Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Joint Oireachtas Committee on Education and Social Protection

Social, Personal and Health Education Curriculum: Discussion with Comhairle na nÓg

2:05 pm

Photo of Joanna TuffyJoanna Tuffy (Dublin Mid West, Labour)
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I welcome from Comhairle na nÓg, Mr. Orin Tulié Daly, Offaly, Mr. Stephen Keegan, Roscommon, Ms Davina Clancy, Galway, Mr. Conn McCarrick, Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown, and Ms Niamh Donnelly, Mayo, to discuss the social, personal and health education curriculum and the relationships and sexuality education within that.
Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or an official, either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable. By virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence. However, if they are asked to stop giving evidence on a particular matter but continue to do so, they are then only covered by qualified privilege thereafter. Witnesses are reminded they should only give evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings and that they should respect the parliamentary practice of not criticising or making charges against any person outside the Houses in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.

Mr. Orin TuliƩ Daly:

We are here to discuss the work done by Comhairle na nÓg in the social, personal and health education curriculum and the relationships and sexuality education within it. I am from the Offaly branch of Comhairle na nÓg which is a youth council funded by the Department of Children and Youth Affairs. There is one for every county council and city council across Ireland. Its aim is to strengthen the voice of young people in their county or city council. Each one is made up of representatives who are elected at the local comhairlí annual general meeting by other young people. At these meetings, young people discuss the topics they believe are important to them and affect them in their local area.

Dáil na nÓg is an annual event at which each comhairle comes together to show the work it has done and discuss the important issues for young people on a national level. In 2011, Dáil na nÓg decided strengthening the voice of young people through Comhairle na nÓg was the most pressing matter that needed to be addressed. Subsequently, it established the Comhairle na nÓg national executive, a youth group comprising 34 members, each from one of the county council or city council Comhairle na nÓg. It gathers in Dublin once a month to work on the issues that were found to be most pressing at the Dáil na nÓg national event.

Mr. Stephen Keegan:

I represent Roscommon Comhairle na nÓg. We are here to discuss the issue of social, personal and health education in schools and, within that, relationships and sexuality education, as well as the important topic of mental health. We are also here to represent the work of comhairlí around the country and make recommendations to this committee on their behalf. Seventeen Comhairlí na nÓg are working on the issue of social, personal and health education and, within that, relationships and sexuality education, as well as mental health. Those working on relationships and sexuality education include Donegal, Kildare, Roscommon, Clare and Kerry while those working on mental health include Donegal, Monaghan, Louth, Mayo, Roscommon, Kildare, south Dublin, Laois, Kilkenny, south Tipperary and Kerry.

The national executive recently met with Frances Shearer, director of social, personal and health education support services, to discuss with her our experiences in schools with the course. We provided anecdotal evidence that the curriculum is positive and inclusive but young people feel the teaching of relationships and sexual education is inconsistent while the quality of teaching varies massively from school to school. We also found there is no concrete social, personal and health education course for the senior cycle. What topics are taught are at the discretion of the teacher or the school.

We also have evidence proving the inconsistent delivery of relationships and sexuality education. This evidence includes a study by the Dáil na nÓg council in 2009, which was published in a survey called Life Skills Matter, Not Just Points in 2010, as well as a Department of Education and Skills survey published in 2007.

2:10 pm

Ms Davina Clancy:

I represent the Galway City Council Comhairle na nÓg.

I will speak about our concrete evidence about the teaching of RSE throughout Ireland. As the committee can see, one of the slides shows that Dáil na nÓg council conducted a survey in 2009 about relationships and sexuality education. In 2009, 74% of students did not receive any sexual education at all and only 26% of students in the senior cycle did. The graph shows: 63% of students never received relationships and sexual education within senior cycle at school; 19% received it once a week; 8% received it every few months; 7% received it more once a week: 2% received it once every two weeks; and 1% received it once a month.

