Wednesday, 7 March 2007
Seanad Eireann Debate
I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of Education and Science, Deputy Haughey, to the House. Everybody knows that there are basic requirements for the delivery of a good education at all levels. Schools, the physical environment in which children are educated, must be safe, adequate, spacious and properly furnished and resourced. Does the Minister of State acknowledge that children throughout the country are facing these conditions at school?
It is only two weeks since the Minister for Education, Deputy Hanafin, visited St. Catherine’s national school in Aughrim outside Ballinasloe where she witnessed the reality of the situation facing many schools. The school is grossly overcrowded and has been waiting 12 years for progress on a replacement. The teachers are frustrated by the lack of progress as they have commitments to the children, yet they cannot educate them properly in the circumstances. When one sees a child with special needs educated in a group of 28 children in a small room, one realises how the inadequacy of the resources.
In the inspector’s report on whole-school evaluation there is a list of schools with inadequate conditions. On the Adjournment tonight I will mention another school, in Killimor, Ballinasloe, that has suffered the same consequences of eight to ten years of indecision. A school has been promised but we await a decision.
The report says that in St. Brendan’s national school in Clonfert, Ballinasloe, a secretary’s office functions as the principal’s office, general purpose room and staff room. It is a multi-functional room that is as small as the table before me. The irony is that when all the above schools are taken into account, it is easy to see why at Scoil an Spioraid Naomh in Roxboro, County Limerick, visiting inspectors commented in a recent school report that the school was fortunate to have a permanent, spacious, well-maintained building at its disposal. All children in the country should have access to permanent, spacious, well-maintained building. This is not the case and no progress has been made in this regard.
A Fine Gael Party survey of 79 schools building projects approved more than 18 months ago shows that only 13 of the projects have commenced, a further four are at design stage and no progress has been made in 62 — almost four out of five — of the schools surveyed. Some of the schools were given the green light to proceed with development in mid-2005 but the Fianna Fáil-Progressive Democrats Government has failed to deliver one additional brick.
In the coming years, 58,000 pupils will enter primary level education. Notwithstanding current overcrowding, what action does the Government propose to take to secure proper school accommodation for these children?
I am sure the Minister of State, Deputy Haughey, will inform the House of substantial progress made in tackling educational disadvantage. I welcome the appointment of a large number of special needs teachers at primary level. As I pointed out in the House last week, the change in criteria following the transition from the disadvantaged area scheme — DAS — to the DEIS — delivering equality of opportunity in schools — scheme has resulted in schools with disadvantaged status being penalised for having done an excellent job under the earlier scheme. The additional support mechanisms available to schools under the DAS scheme included provision of additional resources, teaching manpower hours and home school liaison staff, all of which were marvellous. Under the new scheme, schools which made progress under the previous system will have additional resources withdrawn. The only change agreed to by the Minister of State in the House in response to my query was that some of the benefits would be restored. This decision was taken in response to widespread outrage about this issue.
If we are seriously concerned about disadvantage in national schools, we must invest heavily. The Comptroller and Auditor General stated that a poor return was achieved on the large sums spent in this area in 2005. The Department and Minister have not properly planned expenditure. The Minister of State will no doubt indicate that millions of euro have been spent but he should read the Comptroller and Auditor General’s report in this regard.
Many schools are experiencing serious problems with overcrowding. Of the 442,000 primary school children in full-time education in the 2005-06 school year, 2,020 were in classes of between one and nine pupils, 60,000 were in classes of up to 20 pupils, 105,000 were in classes of 20 to 24 pupils, 102,000 were in classes of 25 to 29 pupils, 101,000 were in classes of 30 to 34 pupils and more than 9,000 were in classes of 35 to 39 pupils. No Minister could stand over this record. Various Ministers for Education and Science under Fianna Fáil-led Governments have sat on this issue for years. We will hear Senators from the Government side ask about the teachers who have been recruited in recent years. We were promised 800 more teachers and a reduction in average class sizes. Class sizes have fallen by, on average, just one pupil, which is not good enough.
