Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Wednesday, 4 June 2014
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Education and Social Protection
School Book Rental Scheme: Discussion
Before beginning I draw the attention of all witnesses to the position in regard to privilege. By virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to this committee. However, if they are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and they continue to do so, they are entitled thereafter only to a qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. Witnesses are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person or persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable. I also wish to advise witnesses that their opening statements will be published on the committee's website following the meeting.
Members should be aware that under the salient rulings of the Chair, they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the House or an official by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable. I ask members, witnesses and people in the Visitors Gallery to ensure their mobile phones are switched off as they interfere with the broadcasting equipment.
On the book rental scheme, in October 2013 the Minister for Education and Skills, as part of the budget, announced that a €15 million fund would be targeted specifically at primary schools that do not currently operate a book rental scheme. This gave rise to concerns that schools that had already taken the initiative to establish a book rental scheme would be disadvantaged.
In April the Minister announced that all primary schools that operated a school book rental scheme would benefit from the school book rental scheme fund announced. I am sure members and delegates are aware of the details in that regard.
The committee previously held hearings on back to school costs. The INTO had input into our report in that regard. I welcome from the INTO Mr. Sean McMahon, president, and Mr. Peter Mullan, assistant general secretary, and from the Department of Education and Skills Mr. Matt Ryan, principal officer. I invite Mr. McMahon to make the presentation on behalf of the INTO.
Mr. Sean McMahon:
The Irish National Teachers Organisation, INTO, welcomes the opportunity to make a submission to the joint committee on the school book rental scheme. The INTO is the largest teacher union in the country, representing more than 30,000 teachers in primary schools in all parts of the country. This presentation is informed by the views of members as expressed at INTO meetings and through correspondence and communications with the organisation.
A book grant is paid to all primary schools, with DEIS schools receiving an enhanced payment. It is paid in June each year in respect of the following calendar year. A non-DEIS primary school - approximately 90% of all schools - receives a per capitarate of €11, while a DEIS primary school receives €21 per pupil per annum. The equivalent rates at post-primary level at €24 and €39, respectively, are significantly higher. This funding is made available to all schools regardless of demand. It replaces a previous system under which schools applied annually for assistance based on verified need.
Following the announcement of the budget last October, the Minister for Education and Skills announced the provision of additional funding in the next three years for book rental schemes in primary schools. This funding was to be in addition to the existing scheme of book grants outlined. Under the terms of the scheme announced, disadvantaged schools were to receive €150 per pupil over three years, while non-DEIS schools were to receive €100 per pupil. Schools had to apply for the grant by the end of January 2014. However, primary schools which already had in place any form of rental scheme were specifically excluded from applying for this funding, which meant that the vast majority of primary schools were excluded.
Some 80% of primary schools operate some form of a book rental scheme. This does not mean that each school has a comprehensive or fully functional scheme. Rental schemes in primary schools vary from the provision of one or two books to every book required by every pupil in the school. In many cases, the rental scheme in place in a school is a factor of parental or corporate fund-raising, the length of time a rental scheme has been in place in a particular school, the ability of a local school community to establish, administer and maintain a rental scheme and requests for assistance from parents from year to year. In the case of the latter, the greater the demand for assistance the less need there is for seed capital to get a rental scheme off the ground. What most primary schools had in common was very limited funding from the Department of Education and Skills for book rental schemes. Where progress was made on book rental schemes, it was in the main due to local initiatives and local funding.
The scheme announced as part of budget 2014 drew significant criticism from individual schools and teachers, the INTO and political parties which viewed it as an announcement driven not by the needs of pupils, parents and schools but by politics. A departmental press release announced that the Minister for Education and Skills had "revealed plans to ensure that every primary school in the country has a book rental scheme in operation." There was no reference to the fact that 80% of schools would not be funded. There was no acknowledgement that few schools would be able to provide a comprehensive scheme, particularly given the increased demand and the decreasing ability of schools to maintain a scheme. The Minister subsequently admitted that the purpose of the funding was to close the gap in order that every primary school had a book rental scheme. There would, he told RTE, "be no excuse." In other words, it was not about helping all schools in order that they could help parents but an attempt to deflect criticism of inadequate funding. It was about ministerial box ticking, rather than making meaningful, comprehensive provision for book rental.
Some schools did not have a book rental scheme because there was no demand for one from parents. In some of these schools there were small numbers of parents experiencing hardship and schools were able to assist them from the small annual grant provided by the Department of Education and Skills for that purpose. The Minister’s policy resulted in a financial gain for those schools where there was no demand for a scheme. Schools that had followed the Department’s advice two years previously to phase in book rental schemes were excluded from the additional funding. These schools, many of which fund-raised to make up for inadequate State funding for school books, followed departmental advice and tried to improve the position for hard-pressed parents. Many more schools fund-raised significant amounts and prioritised or diverted funding intended for other purposes to put full book rental schemes in place. The policy was seen as a slap in the face to parents and teachers in these schools who were discriminated against in order that the Minister would be able to say there was "no excuse." Schools in which schemes had been established at great cost and effort by school communities saw others receive full State support. Many schools are questioning why they would expand book rental schemes in such circumstances.
