Wednesday, 8 October 2008
Seanad Eireann Debate
Senator Fidelma Healy Eames: Given the state of the economy, we are at a particularly critical time in our history. The underfunding of primary school education is causing a serious situation. I intend to raise five points, which I would like the Minister to address in his reply. I will begin by examining how we fare compared to other OECD countries. The recent OECD report entitled “2008: Education at a Glance”, which was published in September, indicated that Ireland has the third lowest education spend in Europe. That must be borne in mind. In addition, the report stated that educational expenditure, as a proportion of GDP, fell from 5.2% in 1995 to 4.6% in 2005 — that was during ten years of boom.
My first point concerns the massive shortfall in day-to-day funding for our primary schools. Such schools are in debt because the capitation grant is inadequate. They are struggling to make ends meet and the capitation grant levels are not covering expenses such as oil, electricity, insurance and phone charges. In addition, water charges are soon to be implemented. I have been reliably informed that this will become a major issue in next year’s local elections.
Many schools rely on fundraising and voluntary contributions from parents to survive. A recent meeting of the Joint Committee on Education and Science was attended by representatives of the IPPN, the primary school principals’ network, and the CPSMA, the Catholic primary schools management association. They told the joint committee that the average primary school is in debt to the tune of €23,000.
A survey of 300 schools for the calendar year 2006 showed that parents were paying one third of primary school running costs. In other words, for every two euros the State puts in, parents are paying an additional euro. A south Dublin INTO survey showed that the situation is even worse — that for every one euro from the State, parents are contributing one euro. This is happening thanks to charity walks, readathons and race nights. Where I come from in Galway it is called “Who wants be a thousandaire?” Will this Fianna Fáil-led Government be the first to get rid of free education, at least the primary school element?
Increasingly, schools are asking parents for voluntary contributions. However, there was a disturbing experience recently when one Galway school asked for a voluntary contribution of €40, and a parent contacted the school to say “Please don’t ask us. It is embarrassing. We can just about meet our mortgage”. These are the times in which we are living. With the Government’s permission, banks used to loan 100% mortgages to families, but now they are having difficulty meeting the basic cost of running a home, not to mention school costs.
Fine Gael is recommending a number of measures to rectify this situation. The programme for Government promised to double the capitation grant. The Minister should tell the House what he proposes to do in this regard. We have made a reasonable proposal, asking the Minister to commission an independent review of capitation grants to be delivered within six months. If he is not going to do that, he should tell us by how much he will increase the capitation grant so that schools will know how to cope with their debts. Schools should be able to run smoothly without worrying about how they are funded. They deserve no less.
The Minister should investigate the possibility of refunding VAT paid on goods and services to schools, which amounts to a huge annual bill. Last year, one school in Portlaoise paid €14,000 in VAT. Gaelscoil de Híde, in my own area of Oranmore, paid €21,500 in VAT on prefabs last year. Meanwhile, a south Dublin school with 18 teachers paid €8,400 in VAT. This area offers big potential because essentially the schools are another arm of the State. Schools are being asked to pay VAT on goods and services they purchase, yet the Minister is not funding them adequately, so the principle is basically unfair.
The Minister should also examine the option of using the State Claims Agency to provide insurance for schools. There is a precedent because insurance for model schools, or modhscoileanna, run by the Department of Education and Science, is paid for in this way. This is a real opportunity to help with the capitation grant because, as the Minister is aware, insurance is paid from that grant. I would appreciate it if the Minister could examine this matter.
It is disturbing that 10% of our schools have had to achieve charitable status. What sort of trend is it when education is called charity, but we know it is a right? There is a benefit in this for some schools because those that get donations receive matching benefit from the tax system, but that is not a possibility for less well off schools, which are unlikely to attract donations.
I also wish to refer to the repair and maintenance of school buildings. It is a false economy not to keep our schools functioning as safe places for learning. They will fall apart if the Minister continues to keep the summer works scheme out of the system. Last year, one thousand schools applied for the scheme but while their applications were accepted, they have now been frozen. That work would have constituted essential maintenance for roofs, electrical work, boilers and windows, which are major health and safety concerns for the children involved. The Minister is now putting that responsibility on the school boards of management but he will bankrupt them unless the scheme is reinstated. One thousand schools add up to thousands of parents and tens of thousands of children. The effects on health have been well documented. I received correspondence in my office about the effects of rising damp in classes with poor windows. An example is the spread of asthma. This scheme was abandoned by the former Minister, Deputy Mary Hanafin and, so far, by the Minister, Deputy Batt O’Keeffe. It is a disaster for schools. I ask the Minister to indicate today when this scheme will be reintroduced. Schools were promised this.
Senator Fidelma Healy Eames: The schools expected the applications by 30 September and they have not received them. Equally, the minor works grant was a significant cutback. That covered painting, new fittings and furniture.
The devolved scheme did incredible work. I will grant the Minister this. I am delighted to see the Minister’s offer where a school can build a permanent classroom for €120,000 instead of using prefabs. Such permanent solutions are the type of move we want to see.
My third point relates to the Minister’s most damning move so far. The ICT funding for primary schools, which he slashed, is vital for job creation in the future. It is vital for the nation’s future and the opportunities for our children. The Minister slashed €252 million from the budget. I am delighted he is shaking his head because it means he will give us good news here today. If this funding is slashed, it will be one of the worst moves of his term as Minister.
It is difficult for me to say that we currently have obsolete computers in classrooms. They are there since the year 2000. In many schools there is one computer for 30 children. That is ridiculous. There are still 100,000 of our children in classes of 30 or more. As the Minister will be aware, there is patchy broadband access. That is no way to build our future.
One of the biggest drawbacks is that the IT advisers have been pulled. They showed teachers the potential of ICT and the potential of computers. One school in my area, Carnmore national school, has had to fund-raise using a new calendar to buy two computers.
Yesterday I heard the Taoiseach state in the Dáil that Ireland is open for business. Together, the Minister and he must get this right. The Taoiseach has stated time and again that the infrastructural commitments in the NDP were sacrosanct. Cutting this budget suggests that the Minister does not understand the value of ICT to our children and our nation’s future. Without investment in ICT we are staying with traditional thinking and approaches, we will not be at the races in terms of innovation and creativity and we will lose opportunities and jobs in the future. We need only consider how successful a country Singapore has been in this area. There was evidence of this after the announcement that 5,000 students failed mathematics in the leaving certificate and when one company director stated on a news programme that he had to go abroad to recruit 100 employees because the IT skill level was not available here. That is damning. The place to start is in the primary schools. I would be greatly encouraged, and the first to congratulate the Minister if I can get a commitment that the funding will be reinstated.
My fourth point is that transparency is badly needed on the school building programme. It is essential so that schools figure out where they are on the list, and plan accordingly. The former Minister, Deputy Noel Dempsey, put the school building programme on the web. The Minister’s predecessor, Deputy Hanafin, took it away and replaced it with announcement by press release. This is most unsatisfactory. We all have evidence of this. I ask the Minister to put the school building programme back on the web.
Let us be honest with the schools. Let us be transparent and tell them where they stand. On all commitments made prior to the election, Oranmore national school, Scoil Mhuire national school, Clarinbridge, Newcastle national school, Athenry, and Lacken national school, all of which are in Galway, do not know where they stand on the building programme. St. Mary’s Church of Ireland national school in Bagenalstown, County Carlow, has contacted me to say as much. I could continue, but I am aware that my colleagues will speak about this. It is time to do something about the building programme and, above all, to introduce honesty into how schools are accepted.
My final point is that principals, particularly teaching principals, are experiencing inordinate levels of administration and this needs to be reduced. This will take not money but a little creative thought. They are inundated with inordinate levels of bureaucracy and repetitious form-filling exercises.
Teaching principals, in particular, are in difficult circumstances. Some of the excessive form-filling required by the Department can be cut down simply by various sections of the Department communicating with each other instead of asking the principals to provide the same information over and over again.
Senator Fidelma Healy Eames: In the case of teaching principals it is reasonable to request that there would be a secretary to take calls and communicate with parents for at least three hours a day while the principal is teaching. Continuous interruption on the teaching principals’ time is cutting down on pupil contact time and this is more chronic than we realise. It is unfair to pupils, as this is their learning time.
Another matter that has come to my attention in the past few days in my research for this debate is that security is a growing issue in schools and it is costing schools a great deal. There is fear for the children’s safety. The secretary was a watchful eye for schools.
I ask the Minister to address five points. I ask him to look at our suggestions to see if they are helpful. I do not mind how he addresses them. First, come up with a way to help schools afford to run as places of education. Second, make schools safe places of learning.
Senator Fidelma Healy Eames: Third, invest in ICT. Fourth, introduce transparency into the school building programme, which, as I stated, is easy to do. Fifth, introduce smart ways in which administration can be cut down for all principals and, especially, provide a watchful eye for teaching principals. I thank the Minister for his time and look forward to hearing his responses.
