Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees

Wednesday, 13 November 2013

Joint Oireachtas Committee on Education and Social Protection

Education, Youth and Culture Council: Discussion with Minister for Education and Skills

2:25 pm

Photo of Joanna TuffyJoanna Tuffy (Dublin Mid West, Labour)
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I welcome the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Ruairí Quinn. Today's meeting is a pre-Council meeting briefing. The European Union Education, Youth Culture and Sport Council brings together education, culture, youth and communications Ministers on three or four occasions annually. The Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Ruairí Quinn, will attend such a Council meeting on 25 and 26 November 2013 in Brussels. The meeting will address the issues of leadership in education, European and higher education in the world, open education resources and digital learning. I welcome the Minister and his officials to the meeting. He will brief members on the meeting and respond to questions from members. I invite the Minister to make his opening statement.

Photo of Ruairi QuinnRuairi Quinn (Minister, Department of Education and Skills; Dublin South East, Labour)
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I thank the Chairman. Members of the committee have been circulated with the information note prepared by the Department on the agenda for the next Council of Education Ministers meeting on 25 November 2013. I will represent Ireland at the Council meeting, the only one being held under the Lithuanian Presidency.

The Council, which is part of the education, youth culture and sports configuration, is normally held three times per year, with Ministers for each of the areas other than education attending for their respective segments.

At the meeting Ministers will adopt two sets of Council conclusions on the topics of, first, effective leadership in education and, second, the global dimension of European higher education. The incoming Greek Presidency of the EU will also update the Council on its plans in the area of education and training for its Presidency in the first half of next year. The meeting will close with the policy debate on open educational resources and digital learning.

I would like to provide some context as to the overall architecture of EU co-operation in education and training. The intent of all texts is to progress the overall agenda set by the EU 2020 strategy for growth and development agreed by the European Council Heads of State and Government in June 2010. They will also progress the agenda of Education and Training 2020, referred to as ET2020, which is the strategic framework for European co-operation in education and training up to 2020 agreed by Ministers for Education in May 2009. The education committee, which is the working group of officials who prepare the agenda for the Council, has negotiated and agreed the content of these texts. The Department's officials present have actively contributed to this process.

Following on from Ireland's successful Presidency in the area of education and training, where we succeeded in reaching agreement between the member states, the European Parliament and the European Commission on what is now known as Erasmus+, the European Union's new Programme for Education, Training, Youth and Sport 2014-2020, I am delighted to see that the current Lithuanian Presidency is continuing an initiative we introduced in regard to policy debates which we found worked very well. This involves the continuing use of the inner table of the Council chamber to facilitate more open debate, inviting two external experts to participate in the policy debate and requesting delegations to contribute to a free-flowing, unscripted debate accompanied by limited speaking time for each intervention. By way of illustration, members should imagine a configuration approximately ten times the size of this room where the Ministers alone sit in the inner circle without two or three officials on either side. The debate is much more about face contact and eye-to-eye engagement. There is greater engagement because people are making speeches, one cannot see the person at the far end of the room and when the speech is made, they leave. It reintroduces a sense of discussion and dialogue similar to the physical spatial relationship we have in this room.

I will provide more detailed information on each of the agenda items for discussion. The Council conclusions on effective leadership in education proposed for agreement by the Lithuanian Presidency are a response to proposals within the European Commission's Rethinking Education communication in which member states were invited to revise and strengthen the professional profile of the teaching professions, including school leaders. Member states were asked to enhance support to educational leaders, make educational leadership more attractive and promote innovative approaches to effective educational leadership. The Commission and member states are jointly asked to promote co-operation and innovation in educational leadership, make best use of EU programmes, support educational leadership and strengthen support for national and regional networks of stakeholders dealing with that leadership.