In 2007, the then Department of Education and Science conducted a study on relationships and sexuality education implementation. These are merely a few statistics showing the reasons, according to teachers and principals, it is difficult to teach the curriculum. Some 82% of teachers and principals stated that, because the curriculum is overcrowded, they do not get to the whole curriculum in the year. Some 71% of them found it uncomfortable to talk about sexual education in a class and, therefore, did not teach it. Some 67% of teachers and principals state that there is too much pressure on examination years and, therefore, this subject is left behind.

Comhairle na nÓg also conducted a survey in Donegal in 2011. This is the most recent survey conducted by Comhairle na nÓg. I pick Donegal specifically because its Comhairle na nÓg has been coming back year in, year out in trying to help sexual education in schools. Many surveys have been done around Ireland but this is the one that I decided to speak about today. Donegal Comhairle na nÓg came back with the following information. There is gender segregation in schools. Certain schools will only teach girls or will only teach boys relationships and sexual education, they split up classes and divide students up in this teaching. It has shown that topics depend on the teacher's preference, and not on the health of the students. Also, LGBT issues are rarely ever addressed in schools. Mainly because of these problems, children then must find information for themselves on television, on the Internet, in the media and from their peers who give them inaccurate information on sexual education. As the committee can see, it has led - we do not have any concrete evidence on this - to the rise of teen pregnancies in Ireland.

I thank the committee for listening and I will now hand over to Mr. McCarrick.

Mr. Conn McCarrick:

I am a member of the national executive. I am here today representing the constituency of Dún Laoghaire Rathdown's Comhairle na nÓg and to speak to the committee about mental health. Mental health is a vast and complex issue, but there is much that can be discussed. This year 14 comhairlí are dealing with topics relating to mental health. It is important to all comhairlí across the country, from Donegal to Dublin, from Cork to Carlow, or Louth to Leitrim. It is being discussed all the time. We see through the work of the AGMs that this issue is being brought up consistently and that many comhairlí are doing work to combat this. It is not isolated to these counties of the 14 comhairlí which are working on it. It is coming up in most comhairlí. Some comhairlí choose not to work on it because it is difficult to get concrete achievements in this regard.

The issues that continuously come up at comhairlí in this area are the lack of mental health services and the lack of awareness among teenagers about mental health services. There are some good resources available, such as Jigsaw, Reach Out, Headstrong, Foróige and the HSE, but we found that often young people are not aware of do not know how to access these resources at all.

There is a need for schools to provide information on mental health services. The schools can implement this in counselling services, in anti-bullying policies and by raising the profile of existing services. Schools can do a great deal to improve mental health by improving anti-bullying policy. They can tackle the issue there. By having someone to talk to, they can help boost positive mental health. In the curriculum, such as SPHE or RSE, much can be done on mental health to have someone to talk to.

On mental health services, the Comhairle na nÓg national executive met Mr. Martin Rogan, HSE assistant national director for mental health. I also got the chance to meet him at the Comhairle na nÓg showcase last week. He stated that the mental health services are under a great deal of pressure, that there have been staff reductions of 16% but that human contact is very important in solving mental health, and that the services are there but it is really an issue of awareness. After our meeting with him, it was clear that there are mental health services for young people available but many do not know about them or how to access them.

Comhairlí across the country have done much work to combat this. There are many different innovative and effective projects that Comhairle na nÓg has undertaken to promote positive mental health. Louth Comhairle na nÓg has developed an app about coping with mental health issues and promoting positive mental health generally. A number of comhairlí have also produced mental health videos, for example, Waterford Comhairle na nÓg which produced "Mind Matters", in which they interviewed celebrities, psychiatrists and young people about mental health. One can read about all the Comhairle na nÓg mental health initiatives in the national showcase programme.

There is a certain stigma towards mental health. When one things of mental health one thinks of mental illness or depression, and much can be done to improve this. We need to talk to someone and reduce the stigma towards mental health and the comhairlí have done much work on reducing depression and anxiety in dealing with these, and about body image and feeling positive about oneself and one's own mental health.

We are here today to represent the work that these comhairlí have done. It is certainly not isolated to these comhairlí. Much can be done by teachers and in schools. Much progress has been made in recent times and we do a great deal in the future. Progress can still be made. Far too many children are being bullied in school and committing suicide.

I thank the committee and pass over to Ms Donnelly who will speak about the solutions.