It is nice to see the Minister here and I thank him and his officials for attending this debate. I must concur with much of what was said by my colleague, Senator Healy Eames. The biggest issue for me would be transparency on the building projects. Two weeks ago while the Minister was in Monaghan, he made his announcements. How do schools get left out? It does not seem to be the duration that they are left on the list, the numbers of pupils that are in an overcrowded situation nor their whereabouts in the country. They could be rural or urban. However, it seems that schools in the area of the commuter belt of Dublin get priority and I ask the Minister for clarification in that regard.
There are examples I would like to raise with the Minister. He kindly met with a representative Ballymahon group and he met with a representative group of the Athlone Community College. These are two schools with which I am intensely familiar, as he probably knows from his dealings in his own constituency.
Senator Nicky McFadden: He was. I respected him having to review, and adjust to, his brief. He was landed in the deep end and had to address all of the commitments that had been given prior to the election by his predecessor, Deputy Mary Hanafin. As Senator Fidelma Healy Eames stated, there are a number of national schools, as there are in counties Cavan and in Westmeath, that were promised before the election and it was a difficult position in which the Minister found himself. I am hopeful, because the Minister gave us a good hearing, that in 2009 he will be able to consider the two schools that we spoke to him about that day, and, also Coosan national school.
Athlone Community College is in a very precarious position. Senator Healy Eames referred to schools that are risky from the point of view of health. The school in Athlone was built initially for 500 pupils but now has 1,000. We have acquired the land and I would ask the Minister to consider meeting with me again privately to discuss that.
Senator Nicky McFadden: I applaud works that have been done in the past on that scheme because it has been money well spent. It was like spending pennies and gaining pounds. In fixing a leaking roof, for example, one did not end up with damp or seeping walls which would ensue otherwise. It makes sense to spend a small amount of money in order to save a huge amount.
During my research for this debate one of the school principals to whom I spoke suggested it would be good if a means could be found to ensure that schools would not have to pay water charges or VAT. It is extraordinary that schools must pay water charges to a local authority. That puts them on the same basis as a business or commercial entity. If a way could be found to deal with that, it would make a huge difference as the water charges must be paid from the capitation grant. Insurance costs are another problem.
The other issue high on the agenda of the principals to whom I spoke was the problem of form filling and the amount of time they spend on book work. There is also the issue of audits. In one case an audit was to be carried out but the inspector rang at the last minute to say he or she could not come. As the Minister can imagine, the school was under huge pressure getting organised for the audit only to have the meeting cancelled at the last minute. I do not know whether the cancellation was due to over-work or inefficiency. Now the school is back to square one, having to get itself organised again. It is a huge amount of work for a school principal.
Another problem is the rising cost of electricity and gas. There has been no provision in the capitation grants for that. Principals are trying to make ends meet with the same amount of money they had last year, before these increases occurred. Perhaps the Minister could examine ways of dealing with electricity and water charges and consider exempting schools from VAT in order that principals can get proper use of the capitation grant.
“—recognises the major investment by Government since 1997 in our schools, in the provision of additional school places to meet demographic expansion, investment in school buildings throughout the country, additional teachers and other supports including:
I am delighted to welcome the Minister, Deputy Batt O’Keeffe. I believe this is the first opportunity we have had to welcome him formally to the Department of Education and Science. I am pleased to move the amendment. I read it out to Members because it explains what is taking place. Listening to the speakers so far, and I anticipate more of the same, one would think everything had ground to a halt and that nothing had been done for the past ten years. There has been no acknowledgement of the tremendous strides we have taken in education in the past decade.
I fought a battle when I was first elected to the other House more than 12 years ago. We could not get a remedial teacher for our schools. There were approximately 27 remedial teachers for 144 schools, yet 78% of the schools were covered by remedial teachers. That might appear an odd matter to be discussing in this day and age but five or six schools sharing a remedial teacher was the only extra support available in those days. I welcome our esteemed Member, Senator O’Toole.
Senator Cecilia Keaveney: It would be remiss of me not to acknowledge that I recently received a little local publicity after producing a press release which stated that I was successful in getting the Government to toss my local school. I was even more successful in that we secured the money to rebuild it. The school was on the building programme for quite some time. It involves an amalgamation and is now under construction. Another school is under construction in Clonmany.
Moville Community College also became a reality. It started with prefabs but we did not like that concept so we approached the Minister and asked that the next stage be constructed in cement. We promised it would not cost any more that the cost of prefab accommodation. We delivered on that. I raise this parochial issue as an example of how these things can be done. The school now has a significant and beautiful building, although a little more must be done to finalise the overall accommodation needs. Perhaps the Minister will note the name of the college. The important element is that we undertook not to overspend. Many projects have overspent in the past. We also acknowledged that it was unnecessary to spend so much money on architects, fees and so forth. The standard model concept for four, six and eight teacher schools is cost effective.
Senator Healy Eames mentioned that there is a different economic climate now and said we should anticipate our future needs and what our children will be doing in the future. I would therefore have been less surprised if the motion dealt with course content for primary school, how it is delivered and how to develop analytical skills and deliver the critical mind.
There is also the issue of helping teachers to minimise costs in the school. A school principal told me a couple of years ago that the school’s minor works money was being used for photocopying. The school spent €18,000 on photocopying. I wondered how the school could manage that when there were 200 children in the school. It sounded way beyond what was possible. In the context of increases in the cost of water and electricity, much can be learned in school beyond what we would call the central disciplines of reading, writing and arithmetic. This would develop very important skills for the growing child who will be living in a tighter economy over the next few years. These types of lessons will prove to be very important.
I agree with the concept of focusing on primary education but we must consider the pre-primary sector also. I refer to children up to six years old. We are facing financial difficulties and in this respect pre-primary development is the key to children’s success at primary and post-primary levels.
Many companies and organisations, including the Houses of the Oireachtas, replace computers after two years, sometimes earlier. I cannot see why a little imagination could not be used by the organisations and schools, under the aegis of the Department, to maximise the numbers of computers in schools. However, it is not enough to put computers in schools. In 2000, the number of students per computer in Irish primary schools was 16.3 and this was reduced to 9.1 in 2005. The corresponding figures at post-primary level were 10.9 and 7. One of the most important tasks is to upgrade the software. It is grand to have computers but if the software is not up to speed with current needs, we are not as far ahead as we want to be.
My time has concluded but there are many more points I could make. The economic climate will become more difficult but the Minister should continue to focus on the building programme, bearing in mind the economies of scale he has highlighted recently.
Senator Cecilia Keaveney: I could give a tour of my area to anyone who wants it to consider developments over the past ten years and they would be proud of the investment in education. Having a teaching background, I will continue to press for such investment. The Minister, having a background in education, will have the same goals and ambitions as me. I wish him well in what is a difficult job ahead.
Senator Joe O’Toole: I compliment Senator Keaveney on buying well into the chapter. I remind her that her Government talks about looking forward rather than back. What happened last year is eaten bread and is soon forgotten, despite how well it might have been received.
I welcome my old friend, the Minister for Education and Science, to the House. I support the Fine Gael motion and will use the opportunity it presents to remind the Minister of a conversation we had very many times about the school building programme before he took office.
Senator Joe O’Toole: I know it is not meant to be understood, but the ordinary people of Ireland do not realise this. There are various bands and procedures. If any school could understand where it was in the process, it would be great, but this is not the case.
There are two serious issues, the first of which concerns the quantum or sum of money. I am not talking about that today because, as a realist, I recognise there is sometimes additional money and that, in times of economic stringency, there are cutbacks. However, what is driving people to distraction and what is almost bringing the Adjournment debates of the House to a standstill is the inability to find out what is going on regarding a school project or what is being proposed. One of the Minister’s predecessors, Deputy Noel Dempsey, decided to dispose of all the trouble and simply list the schools in order of priority. This has always been sought and the reason is very simple. If the Minister created his list for this year and went to a Cabinet meeting at which it was said the list would have to be cut back by 5%, he would simply retain his priority list and tell schools that, instead of having their projects start on 1 January, they would start on 1 September. They might not like that but they would understand it. If the Minister states a place outside Balbriggan had a population of ten three years ago and now has a population of 5,000, thus warranting a school, it is reasonable and people cannot argue with it. This is what is required.
Before I start being more critical of the Minister, I will agree with him on one point. I refer to his recent initiative to work out how many schools an area is entitled to. When I was INTO general secretary, I forecasted this would happen. We proceeded from circumstances in which no one could open a school to circumstances in which every one could do so, but then schools stopped receiving recognition. We are now at a stage in which there is a very welcome variety of schools, including gaelscoileanna, special schools, multidenominational schools, and French and German schools. This is all very well but this needs to be controlled from the point of view of the taxpayer. I accept we need to be sensible about the matter and I agree with the Minister in this regard.
If someone from the Minister’s constituency writes to the Department in respect of a school, he or she receives a response stating the school is on a band of a particular number from one to four. The Minister is familiar with the bands but very few are. People believe the bands are like the rungs of a ladder and that if one is on the first, one is on one’s way to the second. When they are told by the Department they are on a specified band — for example, the one that means they are ready to go — they believe their school is ready to be built. However, they are then told that after being on bands, they must proceed to stages.