Mr. U. Burke: Reducing class size requires substantial investment. We know from OECD reports that Ireland’s expenditure on education, at 4.5% of GDP, is the second lowest of 30 OECD countries. This figure is indicative of our lack of commitment to primary education. In recent years, we have repeatedly argued that failure to invest in primary education will result in children being lost forever. Every year, as many as 1,000 children fail to transfer from primary to secondary education and drop-out levels are even higher in secondary schools. This is a serious problem.
Yesterday, at the launch of a job skills report, the Minister for Education and Science stated Ireland must address skills levels and increase the number of students in third level. This objective will not be achieved with such high drop-out rates. What have the Minister or her predecessor, the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources, Deputy Noel Dempsey, done to provide the necessary investment in recent years?
Information technology is another vital issue. Ireland trails practically every other OECD country in investment in IT, ranking 29th out of 30 states in the 2006 report, Education at a Glance, in terms of IT investment. The Minister promised that all teachers would be allocated a laptop to assist them in their work to further IT penetration in the classroom. This commitment, given in 2002, has never come to fruition. One quarter of Irish children aged under 15 years use computers frequently at school compared to an OECD average of approximately 40%. This is a further illustration of a dishonoured commitment. Despite the Government’s many statements and commitments on the importance of IT in education, children in primary and early second level education do not have access to computers.
The position regarding the National Educational Psychological Service — NEPS — is a sorry one. I will give two examples, one from Dublin and another from Galway, to allow the Minister of State to judge the gravity of the problem. The position as regards early childhood services at the Brothers of Charity service in Galway is as follows. From the date of referral by a consultant paediatrician children must wait at least six months to be placed on the service list.  Following a six month wait they are offered one hour every two weeks with a community nurse. Following further waiting, the child will be seen by specialists in speech and language and occupational therapists. There is a long waiting list to see occupational therapists.
Mr. U. Burke: It is argued that parents can secure services privately. One cannot get access to private services. Last year, the parents of a child in Dublin who is waiting for an appointment to see an ophthalmic paediatrician and a psychiatrist had to pay €3,310 to have a private assessment of the child carried out. This year, they expect to pay €4,500 to access the service. Is this the type of education system over which the Minister of State wishes to preside? It is an indictment of those in charge of it. Perhaps we may only have to wait some weeks, however, before it is brought to an end.
Mr. Browne: I welcome the Minister of State. I have great pleasure in seconding this motion and will deal with certain aspects of it. The schools building programme is lacking in accountability and transparency. I undertook the survey to which Senator Ulick Burke referred out of frustration, having asked the Minister for Education and Science three questions on the status of schools buildings projects approved by her. Her refusal to provide me with the information sought suggests either she is not aware of it, which is worrying considering that some €500 million in taxpayers’ money is involved, or she was concealing it.
I was shocked to discover that building work had begun on only 13 of the 79 schools for which approvals were granted. I was also shocked to hear the comments from principals who are utterly frustrated with the length of time it takes to commence work after receiving approval under the schools building programme. In addition, many schools have been waiting years even to receive approval. I am aware of schools in which a new principal was appointed by the time their application was approved under the schools building programme. When these schools finally got the go-ahead, the project design was no longer adequate. One school in Carlow submitted a new planning application at the same time as it received approval for its original application, which, after years of waiting, was insufficient to meet its needs.
In no other job, whether that of architect, engineer, quantity surveyor or whatever, is one expected to commence employment under the same conditions as many principals must endure. If I had been told on becoming a Senator four and a half years ago that I had no office and must commence a building programme, I would have laughed at the notion. Despite this, we expect school principals to take on the role of monitoring schools building projects. They are not architects or engineers. How much of a principal’s day is taken up in dealing with the Department’s planning section?
There must be an immediate change in this regard. Additional support must be provided to principals who are obliged to take on the task of organising building projects in their schools. It is unfair and would not happen in any other walk of life. When the Minister of State was appointed to office, I am sure he was not given a list of architects and engineers and told to build his own office. The Minister of State is right to laugh but this is what we expect school principals to do.
