Wednesday, 15 February 2006
Seanad Eireann Debate
—mar, gur scannallach an rud nach bhfuil an pupil-teacher ratio céanna ag scoileanna sa Ghaeltacht is atá ag Gaelscoileanna, nábhfuil teacht ar na fearaistí ná na leabhair Gaolanna chun an teanga a mhúineadh agus mar nach bhfuil aon aithint tugtha don uimhir mhór eachtrannach gan Béarla ná Gaeilge acu atá i scoileanna Gaeltachta faoi láthair, glaonn Seanad Éireann ar an Rialtas acmhainní a infheistiú láithreach i scoileanna Gaeltachta chun múinteoirí sa bhreis a chur ar fáil dóibh, chun aonad curaclaim a bhunú a sholáthróidh fearaistí agus téacsanna Gaeilge dóibh, agus chun tacaíocht ar leith a thabhairt do na scoileanna Gaeltachta sin a bhfuil líon mór eachtrannach ar a rollaí;
—in order to meet the needs of pupils with special needs, calls for the establishment of provision for dual enrolment and part-time enrolment in special and mainstream schools and proposes the use of outreach teaching from special schools to mainstream and the “in reach” of staff from mainstream, first and second level schools, to special schools by the creation of formal clusters or federations of schools;
—urges that the Minister supports those proposals at the national partnership talks which will ensure that teachers will be adequately and fairly rewarded for the challenging and responsible work which they undertake, and demands in particular that the anomaly which depresses the allowance for primary school principals in comparison with their post primary colleagues be eliminated immediately; and
I welcome the Minister for Education and Science to the House and thank her for coming to hear my words of wisdom. There is much to be learned. I wish to make some initial points to change matters from the normal course of events. I read the typical Government amendment to my superb motion. I examined it closely and I cannot——
Mr. O’Toole: I cannot find anything to disagree with. I am quite happy to acknowledge it. I suggest that we accept the Minister’s amendment as an addendum to the full motion at the top or the bottom, whichever suits the Minister, and take it all together. I am happy to go along with that. Can I be fairer than that?
Mr. O’Toole: On a point of order, with the permission of the House it could easily be done. We could then approach primary education together. This is such a broad area that my colleague Senator Ross agreed to second the motion on primary education. I will leave it with the Minister for her consideration. The Minister indicates that she does not agree. The Taoiseach cannot say “No” to a woman.
Mr. O’Toole: The Minister is lucky to have the teachers doing the job in Ireland today for the Government. The Government takes credit and lives in the reflected glory of the extraordinary good work done by teachers. That is a fact. Time and again the question is asked whether people are ready to change. I do not have time to state all I would like on what teachers have done. I know the Minister supports that. The recent movement towards the publication of school reports is a major step forward and teachers deserve credit for risking it. It is a good move so long as it is used positively. It will be a protection for teachers and will show them in the best light if no one plays ducks and drakes with it. We should recognise that fact.
We should also recognise that teachers have implemented a revised curriculum during the past number of years at lower cost to the State than in any other European country. That is value for money, an argument always applied to teaching and education. Everybody in this country can be proud of that fact.
Schools do their very best to deal with “newcomer” children of other nationalities, people who come to this country unaware of our culture and try to settle in. That has put pressures on schools and they are trying to cope. The INTO made it extremely clear to me that teachers are not managing. They do their best but they are not able to cope with the pressure. Will the Minister examine that issue?
Regarding class sizes, I will state the first part of the Minister’s speech. The Minister has provided a great number of extra primary school teachers. No one will deny that and I acknowledge it with my first statement. It is positive and in terms of additional teachers, it is superb. However, a clear commitment creating expectations was given at the last election and it has not been delivered. I accept that it cannot be done tomorrow morning. However, I want the Minister to state here that she intends to get there.
I remember listening to the Minister state that she will not give commitments beyond the next election. Come on, Minister. Let the Minister’s leader hear her state that. I dare the Minister to state that in front of Bertie. There is no way she would do so.
The real selling point is that the Minister should state that this is her intention and that of the Government, along with the date on which it will be delivered. If, horrors or horrors, the Minister is not back in Government the next time, at least she will be able to point from the Opposition benches to the group running the country refusing to meet the well-deserved commitments she gave. The Minister wins every way. If she gets back into office she can provide the extra teachers, if that is how long it takes to do so. There is no reason the Minister cannot take that action. It is straight forward, honest bargaining, and the Minister should stand up and do it.
Mr. O’Toole: I know there are difficulties in the Minister’s constituency and in places such as west Limerick, where small rural two-teacher schools have more than 50 pupils. It is a difficulty. I will not state to the Minister that situation is worse than the situation of a developing school in Balbriggan or Ashbourne in the new Minister of State’s constituency, where difficulty in finding teachers is experienced.
I recognise that other needs exist. However, that does not take from meeting the commitment given. We can deal with all needs over a period of time. People want to know they have something to which they can look forward. There should not be argument on this. Everybody agrees it is the way to progress. Surely it is a matter of how long it will take and when and how it will be done. Will the Minister return to that point?
I remind the Minister that she put forward a five-year schools building programme. She did not worry about whether there would be an election. She just put it in place and fair play to her. I ask her to do the same for class sizes and teacher numbers. Of course the Minister can do so.
Mr. O’Toole: The Minister has done a very good job in fighting for extra primary school teachers. I do not see why it should be stopped now. I demand that the Minister continues it until the end of the road. I do not have time to develop that part of the argument much further.
My next point is on the much-heralded and long-awaited initiative on disadvantage. Reading today’s newspapers and listening to the news, children who drop out of school and do not get jobs are making the headlines again. From where do they come? If we walk into the nursery of the nearest maternity hospital, we can pick them out. We know where the problems are. The ball is at the Minister’s feet. Everybody wants to work with it. We can see areas and addresses which supply the largest proportion of the prison population and the long-term unemployed and a significant amount of those who go no further in education.
There was a time, not so long ago, when people could leave school without qualifications and walk into certain types of jobs. Those jobs have left this country. Manufacturing industry and those low-level jobs have gone to the Far East or other places. The more menial jobs are done by people who have come to this country and are prepared to do them. Irish people are not prepared to do them. Put it all together, and one sees the entire workplace has moved upwards. We have moved up the food chain and people must have some level of qualification or training in order to progress. I ask the Minister to consider that.
An area I would tie into that is that of apprenticeships which somebody needs to grasp. People should be told that going into apprenticeships is something to which they should look forward. I wish apprenticeships included elements of literature, drama, arts and culture as part of their training in the grand tradition of the likes of Brendan Behan and others so that the Abbey Theatre would be filled with plumbers as well as architects and carpenters or brickies would go to the National Concert Hall as well as graduates. We have lost something in this country in that regard. We must begin at the lowest level — the child beginning school.
Two hours ago outside the gates of the House people were agitating, demonstrating and pleading for help to deal with drugs in their community. This is the same issue, namely, one of education. Racism also comes from a lack of education. I am not saying it is the Minister’s fault; it is the fault of us all. It is a cultural issue at which we need to look. Drugs and violence, of which we have never seen so much, tend to occur in the same areas. It is all happening in these areas and these children must live through it.
The real architects of Irish education policy are in Merrion Street. They do not want the Minister to put money into reducing class size. They do not know what this special education issue is all about. They seek to put children into the same school and give them a bit of help here and there. There is an agenda, which I know is not the Minister’s, to wind down special schools. There cannot be a system without special education schools. There is a possibility to look at the idea of dual enrolment or of a federation of schools, including mainstream, special education and multi-disciplinary schools, to deal with children with all types of needs and to enable teachers and pupils to interact on one campus. That is a useful suggestion but it needs to be done on a pilot basis. We should examine how it might work. I am always afraid of new initiatives, whatever they are. If they are simply introduced without proper planning, they will not work. However, this suggestion surely merits consideration.
When I reply to the debate, I will deal with issues such as the complexity of the classroom, etc. I have asked that teachers’ salaries and awards be addressed in the new national programme. I will pick one example to which I would like the Minister to respond. Yesterday I saw the principal of a school on the south side of Dublin who was dealing with a terrible tragedy and describing how he was trying to explain it to children. It is certainly not easier to explain that tragedy to five to eight year olds than to 15 or 16 year olds as the younger the child, the more difficult it is. However, primary school principals are paid less than their post-primary colleagues. It is an anomaly which is wrong in every way, and I could give 24 examples as to why. I ask the Minister to look at teachers’ pay, wipe out that anomaly and recognise the additional pressure of school reports. When I reply to the debate, I will deal with the legislation on special educational needs. I have compiled a memorandum which might be helpful to teachers but the shortened version runs to 11 pages.