Ireland supported the conclusions and updated the education committee on developments in the area in Ireland, most notably the work of networks of school principals and deputy principals in Ireland, known as NAPD, the Irish Primary Principals' Network, and the range of professional development programmes for school leaders provided by the professional development service for teachers, PDST, within the Department. These are as follows: Misneach is a programme of induction for newly appointed principals; Spreagach is for principals or deputy principals delivered in collaboration with the NAPD and designed primarily for school leaders who have not had the opportunity to engage in a structured CPD programme; Forbairt is a capacity building programme for experienced school leaders; Toraoícht is a postgraduate diploma in educational leadership; and Tánaiste is an induction programme for recently appointed deputy principals and acting principals. There are more than 1,100 participants in these programmes annually. The programmes are delivered by a combination of serving principals who are either associates or local facilitators and retired principals and deputy principals.

Ministers will adopt Council conclusions on the global dimension of European higher education. The conclusions are a response to the recent Commission communication, entitled European higher education in the world, and take note of the recent Commission communication, entitled Opening up Education: innovative teaching and learning for all through new technologies and open educational resources. The conclusions ask member states and the Commission to take a number of actions to increase internationalisation among staff and students of member states' higher education institutions.

Member states are specifically asked to pursue comprehensive strategic approaches towards internationalisation; promote international degree and credit mobility for students and mobility of staff; promote digital learning; and promote the creation of partnerships among institutions as a means of reinforcing institutional capacity in education. The Commission is asked, first, to support members states' efforts through their programmes such as Erasmus+ and Horizon 2020; second, to promote the attractiveness and the diversity of European higher education institutions; and third, to promote higher education co-operation and development between the EU and its global partners.

Ireland is very active in this area, and at working group meetings in Brussels, officials from the Department provided information on Ireland's international education strategy, entitled Investing in Global Relationships: Ireland's International Education Strategy 2010-15. This strategy is being reviewed, the outcome of which will be a revised Government action plan for the promotion of international education.

As the Chairman will be aware, international education is an issue I have prioritised during my time as Minister. A global economy such as ours requires an internationally oriented education system which benefits both Irish and international learners. In the past year I have visited China and Brazil, leading missions to promote Ireland as a centre of international education. We are making significant progress in these and other markets. Brazil is a major success story for Ireland and more than 1,200 Brazilian students are in Ireland on Brazilian Government scholarships under its Science Without Borders programme. Last week we also got positive news from the United States where we have seen a 9% growth in American students coming to Ireland to study in this year. It is vital we build on this momentum, and that is the motivating force behind the review the Department is undertaking.

The Greek Minister for Education will deliver a presentation on the priorities of the upcoming Greek Presidency of the EU in education and training. Greece has not yet finalised its programme but it has indicated that it expects to focus on quality assurance, social cohesion and innovative education, with Council conclusions on innovative higher education and on quality assurance at all levels of education and teacher training.

It is customary for the ministerial debate to take place as the last item on the agenda. My Lithuanian counterpart, Minister Dainius Pavalkis, has informed us that discussion will continue through lunch as well. The debate will build on the European Commission's recent communication, entitled On Opening up Education: Innovative teaching and learning for all through new Technologies and Open Educational Resources. It is an opportunity for us, as Ministers for Education, to consider the challenges and opportunities posed by digital distance learning tools such as open educational resources and massive open online courses known as MOOCs. This is an important issue as it is considered that the EU is in danger of falling behind other regions of the world in this regard.

The Lithuanian Presidency has invited two external experts to introduce and respond to the debate. This is in line with a format we introduced during Ireland's Presidency. The first is a man called Uschi Schreiber, a global government and public sector leader with the international consultancy firm Ernst & Young. The second is Professor Giovanni Azzone, rector of the Politecnico di Milano in Italy. This illustrates the cross-sectoral nature of the debate. We will be joined also by Commissioner Vice President Neelie Kroes, responsible for the digital agenda for Europe, and the Commissioner for education, training and youth, Androulla Vassiliou, will participate.

As Ministers we will be invited to outline the overall approach being adopted at national level towards open educational resources and, in particular, to share ideas on how issues such as quality assessment and the recognition of competences acquired by these means may be addressed. Ministers will also be invited to indicate how action at EU level might provide added value in this process.

To encourage an interactive and free-flowing debate, Ministers are asked to make unscripted interventions and to speak for no longer than two minutes during each intervention. This was the approach I initiated when I chaired the Education Council in February of this year.