The former Minister for Education Noel Dempsey once said schools would not be penalised by the Department for making improvements. The book rental scheme overturns this policy. Schools that had made improvements were penalised by this approach. The decision to exclude was made on very dubious information. Schools were asked to respond "Yes" or "No" on whether they had in place a book rental scheme, with no effort made to obtain the details of that scheme in terms of whether it covered one book or all books or if it was limited to some classes or available throughout the school. The questionnaire to schools was poorly constructed, leading to an increased anomaly, rather than a solution, on the need for book rental schemes in schools.
The INTO believes funding should be made available to all schools seeking to introduce or improve existing schemes. Penalising schools that have struggled and made sacrifices to support book rental schemes is wrong. Penalising schools that have diverted funding to meet other needs such as ICT and that now find themselves at a loss is wrong. Patronising schools by saluting the initiatives of principals who have gone the extra mile with parents and teachers to put in place a book rental scheme while at the same time depriving them of funding is wrong. Only 400 or 12% of primary schools applied for and will receive funding to establish book rental schemes. This is good news for 400 schools, but in thousands of others parents, teachers and pupils believe they have been treated unfairly. The Minister subsequently announced that the balance of the funding would be divided over two years among all other primary schools that operated book rental schemes. These schools are expected to receive €9 per pupil or, in the case of a DEIS school, €10 per pupil for each of the next two years. In 88% of schools the additional funding will provide little more than one additional textbook. It is limited and will do very little to tackle the cost of textbooks in schools. It is clear that a small number of schools will benefit from the scheme, while there is a marginal improvement for most schools. They are being discriminated against because of the hard work of parents and teachers to establish such schemes.
The Minister needs to re-examine the proposal and make changes to ensure all schools, pupils and families are treated fairly and equitably. It is a matter of regret that the Department undertook this work without consulting the INTO. Such consultation would have ensured the views of teachers and principals would have been taken into account. The union could have pointed to the flawed nature of the survey and the inequitable treatment of many schools. Consultation should form part of any review. The INTO has on several occasions expressed concerns about the low level of State funding to support necessitous families with school books at primary level. Given the increased numbers of parents seeking assistance from schools, the level of funding is completely inadequate. It is an effective cutback in the scheme and one that needs to be addressed.
The disparity in per capitafunding between primary and-----
Mr. Sean McMahon:
I will conclude.
Many book rental schemes have worked in the past because schools have been in a position to use non-State funding. In summary, the INTO recommends that increased funding be made available to all schools to support the provision of school textbooks to families experiencing financial difficulties. The INTO recommends that posts of responsibility be reinstated in schools to enable schools to develop and maintain book rental schemes.
Mr. Matt Ryan:
The Department welcomes this opportunity to discuss the issues of school book rental schemes. I will outline the Department's perspective on this issue and any actions it is taking regarding same.
The Department encourages all schools to operate school book rental schemes. In the budget last October it was announced that the Department is to receive €5 million from the proceeds of the national lottery licence transaction to allow primary schools to invest in book rental schemes. Further investment is to take place over the next three years to support the establishment of book rental schemes in all primary schools that do not currently operate them. Since then, the Department contacted primary schools that did not operate book rental schemes to advise them of the seed capital funding being made available. Just over 530 schools that had previously indicated in their annual returns that they did not have book loan schemes were invited to apply for funding. Of these, approximately three quarters have applied. DEIS schools will receive €150 per child and non-DEIS schools will receive €100 per child in seed capital funding over the next two years to establish book rental schemes. This will cost approximately €6.7 million and will benefit more than 63,000 pupils and their families.
The balance of the funding, some €8.3 million, will be divided among all other primary schools that currently operate book rental schemes. DEIS schools will receive an additional €8 per pupil in 2015 and €12 per pupil in 2016, while non-DEIS schools will receive €7 per pupil in 2015 and €11 per pupil in 2016. This is in addition to the annual book grant that is issued to all primary schools and second level schools in the free education scheme.
Since 2011, the Department has gathered information from primary schools as to whether they operate book rental schemes. Returns for September 2013 indicate that 84% of primary schools operate a book rental scheme. This compares to 83% in 2012 and 77% in 2011. The position at second level is that for September 2013, some 68% of schools reported that they operate book rental schemes. A more detailed analysis of the returns show that 55% of voluntary secondary schools, 66% of community and comprehensive schools and 88% of schools operated by education and training boards are operating book rental schemes. Responses to a survey conducted in 2012 were disappointing and the survey does not lend itself to comparisons with the returns received in respect of 2013. The Department will continue to request information on book rental schemes from first and second level schools annually.
Ms Anna Heussaff and Ms Nicola Winters are representing Dublin Friends of the Earth while Ms Deirdre McDonnell and Mr. John Dolan are representing the Department of Education and Skills. I invite Ms Heussaff to make the presentation on behalf of Dublin Friends of the Earth.