Mr. Ross: I second the motion and I thank Senator O’Toole for tabling it. In support of what he said, there is plenty of precedent for the Government accepting motions encompassing amendments and passing them without of vote. I see nothing to quarrel with in what the Government has to say and given the aspirational nature of our motion, the Government should not have any problem with it. It would be welcome if the Minister took it on board and if we could act in a spirit of unanimity and not divide the House.
I welcome this motion which I read with a certain amount of scepticism. My scepticism was relieved quickly because it is the first motion on education for many years which puts the pupil first. Indeed, of the eight points in the motion, seven put the pupil first and only one puts the teacher first. That is somewhat of a reversal of the priorities we have tended to hear from Members of the Oireachtas and vested interests, which we should welcome. It means many people are beginning to recognise that in the past, teachers had a position which was particularly strong and that pupils were subjected to a lower place in the pecking order of education.
I welcome those points Senator O’Toole made in favour of the pupil, particularly the one on the pupil-teacher ratio which will involve the employment of more teachers but which will also benefit the pupil. I welcome this motion if it helps to put the pupil back at the centre of Irish education because the high profile was taken by the teacher for so long that one would have thought education was for teachers and not for pupils.
It is fair to acknowledge that in the common parlance, there is another stakeholder involved, namely parents. The Minister has by her actions acknowledged them as well, which I welcome. Of course the position, pay and conditions of teachers is vital but let us now say it is the pupils who really matter and that education is for them. That is why I also welcome the particular emphasis Senator O’Toole has placed on special needs education. This House and its Leader have taken several initiatives on the issue of autistic children and we have brought it to the front of the political arena. We have successfully debated this issue and Senator O’Toole was right when he said the requirements of special needs children should be paramount and that funding for them should be a priority.
The days when the ASTI was striking did much damage to the cause, profile and reputation of teachers. This is, to some extent, an acknowledgement that in those days, they regarded their own selfish interests as far more important than those of their pupils. Indeed, they engaged in strike action in circumstances which were deplorable in the light of the interests of pupils and the examinations taking place at the time. The softer and more caring approach of the INTO will pay off, not only for the pupils but for the teachers because public opinion has moved again to acknowledge the great work teachers do, which tended to be forgotten at the time the strikes were taking place when public opinion reacted against teachers.
I refer to teachers’ pay which is mentioned in the second last point in the motion. It states that teachers should be adequately and fairly rewarded for the challenging and responsible work they undertake and it demands, in particular, that the anomaly to which Senator O’Toole referred should be addressed. Teachers’ pay is always a difficult subject and it is one which will be addressed both outside and inside the next partnership talks. I wish to mention benchmarking in that regard. I have no problem with public servants, in particular teachers, being well rewarded for what they do. However, I have a problem with a benchmarking deal which sets performance targets that are bogus and with a future deal which sets similar performance targets that are not adhered to or met.
I have a problem with the establishment of performance verification groups which then pass, almost without question, all those performance targets whose novelty is in extreme doubt or which will certainly not be policed or implemented. While teachers should be well paid, their performance should be monitored. We should be able to state with confidence, conviction, honesty and integrity that such performance indicators have actually been achieved.
Members are aware that after the last partnership talks, teachers in particular had real difficulties regarding their particular performance targets and in meeting some of the timetables involved. It will not be right to exercise this kind of muscle in the future. Targets should be clear and transparent and teachers should be suitably rewarded for the work they have done.
This should not be expressed in terms of league tables, which are absolutely invidious and should be completely excluded from our educational platform or agenda. They pressurise teachers to perform like automata or robots and to deliver pupils in a certain state, which is only measured by examination results. This is the antithesis of education. We should ensure that while we avoid such league tables, we develop other performance targets which ensure that teachers can meet them, will compete to meet them and will deliver well-rounded pupils who are not simply judged on examination points.
It is fair to pay teachers well, if the job is seen to be done effectively and efficiently and they should be judged fairly and independently. However, they should not be paid, willy-nilly, certain amounts from the partnership pot——
—commends the Government on the significant additional resources provided since 1997 for the education system generally and for the education of disadvantaged pupils and those with special educational needs in particular;
—acknowledges that these extra teaching resources have been used to reduce class sizes, to tackle educational disadvantage, to provide additional support for children with special needs and newcomers to this country;
—acknowledges the significant increase in the number of teacher training places provided in the colleges of education and the resultant drop in the numbers of unqualified teachers in our primary schools;
—notes the significant additional resources being provided to cater for pupils in disadvantaged areas through delivering equality of opportunity in schools, DEIS, — the first integrated strategy for promoting equality of opportunity for 3-18 year olds.’’
I welcome Senator O’Toole’s motion, as well as his invitation to Government Members to embrace it as part of a composite motion along with our amendment. Regrettably, from the perspective of Members on this side of the House this is impossible, given the unjustifiable criticisms which he levelled and articulated in his motion.
Mr. Fitzgerald: While the criticism is unjustified, the sentiments expressed and the key issues raised in the motion are relevant to the central issues in primary education today. This is welcome. As for embracing Senator O’Toole’s motion to form a composite motion, it would be necessary to introduce some significant amendments to the wording of his motion, before that could be possible, notwithstanding Government Members’ welcome of the motion. As I stated, some of the key issues mentioned, such as class sizes, educational disadvantage, special needs and the increasing numbers of newcomer pupils to our primary schools, pose some of the real challenges in primary education today.
The amendment fairly, accurately and reasonably reflects the unambiguous commitment of the Government to all primary school children. As I have stated, the issues outlined by Senator O’Toole are key, because they help to direct our focus on the need to deliver opportunities to all children, irrespective of their abilities, interests and cultures. As the Government delivers on the key issues, it acknowledges that every child deserves the chance to reach its full potential. I agree with Senators O’Toole and Ross that the child is and must be at the centre of this debate, irrespective of the reference towards the end of the motion to teachers’ pay and allowances for principals.
As the amendment points out, the Government is delivering, as far as all the key areas are concerned. I will outline some of its delivery highlights during recent years. First, every primary school now has the services of a resource teacher. No reasonable primary school principal or teacher will deny that this is a significant step forward. Since last year, a total of 600 extra resource teachers have been put in place. Moreover, as has already been stated frequently in this House in the past year, more than 5,000 additional teachers have been brought into service in the primary school sector. Most have rightly been targeted at special needs and educational disadvantage. The pupil-teacher ratio has been reduced from 22:1 in 1997, to 17:1 today. At present, the big issue is of course class size. Class sizes have been reduced from 27:1 to 24:1 over the same period.
I will now consider the developments planned for this year and next year. As all Members must admit, the education sector did well in the budget. Its current expenditure allocation has been increased by 9% and now exceeds €7 billion. A total of 500 additional primary teachers will be introduced into schools during the next two years. They will ensure smaller class sizes and will be targeted at educational disadvantage. Moreover, the Minister has requested primary school principals to deploy them at junior school level in the first instance. Educational disadvantage has also been targeted through increasing aid for school books grants by 25%. As for the old chestnut of the capitation grant, it will come to €146 per pupil this year, in contrast to the figure of €57 per pupil, which was payable in 1997.
Last year, as all Members are all aware, the Minister launched the delivering equality of opportunity in schools programme, DEIS. The Minister intends to discuss it in more detail. Its implementation is well under way and it has many interesting features, to which Senator O’Toole and, more briefly, Senator Ross have referred. Given the programme’s enormous significance for schools, principals and teachers, I join with Senator O’Toole in paying tribute to our principals and primary school teachers for the enthusiasm with which they have embraced all the many new initiatives which have been targeted at educational disadvantage and special needs in recent years. The degree of professionalism that is in evidence in the face of these significant challenges is commendable.
Equally, we must pay tribute to them for the manner in which they have embraced the involvement of parents at the very centre of the delivery of education, both in terms of special education and in the context of the special educational needs Act. The Act has significant implications for the interaction between principals and parents, class teachers and parents and indeed among principals, parents and the community, as well as for the new post of the special educational needs organiser, SENO. This level of outreaching by teachers and principals in highly commendable. Having paid tribute in this regard, I must also insist that there has been a definite, coherent, consistent and ongoing programme of delivery by the Government and its immediate predecessor during its term of office from 1997 to 2002, to target these areas of special need. This has enabled our schools to have better learning outcomes, to provide equality of opportunity and to deliver for all pupils.
Under this Minister, children with special needs and disadvantaged children have received the first call on resources. The Minister and her immediate predecessors have targeted the 5,000 additional teachers at special needs and educational disadvantage. No one, inside or outside the education sector, could quibble with this and it was the correct priority. The provision of 500 extra teachers in the next two years has been budgeted for, and is backed by the Minister for Finance. This will be aimed at lowering class sizes and the reduction by one point of the class size ratio in mainstream schools. This constitutes significant progress.