There are approximately 70 pages in the design team procedures, which I know the Minister has never read because he is far too sensible. The procedures involve the appointment of a design team. There is a preliminary design stage, followed by a design stage, involving a sketch design. This is followed by a detailed sketch design, a tender evaluation, a tender action and award, construction, handover and final account. Each of these stages has a million subsections.
This system of stages replaces the older one which involved the same length of time but with a different number of steps, just to add to the confusion. People believe that when they progress from the bands to the stages, they are ready to proceed to tender on foot of receiving planning permission. They do not realise that going out to tender is only that and it does not mean one can proceed to build. When the authorities behind a school are ready to go, they discover the Minister’s intervention into the priority list. At the end of year, the Minister has another look at the list and says he does not like the inclusion of two particular schools, perhaps for the very best of reasons, and replaces them with two others that were never on the list. Schools on the list this year, happy and relaxed in the belief that they are moving along, see the new list for next year and realise they are not on it at all. I am not exaggerating as what I outline is happening.
We are losing money hand over fist. There is a hard-working group of civil servants in the building section of the Department who are not allowed to proceed with their work because there is no process. They are fending off 3,000 schools every day that are asking questions. They are trying to make excuses. I once gave the example of staff in my office ringing the building section for information on a process only to be told they could not be given an answer and would have to ring the Minister’s office. We rang the Minister’s office and were told we should be ringing the building section, which we had already rung. We rang it again and were told to hold while the matter was being examined. The phone was put on hold and the member of staff in question lifted another phone — we could hear all this going on — to ring the person in the building section to whom my personal assistant had been speaking five minutes earlier. The member of staff returned to us with the answer on the phone. Is this good management? It is not.
Deputy Batt O’Keeffe: There is a new dedicated line for each Member of the Oireachtas and each was informed about it in writing in recent weeks. One can ring an individual directly who will deal with the problem. That is a new initiative.
Senator Joe O’Toole: The issue is that whatever comes through, it will not be somebody in the building section but somebody in the Department of Education and Science who will have to go through the whole process all over again. Despite this, we will not get an answer and Deputies must put down a parliamentary question or Senators must raise a matter on the Adjournment. Senator Doherty has a matter on the Adjournment today concerning a school on which I have a file so high. I would like the Minister to interpret what we are told, such as “it is continually under review” and so on. The system is not working.
We cannot, in this day and age, have a situation where the Minister can intervene and change the list without Members understanding the criteria, reasons and understandings behind why this is happening, which is why I have asked the Comptroller and Auditor General to examine the operation of this area. I guarantee I will get the Minister better value for the same amount of money if he lets me run the building section for a while. Builders should be told they have a particular envelope of money. If they can build a school for that amount, with the required specification, they should go ahead and do it — we know they can do it. Whether these matters go through a proper tendering process, it is just not happening at present. There is no value for money. This is driving people to distraction, not just at school level but also among Deputies and Senators who are trying to deal with these questions but cannot get answers.
Will the Minister do what the former Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Dempsey, did? Will he put the list for 2009 on the Department’s website? The Minister knows I am as good as my word on these matters. I promise him that if the list must be changed, and there is a good and valid reason for changing it, I will back him up. Circumstances alter cases, as my grandfather always told me. One has to deal with changing circumstances, whatever they happen to be. At least if it is open and clear, people would understand what is happening even if they do not like it. At present, they do not understand the system. They complain of all sorts of issues, such as political interference and local involvement. The problem is that nobody believes in the system. It is like the situation with the banks — we must restore confidence in the building section.
The last time I raised an issue with the building section under the Minister’s predecessor, I was in total frustration. I was told that if I was so concerned, I should put it down as an Adjournment matter. That is on the record, with the names of those involved and so on, but it is no answer.
Senator Ann Ormonde: I am delighted to have the Minister in the House to listen to the debate and I wish him well. He has come into office at a bad time and has a huge challenge ahead. With his educational background and being a good listener, he has taken on board the points made and I know we can look forward to a very good future for education with him monitoring this area.
I must recognise the Government’s input to education since 1997. We are dealing with taxpayers’ money and we need to tell the public what has gone into education. Of course more needs to be done, but that investment must be acknowledged and I intend to put it on the record in this contribution.
In 2008, €9.3 billion went to education, an increase of €690 million from 2007. This was to provide additional school places to meet demographic expansion, investment in school buildings throughout the country, and, a matter close to my heart, the investment in the DEIS programme to address educational disadvantage, for which €800 million was allocated. I want this to be a main focus. If we get education right at primary level, we will not have problems at secondary level. The funding must be focused on areas such as the provision of additional teachers, remedial teachers and other supports, including links with parents. If we get it right at that level, we are in a win-win situation in our educational programme right through to second level and beyond.
I wish to focus on one aspect of the motion, namely, capital expenditure on schools. The capital allocation for the school building programme has grown steadily in recent years, from just under €400 million in 2004 to €542 million in 2007 and to €586 million this year. Senators should reflect on this huge commitment. The Government invested over €2.6 billion in over 7,800 school building projects over the lifetime of the last national development plan. The principal component of school building and modernisation is the delivery of large-scale projects. The expected completion of large-scale projects in 2008 will consist of 21 new schools and 46 extension or refurbishment projects, giving an overall total of 67 large-scale projects.
In September, the Minister announced another 25 projects to progress through the building programme, which included 20 primary schools. Construction is also due to start in 2008 on the first bundle of PPP schools and the second bundle of schools was offered to the market early this year.
Senator Ann Ormonde: In addition to these projects, since 2004 over 3,000 projects costing in excess of €300 million have been completed under the summer works scheme. The Minister has already stated he intends to have a summer works scheme in 2009, which I welcome. It is good to know the Minister’s heart is in the right place and he understands these summer projects are important. While it is a pity this is often not acknowledged, I am happy to do so.
Senator Ann Ormonde: I wish to take up the point made by Senator O’Toole with regard to the lack of transparency, which I agree exists. I have difficulty explaining to school principals how the criteria are assessed with regard to what schools should be listed and so on. I do not understand the process but, having done some research on the issue, I am pleased to note the Minister is upgrading the Department’s website, which may be able to communicate further information in the simple way we all want. I sometimes think I am remedial when I listen to what the Department tells us about how school projects are listed in terms of need.
An important point is that the Minister is about to establish development area units. This is a good move which will identify where schools are needed and will link in with the local authorities. When I was a councillor, it was difficult, as it still is, to get information from the Department of Education and Science with regard to forward planning and how a county council would incorporate a school into an action plan. Co-ordination was not good, so I hope this matter is tidied up. Given that commuter belts lead to huge pressures on schools, these units would help to solve the problem as they would take account of demographic factors when locating schools. We need the information map on where country schools should be located. These are simple things; they are not insurmountable. Dealing with the lack of transparency would be a move which would be welcomed by principals.
We are in a downturn. Significant sums of money are going into education. We are trying to upgrade the building programme as much as possible. Teachers are not too unhappy with how the schools are working generally. I am out and about as much as everyone else, and let there be no doubt about it. I hear negatives and positives. My job is to try to get a balance between the two. The positives outweigh the negatives. We have some problems, and I know the Minister has noted them. I wish him well in overcoming them.
Senator Brendan Ryan: I welcome the Minister to the House and wish him well in his portfolio. Education is about every child being able to realise his or her potential. It is also about society reaching its potential. We invest in education from the national purse because we believe no child should be denied the opportunity provided by education. The amount we are willing to invest in education tells us a lot about our national priorities.
Senator Brendan Ryan: According to recent figures, Ireland spends less than 4.7% of gross domestic product on education, compared with an OECD average of 6.2%. These figures tell us what almost every parent in the country already knows, that our schools, especially our primary schools, cannot make ends meet without generous voluntary contributions, fund-raising and overdraft facilities.
A recent survey by the Irish Primary Principals Network and the National Parents Council found that in excess of 40% of parents were paying more than €100 in voluntary contributions for the day-to-day running of the schools. The IPPN also found that almost one third of parents’ associations have to raise more than €10,000 a year just to keep the doors open. Another survey by the IPPN found that the average 100-pupil school received €17,300 for this academic year. Out of this it is expected to pay for heating, electricity, water and other utility bills, cleaning, repairs, insurance, office supplies and classroom materials. These basic running costs amount to an average of €34,310, leaving such a school with a deficit of approximately €17,000.
The Department is aware of this. It funds schools with a clear knowledge and understanding that they will have to contend with chronic debt from day one. A brand new school is granted €6,348 to last it from before it opens its doors in September until the capitation grant arrives in January. This sum is expected to pay for recruiting staff, equipment for classrooms, essentials such as computers, and photocopiers. Unfortunately it costs approximately €50,000 to set up a new seven-classroom school.
