Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Tuesday, 12 February 2019
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Education and Skills
Statement of Strategy 2019-2021: Discussion
I congratulate the Minister. Like Deputy Funchion, I will refer to his question about the strategic direction he wants the education and training sector to travel in over the next three years. I would say that it should be one that has equality at its heart. I agree with Deputy Funchion about equality of access and opportunity for our students, but we also need to address the elephant in the room, which is pay inequality and the crisis it is causing in teacher recruitment. We have four-teacher primary schools not just in rural Ireland, but in Dublin. When a teacher is ill or on a training course they cannot be replaced. These are schools in which there are teaching principals so it can be the case that a teaching principal who has fifth and sixth class students has to take in first and second class students or even junior and senior infants. Something has to shift. We need to value our teachers, who are so under-resourced and overburdened at the minute.
We also need to look at the status of our non-teaching staff and to value them. There are more than 3,500 secretaries in our education system. The salaries of the vast majority of those are determined by boards of management, which leads to different working terms and conditions. We have secretaries with no security of employment and no occupational pensions who are forced to sign on during the summer. As former teachers, Deputy Mitchell O'Connor and the Minister himself will know that schools cannot function without their secretaries. They are everything to students and staff. There needs to be a shift in that area as well.
The issue of forward planning and new buildings has been brought up by my colleagues. I brought this up when myself, Deputy Thomas Byrne and Deputy O'Loughlin travelled to Tullamore last year. It relates to this thing of announcing schools. Last year it was announced that a new primary school for the Goatstown-Stillorgan area in my constituency will open in September 2019. The parent of a two year old or a three year old child will think that is great and that a brand new school will open in 2019 when the truth is the site has not even been identified. Ballinteer Educate Together national school has been waiting for seven or eight years. The project has been moved around and does not even have planning permission yet. We now hear that the Department has applied for planning permission to locate it in an industrial unit in Sandyford beside a site on which it looks likely that 460 apartments will be built. Traffic chaos and safety issues will arise from this school being located beside a construction site. I do not understand the logic of announcing schools and then misleading the public by saying that the doors will open a year later when the site has not even been identified. The Minister should at least be honest with the public and say that he hopes that this will happen but that we actually do not have sites identified for the schools we are announcing.
As elected representatives, people come to us saying that this is great news and asking where exactly is the location for the school. Then the other school, which has waited seven years and does not have planning permission, wonders how they were successful when they have been moved around to different parts of the constituency. Take Ballinteer Educate Together which is now temporarily located in Churchtown and is still waiting for planning. That is something that needs to be addressed.
On strategy, does the Minister intend to integrate the recommendations made in the Joint Committee on Education and Skills report on relationships and sexuality education, and what is his timeline? The committee also did a very detailed report on mental health. I would love to see these reports inform strategy and be taken seriously rather than gathering dust on a shelf.
In the last quarter of last year, the Minister's predecessor was to have 500 teachers in DEIS primary and post-primary schools trained in the delivery of resilience building. Did that happen? How were those schools selected? How were those teachers selected? What are the criteria for deciding which schools or teachers received the training?
I agree with Deputy Funchion, and have said it many times, that a toolbox of skills to deal with a crisis is the most critical thing that we can give our children. I am an advocate for mindfulness and resilience building, which was one of the recommendations of our report. I, the Chairman, Deputy O'Loughlin, and Senator Black have been instrumental in introducing mindfulness into Leinster House. We think that it is very important that we in Leinster House lead. The previous Minister, Deputy Bruton, attended the meeting we held before Christmas to lend his support to it. The sessions are held on Wednesdays between 1.30 p.m. and 2.30 p.m., and six more are scheduled. This is happening is Sweden and the UK. If the Minister cares to pop in, he should do so. That gives a signal that we are leading on the importance of protecting our mental health. It would be a good signal if the Minister were to lend his support. The typical excuse for Deputies, never mind Ministers, is that they do not have time, but that is exactly when one should pop in and do some mindfulness training.
What is the extent of the Minister's engagement with the Minister for Communications, Climate Change and Environment, Deputy Bruton, on broadband connectivity? It is not only an issue for rural Ireland. In my time training in NUI Maynooth the overhead projector was as technical as it got, but now the technology is fantastic. I was a music teacher and used YouTube to bring the music to the students so that they could see the performer. Interactive whiteboards are also an invaluable tool. How are people in Glencullen, which they tell me is not far from Grafton Street, coping? I do not think a music teacher there has that access because there is no broadband connectivity. It must be next to impossible in rural areas of Ireland. There is inequality because pupils are not getting the same experience, and that is only in my subject, never mind any other subject. Teachers are heavily reliant on this.
I would love an update on the National Strategy on Education for Sustainable Development in Ireland 2014 to 2020 if the Minister is in a position to provide it now or later. That was focused primarily on educating children and students about sustainable development rather than seizing the opportunity to make the very schools themselves greener. A quick example of that was apparent when the Joint Committee on Climate Action visited a school in Tipperary before Christmas. It had done a great deal of retrofitting and put six solar panels on a roof which could take 30. It is outrageous that that is the message we are giving our students, who if they ask why there are only six panels when it would fit 30 are told that there is no point because the school cannot get money back from the grid. We must look at that. There should be a solar revolution on every public building, including school buildings. Schools are a perfect investment for that. Has the Minister spoken to the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and the Environment about the need for the Government to bring in measures that would not just put the responsibility on the students who are doing fantastic work through the green flags initiative, for instance? It would mean the Government stepping up to invest in and incentivising our schools becoming greener, which unfortunately did not happen in that school in Tipperary where there was no incentive.