The Government can hold its head high across the spectrum of special education and educational disadvantage. Significant resources have been poured in to tackle educational disadvantage in recent years. Apart from the appointment of 5,000 additional resource teachers, the reading recovery programme was introduced while the key feature of the delivering equality of opportunity in schools programme is intervention at an early age to help children so that the problems they experience do not become entrenched. Breakfast and homework clubs and summer programmes greatly benefit young pupils, particularly on the north side of Dublin, which I represent. The improvement in school attendance, motivation and achievement as a result of these initiatives has been remarkable.
I commend the amendment because it accurately, fairly and reasonably encapsulates the unstinting commitment and determination of the Minister and her predecessors to deliver additional resources to schools so that principals and teachers can provide a more professional service while targeting the most needy. Over the next few years, the Minister will address class size in mainstream schools on an ongoing basis, without the need to set targets, as proposed by Senator O’Toole.
Mr. U. Burke: I welcome the Minister to the House and am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to the debate. Everybody welcomes improvements in the education system, which provide children with an opportunity to improve their lot. Earlier on the Order of Business, I again raised an education issue, which is the failure of more than 1,000 children to transfer from primary to second level education annually. That will not improve overnight but whatever needs to be done to reverse that trend must be done. I have raised the issue of school drop outs on numerous occasions with the Minister and her predecessor.
The kernel of the early school leaving issue relates to the appointment of educational welfare officers. The Government gave an undertaking that the resources necessary to ensure the appointment 330 educational welfare officers would be provided on a phased basis. It was intended that the educational welfare officer system would replace the juvenile liaison scheme involving the Garda and other schemes, which were totally unacceptable. However, only 70 officers have been recruited, meaning that each officer is assigned 185 pupils. No person can monitor a child with educational difficulties over the course of his or her primary education and prevent him or her from dropping out in these circumstances. Most children play truant or drop out between the ages of nine and 12 but if the necessary personnel are not appointed, the numbers dropping out will increase significantly. These children will present further problems as they get older and it will cost the State much more to counter their activities outside the education system than it would if they were encouraged to stay in school. It is important that the proposed number of educational welfare officers be recruited, as they would provide excellent value for money. I hope the Minister will give a commitment to dramatically increase the number of such officers in the near future. The Minister has immediately shaken her head but if she does not address this issue, another Department will pay the price.
Statistics published by the Department and the Minister are, in the main, contradictory. A total of 108,619 children are in classes of more than 30 pupils. It is unfair of the Minister to repeatedly state that the problem is at local level, given that boards of management of schools are forced to shuffle resource teachers so that they deal primarily with children aged under nine, who have greater needs. That is not the solution to the problem. In addition, a significant number of pupils are in class sizes of more than 35 or more than 40. A total of 160 pupils are in the latter category, which is unacceptable.
The Minister should definitively outline what is the position regarding the larger class sizes because the figures published by the Department and the Minister are contradictory. In the school year 2004-05, 9,946 pupils were in classes that numbered between 30 and 34 pupils while in 2003-04, the equivalent figure was 4,499. The number of pupils in this category, therefore, doubled. If people welcome that——
Everybody welcomes the improvement in special needs provision, particularly the appointment of additional resource teachers and personal assistants. Most schools are in receipt of such support, although a number of them have experienced a reduction. While the Minister does not have sole responsibility for special needs provision, it is important that she should maintain this support at second level. The withdrawal of special needs services from pupils when they transfer from primary to second level presents an increasing problem. This issue needs urgent attention so that the valuable work done by primary teachers is not undone.
I support previous speakers who referred to the workload of principals and their remuneration. Their increasing administrative workload must be recognised. There are far more demands on their time now than was the case in the past. We must recognise and respond to this in a positive way by providing them with adequate support. In some cases, their workload is proportionate to the numbers in their school and the difficulties with which they contend.
I draw the Minister’s attention to a sad situation, a matter I raised on the Adjournment some time ago. In my local national school, some 30% of the student intake require special needs support of some type. The last time I visited this two-teacher, two-room school, a severely disabled child in great need was being taught in the midst of eight students in need of other support. The provision of such specialist support is an impossible task when teachers must also deliver the regular school programme.
I am sorry to raise a parochial matter but I stress the urgency of this school’s requirement for an emergency prefabricated building. Coincidentally, the Minister of State at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Deputy Killeen, who replied to this matter in the Minister’s absence, was principal in that school some 30 years ago. He admitted nothing had changed in the school in that time. There must be a review of cases such as this is where there is an absolute immediacy in terms of a school’s requirements. The Minister of State, Deputy Killeen, said he would bring this case to the attention of the Minister.
Mr. Minihan: I welcome the Minister for Education and Science to the House and I am grateful for the opportunity to speak on this motion. Along with health care, care of the elderly and child care, education is one of the key policy areas that define a society. Decisions made in the area of education have far-reaching and long-lasting affects not only on our economy but on our society. The influence of education is all pervading. Law and order, social integration, race relations and civil society are all affected by education policy. The position of Minister for Education and Science brings with it huge responsibilities responsibilities to which this Minister has risen with the assurance and sure-footedness of one who has spent much of her working life promoting the cause of education.
It was with disappointment that I first viewed the motion put forward by Senators O’Toole, Ross and Norris. Challenges remain in this area but I am proud that the Government has achieved much and will continue to make progress on delivering the facilities people need and deserve. The Senators’ ire would be better directed at previous Administrations where underprovision took its toll on all aspects of education. When this Government took office in 1997, it resolved to make amends by addressing these issues in a strategic and meaningful way.
The facts speak for themselves. A decade ago, some 190,000 primary school pupils were in ordinary classes of more than 30, of which 52,000 had class sizes greater than 35. Today, those figures have reduced by 44% and 83%, respectively. The Senators’ ire should have been directed at those Administrations which allowed nearly 42% of primary school pupils to be taught in classes of more than 30.
Mr. Minihan: We know that well. Perhaps I am being somewhat hard on the Senators. I should thank them for giving me this opportunity to set before the House the record of the Government in a manner that even the most numerically challenged of us will understand.
Mr. Minihan: Since 1997, the pupil-teacher ratio has been slashed from 22:1 to 17:1. To achieve this figure, the Government has placed 5,000 extra primary teachers in our schools. Many of these extra teachers have been targeted at pupils with special needs and those from disadvantaged areas to ensure they are getting the extra help they need to reach their potential. The average class size has been brought down from 27 to 24. This means there is now one classroom teacher for every 24 pupils.
The Government has made a conscious decision to target resources at pupils with special needs and those from disadvantaged areas. This is as it should be and no sane person would condemn such a decision. Some 243 disadvantaged schools have benefited from this policy, with reduced class sizes of 15 to 20 pupils per class. Now that class sizes have been reduced in disadvantaged schools, mainstream schools too will begin to see substantial improvements in the pupil-teacher ratio, with the emphasis on infants and young children. The Minister for Education and Science has major responsibilities, ranging from the care and nurturing of junior infants to promoting innovation and research at fourth level. In many respects, however, one of her most important roles is that of special needs education.
Time constraints do not allow us to do justice to this complex issue. On the occasion of the debate that took place in this House last April, I put on the record a number of figures that went some way to illustrate the Government’s commitment in this area. In terms of special needs, there are now some 5,000 resource teachers, up from 104 in 1998.
Mr. Minihan: Senator O’Toole should have done his homework before setting down the motion. Then he should have accepted the Government’s amendment. There are 1,500 learning support teachers, 1,000 teachers in special schools and more than 600 teachers in special classes——
There are nearly 6,000 special needs assistants in schools, compared to just 300 in 1998. This progress must be acknowledged, commended and welcomed. Nevertheless, despite this progress, the Government is not resting on its laurels. In the coming years, as the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act 2004 is phased in, resources will be provided to ensure the Government’s obligations are met.
A new and welcome development in the past several years has been the increased number of foreign workers arriving here. While welcome, these workers and their families present a number of challenges to the Government, challenges that no previous Government had to face. It is vital that the Government provides adequate funding to ensure language support teachers are provided where necessary and in adequate numbers. I welcome the Minister’s commitment at the recent primary principals conference that she will keep this area under review and, in the next 12 months, devote a significant amount of her time to ensuring children whose first language is not English and whose cultures and expectations of education can be very different to our own are given every opportunity. In other countries with an immigrant population, problems occur not with the younger generation but with their parents. It is here that social isolation begins and resentment eventually grows. I urge the Government to do all it can to ensure adults too benefit from any English language programme.