It resulted in some very open, informative and free-flowing discussion. I was pleased to note that several of my Irish ministerial colleagues emulated this practice at Council meetings held during Ireland's Presidency.

As stated, the Presidency intends that the debate will continue over lunch and a Norwegian minister - obviously, Norway is not part of the European Union but it is part of the extended European family - has been invited to contribute another perspective at that stage. I look forward to a productive meeting of the Council of Education Ministers. I am happy to answer any questions which members may wish to pose.

2:45 pm

Photo of Charlie McConalogueCharlie McConalogue (Donegal North East, Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Minister and his officials for attending. I also thank the Minister for providing the committee with a briefing in advance of the Council meeting in respect of what will be on the agenda. I must inform him that I will be obliged to leave for the Dáil in a few moments.

Will the Minister indicate the number of meetings that were held during Ireland's Presidency and outline the issues discussed at them? Will he comment on our performance in the context of internationalisation? The uptake in this regard is lower than in other countries. The language barrier cannot be cited because this applies elsewhere. Will the Minister indicate how the position in this regard might be improved? I am aware a great deal of work is being done in the context of the report relating to this matter at present. Will the Minister comment on those from Ireland who study their entire courses abroad? The latter has become more prevalent in recent times. Students who cannot obtain entry to particular courses here go to other countries to pursue such courses. As a result of the fact that they are entitled to avail of the same terms and conditions as their counterparts in those countries, they are often obliged to pay less for their preferred courses than would be the case here.

At our previous meeting, the subject of the VAT charged on electronic schoolbooks, or e-books, arose. At present, VAT is charged on such electronic versions of schoolbooks but it is not charged on printed versions. Reference was made to the fact that a difficulty exists in this regard in the European context. Will the Minister comment on the position in this regard?

Photo of Jonathan O'BrienJonathan O'Brien (Cork North Central, Sinn Fein)
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I thank the Minister for attending and I wish him well at the upcoming Council meeting. Deputy McConalogue has covered most of the issues. I wish to comment on one interesting statistic contained in some of the briefing material in respect of nine year olds who are studying in highly digital classroom settings. The EU average in this regard is approximately 40%, whereas only in the region of 25% of nine year olds in this country study in such environments. There is a great deal of work to be done. One of our biggest problems relates to broadband provision. The Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy Rabbitte, recognises that and has made such provision a priority. Have the Minister, Deputy Quinn, and his Cabinet colleague discussed how high quality broadband services might be rolled out to schools in rural areas which are badly in need of them? We will not be able to move towards a model whereby e-books and digital education will become more prevalent unless high quality broadband services are provided. What is the Minister's view of the huge disparity between the EU average and the figure which obtains in this regard in this country?

Photo of Mary MoranMary Moran (Labour)
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I was also going to inquire about the roll-out of broadband services. Even as recently as two years ago, broadband was not available in certain schools located in major towns. I appreciate the work the Minister and the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy Rabbitte, have done in this area. In the context of the increase in the number of Brazilian and American students coming here and the recognition of qualifications, I know a number of individuals who studied abroad and who faced a battle to have the qualifications they obtained recognised here. Will the Minister provide some statistics regarding the uptake in respect of the specific programmes supporting school leadership in Ireland?

Photo of Ruairi QuinnRuairi Quinn (Minister, Department of Education and Skills; Dublin South East, Labour)
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Deputy McConalogue has been obliged to leave but I am sure he will consult the transcript in due course to follow up on the replies I am about to provide. Three Education Council meetings are held every year. Two of these take place in the first semester, so those hosted by Ireland were held in February and May. The final one takes place in November and that is the one to which I referred in my opening contribution.