Ms Anna Heussaff:
We appreciate the opportunity to make this presentation and to raise the issue of energy use and energy reductions and costs in schools and in education generally.
What we have to say is quite simple. Everybody knows money is desperately needed in schools. We also know there is a climate crisis as well as a financial crisis. Emissions must be cut as much and as soon as possible. Cutting energy waste across the public sector is a step to address both crises. These are cuts that do not hurt, which is not a phrase one hears very often. In the work we have done on this issue we have found there are good policies and some good schemes, but there is no responsibility on school boards of management, which are responsible for school finances, to achieve energy savings. There is no national data available at present to measure progress and there have been major delays by the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland, SEAI, in publishing data on other parts of the public sector.
There is no effective national strategy, that we can find, on implementation of the Government's policy that between 2009 and 2020, some 33% of energy use across the public sector will be reduced. That is a big change. We are almost half way to 2020, yet there is no data from the public sector. The SEAI has been promising data from 2011 but it is still not available. Schools will not be included in that data.
How much does energy cost for schools? The estimate ranges from €50 million to €80 million per year. That is the estimate made by the SEAI as well. Between 20% and 35% of capitation spending goes on energy. It is a substantial amount of money. Existing projects show that 20% of energy use can be saved over a short period of time, between one and three years, through no cost and low cost means. The no cost means refer to behaviour change, which must be planned and targeted and not simply consist of hassling people and hoping for the best. The low cost means include light sensors, timers and so forth. Again, that must be part of a plan. A 20% saving could mean an extra €20 million per year for schools. The schools would keep the money because it is part of the capitation spending and obviously they badly need it.
It has been found across the board that without energy management plans energy usage does not just stay stable but increases. In schools, for example, whiteboards are now widely used and are a great resource. They involve a laptop and projector as well as the whiteboard. The bulbs cost €400 each and often break after a year or two. If that single element in the school is not controlled, planned for and regulated, those costs can increase.
There are two programmes in respect of energy management in schools. They run in parallel but do not really work together. Energy in Education is a programme set up by the Department and SEAI. It runs a good website and provides advice to schools, talks, competitions and so forth. It was launched in October 2012 and at the time it was said that 250 schools had used the programme. Last January, 15 months later, it was stated that 260 schools had used the programme. That was an increase of only ten in 15 months and only 6% of the total of over 4,000 schools. The Department has not told schools about this scheme, certainly not by circular or by any big announcement by the Minister. I will be interested to hear the reason for that and what is planned. We are told that from next January all schools will be required to monitor and report not just their energy use, but also their actions to reduce energy use. So far, however, there is only a small pilot project taking place this year for the system to make that possible. Moving from ten schools in a pilot project to 4,000 schools does not appear likely to happen in 2015. Again, SEAI, which will be implementing it, has still not published data from 2011 from other areas of the public sector.
Second, there is the Green Schools programme, of which many people are aware. It is a voluntary scheme run by An Taisce and is not funded by the Department of Education and Skills. At least half of the schools are now actively involved in it at a given time. Energy is one of six themes in the programme and schools work on it for two years. They then move on to water, travel and other themes.
Green Schools and Energy in Education are great examples of individual schools saving thousands of euro. The measures are quite simple but must be done in a planned way.
Possible actions include using timers to switch off computers overnight, switching off heating overnight and at weekends, ensuring boilers are running correctly and set at the right temperature, and making sure photocopiers are not left open, which uses five times more energy than is necessary.
The green schools programme does great work but has limitations. It is not a national strategy to achieve savings of 33% in six years. Work on energy may not continue after two years have elapsed. Also, no data has been collected and there is no requirement for schools to do so after two years. The programme does not have the resources to support schools to maintain reductions.
The OPW has done a lot of work on energy reduction in some areas of the public sector, but unless one maintains the momentum and the revised system, one will go back to square one fairly quickly.
The school board has no responsibility. The green schools initiative is often co-ordinated by one person. In most cases the principal and board will be involved, but in other cases it will be just one teacher who acts as co-ordinator during his or her lunchtime or after school and is left rushing around. Again, there is no post of responsibility, so it is voluntary. It is difficult to keep the momentum going and the board does not have a responsibility to see that this happens.
Green schools have sought a remit. For example, they work with the National Transport Authority to implement their policy on cycling, walking to school and so on. They have not been given the remit or resources to have the SEAI as an institutional partner to implement a national strategy. If they had this, we could assess how many schools achieve savings, the type of savings achieved, and how to reach the target in 2020.
The policy seems to be falling between two stools and hoping for the best. Rather, we should be collecting data and publishing it. As we know, unless one has data and can measure progress, then improvements are not going to happen. We think it is all happening far too slowly in these financial and climate crises.
We ask the committee to pursue with the Minister and other bodies the establishment of a requirement that all school boards have an energy management plan in action. As part of their financial responsibility, they must report energy usage and actions from next January. Unless that forms part of a national strategy, we are afraid that in two or three years' time we will hear the phrase "Well, we are about to get there."