It is not only the paucity of funding for day-to-day running of schools, but also the methodology of delivering that funding that causes difficulties for schools, principals and parents. The capitation grant is based on school enrolment for the previous year. This means rapidly expanding schools, such as those in Balbriggan and other newer suburbs, must resource new schools from funds allocated based on outdated information. Surely it must be possible to anticipate that if there is a need for a new school in the first place, there will be a high demand for places. Most schools will have a reasonably accurate idea before September of how many pupils they will have for the next academic year. Why is the capitation grant not delivered to schools before pupils begin the school year?
Parents were promised a doubling of capitation grants for primary education prior to the previous general election. This promise has been reneged upon. A derisory increase was given in the previous budget. This promise must be fulfilled. Doubling the core capitation grant for the day-to-day running of schools is fundamentally about taking the crisis out of managing a primary school. It would cost approximately €82 million, less than 1% of the total education budget. Inflation, rising energy costs, rising insurance premiums and water charges mean that incremental increases in capitation grants are wiped out almost as soon as they are introduced.
The Department of Education and Science must be aware of the real cost of running schools. Second level schools rarely need to fund-raise for necessities. This is because when a child enters secondary school, he or she is automatically worth almost twice the amount of capitation funding as for primary schools. The core capitation grant goes towards the day-to-day running of a school, yet it costs the same to heat, light and run a building regardless of the ages of the children in it.
The primary management bodies have expressed this inbuilt inequality in stark terms. In a recent statement they said that the lack of realistic capitation and ancillary grants means that almost all schools will be sustained only by their community fund-raising efforts. This is socially divisive. Newer schools, and those in less advantaged areas are unable to match the fund-raising capabilities of those in well-off areas.
Senator Brendan Ryan: It is unfair that children are disadvantaged in this manner in this day and age. The effect of this is that a school in a well-off area which can afford to raise up to €90,000 in a year can be almost the desirable digital school with the best of everything, while a school in a disadvantaged area, even allowing for extra funding to pay for extra reading tuition and subsidised school tours, simply does not have this option.
Our Constitution guarantees the right to an education. That right should not be contingent on the wealth of one’s parents. Underfunding of schools for basic equipment has become such a fact of life that retail business has moved into the vacuum. The private sector has spotted a lucrative niche in the form of voucher schemes for computers and PE gear. We have computers provided by one supermarket chain and footballs by another. It is disturbing that children are being used as marketing agents by supermarkets which exploit the lack of equipment in schools to get parents to spend a considerable amount of money in their outlets. These schemes, which depend on high levels of private consumption, privilege a certain type of customer and, in turn, a certain type of school. What other public service requires its manager to pack bags in the local supermarket or to organise cake sales to keep the lights on? Instead of being teachers, human resources managers, innovators and leaders our schools need and deserve, principals are semi-permanent fund-raisers.
It is difficult to believe education is a real priority for this Government. The most vulnerable children have the right to be cared for and respected in the education system. Our economy, as many Ministers in Government are saying, needs graduates, but they do not materialise at 18 or 21. Primary education is the cornerstone of the knowledge economy.
Senator Brendan Ryan: It is the first crucial rung on the ladder that allows us to reach further and higher. As such, we should look closely at how well primary schools allow children to climb that ladder. It is difficult, therefore, to understand the reluctance of the Government to make the necessary leap in investment to free our schools from worries about money and allow them to be visionary about the future, which is their role. The Minister may refer in his response to the downturn in our economic circumstances. This Government is reaping what it has sown in the economy, and there is less money available than in the recent past, something which is widely acknowledged. However, according to Minister, last year the Department of Education and Science spent approximately 5% of total investment in school buildings on the rental of prefabs. Taking first and second level together, we estimate this to be approximately €30 million. This is an annual cost and would go a considerable way towards meeting the modest cost of increasing the capitation grant.
It may be necessary to make trade-offs, and that must be acknowledged, if we are to make the kind of investment that will bring education to the level enjoyed in other EU countries. Those countries famous for their progressive approach to education, especially early childhood and primary education, did not produce their education system by chance. They made a choice, decided what mattered to them and set about delivering it. It is not sufficient that we depend on the goodwill of our school leaders, teachers and parents to compensate with tireless energy and commitment for what we deny them in funds and working conditions. Investing in our children is long-term planning which will in time help tackle anti-social behaviour, promote Ireland as a knowledge economy, tackle obesity and improve our nation’s health.
Minister for Education and Science (Deputy Batt O’Keeffe): I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate. I thank Senators Healy Eames, McFadden, O’Toole, Ormonde, Keaveney and Ryan for their contributions which were positive, though sometimes erratic.
If one looks at the allocations in the Department of Education and Science since 1997, it can be seen that this year alone, €9.3 billion was the education budget, which is unbelievable. The continued prioritisation of education in the past 11 years has reversed the historic under-investment in areas such as school facilities, services for children with special needs and those in disadvantaged areas. People have quoted from the OECD report to the effect that Ireland is down the field. That report is based on 2005 figures and does not take into account the significant investment in education in the past three years.
Progress in recent years has seen the primary school capitation grant increased from €95.87 per pupil in 2001 to its current rate of €178.58. That represents an increase of 86% in the standard rate of capitation grant since 2001. That compares to a cumulative increase of 30% in the consumer price index between 2001 and the end of 2007.
The value of the ancillary services grant for the employment of caretakers and secretaries in schools has almost doubled in the same period, from €76.18 to the current rate of €151.50 per pupil. In 2008, my Department paid approximately €167 million to primary schools to meet their day-to-day running costs. The improvements in the capitation and ancillary grants mean the combined day-to-day funding for primary schools has increased this year by €21 to €330 per pupil. In 2001, a primary school with 300 pupils was in receipt of less than €52,000 to meet its day-to-day running costs. That same school today is receiving just under €100,000.
Deputy Batt O’Keeffe: I should also point out that enhanced rates of capitation funding are paid in respect of children with special educational needs who attend special schools or special classes attached to mainstream schools. The current rates range from €457 to €880 per pupil — an average increase of about 42% on the rate payable in 2006. By any standards that is a significant improvement within a relatively short period of time. That funding does not include the salary costs of teachers and special needs assistants. Currently, there are 19,000 extra assistants in classrooms between SNAs, language support teachers and the other assistants provided in classrooms.
Budget 2008 provided my Department with €4.6 billion or €380 million extra for teacher pay and pensions. That allocation provides for more than 2,000 extra primary teachers than when the Government took office. In 2008 my Department will spend approximately €800 million on social inclusion measures across all levels of education, which represents an increase of approximately €70 million on 2007. That is testament to the Government’s determination to prioritise social inclusion and ensure all our children and young people get the supports they need to do well at school.
In 2005 my predecessor launched DEIS, the action plan for educational inclusion, which focuses on addressing the educational needs of children and young people from disadvantaged communities. A total of 673 primary and 203 second level schools currently participate in the programme. Schools in DEIS can benefit from such measures as lower pupil-teacher ratio, additional capitation, access to school meals, planning supports and enhanced levels of school book grants. In the 2007 to 2008 school year, DEIS-related grants totalling approximately €14 million were paid to primary schools to meet the needs of pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds.
In addition to the improvements to funding we are also helping to achieve administrative efficiencies in our schools. An example of that was my Department’s decision to take over the payroll for various categories of school staff, including more than 8,000 special needs assistants in primary schools, which avoids the inefficiencies and associated costs of having them paid individually at local school level. Similar type savings for schools are also expected to be achieved when part-time primary teachers are set up and paid through the Department’s payroll rather than the current payment system, which is through a grant to individual schools. An on-line claims system for processing the payment of substitute teachers in schools has also been rolled out by my Department. Changes to procedures for advertising teaching posts have been made this year to enable schools to achieve reductions on advertising costs through the advertising of teaching vacancies on the Internet.
In every county in Ireland, we are working hard to ensure all schools have high-quality, modern facilities. That is not an easy task, given the need to reverse the effects of decades of under-investment in existing schools and to meet the demand for school buildings as a result of demographic changes, and the increase in the number of teachers in schools. However, huge progress is being made and should be acknowledged. The capital allocation for the school building programme has grown steadily in recent years from approximately €400 million in 2004 to €542 million in 2007 and to in excess of €586 million this year. That compares to approximately €92 million in 1997.
The budget for 2007 was the first year of the roll-out of the new national development plan, which will involve an investment of more than €4.5 billion in school building infrastructure in the coming years. The investment will be the largest in the history of the State and it will enable my Department to ensure school places will be available, where needed, and to continue to take a proactive approach to the modernisation of existing school building stock. The Taoiseach and the Minister for Finance have indicated clearly that they see the school building programme as productive investment in the future and they stated they will continue the level of investment in school building.
The principal component of the school building and modernisation programme is the delivery of large-scale projects. The expected completion of large-scale projects in 2008 will consist of 21 new schools and 46 extension-refurbishment projects giving an overall total of 67 large-scale projects. That is in addition to an overall total of 60 large-scale projects completed in 2007. An additional feature of the 2008 school building and modernisation programme is the provision of new schools in developing areas under an accelerated programme. This year, as part of a fast-track programme of construction my Department built six 16-classroom schools, 20 eight-classroom schools and a number of smaller projects in those areas where school accommodation was under greatest pressure. To achieve that unprecedented level of accommodation provision in such a short timeframe, my Department used a modern method of off-site construction to deliver buildings of first-class quality and design in the shortest possible timeframe.