Education is the key to work, social inclusion and a well-grounded, civilised society. It is not a silver bullet; it will not and cannot solve all society’s problems. However, in recognising the role education has to play and ensuring adequate resources are provided to all levels of education, this Government has laid the foundations for Irish society into the 21st century. I support the Government’s amendment to the motion.
Mr. Norris: I welcome the Minister to the House. I take it as given that we all appreciate the fact that she is a highly competent, intelligent, sensitive and good Minister. I am not partisan on this nor am I am as surprisingly politically naive as my friend and colleague, Senator Ross, if he imagines for one minute that the Government will accept a motion that refers to regretting the Government’s failure and the Minister’s procrastination and goes on to make demands.
Mr. Norris: They are only words. However, I have managed this trick in the past but always when there was some degree of accommodation between the two elements. That is a good move but I do not see any realistic possibility of it in this case. Although Senator O’Toole has good relations, by and large, with the Department of Education and Science and the Minister, he is right to be critical because we need to keep the Minister and the Department up to the appropriate standard all the time.
Senator Minihan was kind in explaining the position to those of us who are numerically challenged, among whom I count myself. However, even I can detect that there are anomalies occurring but I accept that since the introduction of the budget, the Minister has managed to achieve an amelioration in the position.
I will give a number of examples. One is a recent survey carried out by the INTO which showed that some of the country’s most severely disadvantaged schools, instead of their pupil-teacher ratio improving, have suffered a decrease in the number of teachers because of the implementation of the new weighted system of allocation. I note the Minister is shaking her head, perhaps she has an alternative explanation. As reported it is a worrying development.
According to a report in The Irish Times today, the INTO has called for a freeze on job losses in disadvantaged schools pending the implementation of a new plan to tackle educational disadvantage. It indicated that a number of schools in the north inner city lost the equivalent of eight teacher places because of the implementation of this plan whereas on the south side there was a net gain of one teacher. It seems extraordinary that there should be this drain away from the areas that are most disadvantaged.
The Minister has heard me previously talk with some passion about the breaking the cycle system, about how good it is and that it should be continued all the way through primary, secondary and up to university level. According to the latest reports I have to hand, there is a drain away from the areas of greatest disadvantage because of the rigid application of a particular system. I look forward to the Minister’s comments on that.
This position is highlighted and accentuated by the fact that we know from another survey — which was launched by the Minister and therefore I am sure she will comment on it — that 30% of children in poorer areas continue to have serious reading difficulties. This is broadly unchanged since the previous survey of 1999. If these two developments are taken together, in other words, if teachers are being taken away from the areas of greatest disadvantage in Dublin — the north inner city — because of the application the new system when we know that in those areas there is the greatest impact of disadvantage, in particular with regard to literacy skills and so on, the developing situation gives rise to concern. I do not want to carp at the Minister over this because she has done some good work. However, this anomaly needs to be addressed.
These are three areas in which there is criticism of the effect of the current policies, even taking into account that there has been an improvement in the average position. I am always a little suspicious when we have average figures because there may be one group of people who are advantaged to the disadvantage of another. When we get an average figure, we have to look for the anomalies because that is where the shoe pinches.
Another issue that needs to be addressed is the multi-ethnic element in schools. I welcome this and the very healthy attitude not only of the teachers but the pupils, which is an astonishing change since my time in school. Some 170 nationalities are now represented in the State. I want to record an example of that because it is a positive aspect. In Palmerstown community school there was a celebrated case of Olukunle Elukanlo. One of his classmates said:
That sounds like a good school to me if children come out of the school system with that attitude. Perhaps they have a lot to teach the adults. I could elaborate on the question of numbers because there are alternative figures which suggest we are still comparatively poor in terms of class sizes compared to the other European countries.
My final point, with which I am sure Senator O’Toole will deal because I will not have time to do so, is the question of special schools on which there is a debate. We need clear, firm policy on that area. I heard Olan McGowan, who is an extremely good broadcaster, speak the other night. He appeared to be against special schools because they put people in a ghetto, so to speak. These are very effective resources, however, if properly managed and we should not tie people into an either-or situation.
Mr. Quinn: I thank Senator Norris for allowing me to contribute. I welcome the Minister to the House and I know her heart is in the right place. In the short time available I want to focus on one clause in the important motion. It states: “Demands that the Government give special weighting and provision to those schools and classes with significant numbers of ‘newcomer’ pupils, from other countries and cultures ...”. It is interesting that the Government amendment to the motion does not refer to this clause.
Mr. Quinn: If it is included, I apologise. I read the amendment but may not have read the later part of it on the next page. Perhaps that is where I made my mistake. If that is so, I look forward to hearing the Minister’s contribution on it.
Until fairly recently it was a novelty for a primary school to have a pupil from abroad. The challenge facing us is to adapt our system to suit that circumstance. The biggest challenge we face on immigration is the task of integrating these newcomers into Irish society. On the one hand, we must fully respect their culture and religious heritage and, on the other hand, ensure that those people who come to live among us are fully equipped to play a meaningful role as members of the society into which they have come.
The first element of that, above everything else, is that they should learn to speak English but that will not happen to them if they learn it from their friends. We must ensure that they learn to speak English correctly because if they do not they risk falling behind in everything they learn. There is also the risk that when they leave school they will be unable to play a part in our society. That will not happen by accident. It will happen only if the Government and the Minister allocate the resources to recognise that a very large number of newcomers into our society are pupils in our schools. As far as I am aware, nobody in education or elsewhere is taking responsibility for integrating those newcomers, whom we need so badly, into our society. We have not taken the first steps in that regard and the first steps must be taken in education.
I was interested to hear Senator Norris talk about the school pupils who referred to strangers to our country as “mates”. We know we can succeed in this but it will not happen if these people do not learn English early and if we do not allocate the resources to provide for that. I urge the Minister to regard that as an urgent requirement. This is a nettle we must grasp. If we do not grasp it, we will face in the future something for which we will have been responsible, that is, encouraging people to come to our country, encouraging the children to go to school here and not giving them the education they need. They need a difference in emphasis, the emphasis on learning the English language as somebody who did not grow up with it. The Minister needs to allocate the necessary resources and I hope she will do so.
Ms M. Hanafin: Ba mhaith liom mo bhuíochas a ghabháil leis na Seanadóirí as ucht an díospóireacht seo a chur ar bun inniu. It is not the first time we have discussed education in this House. As somebody who, as Minister for Education and Science, is responsible for everything from preschool to postgraduate studies, involving 1 million students, 50,000 teachers, 4,000 schools, seven universities, 15 institutes of technology, training colleges and a budget of €7.8 billion, there is plenty for us to discuss.
While the Independent Senators have focussed their attention just on the primary school sector, they would be the first to admit that in all elements across the sector significant progress has been made. This has been achieved in a spirit of partnership with the teachers, management, the parents and in consultation with the young people, building on considerable investment by the Government and a desire on everybody’s part to ensure that we continue to make progress in the area of education to ensure that it continues to be at the core of the social and cultural development, as well as the economic development, of our nation.
A number of different issues have been raised. As 15 minutes will not allow me to address all of them, I will focus on some. The important matter, as Senator Ross stated, is that the child is at the centre and there is no doubt about that in all that we do. Whether it is the child in the mainstream class, the special class or the special school, the child from a disadvantaged area or the one who has come new to our country and who needs special attention, each of those children is now being afforded greater opportunities than children had in the past to reach his or her own potential. Similarly, each of their teachers is now being afforded greater support than teachers had in the past.
It is with a desire to continue in that vein that I, as Minister for Education and Science, will be moving towards the next year in building on our policies and continuing to develop other ones. That includes such matters as the physical school environment as well as what is happening in the schools. It is interesting that a number of years ago we probably would have had a lengthy debate on the capital programme for schools, etc., and yet it is not even mentioned in the motion.
Ms M. Hanafin: In its own way this reflects the progress that has been made, with €500 million being spent this year alone. Last year 1,200 schools had building programmes. To date this year, I have announced 65 schools going into the building programme. Next week I will be announcing 200 schools, in the context of small and rural schools and of extra classrooms, etc. We have already announced 740 schools for the summer works this year and there will be other ones arising over the next few months. That, in itself, shows a commitment to improving the physical structure, not just because of under investment over a number of years and the fact that some of our schools are over 100 years old, but it also reflects the changing needs of the new curriculum and the inclusion of children with special needs with the extra demands which that has put on schools, including the attempts to support the teachers in that situation.
I will take the issues addressed in the motion in the order of the priorities of the Government over the past couple of years. No doubt children with special needs have been and are a priority for the Government. That was not in the programme for Government. It was not in the programme for Government that we would put 5,000 extra teachers into our schools over a number of years, nor that we should focus our attention on children with learning difficulties, but we have achieved that. It is important it is recognised because priorities change as society changes. That is why where it may not address a complete commitment, it is necessary to consider what we have done with the money and resources available to us. We have focussed on those children with special needs.