We are not here as advocates for the green schools initiative, or any particular mechanism, but they seem to have the infrastructure to carry out the job. If there is another way of achieving a strategy that happens now, this year and next year, then that is what should happen. The main thing is that there is a plan and a strategy rather than just a hope that we reach 15% in three years' time and so on.
Finally, we want the committee to urge the Minister, and all Government Ministers, to give leadership on the issue of energy cuts. The fact that we can save €200 million in pubic spending by cutting energy usage by 33% is rarely mentioned in public debates on the Haddington Road agreement, public sector reform, expenditure and so on. The matter should be sent to the Committee of Public Accounts, because it is about public spending and whether it is being wasted. We would like the issue to be raised much more widely both in education, health and other areas of the public sector. Again, these are cuts that do not hurt.
Mr. John Dolan:
The Department welcomes the opportunity to discuss energy in schools and our work on the area to date.
For the past 17 years the planning and building unit within the Department of Education and Skills has been using a process called the DART approach to develop policy, sustainability and energy efficiency in educational buildings. The acronym focuses on four key areas, namely, design, awareness, research andtechnology. The policy is informed by the building unit's professional and technical staff. That is driven by its technical guidance documents, which are updated by continued energy research and development.
In recognising that the programme should be about people and changing behaviours and cultures while delivering services, the approach was developed initially through the four strands of design, awareness, research and technology. The earlier projects researched individual opportunities and tested them locally. Energy saving measures that showed promise were further developed, given trials and monitored in various all-encompassing projects such as that which took place at Gaelscoil an Eiscir Riada, the generic repeat design, and the passive schools programme, an example of which is Coláiste Choilm. Tried and tested successes have been incorporated into standard school design guidance documents for inclusion in all school designs for new extensions and refurbishments.
The current near-zero energy building projects, and monitoring and test results from the passive schools and Coláiste Choilm, will continue to inform the Department's technical guidance documents into the future. These documents set the benchmark for sustainable design in school buildings, with a clear focus on energy efficiency. They are based on solid energy research projects. The Department's policy is supported by a strong research programme which currently has 45 research projects at various stages. It has been demonstrated that all schools designed and built in accordance with the above policy and the technical guidance documents can have an energy performance that is up to twice as efficient as the benchmark for international best practice. All new schools and extensions must achieve a top A3 band building energy rating.
Schools in Ireland, by their nature, present particular limitations from an energy conservation viewpoint. In energy terms, they have relatively short operational hours and do not have building management specialists on site, and energy conservation is not a core function of a school. This means that all the heating, lighting, power, water, security and communication systems, known collectively as the building services, used in schools must be robust, simple, reliable and, where possible, automated. These have all been considered within the energy approach and building designs. All new technologies and approaches are again tested to ensure compatibility with school design and operational requirements.
A hybrid approach is taken with respect to sustainable design in schools based on maximising natural resources and energy efficient technologies. Schools are positioned to maximise gain from the sun during the day for passive solar heating and natural daylight. Passive solar design can save up to 20% during the early morning heating period, and adequate natural daylight, when combined with automated lighting systems in classrooms, can eliminate the need for electrical light for up to 80% of the school's teaching hours. Energy-efficient boilers and individual digital room temperature controls, combined with a strong emphasis on air-tightness testing of the building envelope - which is currently twice as good as Irish building standards - and insulation levels minimise heat requirements. Water usage is minimised through automatic shut-off taps, while local water blending valves are provided to prevent scalding and rainwater recovery is provided for dual-flush toilets.
Over 40% of the research programme features renewable aspects. These renewables include wind generation, solar hot water heating, photovoltaics, heat pumps and biomass systems. Results have varied with respect to the application of renewables in a school environment. Research continues in this area as technologies and economic influences develop. In the interest of sustainability, the potential of renewables should be maximised in school design. However, it is critical that renewable applications are properly suited to the application needs and not just applied for the sake of having a renewable tag on a building. It is also critical that the demand for energy is minimised before investment in renewable energy applications takes place.
The aim of the National Energy Efficiency Action Plan 2009-2020 is to ensure that by 2020 all public sector buildings with areas over 1,000 sq. m have their energy rating improved to D1 or higher. These principles are supported by the Department of Education and Skills with significant investment through the energy efficiency insulation scheme 2009, the water conservation scheme 2010 and the summer works scheme. Research is progressing on the development of cost-optimal levels of energy improvements which will improve existing schools' energy performance to inform future upgrades.
The sustainability and energy efficiency programme of the Department received further endorsements to its approach when a sample school building, built in 2006, was assessed in 2009 for a building energy rating. These ratings came into being in 2009. The school which was designed and built in accordance with the Department's technical guidance documents from 2004 received a top band rating of A3.
Sustainability awareness in schoolchildren is included in many elements of the energy research programme. It is also provided through a dedicated programme run by the SEAI and also through the An Taisce's green flag programme. There is a strong focus on the provision of practical guidance and direction to schools via the energy and education project. The project was developed in partnership with the SEAI using the energywebsite energyineducation.ie.It provides a one-stop shop based on an energy web portal designed to help school boards of management, principals, teachers, administrators, caretakers, pupils, parents, architects, engineers and contractors to improve energy use practices and to reduce school operating costs, along with helping to protect the environment for future generations.