In the construction of all new schools, my Department has been conscious of the need to promote sustainability and energy efficiency. My Department has produced technical guidance documents for those involved in school construction, which focus on four key areas, namely, design, awareness, research and technology. Schools that are designed and built in accordance with the Department’s schools technical guidance documents are capable of being 2.3 times more energy efficient than schools built to best international practice.
In terms of ensuring value for money, my Department pioneered competitive fee bidding for design consultants on my Department’s generic repeat design schools. Since January 2007, all new construction consultancy appointments have been on a competitive fee basis using the new Government conditions of engagement. As a result, in the past four years the cost of professional fees has been reduced by 20%.
With regard to the cost of construction contracts, my Department has pioneered fixed price tendering in the public sector, having operated fixed price tendering since 1993 for all projects with a construction duration of less than 15 months. On Monday, 29 September I announced a further tranche of projects to progress through the school building programme. These include five primary and two post-primary projects which are to prepare to go on site before the end of 2008; 12 primary and three post-primary projects are to proceed to tender, with a view to going on site in the first half of 2009; and three primary schools are to progress up to and including application for planning permission and preparation of tender documents, with a view to the earliest possible date to go on site. The projects announced were selected on the basis of need using the Department’s prioritisation criteria. These criteria took into account factors such as growth in demand for school places as a result of demographic trends and the need to modernise existing schools.
Construction is also due to start in 2008 on the first bundle of public private partnership schools and the second bundle of schools were offered to the market earlier this year. It is planned that a further bundle will be offered to the market next year. Under the permanent accommodation and small schools scheme in 2007, some 130 projects were completed. To date in 2008, some 52 projects under these devolved projects have been completed, while a further 174 projects are under construction. In addition, a further 148 devolved projects have not yet gone on site but it is expected that the majority of these will be under construction before the year-end. With such a high level of activity underway, the completion of buildings in 2008 under these devolved schemes will significantly exceed the number of projects completed in 2007. I am glad it was acknowledged by Senator O’Toole that I introduced a new scheme this year which gives schools that have applied for grant aid to purchase prefabs the option of using the money to build permanent structures. The primary and post-primary capital allocation for 2008 is at an all time high. The combined output of traditional build schools, the extension and refurbishment projects and the schools fast-tracked for delivery in September 2008 has resulted in the practical completion of a record level of school building projects. When the large-scale projects are combined with the expected level of projects being completed under the permanent accommodation and small schools schemes this year, it is clear that the scale of delivery in 2008 is unprecedented and is an absolutely outstanding achievement.
Deputy Batt O’Keeffe: Anybody who criticises the members of my building unit needs to have his or her head examined. It comprises an outstanding group of people, totally committed to their work who have produced outstandingly in recent years and I take great pride in the work they do and for which I commend them. I have put in place, to facilitate the Members of the Houses, a dedicated telephone line in the Department which people can ring to get the information they seek, because I want to be as transparent and helpful as possible and to give people the information they require as soon as it is feasible.
Deputy Batt O’Keeffe: Since its introduction in 2004 the summer works scheme has been a key component of the programme of funding maintenance and smaller scale capital works in schools. More than 3,000 projects costing in excess of €300 million have been completed under the scheme since 2004. With such a large number of projects completed in the past few years, the particular emphasis in 2008 was on providing sufficient school places in developing areas, while also continuing the Government’s commitment to delivering improvements in the quality of existing primary and post-primary school accommodation throughout the country. Therefore, my Department focussed on delivering as many large-scale projects as possible in 2008 and for this reason there was no summer works scheme this year. However, as I have already confirmed, it is my intention to have a summer works scheme in 2009. The applications for the summer works scheme, which my Department has already received from schools for the 2008 scheme will be assessed for 2009. The professional and technical reports provided by schools for 2008 can be used again for future projects in order that schools will not be at a loss of expenditure on those reports.
Deputy Batt O’Keeffe: The summer works scheme has been a significant success and has resulted in a substantial programme of improvement works to schools at primary level throughout the country. I am also examining the possibility——
Deputy Batt O’Keeffe: I have outlined the large amount of expenditure on major capital works and the summer works scheme in schools. However, all primary schools get an annual minor works grant which can be used at their discretion to carry out small-scale works. This grant has been paid in each school year since its introduction in 1996 and 1997. In November 2006, the Government increased funding for the minor works grant by 44% from the previous year. Some €27 million was paid out to primary schools throughout the country in the 2007 to 2008 school year to enable thousands of small-scale works to be completed without the need to interact with my Department. Individual primary schools received a grant in the sum of €5,500 plus €18.50 per pupil. It is intended that the grant for the 2008 to 2009 school year will be paid in early 2009.
Turning to the question of information and communications technology, ICT, in schools, I acknowledge the need for further investment to support the integration of ICT into teaching and learning in our schools. However, I challenge the exaggeration by the Opposition which detracts from the debate and is simply unfounded.
Deputy Batt O’Keeffe: Since then, the Government has invested some €200 million under the programme. This investment has resulted in pupil to computer ratios of one computer to every nine primary school children and one computer to every seven post-primary students in 2005, when the latest census was undertaken.
Deputy Batt O’Keeffe: Schools have been given broadband connectivity under the schools broadband access programme, which my Department has implemented with the support of the Telecommunications and Internet Federation. The National Centre for Technology in Education has provided a programme of continuing professional development for teachers, with more than 144,000 training places having been availed of by primary and post-primary teachers since 1998. Disadvantaged schools are benefiting from the €3.4 million ICT grant scheme for delivering equality of opportunity in schools plan, DEIS, schools from the dormant accounts fund and a new fund of €1 million is now being made available to assist some of the most disadvantaged DEIS schools achieve digital school status.
We must ensure our students develop digital competence to fully participate in our rapidly changing world. However, the integration of ICT into our teaching and learning encompasses more than the acquisition of ICT skills. When used effectively, ICT enriches teaching and learning across the whole curriculum and I assure the House that I am committed to promoting the integration of ICT into teaching and learning, as resources permit.
Deputy Batt O’Keeffe: I have arranged to meet all of the major players in the ICT industry. I have set up appointments with Hewlett Packard, Dell, Apple, Microsoft and anybody else to discuss how we can enhance the whole ICT programme in schools.
Deputy Batt O’Keeffe: ——in recent years and I am committed to increasing funding as resources permit. It is easy for the Opposition to make calls for continuous increases in funding without having the responsibility for determining from where the money will come.
Deputy Batt O’Keeffe: This is particularly important in the current volatile and challenging economic environment. What is required now is strong leadership through prudent management of the economy and the public finances.
Deputy Batt O’Keeffe: Likewise, the Government’s decision to bring forward the budget to next week is another strong signal that it is taking decisive action now to set about stabilising and restoring balance to the public finances and setting out the spending plans for 2009 earlier than originally planned. Through sensible and balanced management of the economy, this Government has ensured that the people of Ireland enjoy living standards that are among the highest in Europe. It is that sensible and balanced management of the economy that has enabled the Government to make substantial investment in education in the past decade. The Government is moving to protect the gains our country has made, including those in the education sector, by ensuring responsible management of the public finances.
I want to respond to some points made to me during the course of the debate, one of which is the issue of criteria, bands and the publication of those bands. I want transparency in everything that is done in the Department. Members should note that all of the projects are chosen on the basis of criteria agreed among the education partners. I am considering how that information can be made available on the Department’s website. The website is being upgraded. That work will be completed before the end of the year and it is my intention to put all those projects on the website. That will meet the demands of people like Senator O’Toole.
Deputy Batt O’Keeffe: I am sorry. They spend too much time on administration. Does the Senator realise that principal teachers, depending on the size of the school, have 14 to 21 days off for administration?
Deputy Batt O’Keeffe: On the question of grants and running costs in schools, in 2001 a 300 pupil school got £52,000 towards its running costs. In 2008, a school with 300 pupils gets €100,000. I have indicated clearly in the Dáil that I would like to see the capitation fee for schools increased. It is my intention, as Minister for Education and Science, to try to bring that about as best I can in a period when resources are not as freely available. I will be very sympathetic in any consideration of the budget I have in place.
This Government is committed to ensuring that education remains at the forefront. In terms of the capital programme, the Government has indicated that it is committed to the building of new schools and extensions and the refurbishment of schools to meet the requirements of the developing areas.
When I hear people bitterly criticise the building unit I ask them to note that last September, 7,000 new places were provided for primary school children in the greater Dublin area. Not one child was left without a school place. Members should compare that to the previous September when there was major difficulty. The reason for that success is that we put together a developing areas team within the Department of Education and Science. When I was Minister of State with responsibility for housing we interacted with each city and county manager and the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. We set up a database into which we put all of the demographic growths within the various areas and this year we ensured that no child was without a school place in September. That was a remarkable achievement. A total of 7,000 children went into those schools without a hitch or a complaint. Everybody was happy and I congratulate my building unit.