When one sees that one in five primary school teachers is now dealing with children with special needs and learning difficulties, one realises the significance of the investment in this area. It is a case of dealing not just with a child where there are more severe difficulties but even the child who was always in danger of falling behind in the classroom, that is, the child who was not able to catch up with the teacher and who continually fell behind for years. The needs of such children can now be identified at an early stage. The teacher in the classroom, the best person to recognise it, can identify the child and ensure that the learning support teacher or resource teacher in the school is able to give the child the support and early intervention to ensure that problems do not continue and arise later. That is the type of intervention which I hope will contribute to ensuring that students remain in school at a later stage and that there will not be the continued drop-out experienced in some areas by some children at second level.
The National Council for Special Education is a very significant development in supporting children, their families and schools. The special education needs organisers, SENOs, over 70 of them locally based, are making the links between the schools, the parents and the services. It is new and I accept it has taken time to bed down. People are now beginning to realise that this is a real resource because they can get to know the person concerned and ensure that the child’s individual needs are met, whether it be through resource teaching hours or receiving a special needs assistant, of whom there are 6,000 — 7,000 people but 6,000 whole-time equivalents — in the schools at present. It can also pertain in the use of technology which is beneficial in enabling so many children in special education to reach their potential. The SENOs have made a significant difference for children, recognising that our schools are being very open and welcoming of children with special needs and the particular difficulties and challenges which that poses for the schools and the teacher in the classroom.
Reference has been made to the role of the special school and to the fact that in other places they have been shut down and that others have stated they should be shut down. The special schools should be at the core, as a centre of excellence, for the expertise which they have developed over the years. I have visited a special school for children with behavioural difficulties, a special school for children with intellectual disabilities, a special school in the CRC clinic, a special school for young people who are deaf-blind and as a result cannot speak and various other special classes and special schools around the country. The care, attention and devotion that those teachers give to the children concerned cannot be found anywhere. They have developed a level of expertise over the years in recognising the best technology available, the best methodologies available and the best support structures needed.
We are actively working on a pilot programme with two of those special schools to see how they can not only develop and strengthen in themselves to meet the needs of their children but also be able to reach out and provide a resource to the other schools in the area. That is why I wish to see it develop. In the UK they made a serious mistake in that they shut down the special school and they are now living to regret it. Many parents want their children to be in the mainstream class, then some of them realise that not all children are suitable for the mainstream class and the mainstream class is not suitable for all children. The special schools have a very special role to play and I will continue to support it and ensure they feel that they will be even more highly regarded as we move forward.
The area of autism is also developing. I would be the first to state it is an area where we need to do a great deal more. There has been a considerable increase in the number of special classes and special schools for children with autism. It is a growing issue into which we will continue to put investment and special supports.
The second area of commitment and priority, both by me and my predecessors, has been disadvantage. Everybody would recognise that where one has resources and when one has extra teachers, one puts them where they are needed most, which is in disadvantage. Over the years all of the results have shown us this is so. There are approximately ten schemes dealing with disadvantage. The idea behind the DEIS programme is to co-ordinate those schemes and to ensure that those with the most serious educational disadvantage are the ones who would benefit most. It has taken some time for the education research centre to work out, on the basis of the information supplied from the schools, which schools should be included in this. It has taken time because it is crucial that we get it right.
Quality control continues. People check whether the form is completed correctly because substantial benefits can accrue to the schools, namely, extra resources of over €40 million and 300 extra posts across the system. A total of 600 primary schools, 300 urban and town, 300 rural and 150 second level schools will benefit from this plan which is in the final stages of implementation.
The key measures will focus on the schools, for example, targeting early childhood education, extending the home-school liaison programme, the school completion programme, ensuring there are more administrative principals, giving recognition to teachers and principals who have made a commitment to disadvantaged schools by allowing them to take paid sabbatical leave, and different measures working with the other agencies to enhance student attendance, etc. They will be put in place immediately. I am not waiting until next September; as soon as this is finalised I will roll out those supports.
The key point in all the studies and surveys on disadvantage is that schools cannot work alone. Families and society have a significant bearing on education. Senator Norris referred to the reading report which was a study in community disadvantage rather than simply learning disadvantage. The same is true of the study I launched in 2004 to cover illiteracy and innumeracy in disadvantaged schools. In schools where the pupil-teacher ratio was 11:1 literacy and numeracy were worse than ever because there were no books in the children’s homes. Nobody read to the children, there were no language skills or nursery rhymes. They ticked the box for between zero and nine books. That shows that there is only so much a teacher can do in the classroom with significant resources and commitment but without the support of the wider community, particularly the parents.
We have included family literacy in the delivering equality of opportunity in schools, DEIS, programme and greater emphasis on the home-school community liaison to support the teacher in the classroom. I hope that key change will make a difference to young people coming from a position of economic and educational disadvantage. Economic disadvantage does not mean educational disadvantage. People from Leitrim often tell us how economically disadvantaged they are but they have the highest participation rate in third level education in the country. In areas of Connemara which claim rural and economic disadvantage there is a strong tradition of commitment to, and participation in, education.
The real disadvantage is in urban areas. Last week I visited two schools in Tallaght which have wonderful principals and young dedicated staff who want to make a difference. They are trying to work with a small group of parents, many children and serious family problems. The saddest meeting of my past year was with the little girl in that school who asked me if she could sleep in the school at night. That was not because the school was an oasis for her but raised many questions about what was happening outside. The principal knew about the problem and was on top of it. Those are the kind of circumstances that create educational disadvantage. We will make the investment and put the teachers in place but that must be coupled with family support which is the aim of these programmes.
It is not necessary to set up a five or six year programme for class size as there is in the third level or research programmes. One cannot run a capital programme for a year at a time because it is no use leaving a school without a roof because there is no money to finish it. That is why a capital programme must run for five years. One cannot tell a researcher to study the next cure for cancer for only a year and say one does not know how much money there is for the second or third year of research.
Ms M. Hanafin: I am announcing this year that I am reducing class size and will do so again next year. In any one year one can decide in February to reduce the schedule and put more teachers into a school and it can happen the following September. It should be recognised that all the extra teachers have been put in first to reduce the class size in disadvantaged schools and will again be so placed. This will ensure not only a reduction in the pupil-teacher ratio to 20:1 in junior classes but to 24:1 at senior levels to ensure some continuity.
For the schedule this year teachers will be allocated not on the basis of a ratio of 29:1 generally, but of 28:1 and the following year on the basis of 27:1. Half of the schools in the country can have four teachers or fewer and are on a lower pupil-teacher ratio. It is completely unacceptable that any school has 40 or more children in a classroom. That is not my fault. The schools have a teacher for 29 pupils but have 12 or 13 children extra in one class and 16 or fewer in another class in the school, which should not happen.
There is no reason for any school to have 35 in a class. While schools need some flexibility between 28 and 31 pupils there is no excuse for a principal or board of management to have a class of that size. It happens because the school chooses to have a smaller class somewhere else. Some schools, particularly in urban areas, choose not to have split classes. Half the country is learning in split classes. There is nothing to indicate that one cannot receive a top quality education in a split class. Children all over the country have been taught this way for years yet in urban areas they prefer to have the bigger class size. If they choose this they should not complain about the high pupil-teacher ratio because since September they have had a teacher for every 28 pupils.
I have also seen schools where one teacher is devoted entirely to art. That may be a lovely idea but the mainstream teachers are provided to teach as such. I checked the guidelines to ensure that is the case. Another school complained of large class sizes but I knew its numbers offhand because I am good at reading my brief. I said there could not be large class numbers until I discovered that one teacher was teaching only technology. What a luxury. The mainstream teachers are supposed to be in the classes.
I will look very closely at the three classes which have more than 40 children and the others which have more than 35 and ask why that is so. This should not happen because the schools have the necessary teachers. I continue to reduce class sizes and hopefully will do so after the next election but I want to make sure those teachers are in the classroom and teaching because that is the only way it can happen on the ground.
People worry most about the quality of the teaching. We have been fortunate for generations in the commitment and quality of our teachers. Other countries with smaller class sizes have not had the same quality of education. There is no direct correlation between pupil-teacher ratio and a good outcome. The commitment of Irish-trained teachers over many years proves that. Teachers are anxious to ensure that we continue to have good quality teachers.