The website is supported by the Energy in Education pack, which provides practical guidance on managing energy in schools, information on involving pupils in the process, case studies and training opportunities. The delivery of the programme and SEAI training is supported and promoted by the school patrons and management organisations through partnership with the SEAI and the Department of Education and Skills. New buildings owned or occupied by public authorities after 31 Dec 2018 must be near-zero-energy buildings and all new buildings are to be near-zero-energy buildings by 31 Dec 2020, which to a very large extent should be from renewable sources. Research on achieving near-zero-energy building is under way, with two new school extensions at design stage and due to commence construction this year.
The above approach has placed the Department and Education and Skills at the forefront of design with respect to sustainable energy efficiency in school buildings and this performance has been recognised at both national and international level by sustainable energy boards for excellence in design specification and energy awareness in schools. The energy research programme was a finalist in the SEAI Legacy awards in 2013.
My colleague Ms Deirdre McDonnell will take the committee through the energy procurement aspect.
We could do that, and Ms McDonnell could elaborate on that when replying to questions. I call Senator Power first and ask members to confine their contributions to three minutes to enable a second round of questions.
I thank the representatives for their presentations. To start with the issue of schoolbooks, the INTO has already outlined and reiterated the flaws in the last scheme that was announced. I thought it was rather bizarre that a grant scheme was announced from which 80% of schools were excluded access. It not only penalised those who had taken the initiative and set up a scheme but sent out a message that if people were thinking of taking an initiative to set up a project next month or next year they should not bother because they would lose out in doing so. That was a damaging message. There was a partial rowing back on that later and the schools that have a scheme in place are getting a smaller amount. Will the Department officials advise whether an initiative will be taken in the next budget, if it is too late for this year, to address that gap and make sure that all schools have enough money to set up and sustain a proper scheme? That is essential.
One of the issues raised is the need for compulsory book rental schemes in all schools. All schools should have a scheme. As a decent society we should be able to make sure that every family can afford school uniforms, books and such items, and it is to cover such items that people pay tax. That burden should not fall to individual families. As a society we should be able to guarantee those as a basic minimum to all primary school children. However, the question is how do we get to that point. We know that schools are not in a position currently to be able to do that. Will the representatives of the INTO indicate how much it would cost to implement such a full scheme that would not only include books for some subjects or books for some school years but would give every child a full suite of books and replace them as necessary? Is that something the Department officials see us achieving? It should be.
Another issue that is raised regularly is e-books. Grants for paper books are becoming redundant in many respects. We should be moving towards the use of e-books, more so at second level, because the development of literacy and such skills require more interaction with paper books at primary level. We should be moving more towards the use of e-books, yet they can be more expensive than paper books because of VAT. I have raised this issue several times at the committee and we have been told it is an EU issue because of the VAT directive. Will the Department officials indicate whether it is an issue that the Minister for Education and Skills has raised with other Ministers for education at European meetings? Will the Government push at EU level to have that directive amended, if need be? It was written at a time when nobody anticipated that we would be seeking to give children e-books in schools. This needs to be revisited.
On the issue of energy costs, I welcome the presentation from Mr. Dolan. To be fair to the Department, much has been done in this respect in terms of new schools. Much has been done in recent years to incorporate best practice and build in better designs that are energy-efficient and that help schools to save money over time. The difficulty is that we still have many old school buildings and there is a question about how can we assist those schools. Guidance has been produced but, again, the key issue comes down to grant assistance. There have been small grants in the past for works such as thermal insulation, but a host of other works are needed at a national level. We also need to be consider this issue from a climate strategy perspective.
That is an area that is worthy of Government grants. I ask the officials to examine the grant perspective to help schools to put in place the measures they need. While there is an incentive for every school to put in place energy saving measures, as it would help them to use their capitation grant funding better, the reality is that many principals are lucky if they can pay the bills this week. While they would like to think of measures that could be introduced to save money in five years' time, they cannot do that. Therefore, grants are needed to achieve that.
I will try to get straight to the questions. The presentation from the INTO, as always, was straight to the point. There is an opportunity for the Department today to try to outline the rationale for the decision to initially allocate money for a school book rental scheme for that percentage of schools that did not operate one. A explanation has never been given as to why it was targeting schools with no school book rental scheme in place, to the detriment of other schools that had school book rental schemes but were at varying degrees in terms of implementation. Some would be very basic school book rental schemes. The only conclusion one could come to, to borrow a phrase from Mr. McMahon, it that it is a box-ticking exercise by the Department to be able to say that every school has a school book rental scheme. If that was the purpose of the initial decision, then that did not succeed, because there are 531 schools that do not operate a school book rental scheme and I understand that only 400 have applied for funding to operate one. There are still 131 schools that have not applied under the new funding allocation. What is the position regarding those schools?