Deputy Batt O’Keeffe: On the question of water charges, the Senator must remember that in the past few years we put in a graded system of charges and that system will remain in place until 2009. This year I will examine how I can help schools with the various projects and as part of the summer works scheme I am considering a programme that will examine energy conservation and water conservation. There are minor works to be done in schools which would allow them halve the cost of the water they use——
Senator Joe O’Reilly: I welcome the Minister to the House and congratulate him on his appointment. It is my pleasure to formally support the motion proposed so eloquently and comprehensively by my colleague, Senator Healy-Eames, and seconded by my other colleague, Senator McFadden.
Regarding the debate on education, nobody can deny that investment in education has been fundamental to the economic success of this country in recent years. By way of a cautionary note in the debate, it will be a major error to proceed with cuts in the area of education in the future as part of any reconfiguration of national finances because our taking advantage of any future good economic winds is dependent on present day investment in education. Investment in education is not only socially desirable but economically fruitful and necessary to the State.
Senator Joe O’Reilly: That is a critical point. We are not talking about something that will not have a return. The return will be 100-fold. An educated young people is the engine that will drive economic progress and make us adaptable to the changing economic environment.
I was heartened to hear the Minister say he is prepared to concede the idea of putting the order of school building projects on the Internet. That is welcome but I challenge the Minister’s statement that there are objective criteria. We have sufficient anecdotal evidence and evidence in local media to indicate that during elections communities are given the impression they will get a new school but it does not happen. The Minister should go a stage further and remove the allocation of schools from the political process by putting in place discernible, simple, objective criteria and putting that on the web. That would take politics out of this area. The Minister for Transport, Deputy Dempsey, is to be congratulated on his activities in this area in the past.
As stated in Senator Healy Eames’s motion, we must acknowledge that we have a crisis in the school building area. There was a good deal of investment in teaching personnel in recent years, and rightly so, including resource teachers and so on, but that was to the detriment of a schools building programme. We currently have many derelict school buildings and a proliferation of prefabs on grounds, removing playing areas and creating bad conditions, and a lack of adequate school buildings throughout the country.
It is not an exaggeration to say there is a crisis in school building and that crisis must be addressed in an imaginative way but some issues must borne in mind in that regard. The cost of prefabs is astronomical. The cost of maintaining an unemployed building worker on the dole on unemployment assistance or, as we call it now, jobseeker’s allowance, is hugely expensive also. The potential of money spent on school buildings and materials by builders going back into the economy is enormous. If we were to employ our tragically unemployed, or potentially unemployed, building workers on school building projects throughout the country, the net cost would be low when matters like VAT returns, the reduced cost of social welfare and the non-existent cost of prefabs in such a scenario are factored in. If grants were given to local communities under devolved schemes, it would be easier to source local builders under such ventures. Good value for money would be secured in such circumstances. I do not doubt that at a time of unemployment among building workers and depression in the construction sector as a whole, my proposal represents an opportunity to tackle the school building issue in a coherent national way. I am not sure the Minister has given us sufficient confidence to believe that will happen.
I ask the Minister of State, Deputy Haughey, to ensure this becomes a priority for the Government. The crisis in school buildings is matched by the crisis in the construction sector. If we think outside the box by marrying the two crises imaginatively, in a way that ensures construction workers can benefit from locally devolved grants when building new school facilities, we will save money. I suggest that when the cost of not doing this is calculated, it will turn out to be more or less cost-neutral. I thank God that our children leave exquisite and beautiful homes each morning. If they go from that to a cramped and inadequate school environment, however, the contradiction will be too much for them to be able to learn effectively. It was more tolerable in the olden days, when children went from primitive housing conditions to primitive school buildings. One cannot synchronise the two in a modern context.
Senator Joe O’Reilly: Senators will not think I am wrong if I mention some local issues in passing. We are all familiar with the Tip O’Neill maxim that “all politics is local”. I ask the Minister of State to bring high into his consideration the plight of the people of Virginia and Laragh in County Cavan, who are waiting for new schools. They have believed since the last election that new schools would be built. They were told they would get new schools, but they have not been built. I ask the Minister of State to consider the projects. I am delighted that a senior executive with Cavan County Council, Mr. Geelan, is present for this debate. Protocol does not allow me to welcome him, unfortunately. I am sure he is anxious to hear the Minister of State give us a positive signal on the two schools.
If we do not pursue an accelerated schools building programme immediately, we will have missed an opportunity. I was pleased to hear the Minister say he is considering public private partnerships. Some such schemes are coming on stream. If the Exchequer cannot afford to pay for projects, the Minister should use the public private partnership model, which involves the release of buildings back into State hands over time. We should not have recourse to this model from the outset, but we should use it if the alternative is to leave children in primitive conditions.
I was heartened to hear the Minister say he intends to revisit the summer works scheme. I am not sure he gave us a sufficient assurance in that regard, however. Perhaps the Minister of State will make it clear that new applications will be accepted for 2009, in addition to those which were made in respect of 2008. The summer works scheme represents good economics. A stitch in time saves nine. If one uses the summer works scheme to fix a problem that is threatening the structure of the school, one will save money in the long run if one succeeds in preserving the building.
I ask the Minister of State to make a new attempt to achieve a reduction in the pupil-teacher ratio. This is necessary in the interests of economic progress, the quality of life of our people and the need to integrate our immigrant population. It is a tragedy that the pupil-teacher ratio reduction scheme has been put on hold. It is a false economy, false social planning and false thinking. It needs to be addressed as a priority.
I will conclude with a final point. I appreciate the indulgence of the Chair. It is critical that we consider pumping more money into teaching English to our new immigrants. I do not think that has been sufficiently identified as an issue. Our strategy should be to provide for further investment. If we could get immigrants to speak English, the benefit to this country in social and economic terms would well merit the investment. I thank the Chair for allowing me to speak. I anxiously await the Minister of State’s responses to the specific matters I have raised.
Senator Dan Boyle: While I understand much of what this evening’s Private Members’ motion is trying to achieve, I feel that Fine Gael has adopted too much of a scattergun approach. The wording of the motion does not make it clear whether Fine Gael’s primary concern is the size of the capitation fee, the level of infrastructural spending on school buildings or the extent of additional expenditure on IT matters. The motion does not seem to be concerned about whether Ireland’s investment in education, particularly primary education, delivers the best bang for its buck in terms of the quality of education young people receive. I would have thought that would have been the starting point for any debate on primary education. I accept that many of the other issues raised in the motion need to be tackled as they are causing difficulties. We should accept that the quality of education in this country is very high despite those difficulties. We should acknowledge those who help us to provide such a high standard of education.
I wish to speak about some of the individual matters that are itemised in the motion. Some of the wording used in the motion is unfortunate and unnecessarily political. The reference to Ireland’s supposedly “Third World standard of ICT infrastructure” is——
Senator Dan Boyle: The idea that anything is of a “Third World standard” prejudges the kind of standard that exists in many countries. While I agree that our ICT infrastructure is not what it should be, I understand that the Departments of Education and Science and Communications, Energy and Natural Resources have an innovative initiative in the pipeline, to be announced in the coming months. I hope the Opposition will take on board that announcement when it is made.
There is no argument about the need for new school buildings and ancillary school infrastructure works. As Senator Buttimer is aware, I make the same argument when I experience poor standards in my own local area. There is a lack of transparency in the system. We need a system that brings that about.
Senator Dan Boyle: I will outline the problem with the schools building programme. We need to look beyond the need to construct new schools and repair those which are quite old. We should try to provide schools which are cost efficient. Schools are the public buildings that are most numerous in our society. If we are to create an environment in which people can go through the education system in the most acceptable manner, we need to provide for the highest possible standards in our schools. Despite the straitened times in which we find ourselves, the Departments of Education and Science and Communications, Energy and Natural Resources are about to announce an initiative whereby many of our schools will be retrofitted to make them more cost efficient and energy efficient. The initiative should help school boards of management.
The problems associated with educational finance revolve around the extent to which money is being used efficiently within the administrative infrastructure that is in place. The Opposition is entitled to argue that the inconsistent nature of much of the funding that is provided by the Department of Education and Science allows neither for proper administration nor for the most efficient use of the moneys in question. We also need to question whether certain bodies, such as VECs, use their funds as effectively as they could. I was a member of an efficient VEC in Cork that has one of the highest standards in the country. We have dodged the debate on the number of VECs in this country. What functions should they have? How many should we have to ensure they are as efficient as possible? If we were to examine this area of educational expenditure, we might decide to reduce the level of administration that pertains to quite small urban units. We could achieve significant savings in such a manner. Such moneys badly need to be reinvested in our education system.
We are entering a period in which there are questions about the level of funding that we can and should be giving to education. I hope that decisions announced on Tuesday will be made on the basis that they protect the most vulnerable in our society and recognise the need for those to be given access to the best quality education at primary level. I look forward to returning to this debate after the Minister has dealt with those questions.