Ms Niamh Donnelly:

I represent Mayo Comhairle na nÓg. First, I want to repeat that the Comhairle na nÓg national executive has a youth representative from every county and city authority and the feedback we are getting is coming from young people the length and breadth of the country.

What we have found is that many secondary schools are experiencing a very low standard of RSE and SPHE. Young people really need a consistent RSE and SPHE curriculum, one that will be the same in every secondary school. A standard needs to be met. The only way that this can be achieved is if SPHE teacher training becomes mandatory because we need competent teachers. As the committee can see from the Department's study, many teachers do not teach RSE because they themselves do not feel comfortable with it. The only way one will combat that is if one trains them up and makes it so that they are comfortable in teaching young people RSE and SPHE.

The teaching of RSE and SPHE links in considerably with mental health as well. Schools can play a major role in providing information for young people about services. If there is an adult or teacher in every school, he or she can point a young person who is having a problem in the direction of help even if the adult or teacher cannot help the student within the school.

I hope that our presentation today has let the committee know a little about the work the comhairlí are doing around the country. We also wanted to bring to the committee's attention how important these issues are to young people. We encourage the committee members to contact the comhairlí in their constituencies, learn about what kind of work they are doing and, hopefully, help them in their projects on these issues. We also ask the committee members to take into consideration the opinion of young people in every decision they make. We invite them to our national executive meetings. If they want to talk to us about any issues or anything that they are discussing within the committee, we would ask them to do so. We would be happy to answer questions.

Photo of Joanna TuffyJoanna Tuffy (Dublin Mid West, Labour)
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I say, "Well done", to everybody for the presentation.

Photo of Averil PowerAveril Power (Fianna Fail)
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I thank the representatives of Comhairle na nÓg for coming in and for their presentation.

I was delighted to see the emphasis on mental health. For the last several months Deputy McConalogue and I have been working on a paper on youth mental health for which we spent the summer consulting groups such as Headstrong, Jigsaw and student councils to find out what works. We found that programmes developed and run by young people are often more powerful than those delivered by teachers or parents. This is the type of initiative we need to support. Many of the suggestions made by the witnesses are in our paper and I can provide copies of it at the end of the meeting. I would love to hear their feedback on what we should prioritise. It is a huge issue but it has not been taken on by the education sector to the extent that it should have been. One in four students has a psychological problem at any given time. It is an educational issue because if people are unhappy or experiencing bullying they cannot get the education they need. The education system needs to do all it can to support students with their personal development.

It is a disgrace that some schools are not providing RSE programmes, whether because they are not regarded as a priority or because of individual teachers' sensitivities about teaching programmes. Every school should be offering their students a full relationship and sexuality education programme. LGBT issues and homophobic bullying should also be addressed as part of these programmes. Every student should be supported in feeling comfortable about his our her body image and sexual orientation. This committee should push to ensure this happens. It is ridiculous that survey after survey finds patchy implementation of a programme that should be a priority. The SPHE programme for senior cycle is still in development and needs to be put in place. I have made this point in the Seanad to the Minister for Education and Skills. Personal development is as important to young people's education as maths, science and other areas of the curriculum.

I hope we will have an opportunity to meet representatives from Comhairle na nÓg more frequently. When we discuss issues of general interest to students we should consider a procedure that would allow us to consult its national executive or at least inform it of our agenda for next year. I do not see why we cannot ask Comhairle na nÓg for its perspectives on the issues we examine. When we dealing with education and other issues that affect students it is essential that we hear the voice of those who represent students. I have not been approached by my local comhairle, although the national office has e-mailed me. I would like to hear from my local comhairle and I am sure other members think likewise.

I will conclude with an apology because the national anti-bullying coalition is currently making a presentation on bullying and I must leave because I promised I would attend that meeting. I was delighted to have an opportunity to hear the witnesses' presentation.

2:20 pm

Photo of Marie MoloneyMarie Moloney (Labour)
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I thank the representatives from Comhairle na nÓg for their presentation. They are all under the age of 18. There is hope for this country when a panel of bright young people can address an Oireachtas committee. It is certainly not easy to make presentations and it took us a long time to be able to speak publicly. I know exactly what they are going through.