A further issue, related to the cost of school books, is the voluntary code of practice that was entered into with publishers in 2011. The INTO might have some information on that - I am sure the Department has - and how successful it was. One of the agreements as part of that code of practice was to offer schools a discount of up to 17.5% if they bought in bulk. How is that being measured within the Department, and it is experience of the INTO that this is happening in practice as well as in theory?
On the issue of energy costs in schools, I read the detailed submission that was made. In the presentation it was stated that schools should have an energy efficiency plan, implemented by boards of management, and if after two to three years there is no reduction in energy costs, schools could face financial sanctions. Could the representatives give us more information on that? There are schools that would love to see a reduction in their energy costs but because of the quality of the buildings they are in it would be very difficult to achieve any significant savings. Is there a percentage they would have to reach before they would like to see financial sanctions put in place? Schools are already struggling. We had the scraping of various summer scheme grants, although I acknowledge that they are now back in place, which schools would have used in the main to upgrade heating systems or replace windows and carry out basic remedial works to try to save energy costs in the longer run. There is that balancing act. I would like the representatives to tease out the issue of financial penalties.
I direct my final question to Mr. John Dolan from the Department with regard to the construction of new school buildings and extensions.
Obviously, best practice is being followed, but it should be followed across the board. How is the Department measuring its success? Are there benchmarks? I ask the delegates for more information on how the Department is measuring the success of these new initiatives.
I welcome the delegates. On the book rental scheme, it is clear from the discussion that the term is too broad and should have been narrowed. The Department will have to acknowledge that asking schools if they had a book rental scheme in place as part of a box-ticking exercise did not provide enough detail. Some schools would only have rental schemes for the core books in Irish, English and mathematics, while others would have a scheme covering the full array of books. It would be remiss of the Department not to acknowledge this in dealing with the issue.
I ask the officials from the Department to explain why there was such a variation in the surveys and the actual returns from schools. What has the Department learned from the differentials that have emerged? I ask the INTO to confirm that the Department did not make any effort to engage with it in advance. Does the Department acknowledge that this was a mistake in hindsight? There should have been better learning before this scheme was launched. What should have been a positive news story for schools, regrettably, turned into the opposite because of lack of engagement with stakeholders. I ask the Department to comment on this because it was not referred to in its presentation.
I refer to the role of the boards of management of schools in this issue. Some schools have very good boards of management, while others have very weak boards. I ask the Department and the INTO for their views on this issue. Are boards of management taking responsibility for book rental schemes, ensuring they represent good value for money and are sustainable? Such schemes must be operated in a business-like fashion. Schools cannot buy books every year and cannot be careless about it; they must use funds productively. Sustainability is also an issue. Boards of management have an important role to play and need to step up to the mark. Is this being done? Are they being encouraged and provided with guidance by the Department and the INTO?
On the issue of sustainability, I thank Friends of the Earth for its interest in these matters and its efforts to ensure the issue is kept to the fore. The delegates are correct in their assertion that sustainability does not receive the attention it deserves. I particularly like the slogan, "cuts that don't hurt". It is one we could all use in the next general election and I would like to claim it for my party.
I have raised the issue of devolved grants with the Department at previous meetings of the committee and was told that guidelines were in place to ensure the issue of sustainability was considered in spending money on extensions and so forth. I ask the INTO to comment on this issue because I have heard from several schools that they have not been given much guidance in this regard. "Prerequisites" is probably a better term than "guidance". Are there prerequisites, for example, in the context of the funding of €300,000 to replace three or four prefabs with permanent classrooms? Are there sustainability-related terms and conditions attached to the draw down of such funding? Obviously, value for money is important, but so too is sustainability which also relates to teaching and learning methods. Schools should be wired to meet future needs and so forth. Several school principals have told me that they do not receive guidance on such matters from the Department. I emphasise the difference between guidelines and prerequisites in this regard. Boards of management also have a role to play in this regard. While I accept that they are voluntary, schools deserve strong boards. Talent should be available to schools from the body of parents and this talent should be used to make sure schools have good energy efficiency policies in place. It should not be left up to teachers who must receive support from boards of management. I ask the Department and the INTO to comment on this issue.
I apologise for being late. I also thank the delegates for their presentations. I met representatives of Friends of the Earth recently and felt that it was important that they come before the joint committee. Energy accounts for approximately 30% of costs in schools. Is that right?
Is it a noble aspiration that in time we move to a situation where, as happens in Northern Ireland, all schoolbooks will be free? If that is a noble aspiration and something to which we should be moving, how will we achieve and fund it? I ask the Department and the INTO for their views on this. I ask the question in the light of the fact that we are moving towards a more digitised education sphere. It is a noble aspiration towards which we should be working. This entire conversation is taking place in the wider context of back to school costs and the costs incurred by schools which are transferred to parents.
On energy costs, there are over 4,000 school buildings, many of which are not as populated as they used to be. Leadership is required from players in the education system to find a way to reduce energy costs. We are funding, heating and lighting a lot of schools, some of which should be amalgamated. It is difficult to justify the existence of some schools, but that is a very difficult conversation to have in many parts of rural and urban Ireland. I ask the INTO and the Department for their views on the issue.