I understood Deputy McConalogue's question on internationalisation to relate to Irish students travelling abroad. That was my interpretation about what he had to say. In yesterday's edition of The Irish Times, the education supplement - which is quite accurate in my experience - referred to a trade fair held in the RDS on opportunities to study abroad in Europe, including in parts of the United Kingdom. I have attended this event, which is expanding rapidly, for the past three years. An indication of its growth is that it has had to be held at a larger venue each year. Traditionally, people who wanted to pursue the course in physiotherapy for which a high number of points are required and who did not achieve these travelled to Maastricht or Utrecht to pursue courses in physiotherapy. The fee involved is €1,800. The rules in respect of domestic fees are that all students from EU member states pay whatever is the going rate in the country in which they intend to study. The amount which applies here is currently €2,500, in Britain it is £9,000 and in Northern Ireland it is approximately £4,500. All EU students are treated as being the same. In the region of 1,500 courses are available in different universities in countries such as France, Spain, Hungary, parts of the Netherlands and Germany, and these are all thought through the English language.

I met an Irish woman at the trade fair to which I refer who originally studied at Trinity College, who has been living in the Netherlands for some time and who is now a representative for a particular university there. I asked her why the university is seeking Irish students and she informed me that there are many continental students who want to study in English but whose first language is not English. She also stated that the university wants them to become used to the English vernacular. She indicated that while students from England and North America attend the university, her experience - rather than any bias - has been that Irish students are an attractive addition to the campus. She characterised the Irish students as being the social glue of the university. This is because they will mix with anyone and do not have hang-ups about particular nationalities which others appear to harbour. She informed me that others tend to cluster around the Irish and like to have them in the vicinity.

To the best of my knowledge, we do not keep a register of the Irish students who travel abroad. For example, the so-called league tables the newspapers publish at the appropriate time in respect of the number of students post-primary schools send on to university only capture data relating to Irish universities. The newspapers ask the seven universities and the institutes of technology to indicate the number of students they take on in first year and the schools from which they came. A small and very bright cohort of Irish students attend university in Oxford or Cambridge. These individuals do not feature on the league tables to which I refer. As a result, we do not have centralised information in respect of this matter. If it existed anywhere, it would be in the control of the Higher Education Authority.

On the other hand, we have a great deal of information in respect of incoming students. Senator Moran referred to this matter. In the first instance, the value of this business - and it is a business - if €1 billion.

2:55 pm

Photo of Jonathan O'BrienJonathan O'Brien (Cork North Central, Sinn Fein)
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Is that the total figure? Is the Minister referring to what they spend as well?

Photo of Ruairi QuinnRuairi Quinn (Minister, Department of Education and Skills; Dublin South East, Labour)
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It is €700 million in third level academic institutions and it is approximately €300 million in foreign English language schools. A note I have, which is fairly up to date, states that there are 32,000 students registered in Irish higher education institutions, including international students on Irish programmes overseas. These would include the Royal College of Surgeons and colleges in different parts of world where students are taking an Irish course outside this country. The total number of students is 32,000. This represents a 9% increase on 2009-10 figures. This 9% increase takes account of a number of aspects. First, there has been a significant increase in the number of Erasmus exchanges in short-term student courses, including US students on junior years abroad. I will deal separately with the qualifications issue raised by Senator Moran. Second, there is a significant increase in PhD registrations and PhD students in Ireland now account for 20% of all full-time international students. There has been a significant growth in offshore study by international students on Irish programmes. That total in that respect is 23%. There is the medical college in Bahrain. UCD is in the process of setting up joint ventures with education providers, universities and third level institutions in China. It, together with the university of agriculture in China, has established a joint venture with a local city which has provided the land and infrastructure for a course that will cover two years in China and two years in Ireland and it will have a mixture of European and Chinese students.

On Senator Moran's question on the qualifications issue, the vast bulk of our students come for short-term courses such as the year abroad programme, which is a classic American programme. They get credit for their period of study here but they are not in a category in respect of which we would have an issue. However, we have an issue with our colleagues in Northern Ireland. The CAO system evaluates in points terms and accords 100 points to a leaving certificate honours grade of 90% plus. The A star, as it is called, subject to clarification, is rated 150 points. The people in Northern Ireland and the Minister with responsibility for higher education, Stephen Farry, have raised this with us and they would argue that this level of point value is less than what an A star should properly be. We in the Department of Education and Skills, or in the Higher Education Authority which is in within the remit of the Department, do not score the CAO performance but what we have in the past, through the State Examinations Commission, increased the gradation. There used to be seven grades of evaluation in the marking system. At their request some eight or ten years ago we have, through the State Examinations Commission, increased the grading from seven to 14, which has allowed them to calibrate. In that very tight marking system no student is more than 2.5 points away from either an upgrade or a downgrade. That issue is currently under discussion for reasons the members will understand.