I agree with Senator Power on the importance of the sex education programme. I am disappointed to hear that some teachers are unable to deliver the programme. I presume it is a sensitive subject for people

My son is a GP and he recently opened a practice in Killarney. He offered consultations to secondary students for €25 because he knows people are becoming sexually active at that stage and need to discuss matters with medical professionals. This initiative has been very successful. Perhaps GPs around the country could try similar initiatives. He has also seen a number of female patients who do not seem to find it a barrier to speak to a man. GPs might consider offering a supplementary service to that provided by teachers.

Youth mental health is an important issue. A Jigsaw pilot programme in County Kerry is now closed but I am glad to note that it is reopening in January. Like Senator Power, unfortunately I will have to leave the meeting shortly to discuss similar matters. Youth suicide rates in County Kerry are 50% above the national average. Many of the individuals involved were very young. After a suicide occurs there are often comments on Facebook about the individual concerned. There is a danger of glorifying suicide by describing the deceased as a great boy or girl. Do the witnesses think it morbid that people would leave messages for someone who died in tragic circumstances?

Photo of Simon HarrisSimon Harris (Wicklow, Fine Gael)
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I know a bit about Dail na nÓg because I was a member of the first Dáil na nÓg for County Wicklow before a Comhairle na nÓg had been established. I have gone backwards since then. It was an interesting experience and I learned a lot from it. The delegate report indicates that efforts are ongoing to make the process work more effectively and demand more from it, which is welcome. I have spoken to a number of individuals who have been involved in Comhairle na nÓg and Dáil na nÓg. They desire to be listened to rather than dealt with by Departments as a mere box ticking exercise. The witnesses have proven to us that they are delivering on their agenda. I thank them for their choice of topics for this discussion. Young people tend to deal with issues that relate solely to our own narrow lives, such as third level fees, but they have chosen wider societal topics.

It is astonishing and unacceptable that 71% of teachers in 21st century have told a survey by the Department of Education and Skills that they do not feel comfortable teaching RSE. If there is insufficient confidence on the part of teachers to engage with their students, we have a real problem. We can develop all the wonderful policy documents we like but if there is reluctance in the classroom to deliver the programme we will have to pursue the issue with the Minister for Education and Skills.

The Oireachtas has established a cross-party group on mental health. I am the convener on the group for my political party. Every political party and Independent groupings in the Dáil and Seanad is involved.

It is one of the only cross-party groups in the Oireachtas and we also managed, despite all the usual Punch and Judy politics and people giving out and shouting and screaming at each other, to come together as a committee and make a cross-party submission on the last budget, which was successful. One of the areas we focused on is how mental health is taught in schools and we asked the Oireachtas Library to do a report on this. The representatives have hit a number of nails on the head. I often recall the analogy outlined to me by someone who works in suicide prevention. We teach dental health to four, five and six year olds in primary school. The dentist comes into the class and hands out a mirror to the pupils to check their teeth. They are taught to look after their dental health by brushing their teeth daily and that if something goes wrong, it is nothing to be ashamed of, yet mental health is not mentioned generally, with a few noble exceptions, until pupils reach the SPHE curriculum when they are aged 15 or 16. As Mr. McCarrick rightly identified, the consistency in that is another problem.

There is a brilliant model in Scotland where they have introduced a whole school approach because this is not necessarily about one subject. Mental health must be dealt with throughout the curriculum. I encourage Comhairle na nÓg to look at that and we will take Mr. McCarrick's comments on board.

We have heard about the bad side of technology in recent weeks and the terrible issues related to cyberbullying. These issues need to be tackled by the Departments of Education and Skills and Justice and Equality, among others, and society generally but we must also remember that technology, when used properly, can provide huge benefits. The generation of the representatives has the ability to access information like no generation before it. Using innovative applications is a positive way to go. I thank them for attending. I am in touch with my own comhairle in Wicklow and will maintain that contact. I wish them all the best and encourage them to keep in touch with us as they go about their work.

