.m. and we are now discussing educational reform. I read the motion in the name of all the Senators and our amendment and I would like to discuss the general improvements in education.
I hope Senators do not think I am immodest when I say I have some experience of this issue having served for five years in the Department of Education when times were tough, as Senator O'Toole knows. I am sure the Senator remembers that day in Galway.
Ms O'Rourke: I know. They were extremely troubled and difficult times. I know that successive Governments, including that involving the parties on the other side of the House which was in power for two and a half years, made huge improvements in financial allocations to the Department of Education in the 1990s. There was acceptance at the Cabinet table in the past five years for the various initiatives introduced by the Minister. The parties opposite, when they were in Government, also made huge improvements in the two and half years prior to that. The Minister said that he did not want his budget allocation to be unused at the end of the year. That will happen if it is not used at this time of the year.
Ms O'Rourke: Otherwise, the Department of Finance will hoover up the money left in the budget allocation. It is clear to the Minister that programmes which are not fully utilised will be continued in 2003.
There has been much discussion about third level fees. Many of the people who spoke here today and many people outside the House know there is a need to evaluate what third level education gives to those who avail of it. The Minister said there is a need for him to look at the total expenditure for third level education and to see how that money can be put to best use to allow more people access to third level education. I cannot see how anyone could quibble with that worthy aim. We all want more people to enter third level education.
The Minister of State has responsibility for literacy and adult education. We all want people who are currently disadvantaged to get the best opportunity in education. I heard Senator Terry speak with great feeling about her constituency. We could all trot out a list of schools, teachers and classes which would benefit from education programmes.
A large sum of money is being spent on third level education. One has only to look at the growth of institutes of technology and universities around the country. There was a 17% increase in the past five years in the level of access to third level education. There is not an infinite amount of money for everything one wants in education. However, we need good teachers. Expenditure on teacher allocations and programmes has increased dramatically over the past seven or eight years. We should not lose our sense of realism. There has been a huge increase in the budget for the Department of Education and Science for programmes for 2002. The increase is approximately 14% in general, but it is more in the Department of Education and Science. That increase will be spent. However, we must be realistic. We must ask ourselves if we can continue to increase it.
I listened with interest to Senator Bannon who said there was a need for caution and prudence in terms of expenditure. I was glad to hear it because it proved that Fine Gael's soul was not lost. I was particularly interested because he is from the midlands. He is right that it is necessary to evaluate and get value for the money spent on this important area of education.
There is a need for openness. We must be grown up about this matter. We should not say that people cannot say something because it is heresy. It is the one Department where one must have debate about the issues. They must be out in the open and discussed by the public and in both Houses of the Oireachtas. People must feel they have a voice in any discussions. Above all, however, we must be honest and straightforward about the matter and ensure there is an emphasis on disadvantage.
There were many telling contributions on this issue. Surely it is possible for every elected representative to accept that the people on whom we should focus are the sons and daughters of those from a disadvantaged background. It is not their fault that they perhaps dropped out of school early or did not have a chance to go on to third level. Their circumstances are not their fault. They did not ask that their background would make it difficult for them to get access to third level education or special treatment. Our entire focus should be on this matter. I welcome the debate and strongly support the amendment.
Ms Tuffy: I thank the Minister of State for attending the debate. I wish to bring three points to the attention of Members and the Minister. First, all those politicians, including the Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Noel Dempsey, and prominent educationalists now calling for the reintroduction of third level fees have apparently not even read the report of Clancy and Wall on the social background of higher education entrants. They have certainly not analysed any of the report's findings on the participation rates in higher education. Second, they apparently are not aware of one of the main justifications for the abolition of fees in 1996. Third, they apparently believe that inequality in third level participation can only be addressed exclusively in the context of school leavers attending full-time courses and they have no interest in the disadvantage suffered by adults and part-time students.
Between 1980 and 1992 the national participation rate in third level education increased from 20% to 36%. The participation rate of the higher professional group increased from 59% to 85% and that of the lowest socio-economic group from 3% to 12%, both substantial increases even if the increase in the participation of the disadvantaged school leavers was from an abysmally low base. However, the participation rates of two other groups, namely, salaried employees and the lower professional group, either fell or remained almost static during the same period. For salaried employees, that is, PAYE taxpayers such as office workers and sales representatives, the participation rate actually fell from 59% to 48% in this period. For the lower professional group, in other words, teachers, nurses, journalists, public service workers, etc, the participation rate rose between 1980 to 1986 but fell from 47% in 1986 to 44% in 1992.