This would extend to the whole of Britain, but there are different systems in terms of marking in place in the United Kingdom as the Secretary of State, Mr. Gove, has introduced a variety of different ways of marking in respect of the GCSE subjects and superior exams. In terms of students in the North in particular, the concern is that some of the students who might want to come to the South will not come because they are not getting the full award that they would get for a similar qualification in the United Kingdom. The understanding is that most of the interest would be in areas such as medicine, which would attract that kind of student. Nevertheless, there has been an increase in the number of students from Northern Ireland studying in the South. It is a relatively significant percentage increase but on a very small numbers base.

On the leadership courses, in terms of participants, I can give the members more details of on that if they would like.

Photo of Jonathan O'BrienJonathan O'Brien (Cork North Central, Sinn Fein)
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The Minister might address the EU average with regard to a recent study of nine year olds being taught in digitally equipped classrooms.

Photo of Ruairi QuinnRuairi Quinn (Minister, Department of Education and Skills; Dublin South East, Labour)
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The Deputy asked a question about access to broadband. The Minister, Deputy Rabbitte, and myself have a programme, which will be completed this year, to provide a rollout of a 100 megabytes infrastructure to all post-primary schools in the country, which number approximately 730. We are considering the primary sector but we do not have the same clear picture in that respect. There is a wide spectrum of primary schools that are much more digitally turned on and that is a function of the size of the school. Schools range in size from 50 to 60 pupils to 700 pupils. We are talking informally to some of the primary school principals to examine how we can prioritise access to broadband in those schools. A note I have on this area states that the Department is currently embarking on the development of a new digital strategy for schools. It also states that consultation with all the stakeholders is a key part of the strategy and this will inform the Department in planning for the exploitation of the full potential for ICT in education at primary and post-primary levels. There is the in-house equipment and then there is access to the wider area which requires access to broadband. While we make no distinction at post-primary level between all 730 schools, it would not be physically or financially possible to adopt a similar approach for all 3,200 primary schools. We are examining how we might link that infrastructure.

Photo of Jonathan O'BrienJonathan O'Brien (Cork North Central, Sinn Fein)
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This is an important issue. I can give the Minister an example of a school in Cork that is located 100 yds from a housing estate which has broadband access, yet the school does not have such access. The school authorities have spoken to the engineers who are dealing with the issue. It would not be cost prohibitive to extend broadband access to that school but there does not seem to be any joined-up thinking. How can we overcome that? It is crazy that this school does not have broadband access when it is located 100 yds from a housing estate that has such access. All the students who attend the school have broadband at home but they do not have it in the school environment.

Photo of Ruairi QuinnRuairi Quinn (Minister, Department of Education and Skills; Dublin South East, Labour)
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The note I have states that in relation to primary schools, that all contracts under the schools' broadband access programme are regularly reviewed so that schools can have access to the best quality connectivity solutions affordable within the available resources. That would be from area to area. If the Deputy has a set of areas that is of interest to him in this regard, I would be happy to explore that with him.

Photo of Jonathan O'BrienJonathan O'Brien (Cork North Central, Sinn Fein)
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I will come back to the Minister on that.

Photo of Joanna TuffyJoanna Tuffy (Dublin Mid West, Labour)
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I call Deputy Daly to be followed by Deputy Griffin.

Photo of Jim DalyJim Daly (Cork South West, Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister to the meeting. He mentioned a number of courses, including Misneach, Tánaiste and Tóraíocht, some of which are very worthwhile. I availed of the Misneach course and found it superb. It was one of better courses I ever attended. I want to put on record my support for that course and I hope it continues to be funded.

On the broader aspect of leadership of the primary school sector in particular, has the Minister concerns? There is a difficulty in filling many of the vacancies. Are there examples of best practice the Minister has picked up from his European colleagues about dealing with the challenges of leadership in the primary education sector.