2:30 pm

Photo of Robert DowdsRobert Dowds (Dublin Mid West, Labour)
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I welcome the representatives. I apologise for arriving at the end of their presentations but I am afraid there are huge demands on members, particularly on Wednesdays.

I have two questions, the first of which may not be fair to ask and if they wish to avoid it, they can do so but the other relates directly to Mr. McCarrick's contribution. I used to teach teenagers and I was used to more traditional forms of bullying before the days of mobile telephones, Facebook and so on. I was struck when we had the first case of bullying by text and modern social media that it was much worse than traditional bullying. The individual set everything up at home among class mates such that when they went to school the following day, no one would speak to a particular student. It has an horrific on the individual affected. What is the best way to tackle that form of bullying?

What are the delegation's thoughts on reducing the voting age? Do they agree that if it was reduced, full responsibilities that apply to all adults currently from the age of 18 should apply to anybody who gets the vote?

Photo of Charlie McConalogueCharlie McConalogue (Donegal North East, Fianna Fail)
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I join colleagues in welcoming the representatives and I thank them for taking the time to discuss these two important issues with us and to update us on their work. They had a successful showcase earlier this month in Croke Park, which was attended by the Taoiseach and the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs and Dáil na nÓg delegates from all over the country. I congratulate them on this work and on the issue they highlighted there. They need to be careful about what Deputy Harris said and look at what happened him. He is a fine public representatives and judging by their contributions, the representatives have bright futures.

The two issues raised were mental health and social, political and sexual health education. We have a long way to go to ensuring the way we deal with both issues in our education system is appropriate to the needs of students. As Senator Power outlined earlier, my party has put together a mental health document and we would be interested in Comhairle na nÓg's response to that. The challenges facing young people have evolved rapidly in recent years and our education system has not responded as appropriately as it should have. A great deal of work needs to be done. Mental health is the greatest health concern of young people and the way we handle it leaves a great deal to be desired.

There are gaps in the system in the context of social, political and sexual health education. Our education system teaches students academically but it does not equip young people with many of the wider skills needed for life. We fall down on that and we should focus on ensuring when people go through the school system, they have an opportunity to learn about all aspects of life and are equipped for the wider world. English, Irish, mathematics and so on are obviously important but it needs to be ensured pupils get a rounded education. I very much look forward to working with the representatives. Comhairle na nÓg is a fantastic resource for us, as legislators, to engage with and for the representatives to educate us about the issues and gaps in the education system, which we need to ensure from a national policy point of view are addressed.

Photo of Joanna TuffyJoanna Tuffy (Dublin Mid West, Labour)
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I commend the representatives on their presentation, which was well delivered. These are two important issues. With regard to religion and sexual health education, very often when something is put in place, everybody says the job is done and everything is okay. It is good for us to receive the information Comhairle na nÓg has provided in this regard, for example, that the delivery of RSE is not good on the ground. This is partially related to our development as a country and the Catholic influence and so on. The practice of religion in the country influences all parts of our life, including education but, at the same time, young people in countries with a much more liberal view about sexual education wait longer to have sexual relationships and make much more mature and informed decisions. If anything, our conservative background is working against us in practice and, for example, as Ms Clancy mentioned, Ireland has a higher rate of teenage pregnancy.

Questions have been asked about what can be done to address mental health issues in the curriculum. Initiatives have been implemented in other countries in this regard. There is an issue about trying to give people positive mental health skills and whether people should have time to reflect, whether mindfulness should be taught and how we deal with stress, anxiety and so on.

Senator Power suggested that the committee should send our complete schedule. We will have that on our agenda for our next meeting. Hopefully, that will be agreed and we will follow that up to maintain a connection with Comhairle na nÓg in order that it can be made more concrete.

Would anyone like to comment on the issues raised?

If any items remain outstanding I will bring them to the witnesses' attention.

2:40 pm

Ms Niamh Donnelly:

I thank everyone for the lovely comments they made. With regard to suicide among young people, I am from County Mayo which has a high rate of suicide among young people. There is an aspect of glamorising suicide, but this has more to do with the media and not among young people themselves. A few weeks ago I read many newspaper articles about a particular suicide, but not one of those articles included helpline details for any young person reading them. There was nothing positive in them. Where a young person has been victimised he or she is seen as almost a celebrity instead of considering the tragedy.