I accept Senator O’Toole’s comments about the introduction of the new curriculum and teachers welcoming students in all their diversity including special needs, and I commend them on that. Parents may not know how many children are in their children’s classes but they know whether the teachers are good. We must continue to focus on that. I will continue to do my bit in respect of class size, pumping in extra resources and putting more teachers into the schools, as long as we can ensure we have good quality teaching, co-operation with the whole-school evaluation programme, publication, and standardised testing. These factors will highlight the value of the education in our schools and we can continue to be proud, as I am, of what is happening in schools throughout the country.
The other major change in our society is the arrival of non-nationals. Senator Quinn asked me to put resources into educating them. He may be surprised, as I am when I look at the number, to hear that there are 800 teachers devoted exclusively to teaching English to the children of non-nationals. That is not in the programme for Government, showing another change in priorities in recent years to which we have had to respond. Those teachers cost €46.5 million each year. There are 600 at primary level and approximately 200 at secondary level. Schools with fewer than 13 children are given a grant to enable teaching hours to be bought in. A school with 14 children is given one teacher and a school with 28 children is given two teachers. I accept there are schools which have a large proportion of non-national intake and children with difficulties speaking English and these schools need extra supports.
A departmental group has visited those schools and has also visited refugees and asylum seekers living on direct provision in Mosney and in Cork. It has met with bodies such as the INTO, the ASTI, the JMB and will be meeting the others. It is carefully considering the needs which include the teaching of English but also family support which those who are disadvantaged also need.
Those children go home to parents who cannot speak English. There are also serious cultural differences between attitudes to school and in the way those parents discipline or treat their children and how this is reflected in the school situation. I acknowledge the importance of home-school-community service for those schools. Even with 800 teachers and the €46.5 million expenditure, I accept that in schools where there is a large proportion of children with English language difficulties, more imaginative investment is needed. I have met the principals of some of those schools so I am familiar with the issues.
Ms M. Hanafin: Aithním go bhfuil difríochta ann ach ní gá go mbeadh ranganna níos lú acu toisc go bhfuil siad ag na Gaelscoileanna. Ba chóir féachaint orthu ar aonchéim leis na scoileanna eile ina bhfuil daoine ón iasacht ag teacht isteach.
Tá mé bródúil as an méadú atá tagtha ar na Gaelscoileanna. Tá ar a laghad Gaelscoil amháin i ngach contae in Éirinn. Sin dul chun cinn a dhéanfaidh maith don Ghaeilge. Tá an Ghaeltacht tar éis athrú agus bogadh ó iarthar na tíre go dtí na cathracha. Tá an Ghaeilge níos láidre i nDún Laoghaire ná mar atá i gContae Mhaigh Eo. Tá scoileanna ina bhfuil an Ghaeilge níos láidre agus na tuismitheoirí lasmuigh ag labhairt Gaeilge freisin.
Tá an-tacaíocht á tabhairt anois ach tá fadhbanna le múineadh na Gaeilge. Tá mé ag díriú air sin. Tá sé láidir go leor sna bunscoileanna ach tá deacrachtaí leis an chóras sna meánscoileanna. Déanann na múinteoirí bunscoile a gcuid ar son na Gaeilge ach b’fhéidir gur chóir níos mó béime a chur uirthi mar theanga labhartha ar scoil.
Senators will accept that the priorities have become special education, disadvantage and resources aimed at non-national students. The Government has increased the number of primary school teachers by 5,000 and increased the support for schools. The Government has commenced the reduction of the mainstream class sizes and the capital infrastructure of schools has been improved. This has been achieved in a spirit of partnership with all the bodies and partners involved in education. This is the best way to continue. Everyone will recognise the progress that has been made and continues to be made. The Government is committed to ensuring that the high standard of education in primary schools continues to be of the same high quality it has been for the past 100 years.
Mr. J. Phelan: I welcome the Minister to the House. She has given a very good account of herself in her contribution. I do not doubt for one moment her sincerity and her ability. I take my hat off to her as being the outstanding holder of her office since 1997 but in light of her predecessors this may not sound like a glowing tribute. She brings a level of knowledge and sincerity to her office. It is remarkable that she has managed not to offend and upset the key stakeholders in the education process, when a couple of her predecessors managed to offend everybody involved in education.
I welcome most of her remarks but I support the motion tabled by my Independent colleagues. I wish to state a number of areas in which my views differ from those of the Minister. She referred to educational disadvantage as being an urban phenomenon. I represent a constituency with large urban and rural areas, comprising significant towns as well as large rural parts of counties Kilkenny and Carlow. I have some knowledge of this city and of other urban areas. The most extreme forms of isolation, poverty and disadvantage, are to be found in rural Ireland. The Minister referred to Tallaght and other places with concentrations of disadvantage but there is nothing that compares with what exists in some parts of rural Ireland where people still live in very bad circumstances. There are children in County Leitrim — to which the Minister referred — who are significantly disadvantaged with difficult backgrounds. There may not be a concentration of numbers of such children in rural areas but the Minister was wrong in her assessment.
I agree with the Minister that there have been significant achievements in the provision of new schools and new school buildings under the schools building programme. However, I wish to draw the Minister’s attention to a number of glaring examples of the lack of provision of new facilities for schools. She referred to special schools and special education. This is a hobby-horse of mine and it also ties in with the schools building programme.
I have raised the matter of the school of the Holy Spirit in Kilkenny city on umpteen occasions in this House. It caters for children with special educational needs, primarily those with autism. A site has been identified but they have no school building. I was approached in recent weeks by two sets of parents whose children will be finishing the primary school curriculum this year. Due to the fact that the school building is prefabricated and occupies land which was originally part of the county veterinary officer’s premises, some of these parents will be forced to leave the workforce to care for children who will be finished in primary school. This is a parochial example but it applies across the country.
Much emphasis has been placed on special education. I compliment the Minister for allocating funding to special education. I have been asking for a debate on the subject in this House since the summer recess. The National Educational Psychological Service is available to only 17% of students in County Kilkenny and 30% in County Carlow but the coverage is 100% in County Kerry. This inconsistency does not lead me to have any faith in the Government’s plans for children with special educational needs when the children cannot even have their needs assessed by NEPS.
I know of a case in County Kilkenny some years ago involving a girl who was unable to speak and who required psychological assessment. The Department thwarted the child, her school principal and the board of management at every opportunity. She was allowed access to NEPS as a result of the matter being raised on the Adjournment of the House. The Government maintains the special educational needs situation has been resolved.
Significant numbers of teachers have been taken on for special educational needs but there is still a problem regarding NEPS. The Minister should do more in that area. I am not challenging the fact that a high level of resources is being provided because it is obvious. The figures for resources speak for themselves. It is a fact, however, that in the programme for Government, the Administration committed itself to a 20:1 pupil-teacher ratio for children under nine years of age. As Senator Minihan pointed out, the current ratio is 24:1, so the Government has failed to honour its promised commitment. The situation has changed and I accept the Government must respond to events as they occur. It is clear, however, from the first line of the motion that the Government has singularly failed with regard to that matter.
I am not an expert in mathematics, although I must admit that in what seems like the dim and distant past, I was a secondary school mathematics teacher. It is not a job that I want to go back to in a hurry but the people of Carlow-Kilkenny will decide that.
Mr. J. Phelan: In another aspect of my life — I suppose that politicians wear different caps all the time — I am a member of my local primary school’s board of management. While it is only a four-teacher school, I am amazed by the phenomenal level of administration the principal has to undertake. The increase has occurred since I left primary school 14 years ago, which is not that long. In his earlier remarks, Senator Ulick Burke mentioned the need to significantly improve the resources available to principals to ensure they can carry out the necessary administration of a school without classes in small schools — such as the one of which I am a member of the board of management — suffering as a result. The Minister should examine that area as there is a need for improvement.
I disagree with what the Minister said concerning split classes. In 1989, I was in a fourth class which was deemed to be too large so the pupils were split up. Five of us were put into another classroom with fifth and sixth class pupils. I can honestly say that my education and that of my four friends suffered as a result because we were cut off from the group with which we had spent the previous six years. When the five of us were lumped in, an extra burden was placed on the teacher who was already teaching 30 fifth and sixth class students. She had to try to teach different curricular courses to three distinct groups within the same classroom. Split classes, therefore, need to be carefully examined. Maybe I am being overly idealistic in pursuing the idea that we should not have split classes.
Mr. J. Phelan: I wish to raise one other issue concerning answers to parliamentary questions on class numbers submitted by Deputy Enright. Even though I am a former mathematics teacher, I am not a mathematician but it is clear that the answers provided to parliamentary questions in 2005 and 2006 show there was a significant increase in class sizes.
Mr. J. Phelan: I wish to make another point. Previous speakers, including the Minister, referred to the significant number of students from different ethnic backgrounds who are now involved in the education sector. That is a great thing but it comes back to my emphasis on rural versus urban affairs. Many immigrants are located in the strangest places around the country.