Last year the committee completed a report on back to school costs and one of the recommendations included in it was from the parents councils - primary and post-primary - that a financial committee be part of the structure of schools, separate from the board of management. Such a committee would examine in detail the way money was being spent. Parents are involved in fund-raising and often contribute directly to schools, but they do not know where their money goes. If there was proper auditing or scrutiny of on what money was being spent, it might foster better energy awareness of the need to close windows, turn off radiators, lights, sockets and so forth when not needed. Do the Department and the INTO have a view on the recommendation that schools have a financial committee, either as a sub-committee of the board of management or separate from it, to enable proper scrutiny of how funds are spent in schools? If a school genuinely cannot pay its bills, despite being careful with money, the finger could point, reasonably, at the Department. Is it reasonable to suggest having a financial committee might enable schools to find solutions to some of their problems?
I have a couple of questions for the INTO. In his presentation Mr. McMahon states the scheme announced as part of budget 2014 was viewed as one driven not by the needs of pupils, parents and schools but by politics. He makes similar criticisms throughout his presentation. To be honest, I thought the presentation was political, entirely negative and one-sided. He did not, for example, take into account the fact that this committee had produced a report on back to school costs. Deputy Aodhán Ó Ríordáin was rapporteur and committee members spent a lot of time working on the report. We organised numerous hearings which included presentations by the INTO. We also received numerous submissions. One of the recommendations made in the report was that the Department routinely survey schools in the schools census about book rental schemes in order that better data on the prevalence of such schemes could be maintained. We also recommended that it be mandatory for all schools to have a book rental scheme in place to reduce or eliminate the cost of schoolbooks for parents. We also said a five year template for the delivery of an entirely free schoolbook system, based on the UK model, should be produced. It was after our report was published that the Minister and the Department made their decision. I am not saying it was not flawed, but to say it was motivated by politics only is very unfair. This is a cross-party committee made up of Government and Opposition Deputies and Senators and we came up with recommendations.
As Deputy Aodhán Ó Ríordáinhas asked, how do we fund this initiative in the current economic climate, given the State's financial position?
The idea behind the Department's decision was to extend the scheme to all schools and, in particular, to target the schools that currently did not have a scheme. This involved making a budgetary choice and this was the dilemma. Politically, any Minister would love to have money to hand out to everybody, but hard decisions had to be made in regard to the scheme. I agree with Deputy Ó Ríordáin, in terms of the current situation, that the pots of money do not exist to do all the things we should do. How would the witnesses propose that we should proceed?
Mr. Sean McMahon:
I will try to deal with some of the issues raised and Mr. Mullan with deal with others. The Chairman has put her finger on the button in regard to the difficulty. My colleague across the way referred to the "noble aspiration".
My submission is very much reflective of the perspective of principals and teachers who have been in ongoing communication with the INTO. It is born of a frustration that as principals of schools, we all received a circular which simply asked whether we had a book rental scheme in our schools, whether our board of management or parents had done some fund-raising, whether we were proactive and whether our community got involved. The answer in my case and in the case of 80% of schools was "Yes". Then, having ticked that box, we found ourselves excluded from a laudable additional injection of finance into education. Our frustration is born of that.
Our frustration and what might be perceived as negativity is linked to this. The difficulty is that the scheme sought to provide national remediation in an area which should have been investigated and teased out first. I agree the laudable aspiration can be achieved and do not believe the inherent costs of doing so are enormous. Traditionally, the book rental scheme resulted from a situation in which, for a generation, particular pupils in all schools deemed necessitous were supported. Then, as society moved on, we tried to move from that to a concept whereby books would be available for all children. We need to divorce these two themes. We need a book rental scheme available to all schools, with financial support provided for it year on year. This scheme must be separated in its entirety from a scheme that is focused specifically on necessitous pupils.
I acknowledge the difficulties in terms of current fiscal realities. In an ideal world, I would like the Minister to have lots of money to divvy out, but I fully accept that is not the case. However, I suggest the Minister could, over a period, provide a cash injection towards a book rental scheme that would be available to all schools that choose to provide a scheme. Perhaps that could be a small amount, such as €20 per pupil per year. Then, as a principal, I would know that I could focus on English books one year and on maths or Irish books the next year. This would be preferable to the type of scheme proposed.
The remaining schools, as identified by Deputy O'Brien - approximately a quarter - have not decided to travel the particular road of book rental. Therefore, what we are doing is reinforcing the parents, the communities and the schools that are not part of the 80% that espoused the concept of book rental and put huge time and energy into it. This brings us to the issue of boards of management. These boards are voluntary and the book rental schemes are administered at no cost to the State. They are administered by parents, principals and boards of management. We need to compliment people on the contribution they are making in this regard. Therefore, I do not see our approach as being negative overall, but as a response to the realities we perceive - that support is inadequate, poorly focused and based on an extremely flawed perspective in regard to where the money needs to go.
I will pass over to Mr. Mullan now to deal with the questions asked regarding e-books and overall back-to-school costs.