Ireland is competing globally for jobs. Some 40 million Indian graduates will shortly enter the workforce and will compete with students in Dublin, Clonmel, Carlow and elsewhere for jobs. We must ensure pupils are educated to compete with those people. The roll-out of the information and communications technology programme, as planned, is vital. I look forward to hearing about the comprehensive package referred to in the Government amendment. Will broadband be available in every primary and post-primary school? Difficulties in accessing broadband are affecting some schools, especially in rural areas.
I am told by Bus Éireann inspectors that levels of compliance in regard to the wearing of seat belts are unsatisfactory. In reply to a recent question on this issue, the Minister of State told me that a limited survey will be undertaken by Bus Éireann. This should be done as a matter of urgency. We must learn from the tragedy that took place in County Meath. The safety of drivers is also a concern. Children may be less likely to misbehave on buses if they are using seat belts. I welcome the Minister of State’s assertion in his reply that he plans to install closed circuit television, CCTV, cameras in all new buses. This may help to resolve disputes. One such dispute is ongoing in Carlow where students, parents and bus driver are at loggerheads. This is unsatisfactory and difficult to resolve. CCTV cameras would be of use in such situations.
We must focus on the importance of planning ahead. Rathoe is a small village in Carlow that previously comprised only 20 households but for which there are now plans for hundreds of houses. I spoke to an angry constituent there recently who justifiably complained that the Rathoe area plan included no zoning for the expansion of school facilities. It is only logical that many of the people who buy these new houses will go on to have children who will require school places. Enrolments will increase dramatically, perhaps even double or treble, and an extension will be required to the existing school building. This will mean less areas for the children to play in. Similar problems are arising in Ballinabranna. There is no planning or foresight in this area.
Is there a unit in the Department that undertakes any type of liaison with the planning authorities either in the drafting of zoning or the granting of planning permissions? There must be some dovetailing in this area. We must avoid a situation such as that in Laytown, County Meath, where children had to be divided into morning and afternoon shifts because of a lack of space. This will be replicated in other locations. The Minister of State is more than welcome to visit Carlow and I will show him the rapid growth in places such as Ballinabranna. I welcome such development but I do not welcome the fact we are granting planning permission for hundreds of houses while doing nothing to increase school capacity. It is only common sense that the two should be tied together.
I defend the Minister for Education and Science on the question of course content in the teacher training colleges. I seriously question how relevant it is. I attended St. Patrick’s College and studied academic French as part of my training. This was a waste of time because it was irrelevant in terms of teaching primary schoolchildren. The Department must examine whether course content in the teacher training colleges is relevant to what teachers require to teach effectively. It is worth noting, for instance, that we were not taught how to use a roll book which, Senator Fitzgerald will agree, is an important skill.
I am concerned at our vulnerability given that the churches own such a large proportion of school lands and buildings. We will be left high and dry if they begin to pull out of the education system. Religious orders are under pressure as their members get older. In addition, some of them must pay out compensation and must realise cash quickly. Has the Department any plans to deal with this issue?
There must be increased ring fencing and monitoring of funding for home tuition for children with autism. We have gone from a situation where the Department did nothing for people with autism to one where money is being thrown at home tuition services without any attendant safeguards. We must ensure that the quality of home tuition is adequate to meet the individual’s needs. I hear mixed responses from parents in this regard.
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Haughey, and congratulate him on his appointment. It is the first opportunity I have had to welcome him in his capacity as Minister of State at the Department of Education and Science. I have no doubt that his commitment to education, his learning as a graduate of Trinity College Dublin and his understanding of the issues throughout my neighbouring constituency of Dublin North Central make him well equipped to take on the challenges ahead. I wish him every success.
Mr. Fitzgerald: I tried to figure out whether this was about having an effective debate on education. If my party officer handed me a motion such as this and told me to debate it in the Seanad, I would call on my leader to have him sacked instantly. The motion comprises six or seven elements and I will comment on each of these presently. It reads like a litany of moans to an agony aunt and concludes by peremptorily calling for her execution.