Ms Ormonde: I welcome the Minister to the House. We have seen a lot of her in the House of late, which reflects the importance of her role and how equipped she is to handle it. Last week we discussed funding for third-level education and the reform of our medical schools. This week we are debating funding allocated to education through the Estimates, which has reached €7.2 billion for this year alone. That clearly indicates the Minister’s commitment to education and her knowledge of the sector. I am inclined to discard my script because having listened to the Minister there is no point in saying what I had set out to state. The Minister herself has said it all and Senator O’Toole has acknowledged that in listening to the debate as it unfolded.
While the Opposition continues to focus on areas that are still being developed and where further growth may be needed in the educational sector, it is important to take a step back and examine how much has been achieved recently by the Minister and the Government. I would like to put those facts on the record. The Minister secured an increase of 8% in the education budget announced during the Estimates for 2006 in November — a rise of €530 million to bring the total budget to over €7.2 billion for this year. That says it all.
The Minister prioritised class sizes, special needs and the disadvantaged. I will put down my script at this stage and will talk from my knowledge of education. If we do not get it right for disadvantaged students we will have knock-on effects, including a breakdown of law and order involving dropouts and misfits in society. The Minister is correct in stating that resources must be used to reduce class sizes and deploy teachers who will deal with disadvantaged pupils. As she said, one can pump all the money one likes into various educational schemes but they will not work in the absence of home-school links and one-to-one contacts. Nobody is better placed than teachers who are qualified to acknowledge deficits in children’s needs as they commence primary school education. That is where such deficiencies are picked up by highly qualified teachers who know how students are fitting into the classroom ambience.
Psychological services in schools must be streamlined and I think the Minister would acknowledge there are some inconsistencies. We will try to put that right. Home-school links, the psychological services and parents are critical elements in this regard but, as we all know, parents must be on side. If the main stakeholders in primary education — the principals, teachers, school management, parents and the psychological services — are working together we will have no problems when students move on to second level. There always was a problem in the transition from primary to secondary school but I know it is not there now, having discussed the matter with colleagues. There were gaps in the educational process because there was no follow-on or continuity between both levels. That situation has changed absolutely in recent years and I am glad to say that resources are being prioritised for that area. Our approach to the transition period between primary and second levels will reflect the future shape of our educational system. I acknowledge the Minister’s statement in that regard.
The Minister also referred to special needs and in particular the role of special schools. I welcome her comments on that subject because too often in the past we disregarded students with special needs. Many parents felt that their sons or daughters with special needs should be in mainstream education but nine times out of ten it does not work. Teachers are well qualified to devote their attention and expertise to trying to bring these special needs students on board and give them an education. Very often, these students are highly intelligent but simply need the patience, commitment and expertise of the teachers. I welcome the resources being put into that area.
Class sizes must be reduced and the Minister has given a commitment to carry on reducing them. I see nothing wrong with splitting classes at primary level. That has always worked. It depends on attitudes of the boards of management and of teachers. It has worked where one would not have expected it to work, where substantial numbers were involved. It is all down to the philosophy, policy and attitudes of teachers.
The Minister has created 800 posts for helping non-nationals with language lessons. Clearly, the needs of students coming in from different countries must be met. As the Minister said, all children must be treasured and should be at the centre of our debate. It is great to see that not alone will the children have to be educated in English, but that their parents will learn English too. It is important this is acknowledged.
This is a good debate. I am delighted that Senator O’Toole tabled the motion and gave us and the Minister the opportunity to put the facts right, where they should be. The Senator has given me the opportunity to acknowledge the work the Minister is doing, that the Government is committed and to note where its priorities lie. Senator O’Toole did a good job for us tonight. We have given him the answers and I hope he will acknowledge them.
Ms Tuffy: The Minister and Senator Ormonde are responding to this motion by blaming the schools. The Minister spoke of an imbalance in schools whereby there are some classes of 16 and others of 35. There could well be a reason for classes of such different size. Different years might be involved. Perhaps the Minister can produce figures to show that for some students in the same year, such differences in class sizes exist. She may be talking of different years. A class might be smaller because of special needs in the class, for example.
Going by the Minister’s figures supplied as responses to parliamentary questions, that issue is a red herring. It is quite obvious that the bulk of pupils are in classes of 20 to 24 and 30 to 34. When the issue was raised by teachers in my area as part of the INTO campaign, the basic issue involved classes with about 30 pupils. Most of the schools in my area had class numbers of high 20s and low 30s, and there seemed to be many classes in those size ranges. The Minister is aware of numerous such meetings held during the INTO campaign between local teachers and public representatives. That never happened before. The impression I got from the principals and teachers involved was that they were very concerned about the issue, which was putting them under a lot of pressure in schools. Organising such meetings with public representatives and bringing the issue into the political arena was very much a last resort for teachers.
I do not believe that teachers would not do something themselves about class sizes, if they could. In my local schools, teachers have done everything they can to maximise resources in order to ensure class sizes are not too big. However, they still have class sizes well beyond what would be considered best practice.
The Minister has announced there will be 400 extra teachers in the next couple of years, so she acknowledges the problem. It is good that she has made this announcement. The INTO welcomed it but said that further progress is necessary. That is the message of this debate and of Senator O’Toole’s motion. The issue will not go away merely because an announcement was made. People need to see changes on the ground and very little has changed so far.
Ms Tuffy: The Minister is talking of reducing the average class size from 29 to 28 this year, and to 27 the following year. Will a class of 34 drop down to 33 or 32? Class sizes will remain too big for the next couple of years. Despite the Minister’s announcement, progress will be slow.
The issue of disadvantaged schools was raised by many Members. A recent report has confirmed that in poor areas there are 30% levels of poor literacy. That is not much of an improvement on the figures in 1999 when a similar report was published. We know one of the keys to dealing with poor literacy levels is a reduction in class size. Research has consistently shown that the outcome for pupils in smaller classes is better.
We all know that education is the key to dealing with life chances. We are one of the richest economies in the world, definitely at the top of the scale in Europe, yet we are at the bottom of the league in terms of expenditure on education as a percentage of GNP. We must do more. The Minister is doing something but must do a lot more if she wants to change in terms of class sizes and disadvantaged pupils. The Minister is nowhere near delivering the Government commitment to class sizes of 20 or less.
Dr. Mansergh: I welcome the Minister and thank her for staying for the entire debate. In three and a half years in this House I have never seen a Minister speak entirely extempore and with such authority. I hope she will take full advantage of the social partnership talks and helpful pressures from the trade unions to get the best possible deal for education, because there is no more worthwhile area of investment. Members must excuse my voice. I am in a bad condition for a politician, having nearly lost my voice.
Dr. Mansergh: The Minister made a good point. As someone involved for the best part of 20 years in one form or another in helping to draft programmes for Government, I can say that they naturally cover only a certain amount of what the Government will do, and other priorities will come forward. Unfortunately, Governments do not tend to get credit for all the things they have done which they did not promise to do. They get criticised for things which are perhaps less a priority.
I pay tribute to the Minister for what she has done in reducing the general class size, in terms of the pupil-teacher ratio, and providing additional resource teachers and special teachers of various kinds. I am very impressed by the figure of 800 posts towards helping non-nationals with languages.
However, I must say that the class size problem raised with me at a local Tipperary level is very different than that being discussed in this debate. I have attended union meetings across that county in which the drum has been banged on pupil-teacher ratios but the class size problem with which I am continually confronted is that of physical space. This is particularly the case when people lack space for resource teachers in schools built 50 or 60 years ago. That configuration is no longer necessary and is bursting at the seams. New schools and extensions cope with that type of class size problem but we must recognise that there is more than one dimension to the problem. The building programme is extremely worthwhile. If I have any criticisms, it is that the Minister for Finance should invest more money in the area. When new schools are opened, it highlights the contrast with poorer facilities elsewhere.
Dr. Mansergh: He was the INTO’s general secretary in times gone by. The excellent leadership of that organisation over the decades has helped to ensure high morale in the profession. I agree with the Minister that teachers are not overpaid. They have an important and responsible task and deserve every euro they get.
Mr. Kitt: I welcome the Minister to the House and thank her for staying through the debate. I also pay tribute to Senator O’Toole for his work as general secretary of the INTO, of which I am proud to say I am still a member. For this reason, I get Intouch, the INTO’s magazine, which I regard as the gospel.
Mr. Kitt: I take a different view than Senator Tuffy on the INTO and complaints about what must be done. In the December issue of the INTO’s magazine, the general secretary commented that, at last, there is progress on class sizes. The magazine goes on to read that this promised reduction in class sizes is the first for four years. The issue also states that much more work must be done, with which I agree. I was impressed by the INTO’s pre-budget submission, of which there is a short version in the magazine. The full details are on the website.