Photo of Brendan GriffinBrendan Griffin (Kerry South, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Minister for coming to the meeting. On a related matter, I commend the Minister on his work on addressing the cost of school expenses for parents. I heard his interview on George Hook's programme on Monday evening, and as I said to the committee earlier, his proposal is a positive step forward.

The Greeks are finalising their Presidency programme for the next six months. There is often insufficient long-term thinking or planning in the area of education. Much of the approach is of the fire fighting type. Since the Minister has taken office he has unfortunately been tasked with the huge challenge of dealing with a much-reduced budget. We need to consider where we want to be in ten years time in terms of our class sizes and pupil-teacher ratios. Could a pan-European approach in this respect be included for the Greek Presidency? We could examine this aspect and set ourselves targets. We need to grasp this issue once and for all for the future. Unfortunately, at every budget time we have a discussion on whether the pupil-teacher ratio would have to be increased by one or even two pupils.

We had a discussion on whether the pupil-teacher ratio could be increased by one or two. We must examine how we can reduce the pupil-teacher ratio and have it more or less set in stone so that one can say, this is where we are as a country and this is what we want to achieve and maintain for the future. Does the Minister believe that could be factored in for the next Presidency? Would he be willing to champion such an initiative?

3:05 pm

Photo of Ruairi QuinnRuairi Quinn (Minister, Department of Education and Skills; Dublin South East, Labour)
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It really is the prerogative of each member state to set out its own priorities for the Presidency. That is done in consultation with the Commission and the three countries that form a cluster. In the case of the Irish Presidency, I shared our perspective on the future with both the Lithuanians and the Greeks. The Greeks were the third group of three countries. Ultimately, it is for each country to decide what it wants to prioritise. What we have succeeded in doing is maintaining a continuity in the format of communication.

The discussion to which I referred was as boring as hell. We could have all stayed at home and e-mailed and faxed information. People read out their scripts and walked away. There were bilateral meetings. We might as well have been at Ballinasloe horse fair as at the meeting as there was no engagement. What took place was not engagement. We brought two outside speakers, David Puttnam and Andreas Schleicher on one occasion and Christine Blower who was the representative of all the teachers’ unions in Europe.

I will come back to the issue of principal leadership. On the long-term strategy for education, the junior cycle is being radically transformed and it will not be complete until 2020. The first cohort to start second year will start next September. They will do English under a new regime in 2017. The next cohort starting first year in 2015 will take on five subjects including English, and so on until we have all of the full menu across the line. In the meantime the change will inevitably have an impact on the senior cycle, including the future of transition year because it is seen as an antidote to the rigid scholastic rote learning that currently characterises the junior certificate examination.

We are currently discussing a change in the points system with the universities. There is a good paper from September 2011, which is available on the Internet from a retired professor, Áine Hyland, about the transition process and the multiplicity of courses at levels 7 and 8 in institutions. They have increased from just over 400 to 970. Those members who are educationalists will have a better knowledge of the matter than many. Less than 20% of students have any idea of what they would like to study. They are faced with a baffling menu. One could do computers with art, or art with computers and ICT or computers with a bit of art and a bit of ICT. Universities and colleges are like premier league clubs. They just want the best players, in this case, students. The courses are hooks with a bit of bait on them to try to get students to do them. We are trying to move to a simplified system where there will be less choice and better quality. At the end of first year in college a student can then decide, as they can currently with engineering. There is a foundation course in all of the engineering schools in year one and then at the age of 19, as distinct from the age of 17, which is currently the case or sometimes even younger, one can choose to become a mechanical engineer or structural engineer. That leads to a better fit.

On the landscape of third level education, the institutes of technology go back to the regional technical colleges of the 1970s. They were the last project to be financed by the World Bank in this country before we joined the European Union. That landscape is going to be unrecognisable in two years’ time, as will the universities. There will be seven regional clusters of education across the country centred on the seven universities where there will be co-ordination in the delivery and supply of courses, the elimination of duplication and a fit between them. Given that we have a national qualifications framework one will be able to go from a level 8 course – an honours undergraduate course – to another, but other access programmes will bring people into the system and one will be able to move around the third level system. That will take us up to 2050 in terms of an educational landscape. There is long-term strategic thinking. By the end of this calendar year we will have a response from the higher education sector on the alignments and mergers of some of the current institutes of technology. One would not set out today to build 14 regional colleges of technology across the country. Our investment in the road network, communications, telecommunications and other changes have transformed the physical geography of this country in terms of time, travel and distance.