Mr. Fitzgerald: When I read it first it took me back to a time in my youth when I witnessed a frustrated farmer going out with a scatter-gun to shoot the crows eating his corn. He fired at everything in sight but hit nothing. That sums up what Senator Ulick Burke is afflicted with tonight and what his spin doctors have foisted on him. The scatter-gun approach he has taken in this Chamber this evening does no service to a debate on the many serious issues in education that need to be debated.
Mr. Fitzgerald: With his professional background and his expertise in education it must be a major embarrassment for him to be sent in here in this manner. I sympathise with him in that regard as I do with Senator Browne, who seconded the motion.
I acknowledge that each of the areas listed in the Senator’s motion is an important area in its own right. The Minister of State will concur with that view when he replies to the debate; if the Minister were here she would concur with it also. Each of those issues is part of the holistic approach to providing a top quality service in education and would merit a debate in its own right, irrespective of the sweeping assertions made in the motion before the House. However, lumping together all these serious issues in a motion on which we will have a two hour debate smacks of crude political opportunism. I would go so far as to suggest it reflects a party mindset unsure of itself. There is no clear education policy from Fine Gael. Such a policy should have been handed to Senator Ulick Burke to debate in this Chamber. Within two months of a general election all we get is this motion. I am not impressed. If the truth were known, Senator Burke is not impressed with having that foisted on him. Fine Gael appears to have decided that if it cannot make a strike with the first shot, it will keep slinging the mud because some of it is bound to stick.
The Minister and the Minister of State against whom this hotchpotch motion is directed can be justifiably proud of their record of achievement in education. In both their cases, they have been in situ for a very short time, the Minister of State, Deputy Haughey, being in situ only in recent weeks.
It must be said those achievements have been publicly acknowledged by all partners in education. I remember the comments made in recent years by partners in education at all levels of education and I challenge anybody to contradict me——
On the school buildings and maintenance programme, Senators Burke and Browne referred to the long delays that can take place in the building of a school. We are all aware of the devolved grant scheme. This debate on how to break the logjam has been going on for many years under successive Governments. The devolved grant scheme is one initiative——
Mr. Fitzgerald: ——I understand is working successfully in entrusting to local boards of management much of the initiative in regard to fast-tracking development. I will leave it to the Minister of State to expand on that if he has the opportunity.
On the issue of school building and school maintenance in general, one set of figures alone tells a major story. This year the Minister and the Minister of State have secured €540 million for school buildings, which is by far the largest allocation for school building in the history of the State. To give a gentle reminder to my colleagues opposite, that compares to €90 million when they were last in Government.
Mr. Fitzgerald: I realise the truth hurts and memories can fade but I will jog the Senators’ memories on that. The Minister and the Minister of State will have 1,500 projects under way this year ranging from very small works to new roofs, windows, large extensions and new schools. They will seek further funding next year and the year after and, given their record, I have no doubt they will succeed in securing it.
A related area is the day to day funding allocated to schools, which is important for the day to day and week to week operation of schools. The Minister and Minister of State secured the largest ever increase in the capitation grant of €18 per pupil.
Mr. Fitzgerald: I am only starting; we will have another day to debate this issue. That increase brought the primary capitation grant to more than €163 per pupil. I have another reminder for my colleagues opposite.
I want to speak in detail on educational disadvantage, students with special needs and class sizes because the Senators opposite misrepresented the position. I challenge any speaker in the House or any person outside it——
Mr. Fitzgerald: ——professional teacher or parent, to state in public that the Government was wrong to give priority to the areas of special needs and educational disadvantage. I challenge any teacher, professor, parent or politician to have the courage of their convictions and say the Government was wrong to prioritise the areas of specials needs and disadvantage, which is what we did from 2002 onwards.
|Last Updated: 07/09/2010 09:37:09||Page of 15|