I welcome the publication by the INTO of an issue of its magazine dealing with class sizes, to which the Minister has tried to respond. She probably knows I have been campaigning in my constituency for small schools in particular. Last year, I established that five three-teacher schools fell short of the retention of the third teacher by just one pupil. This year, there will be help in this regard, as the Minister announced, but we will still have problems. I always wonder why we examine the previous September’s enrolment figures when many schools would have had smaller enrolments than their figures for this year. In the case of three-teacher schools where pupil numbers have fallen from 50 to 49, there must be some way of helping. Some schools will have more than 50 pupils next September but will still lose a teacher based on last year’s figures.
This issue must be addressed and those figures should be highlighted in the partnership talks. It is a good situation for two-teacher schools, in which the number of teachers will not fall irrespective of pupil numbers, but three-teacher and larger schools have a particular problem. Principal teachers of a number of the smaller schools are making a point about their workloads. I have discussed this matter with the Minister and a number of public meetings are being held throughout the country on the extra work that principals must do. Many of the meetings deal with school buildings, which have improved due to the devolved grants.
I welcome the fact that Tuam, a RAPID town, now has an educational welfare officer. It did not have any for a long time. I am sorry that many of the ad hoc committees composed of gardaí, social workers, principal teachers and health authority staff seem to have fallen out of the loop because of the educational welfare service. We cannot have one without the other. Those committees should continue, even on an ad hoc basis. I hope the Minister and her Department will examine the example of Tuam, where there are many ethnic minorities and difficulties in respect of school attendance and school leavers, and encourage the committees to remain in place for as long as possible.
Dr. Henry: I thank Senator Mansergh for sharing his time. It is a pity the Government has tabled an amendment to this motion, as we are all on the Minister’s side. We want her to get everything she wants from the Department of Finance.
Every issue has been well covered but I wish there was more cohesion between the Departments of Health and Children and Education and Science regarding primary school children. The Minister is nodding her head. This must come forward in every solitary area. The two Departments are too divided but it is important that they be in tune with each other in the area of mental health. For example, in A Vision for Change, the policy document and new report on what we hope to do in the mental health services in Ireland, there is a very good section on child and adolescent mental health services and how they will impinge on the education of the child. We must have better cohesion between the various Departments.
Mr. O’Toole: I thank all of the contributors to the debate and the Minister for attending it in full, which I appreciate. I did not finish what I had hoped to say at the beginning of the debate. Ach ba mhaith liom cúpla rud a rá mar gheall ar an nGaolainn ionas go dtuigfí cén fáth go bhfuil déistin orm mar gheall ar an méid a fheicim. Do chaitheas leathuair a’ chloig ar maidin ag éisteacht leis an Aire Gnóthaí Pobail Tuaithe agus Gaeltachta, an Teachta Ó Cuív, istigh sa Teach eile. Bhí liosta mór fada nua aige de chomhlachtaí a chaithfeadh a gcuid cuntas bliantúla agus pé rud a bheidh á gcur i gcló acu a fhoilsiú i mBéarla agus i nGaolainn. There is nothing wrong with that. I am delighted with it, but is mór an trua é nach dtuigeann sé that, while we can now read the National Roads Authority’s glossy magazine and end-of-year reports with photographs from all over the country, ar an dtaobh eile den scéal, tá múinteoirí sna Gaeltachtaí, agus ní féidir leo teacht ar leabhar staire le téacs Gaolainne ann. How in the name of God could anyone supply that?
Does anyone share that level of frustration leis na múinteoirí sin atá ag iarraidh jab a dhéanamh ar ár son gan na téacsanna acu. Nach mbeadh sé i bhfad ní ba thábhachtaí go mbeadh téacsanna Gaolainne ar fáil acu sna scoileanna ná cuntais bhliantúla na gcomhlachtaí seo? Last week, I was looking for a Government strategy document but was told go mbeadh moill air mar bhí siad ag feitheamh ar an leagan Gaolainne. This is ridiculous. Agus bhí an fear céanna ag tabhairt ceacht staire dúinn ar an difríocht idir Dingle, An Daingean agus Daingean Uí Chúis, cad as a dtáinig siad, an Seabhac agus gach rud eile.
Mr. O’Toole: Ar an dtaobh eile den scéal, tá múinteoirí san áit chéanna, agus níl na téacsanna acu chun an jab a dhéanamh. Ó thaobh na nGaeltachtaí de, tá seanaithne ag an Aire ar Ghaeltacht Chorca Dhuibhne. Níl dhá bhliain imithe ó bhuaileas isteach go dtí scoil i gceartlár fhoinse na Gaolainne, Scoil Dhún Chaoin — I will name it. Bhuaileas isteach sa rang sóisearach, áit a raibh beirt ón Spáinn, beirt ó Londain agus ní raibh nach mór deichniúr ann. Tá na múinteoirí ansin ag iarraidh an Ghaolainn a chur i bhfeidhm agus a chur chun cinn. Seo an cheist a chuir siad orm. Why can we not have the same appointment ratio as Gaelscoileanna in the Gaeltacht? There is no sense to it. In no place was there 50%. The Minister may respond by saying “An Ghaeltacht, na Gaeltachtaí” but that is the business of some other Minister, not mine. I am informing the Minister of what is happening on the ground.
There is a shortage of every kind of special needs therapist. One can place any word in front of “therapist” and there is a shortage of people to fill the role. The National Educational Psychological Service has not been filled and is not working properly. Pupils are still being denied access to special education. Why are we separating the National Educational Psychological Service from special education? The National Educational Psychological Service does not have access to special education and this must be examined.
I have received a short memorandum on the operation of the Act. When teachers and principles discover a whole new range of assessments, educational plans, appeals and structures to report to in the new national authority, the Minister will hear about it.
The Minister was correct in praising the job done by a principal in Tallaght. I point out to Senator Mansergh that my successors, Mr. John Carr and the current president, Ms Sheila Noonan, are doing a far better job than I did. If I pass on the Minister’s comments they will tell me that fine words are great but the Minister did not state she will support the elimination of the anomaly between first and second level schools. That should be done.
Mr. O’Toole: It is but the Minister’s officials will make the same contribution as the INTO, sitting on one side. It would be helpful if they stated that benchmarking was an independent process about which they could do nothing but that the view of the Minister was that primary school principles should be paid on the same level as post-primary. Can we agree on this?
Mr. O’Toole: Priorities change, as Senator Fitzgerald will agree, so we must change our objectives. The Minister should meet the education community and explain that priorities have changed, a commitment was given and that she now seeks to agree a new commitment. Senator John Paul Phelan explained why mixed and split classes, like shared jobs and split jobs, are different and we must examine why this is done. Splitting classes involves separating pupils who have built up a dynamic since junior infants class
I have some sympathy with the Minister’s point on the use of teachers within schools so I will not address it. Regarding language support teachers, the Minister is correct in stating she has appointed 800 teachers. This is not enough and though no one is blaming the Minister this must be examined. Senator Brian Hayes issued a statement on this matter during the week.
Three times in her speech the Minister stated that disadvantage cannot be addressed entirely in school. Although it involves the family and the community, the pupils of today will be the families and communities in that area tomorrow. They will still be disadvantaged if we do not intervene. If we do not break the cycle of deprivation, underprivileged and disadvantage we will experience it forever. One of the most effective places to break this is at school level and this is where money should be allocated.
|Brady, Cyprian.||Brennan, Michael.|
|Callanan, Peter.||Daly, Brendan.|
|Dardis, John.||Dooley, Timmy.|
|Feeney, Geraldine.||Fitzgerald, Liam.|
|Glynn, Camillus.||Kenneally, Brendan.|
|Kett, Tony.||Kitt, Michael P.|
|Leyden, Terry.||Lydon, Donal J.|
|MacSharry, Marc.||Mansergh, Martin.|
|Minihan, John.||Mooney, Paschal C.|
|Morrissey, Tom.||Moylan, Pat.|
|Ó Murchú, Labhrás.||O’Rourke, Mary.|
|Ormonde, Ann.||Phelan, Kieran.|
|Scanlon, Eamon.||Walsh, Jim.|
|Bannon, James.||Bradford, Paul.|
|Browne, Fergal.||Burke, Ulick.|
|Coghlan, Paul.||Coonan, Noel.|
|Cummins, Maurice.||Feighan, Frank.|
|Finucane, Michael.||Henry, Mary.|
|McDowell, Derek.||Norris, David.|
|O’Toole, Joe.||Phelan, John.|
|Ross, Shane.||Tuffy, Joanna.|
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