These figures, of which the advocates of reimposing fees are unaware, demonstrate that under the old fee regime, when average participation rates almost doubled and the children of higher professional, farming and business owning parents were doing very well, the children of two groups of parents, often referred to when the need arises as “the backbone of the country,” namely, nurses and teachers – ordinary PAYE employees – were making little or no progress. These parents were paying their taxes, were not able to exploit covenants like the higher professional and employer groups and, unlike the farmer group, could not qualify for grants.
One very good reason for abolishing fees was to redress the discrimination against these groups. There is at least early evidence from Clancy and Wall's 1998 entrance to college data that the abolition of fees is beginning to redress the relative disadvantage of the lower professional and salaried employee groups. Both groups increased their participation rates between 1992 and 1998. They were the only two of 11 groups whose participation rate declined between 1986 and 1992. We can predict one certain outcome of the reintroduction of fees, that it would definitely worsen the opportunities for the children of nurses, teachers, office workers and all other low to middle income PAYE taxpayers.
The advocates of reimposing fees have suggested that their abolition has damaged the fortunes of disadvantaged groups. What is the actual situation revealed by Clancy and Wall? Between 1992, when fees were charged, and 1998, two years after their abolition, the national participation rate increased from 36% to 46% or about a quarter. What about the participation rate of the lowest socio-economic group during that period? It almost doubled from 12% to 22%.
Those who claim that a system of free fees damages disadvantaged groups are ignoring the facts – the facts tell exactly the opposite. After the introduction of free fees the group that showed the most significant improvement was the lowest socio-economic group. There is, therefore, no evidence to support the view that the reintroduction of fees will improve equality of participation. There is overwhelming evidence that it would have precisely the opposite effect.
Inequality of access is not just experienced by the current crop of school leavers seeking places in full-time courses. What about all those now working and paying taxes who did not get the opportunity to enter higher education after leaving school? In 1980, some 80% of school leavers did not go to college. In 1992 the figure was 64% and even now 50% of school leavers do not go to full college. What about their rights to complete their education? Some of them are taking the initiative by getting higher education through part-time courses. However, they are discriminated against. They are paying fees of €10,000 and more to get the same degree for which full-time students pay no fees.
Instead of ill-founded proposals to reintroduce fees for full-time students, we should decide to treat part-time students equally and encourage more of our workforce to get third level education through part-time study by abolishing fees for part-time students. Incidentally, this is exactly the proposal of the task force on lifelong learning set up by the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Deputy Harney.
Mr. O'Toole: I am happy to share my time with Senator Browne. I am delighted the Fine Gael group tabled this motion. It is a crucially important matter which is worthy of discussion. I could add a few more issues to those raised. There is, for example, the whole problem of the building budget for schools. Regardless of how it may appear on paper, it is causing chaos in schools around the country. The Senators present are from all over the country. Each of us could visit schools in his or her constituency where an expectation that a new building would be up and running by now has not materialised. It can be described as regrouping or cutbacks or any other name, but the reality is that at best a slowdown is under way in school building and at worst the programme is not proceeding.
This has happened before. The Minister of State at the Department of Education and Science, Deputy de Valera, and the Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Noel Dempsey, both took an interest in this issue while wearing other hats. I am also aware that the Leader in her capacity as Minister for Education and Science in a previous Government also took a great interest in this matter. The good news of the recent past has been swallowed up almost immediately because we were trying to catch up. While I do not dispute the Minister of State's figures about teacher intake, for instance, that there will be 1,280 new graduates entering primary teaching and that the number of teachers has doubled since 1987, both of which are true, the figures on our side have also increased. Changes in birth rates have differed from expectations. There is a need for more teachers in schools as different kinds of functions have been created in schools with teachers doing much more than simply being in the classroom. There is a shortage and we are not even standing still.
This morning I heard John Carr, my successor as General Secretary of the INTO, outline the difficulties arising from the non-implementation of the Education (Welfare) Act, 2000, which the House discussed a couple of years ago. On paper, it is good legislation and we ultimately welcomed it once we had made a number of changes to it. As the Act raised expectations, it would be better if the Minister were to state clearly that he will not implement it before a given date.