Mr. Conn McCarrick:

I find the blame culture in society very interesting. Scapegoating someone will not solve the problem. The problems will still exist. The media should focus on prevention instead of glorifying events. Even though these cases were tragic the media glorified them. It was interesting that the recent coverage did not include the perspective of young people and, as Ms Donnelly stated, helpline details were not included. We have a blame culture and no one wants to take responsibility. It is always somebody else's fault. Helplines exist as do places such as Jigsaw and reachout.com and this is very positive.

Photo of Joanna TuffyJoanna Tuffy (Dublin Mid West, Labour)
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Deputy Dowds mentioned bullying by text.

Photo of Robert DowdsRobert Dowds (Dublin Mid West, Labour)
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I used it as an example. Bullying can also be done through Facebook or Twitter.

Ms Niamh Donnelly:

It is very relevant, but bullying has moved past texting and is now on the Internet, which introduces the element of anonymity and is a whole new ball game. In years gone by if one was bullied in school at the end of the day one could go home and that was the end of it, but now cyberbullying gets into the home and one cannot get away from it. It can happen behind one's back before one even arrives in school the following day. It is also anonymous.

Comhairle na nÓg in Mayo discussed this at our AGM. We thought it would be helpful to educate parents. Young people experiencing cyberbullying find it difficult to go to their parents and explain that someone sent them a hurtful status. The parents would ask what a status was, because they do not know how to use these websites and neither do teachers. A girl was cyberbullied on Ask.fm and committed suicide, and most teachers and parents do not know what Ask.fm is. Parents and teachers must be educated about social networking sites so they can prevent such events happening and help when they occur.

Mr. Stephen Keegan:

Deputy Dowds asked how to deal with text bullying and cyberbullying. The way to do so is the same way as one deals with any bullying, which is through education. People behave in a certain way because they were taught to do so. Human behaviour being what it is, we will not be able to cut out bullying completely. The way to deal with it is to equip people with the level of self-confidence and self-respect required to deflect it so if anyone attempts to bully them it will not affect them. I feel strongly about this because our education system does nothing to promote self-confidence in young people and places a massive emphasis on academic development over social development, which is wrong and crazy. One cannot respect other people if one does not respect oneself, and people need to learn this within the education system.

Photo of Marie MoloneyMarie Moloney (Labour)
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Many people are not strong enough to stand up to it because it gets to them emotionally.

Photo of Robert DowdsRobert Dowds (Dublin Mid West, Labour)
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Mr. Keegan's comments are very interesting. Education will only go so far. We see people smoking outside the door of this building, and they all know it is extremely dangerous. Encouraging people to have self-confidence is an interesting and useful comment. It points a finger towards how we should move and how our education system works. For all my adult life I have felt the most dysfunctional part of our education system is at secondary level. The introduction of transition year is part of recognising this, but I know the Minister is thinking about introducing a more diverse type of programme in place of the junior certificate and in this context it might be possible to address the issues Mr. Keegan raised. It might also be useful if parents encouraged somebody being subjected to bullying to stand back and walk away from it. If I looked at a series of Twitter comments about me it would be easy to get depressed. I deal with it by ignoring it.

Photo of Robert DowdsRobert Dowds (Dublin Mid West, Labour)
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Enough information will come directly to me. Mr. Keegan's comments were quite profound.

Photo of Joanna TuffyJoanna Tuffy (Dublin Mid West, Labour)
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I thank the witness for their presentation and we will follow up on the meeting. A number of other events are taking place in Leinster House today, including the meeting on bullying mentioned by Senator Power. With regard to what Ms Donnelly said about young people having a say, I would like to see far more engagement by the Oireachtas with young people and groups such as Comhairle na nÓg. The committee will work on this and we will be into touch with the witnesses. We will also have a meeting on whole school approaches to mental health next April, and we will be in touch with the witnesses about this also. We will use the presentation made today to inform that meeting.

The joint committee adjourned at 3.10 p.m. until 1 p.m. on Wednesday, 28 November 2012.