I attended a public meeting on Monday night in Kinsale community school regarding its much needed extension. The experience was similar to those felt by other Members of this House. The school principal was told on 5 April 2007 that the extension was urgent, but on 22 April 2008 it was classified as an early stage development. From where did the change come? Why did it go from “urgent” in April 2007 to “early stage” in April 2008?
There were public representatives at the meeting, but we could not answer any of these questions. What type of language is being used here? Why does the Minister select different phrases to describe various stages without providing a clear timeline or giving guidelines? Public representatives could be then allowed to do our duty by informing people of what they can expect and when they can expect it.
I also have a proposal regarding Gaelscoil Chloch na gCoillte. This school is in operation since the mid-1990s. A total of 28 prefabs are being rented on a site which is also being rented. It costs around €300,000 per annum to operate that Gaelscoil. In 1997, the principal met with the then newly appointed Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Martin, and proposed that the Department guarantee a mortgage that would be taken out by the board of management and repaid by the board. The board would use the then equivalent of €300,000 per annum to pay back the mortgage. It was a new departure from practice and thinking, and the Minister stated it was an eminently sensible suggestion. Yet here we are 11 years later and the suggestion has never been followed through, in spite of all the dead money paid in rent since.
The devolved works scheme allowed some imprimatur from the board, but unfortunately that is no more. Such an idea would take people who have lost their jobs in construction off social welfare, which is a saving to the Exchequer, and put them into a revenue contributing status. That is something that merits investigation by the Department. If the State can guarantee banks, it can surely guarantee mortgages for our schools. In conclusion, we need transparency and accountability in relation to the schools building programme.
Senator Shane Ross: I would like to share my time with Senator Buttimer. I was somewhat disappointed with what the Minister had to say, but I welcome the Minister of State to the House. If one reads between the lines of what the Minister had to say, it looks as if there will be a freeze on educational spending next week. The speech he made was peppered with code words like “as resources permit”, “in the changed circumstances” and “consistent with overall prudent management of the Irish economy”. This means we will not get any good news for schools next week. I suppose we cannot expect it, but we should make a special plea for primary schools.
I do not claim to be an expert on education or on how it operates, but I have a certain knowledge of waste in the public service. It is fair to say that, in the educational world, there is far less waste than in other Departments. The value for money that comes from the Department of Education and Science is far greater than others, and not just in the immediate sense. The Minister talks in a lame way about administrative efficiencies; there is no problem with that as one could talk about them forever. It is a bit of a cliche to say this, but the money put into education today pays off forever. It is difficult to accept that there can be any justification for cuts of any sort next week.
I met a group of primary teachers here not long ago. One of the most distressing things was that their morale has been almost destroyed. These people were very dedicated. They were not overpaid but they were not in the slightest bit worried about it, which was striking. I asked them what was worrying them. Not one of them mentioned pay, which is a big change from ten years ago. This indicated to me that they were demoralised because of the conditions in which they had to work. The Minister knows the stories of people working in overcrowded classrooms, in terrapin huts and with no computers. Incidentally, I cannot believe that the Minister is congratulating himself on having one computer for every nine pupils. That means there are eight people waiting all the time.
Senator Shane Ross: I would have thought the ambition should be one each at this stage. It is devastating that we have such limited ambitions for education, and it appears we are being softened up and at the very best we will get no progress, no expansion and no kept promises.
The issue of school buildings is one with which the Minister of State will be familiar. It is totally unacceptable that anybody should have to work in such conditions, not to mention the young people of Ireland who are educated in them. Another issue is that of transparency which would solve the problem, although there is a reluctance to have any transparency for reasons that are quite apparent. Those teachers I met were convinced that there were political shenanigans going on in regard to the priority being given to certain schools and not to others. The politicians were interfering and priority was given to schools which were politically sensitive. It is difficult to ask Fianna Fáil politicians not to do that sort of thing, because it is in their nature to do so, but it is wrong to play around with the lives and education of young people for political advantage. A more transparent system would be more important.
The other area in which the Government has blatantly broken its promise is that of the pupil-teacher ratio. The commitment in the programme for Government was 24 pupils to one teacher in both primary and secondary schools, but approximately 100,000 pupils are still in classes with more than 30 pupils to one teacher. This is unacceptable, but whereas that has not only been breached, the ambition to bring it down has also been lost. Next week we will have a decision that will delay all the commitments the Minister outlined in his speech. Educational professionals, and primary school teachers in particular, are demoralised by the Government’s attitude to education, which should get a special place in the budget next week.
Senator Jerry Buttimer: I thank Senator Ross for sharing time with me. I am disappointed that the Minister has gone, because he is effectively putting a freeze on educational spending and he has given us the advance notice tonight. It can be dressed up in any way, but cutbacks are here. The Fianna Fáil election promise on reducing class sizes, on its commitment to special needs, ICT and the schools building programme is gone. The Minister has misled the Irish people by telling them, and the children of Ireland, blatant lies. Be it on the heads of the Members opposite when they speak about investment in education because the Government has failed the people of Ireland.
The Minister referred to information technology. What happened last June when the Department of Education and Science decided to axe 20 IT advisers to schools? Where was the commitment of the Government? These IT advisers were giving support to the development of computer and IT education in schools. They are gone at the stroke of a pen. This is short-sighted vision.
Senator Jerry Buttimer: What happened to the people in Cork South Central, to the people of Ballygarvan and the Star of the Sea school in Passage who were waiting for a new school? We have heard the Minister, Deputy Micheál Martin, trotting out promise after promise and the Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Batt O’Keeffe, now doing the same. The former Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Mary Hanafin, did not care because she was not from Cork. What message are we giving the young people in our satellite towns and in Ballygarvan and Passage? We are telling them we do not care about them, that we do not give a damn. The message is that they can be educated in a prefab or in a rat-infested school or in an overcrowded classroom. Senator Ross is correct. Morale in education is at an all time low, but the Government and the Members opposite talk about changing economic times and cutbacks. The Members opposite forget that cutbacks affect people and the lives of people and the fact that the quality of education is dependent upon a built environment, a suitable learning environment along with suitable personnel.
This Government’s policy is not adding up. It can be dressed up by the Members opposite but these are the facts. The OECD report states that Ireland’s expenditure on education is the third lowest in Europe, it has the second largest primary school classes in Europe and there are four more pupils in Irish classes than in any other EU country. The commitment of this Government to education is negligible.
There have been five Ministers for Education and Science since Ballygarvan was promised a school. What are we to tell the parents, the pupils and the teachers tonight? Is it that they will be cut back or that the Government will look after them? The choice and the solution is in the Minister’s hands.
Senator Ned O’Sullivan: A this is my second time today to be Paddy last in a fairly lengthy debate, I need to have a chat with my Whip. In the meantime, I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Seán Haughey, who is always very generous with his time in this House. I had hoped to have a chance to welcome my neighbour and new Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Batt O’Keeffe, but unfortunately he had to leave the House. One advantage of him addressing the House before I spoke was that I had an opportunity to listen very closely to his presentation. If the truth were told, I think some of my colleagues on the Opposition benches were also fairly impressed. They were very quiet for most of it.
I will deal with two or three issues at this late stage in the debate. I was surprised to hear Senator Ross referring to what the Minister had to say about the new economic reality which obtains now. I always listen very closely to Senator Ross on matters to do with the economy and his articles on the economy in The Sunday Independent are required reading in my house. He of all people must know and take cognisance of the fact that we are in a new reality and that any Minister — no matter what the Department — who cannot take this on board, change direction and be as flexible as possible is a very poor Minister.
Senator Ned O’Sullivan: I have no doubt the Minister will be able to handle the necessary changes which are inevitable in the new situation while at the same time continuing to provide the type of educational excellence this Government has provided in the past ten years. I am particularly proud of my party’s record in education going right back to the 1930s. The Minister, Deputy O’Keeffe, had a predecessor from his own constituency, the late Seán Moylan, who was an excellent Minister for Education and pioneered vocational education in this country. The record extends through the time of Donogh O’Malley and up to the current Minister.
I am not easily staggered but I was stunned when I read the motion. I said to Senator Healy Eames before the debate began that she has thrown in everything including the kitchen sink. Uncle Tom Cobley and all are in this motion. The Minister is accused of virtually everything short of possibly the shooting of Michael Collins.
Senator Ned O’Sullivan: The Senator has a hard neck considering the track record in education of her party in Government in recent years. I was a primary teacher in the famous hardship government of 1973 to 1977. Anyone who was involved in education in that horrendous period will not easily forget it. I was also a teacher at secondary level in the Garret era and it was a case of the last one out of the school was to turn off the lights.
Senator Ned O’Sullivan: The money has been very well spent. I refer the Senator to the record from 1997 to 2007. When the Senator’s party was last in Government the number of children in classes of more than 35 and 40 was five times more than it is today. In that Government’s last budget in 1997, her party cut teacher numbers. These are the facts.