In response to Deputy Daly’s question about leadership and national school principals, there is a debate and a variance in practice across Europe. For example, in Lithuania, there is a national competition for principals and one applies to become a principal by virtue of one’s qualifications and then one is assigned a school. We are at a tentative stage of taking some of those principles – no pun intended – and applying them. One could ask whether there should be a maximum limit for holding the position of principal. Ten years has been suggested. Frank Feely, who was manager of Dublin City Council was manager for 19 years. Nobody can be on top of their game for 19 years, no matter how good they are. Even bishops have term limits and cannot hold the position after the age of 72. The question is whether there should be a time limit, if someone should be a principal in the school in which they were deputy principal or if they should move around. They are purely questions. Lest anyone in the Gallery or anywhere else think I am enunciating policy, I am not; I am simply giving a description.

Everyone comes from the perspective of their own background and place. They say this is the way it has been done here and this is the way it has always been done and we have not challenged it. The great virtue of the European experience is that with 27 other Ministers for education one hears how things are done differently or they have a different way of doing the same thing. That exposes one to considering different options and how they would work. One could ask what is the role of a principal in a school that has 750 children with special needs classes and perhaps a naíonra as well, as distinct from one third of our schools that have less than 100 pupils. Could one equate the role of a principal in a school of one size with another of a different size? These are all questions that we are now asking ourselves. We will look at best practice. Of course we will have consultations with all of the players who are directly involved. Both the Irish Primary Principals’ Network, IPPN, and its post-primary counterpart are talking more and more in such terms and looking at the programmes to which I referred, including Misneach, as Deputy Daly outlined, and how one takes them a stage further.

Photo of Joanna TuffyJoanna Tuffy (Dublin Mid West, Labour)
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That is great. There is just one issue to raise with the Minister in case it is relevant. One of the issues that came up in the part of the meeting that dealt with back-to-school costs was e-books and the EU obstacle to dealing with the issue of lower VAT. Could that be raised at the meeting?

Photo of Ruairi QuinnRuairi Quinn (Minister, Department of Education and Skills; Dublin South East, Labour)
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It is a very good point and it has been brought to my attention previously. It was raised by both Deputy McConalogue and you, Chairman, and Deputy Jonathan O’Brien also raised it. There was a time in the mid-1980s when the then Labour-Fine Gael coalition fell out of favour with Croke Park because we could not remove VAT from hurley sticks and Ministers were effectively banned from attending games there as a result. One will be pleased to hear that VAT is still on hurley sticks and notwithstanding the ostracisation that occurred we are still allowed to go to Croke Park. It was a long difficult journey to reconcile the different VAT regimes of 12 member states, or even nine of them. One got a chance to put VAT on goods but the decision could not then be altered. On foot of the issue being raised, I am prepared to explore the possibility of having the matter raised at Council level. There will be a price distortion in the marketplace if there is VAT on one component of what is in effect the same product but there is not on the other. I do not know the VAT rate on books. It might be 23%.

Photo of Joanna TuffyJoanna Tuffy (Dublin Mid West, Labour)
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Yes.

3:15 pm

Photo of Ruairi QuinnRuairi Quinn (Minister, Department of Education and Skills; Dublin South East, Labour)
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It is one fifth, which is a large amount. All the indications are that electronic format is the way to go and that will affect all of my educational colleagues. We will take up the matter, in some shape or form, and report back to the committee.

Photo of Joanna TuffyJoanna Tuffy (Dublin Mid West, Labour)
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That is brilliant. I thank the Minister. I also thank all the members for their contributions.

The joint committee adjourned at 3.40 p.m. until 1 p.m. on Wednesday, 20 November 2013.