I was one of those who objected to the introduction of free fees at third level. It was neither a fair nor a correct approach. As Senator Tuffy said, I thought the money could have been used in a different and more creative way in the maintenance area. It was not the right thing to do at the time. However, I would be utterly opposed to regressing in terms of removing free fees at third level. We have moved on and one cannot go backwards. If we were to remove this concession, we would make a mistake twice over. That cannot be done.
The burden of maintenance fees is killing people. Senator Tuffy mentioned lower paid professionals such as teachers. One point on which I disagree with her is that the level of the grant will not reduce the number of their children who will go to college, it will reduce the quality of the retirement of their parents. I could give example after example of teachers, nurses, gardaí and others who pawn their lump sum on retirement in order to allow their children go to college. That is the way the price is being paid and it is unfair. I would welcome the Minister examining the level of maintenance fees. Everyone is aware that the way maintenance is being dealt with is not fair.
Benchmarking is the issue of the day. Teaching will fall apart if morale is not boosted by a recognition in terms of respect for teachers' entitlements and expectations. Irrespective of the rows, teachers have expectations. They went through the system of benchmarking. It would be helpful if the Minister for Education and Science or the Minister for Finance gave a commitment to payment in respect of benchmarking. This covers the whole public sector. It is of major importance in the education sector.
We should look on education as an investment in the future. I would like to think that every child born had earmarked for him or her a certain amount of resources from the State, which that person could draw down at any time during his or her life in order to advance educationally. That is something from which we would all gain.
Mr. Browne: I wish to qualify my remarks by saying I was a primary teacher and I am involved in the ICT end of primary schools. The increase in registration fees was a bad move and the possibility of the reintroduction of third level fees would be a step backwards. It would not solve the problem. People admit there is a difficulty in the fair distribution of wealth, but the reintroduction of third level fees would not solve this.
We all remember the covenant system. When there was a grants system in the past, business people and others who probably should not have qualified for it. Those who did not qualify were the ordinary PAYE workers, the middle class workers who were squeezed.
A great number of students who work part time each year are forced to do so when they should be spending their time studying. That is a reflection on the inadequate maintenance grant and other areas. I welcome the news that the Minister will examine this area.
I will concentrate on the primary school sector and disadvantage. The Constitution states we should cherish all our children equally, but that is not happening. School building projects are way behind schedule. Children attend different standard schools. Some are stuck in prefabs while others are in schools that should not be inhabited by human beings.
There does not seem to be any co-ordination between the relevant agencies. I called to all the local schools in my constituency during the general election campaign and saw some good schools that had been built and some bad ones. The Department of Education and Science should establish an agency to examine best practice in existing school buildings given the great variation around the country. I understand there are a number of agencies involved in this area, the Office of Public Works, the school buildings project and management units in the Department of Education and Science and some other agency. It would be more helpful if there was one agency which devised a blueprint for schools throughout the country. This would quicken the school building process and lead to the building of better schools.
I take issue on the matter of disadvantaged status. I am bemused that some schools are given disadvantaged status while others are not. A school not given disadvantaged status is, in turn, disadvantaged, a contradiction in itself.
Teachers in Gaelscoileanna are paid more than teachers in non-Gaelscoileanna. Gaelscoileanna also receive increased capitation grants. I do not accept that position is fair. I taught in a primary school and believed that I did as good as job as a teacher in a Gaelscoil. I ask the Minister to increase teachers' salaries and capitation grants to ensure they are equal across the board. It is insulting to teachers in non-Gaelscoileanna to pay them a lower salary.
The issue of teacher numbers must also be addressed. The Minister glossed over the figures and referred to the large numbers going to college, but the reality is that many children are taught by untrained teachers. That is not fair. Those in the Department of Education and Science do not seem to show forward thinking in this respect. The Department appoints many resource teachers who come out of the classroom scenario where there is no one to replace them. A large number of teachers retired recently. Those in the Department have no excuses. They know that if a child is born this year, he or she will go to school in four years' time. Therefore, it has four years advance notice. If any other business had that advance notice, it would be far better prepared.
The issue of male teachers must also be examined. Why are so few males going into the profession? Why are they getting out of teaching so quickly? Nearly half of the male colleagues who trained with me left the profession before they even reached the age of 30. This situation must be examined.