Senator Ned O’Sullivan: The Senator may wish to be political about the matter but I am not a great man for fighting political corners because I like to be friendly with everybody. The Senators opposite have neck for Ireland. We are in tough times. What I liked about the Minister’s contribution was that he focused on the new concept of lean and mean. He is showing that in his Department he will be lean and mean in terms of tenders and this is no harm. We must get the best value for money. Let us put advertising of positions online rather than in expensive publications as was the case heretofore. There can be significant savings in areas such as land acquisitions.
We all have our own views on the schools priority list. Senator O’Toole asked for flexibility and there must be some flexibility in these issues. As a north Kerry man I welcome the Minister’s announcement of the new school for Ballybunion. In every debate on education in the House I have mentioned Drumclogh national school which has been waiting for a technical visit for two years. The principal of that school is a neighbour of mine and they are very frustrated at the delay. I would also like an update if possible from the Minister — not now but at a later stage — on the position regarding the review of education provision at second level for Kerry North. A lot of work has been done on this review and it has been welcomed by the general public, by school managements, by pupils and by teachers.
I have one small piece of advice for the Minister in his absence. There are many elements involved in education such as parents, management and the provision of school buildings. The only advice I would have the temerity to offer the Minister is that he should listen closely to teachers. They are the people at the coalface——
Senator Ned O’Sullivan: They are dedicated and hard working. They know what is required of education. While of its nature there will sometimes be confrontation between Government and Departments and the teaching professions, I would advise him to talk to the teachers’ unions. I was a member of two of them in my time and a lot of good ideas are forthcoming from them.
The motion is one I could not possibly support. If at this early stage Senator Healy Eames is anguished by the situation in education, which I argue is pretty solid, I am very worried that by the end of this Seanad term she will be getting very shrill indeed because it is obvious that hard times are coming——
Senator Frances Fitzgerald: I congratulate Senator Healy Eames on the motion she has brought to the House and for her passion and commitment as spokesperson on education. I can understand why members of the Government get uneasy when she details the situation in education as it is today. The biggest disappointment for our citizens, after ten years of unprecedented wealth, is to see the problems that remain in education, in renovation, in the schools building programme and the failure to fulfil the promises that were given on the pupil-teacher ratio. Hundreds of parents attended meetings all over Dublin at which these promises were given, yet they have not been kept. I will focus on one issue — the lack of transparency in the schools building programme. Earlier this week, the Minister attended the House and said he would address my concerns about health and safety issues in one school, St. Brigid’s in Palmerstown. However, a number of schools in my area are awaiting word on the provision of sites and refurbishment. The lack of transparency is a source of great frustration for principals, teachers, parents and children alike. It is disgraceful not to have a transparent decision-making process in the Department. It is taxpayers’ money and details should be available on the website. I welcome what the Minister had to say about this, but it should be clear and there should not be any political interference.
It is extraordinary how teachers can cope with some of the conditions in which they are expected to teach. Nobody can deny the sort of money that has been invested in education, but why have these schools not been dealt with? Why are they not being refurbished? I want to make a plea on behalf of settled communities like Palmerstown. We have seen the building programme in action in newer areas, which is important, but the same urgency should be put into refurbishment work in schools where conditions are simply dire.
Senator Fidelma Healy Eames: I am disappointed to see that the entire Government side has left the House, bar the Minister of State, Deputy Haughey. I cannot believe my eyes. Is this a measure of how much they are on the run? This motion is about the underfunding of primary education. It is great to see Government Senators coming into the Chamber now. I thank them for that.
The quality of education outcomes is related to investment in education, which repays 100-fold in the development of young children’s fertile minds. Is there anything better than the magic of seeing children learn and think for themselves? This is related to investment in education. Senator Ross noted the low morale of teachers, particularly in primary schools. As a former primary teacher, I have seen that too. How could morale be high when a teacher must give lessons in the broom closet of a school in Moycullen?
I heard the Minister’s figures, which he presented as if everything is okay but clearly it is not. He presented global figures, which sound big when spread across thousands of primary schools but it all comes down to individual schools. The average school is in debt to the tune of €23,000 after the capitation grant has been spent. We have had broken promises on capitation grants and lower pupil-teacher ratios.
The Minister said that over the period of the national development plan some €4.5 billion will be spent on school building infrastructure. I want to know how much of this we will get in next week’s budget. My information is that grade three cuts — the most severe — are coming. The Minister made promises concerning investment strategy but they are only promises. I will, however, welcome any steps that are worthwhile. The Minister also said he will re-introduce the summer works scheme and I am delighted to hear that. We have accepted that it is a good scheme when it is operating. However, when will the scheme be reopened for the 1,000 schools on the 2007-08 list? Schools have contacted me about this matter. I am concerned because there have been too many broken promises and consequently too many disappointed parents. Ultimately the children are affected.
I welcome the Minister’s decision to reinstate the minor works grant in 2008-09, but I am disappointed with the provision of ICT in schools. The Minister says he will talk to people in Intel, but I hope they will continue to be there. A case study of computers in Carnmore national school showed it has six laptops for 188 children, which is one computer per 31 pupils. They need ten more laptops and three smart-boards, costing a total of €20,000. The school is selling calendars to raise funds, but from where will the additional money come? The Minister of State’s officials might direct me to the budget so that the school can get an extra €20,000.
The OECD’s report entitled, “Education at a Glance” stated that in 1995 — when Fine Gael was in Government — some 5.2% of GDP was spent on education. In 2005, after seven years of Fianna Fáil-led Government, the figure had fallen to 4.6% of GDP. Despite the boom and an increasing population, the Government did not invest in the area that would provide the greatest future return.
Unfortunately the Government is always looking backwards, trying to defend what it has done. It should look forward and show its plans for the future. It could start by laying them out in next week’s budget. We need to know how debt-ridden schools will be funded and how they will be made safe places for learning.
Senator Fidelma Healy Eames: We also need to know the Government’s ICT commitment and we require transparency in the schools building programme. I welcome the Minister’s decision to provide a dedicated line in this respect. In addition, school principals should be relieved of some of their inordinately onerous paperwork. I look forward to some imaginative ways of achieving that, which should be easy to do.
|Boyle, Dan.||Brady, Martin.|
|Butler, Larry.||Callely, Ivor.|
|Cannon, Ciaran.||Carty, John.|
|Cassidy, Donie.||Corrigan, Maria.|
|de Búrca, Déirdre.||Ellis, John.|
|Feeney, Geraldine.||Glynn, Camillus.|
|Hanafin, John.||Keaveney, Cecilia.|
|Leyden, Terry.||MacSharry, Marc.|
|McDonald, Lisa.||Ó Domhnaill, Brian.|
|Ó Murchú, Labhrás.||O’Brien, Francis.|
|O’Malley, Fiona.||O’Sullivan, Ned.|
|Ormonde, Ann.||Phelan, Kieran.|
|Walsh, Jim.||White, Mary M.|
|Bacik, Ivana.||Bradford, Paul.|
|Burke, Paddy.||Buttimer, Jerry.|
|Coghlan, Paul.||Cummins, Maurice.|
|Doherty, Pearse.||Donohoe, Paschal.|
|Fitzgerald, Frances.||Hannigan, Dominic.|
|Healy Eames, Fidelma.||Kelly, Alan.|
|McCarthy, Michael.||McFadden, Nicky.|
|O’Reilly, Joe.||O’Toole, Joe.|
|Regan, Eugene.||Ross, Shane.|
|Ryan, Brendan.||Twomey, Liam.|
|Boyle, Dan.||Brady, Martin.|
|Butler, Larry.||Callely, Ivor.|
|Cannon, Ciaran.||Carty, John.|
|Cassidy, Donie.||Corrigan, Maria.|
|de Búrca, Déirdre.||Ellis, John.|
|Feeney, Geraldine.||Glynn, Camillus.|
|Hanafin, John.||Keaveney, Cecilia.|
|Leyden, Terry.||MacSharry, Marc.|
|McDonald, Lisa.||Ó Domhnaill, Brian.|
|Ó Murchú, Labhrás.||O’Brien, Francis.|
|O’Malley, Fiona.||O’Sullivan, Ned.|
|Ormonde, Ann.||Phelan, Kieran.|
|Walsh, Jim.||White, Mary M.|
|Bacik, Ivana.||Bradford, Paul.|
|Burke, Paddy.||Buttimer, Jerry.|
|Coghlan, Paul.||Cummins, Maurice.|
|Doherty, Pearse.||Donohoe, Paschal.|
|Fitzgerald, Frances.||Hannigan, Dominic.|
|Healy Eames, Fidelma.||Kelly, Alan.|
|McCarthy, Michael.||McFadden, Nicky.|
|Mullen, Rónán.||O’Reilly, Joe.|
|O’Toole, Joe.||Regan, Eugene.|
|Ross, Shane.||Ryan, Brendan.|
|Twomey, Liam.||White, Alex.|
|Last Updated: 06/09/2010 20:25:10||Page of 10|