The Minister's predecessor did an awful lot of damage to the teaching profession. He damaged morale and wrecked the voluntary aspect for teachers. This area must be addressed again, as well as promotion prospects in education. Many areas in education need to be examined. We need to start from the bottom and work upwards.
Mr. J. Phelan: I thank Senator Browne for sharing his time with me. I want to speak about the increase in college registration fees. I finished college in May. At least, I hope I did, having regard to Senator Henry's point. I have a primary degree. Many of those with primary degrees end up going on to do postgraduate courses.
It is regrettable the Minister is not present. He made great play about living in the real world. The real world was brought home to me a month ago when I listened to a radio programme which I will not name. I listened to a student from Dublin who was returning to college this year. He said he would have to miss the first few weeks of college to continue working to meet the increase in college fees. That is the real world. The real world is not the Minister touring the country in his ministerial merc. That student who was returning to college in Dublin is living in the real world.
I received many representations from people my own age on an issue that greatly upset them. The time of the leaving certificate probably causes people more anxiety than any other in their lives. When the leaving certificate results were coming out and college places were to be announced, the Minister announced to those who were at their most vulnerable that there would be a 70% increase in college fees. The timing of his announcement left much to be desired. At the very least, it could have been done at a different stage.
I agree with the Leader of House that the emphasis should be on disadvantage, on which we are all at one, but the emphasis should not be to make everyone disadvantaged. It should be to bring up those who are disadvantaged and give them equal opportunities.
Mr. U. Burke: I thank the Acting Chairman for his flexibility in allowing the debate to continue to enable as many Members as possible to contribute. I also thank the Minister and the Minister of State – whom I welcome to the Seanad – for their presence for this important debate. I thank my colleagues, and the seconder of the motion, Senator McHugh, for their contributions, which I hope will lead to an open discussion on the important matters highlighted. Whether the Minister likes it, these are the real issues.
As Senator John Phelan said, the Minister made several references to the real world. I would like to highlight a few points regarding the real world for many people involved in education today. Approximately 50% of students attending third level institutions have to get a job just to hang on in there. These people are vulnerable, the ones we class as drop-outs. The drop-out rate is greatest in the institutes of education because many studying there come from vulnerable backgrounds. The Minister must make them a priority.
We welcome resource and remedial teachers. Is it fair that those professional people are working in corridors and converted cloakrooms of national schools, rural and urban? Can they perform their professional duties in such conditions? The Minister should address that issue as a matter of urgency. He cannot claim that this Government or the previous one had any real input into what happened to pupil-teacher ratios. The population has declined, with a consequential decline in intake at primary level. That is the major reason for the decline in average pupil-teacher ratios. Average figures hide reality. That is what the Minister wants.
Senator O'Rourke knows that the schools building programme has been stagnant for the last three years. Given the climate ahead, I cannot foresee any progress in this area. Only schools which declare publicly that there are asbestos roofs leaking on top of students will have remedial works carried out. The INTO has, on numerous occasions, highlighted the plight of several schools which are rat infested or have high levels of radon gas.
The current Minister has many bridges to build, a task in which I hope the Minister of State will assist him. His predecessor has destroyed morale among many teachers. Why is it that so many people are rushing to get out of the profession and taking early retirement? The issue of supervision and substitution has been badly handled. The Minister must tackle it as a matter or urgency because it reflects on students at leaving certificate level. It is unfair that they must endure this burden. The €17 million spent in the last academic year was far greater than what it would have cost to pay the teachers involved if the Minister had wished to see the wood from the trees.
The issue of reintroducing fees for third level students must be tackled in a positive way. They feel they will be levelled with additional charges when they are mid-way through their academic courses. At current day costs, the reintroduction of fees will mean a cost of €12,000 per year per student. That is based on having to pay €6,000 for meagre living expenses, €670 for registration fees plus average fees of €5,000. We have to consider seriously if we wish to burden students, who have already embarked on their training, with those fees. Investment in education is unparalleled but it must be taken in the context of current day values.
I welcome Senator O'Rourke's contribution which acknowledged the efforts and endeavours of previous Ministers in more difficult circumstances than we now find ourselves. The Minister must face reality. He cannot say he is giving priority to the disadvantaged and then reintroduce fees and say he is doing so because of the inadequacy of the uptake of the scheme. That is admitting failure.
Mooney, Paschal C.
Ó Murchú, Labhrás.
White, Mary M.
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