Mr. Peter Mullan:
The INTO supports the view that all schools should be able to offer a book rental scheme to pupils. I do not believe we can force parents to avail of the scheme, but all schools should be able to offer it. I suggest the Department could engage in a five-year plan of capital funding for school books, while at the same time maintaining support for necessitous pupils. My guess is that with reasonable expenditure over five years of approximately €10 million per year, we would have book rental schemes in place. Then the amount of support that would need to be provided for necessitous pupils could be decreased. I suggest that if we could keep a twin-track approach going for approximately five years, this could be achieved. This would lead to a situation similar to that of other countries, which is what we would like to achieve. The disappointment with regard to the proposed scheme is that it will not lead us to that position.
The jury is very much out on the issue of e-books. We must remember that we deal with young children from four to 12 years of age. E-books are being introduced in second level schools and we are monitoring what is happening. We have seen significant cost increases in schools which have moved to e-books. I spoke with a parent this morning who told me the bill for her child who was going into second level was €850. This was for the iPad and the licence. Admittedly, this is for three years, but it is a significant up-front cost. We need to look at this issue very carefully and learn from other sectors.
In regard to book rental, there is a cost implication, but I believe we could capitalise the scheme over five years and that this would be a positive development for schools. Deputy Daly raised the issue of boards of management. These boards do their work well and do so on a voluntary basis, but much of the work falls on the school principal. Seventy-five percent of our principals are full-time teachers, but they are asked to take on overall responsibility for book rental and many other schemes. We have reached a stage at which we must say "Stop" in terms of pushing an additional workload on school principals. While they get help from many parents, who do significant voluntary work, the overall responsibility falls on the principal. We need to look at providing more time for principals or at reintroducing posts of responsibility in schools that have been badly hit by this.
Mr. Matt Ryan:
I will make a general comment first and then try to deal with some of the specific questions raised. The Minister published a discussion document a number of years ago on the cost of schoolbooks and whether book rental or other schemes should be implemented to meet the costs. Wide-ranging consultation was held with various partners in education, national parent councils, both primary and post-primary, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul and Barnardos. Following the consultation, the Minister published a report and sought feedback from the various educational partners. Following all that effort, he decided not to change the current book grant schemes. People were saying he should make book rental schemes compulsory, but he does not have the legal power to do so. Therefore, the only penalty he could impose would be to withdraw grants from schools that did not operate book rental schemes. This would bring its own issues, so he decided not to go down that route.
The Minister and Department have published guidelines for book rental schemes. These guidelines, which were a result of consultation, give examples of good practice on how to establish and fund these schemes on an ongoing basis through the contributions of parents and the use of the grants that schools get from the Department. This documentation is available. Special guidelines were published also in regard to parents and how they might assist boards of management and principals in establishing book rental schemes. I make these general comments to provide some of the background on this issue.
I will now deal with some of the more specific questions. The scheme announced in the budget last October was targeted specifically at primary schools that did not operate book rental schemes.
At the time the scheme was announced we could have taken the route of writing to all 3,200 primary schools, explaining the scheme and asking them whether they wished to participate. However, we realised that we already had some information coming into the Department by means of the October returns. Each school was asked to indicate whether it has a book rental scheme. I accept some of the criticism that has been made at the committee today to the effect that this was a rather naive question or did not go deep enough. It was the question asked and that was the information we had. As I noted in my submission, those returns showed that 84% of primary schools are currently operating a book rental scheme in some form or other.
We took that essential information, wrote to the schools involved and invited them to participate. There is a gap between the numbers that do not have book rental schemes and the number that have applied. We contacted the schools that did not apply. In the main they were special schools. Most of the 100-odd schools that did not apply for the seed grant were specialist schools. Essentially, they said they do not operate books in the normal sense of the word and, therefore, they took the view that the scheme was not for them. With the 400 schools now getting grant assistance it should mean that the vast majority of primary schools in future will have book rental schemes in place.
The issue of the e-books was raised by Senator Power. I am afraid I do not have specific knowledge in that area. It is a matter for our information and communications technology policy unit. However, I understand the issue around VAT. I understand that is of course a matter for the Minister for Finance in terms of ministerial responsibility. I believe the Minister has made soundings but thus far has not been successful in having the issue addressed.
Deputy O'Brien asked about the decision to provide book grants to schools. That was a budgetary decision. Once we had all the applications in, we found that we could give the grants, amounting to €150 for DEIS programme schools per child and €100 for non-DEIS programme schools, and that it would cost €6.7 million. The Minister agreed to listen to the complaints and legitimate concerns raised by public representatives and schools about how the grant scheme was operating. The balance of the funding in the amount of €8.3 million, which has been set aside over three years, will now be directed towards those schools that currently operate book rental schemes. The submission I sent to the committee details how that funding will be issued in 2015 and 2016. All schools will get some of that funding. In fact, the majority of the funding will go to schools that currently operate book rental schemes. Funding of €5 million has already issued this year to the schools that do not operate book rental schemes. That funding issued in April and the balance will issue next year, approximately €1.3 million. The funding has already gone out.
Deputy O'Brien raised a query about the code of practice. We do not have specific information in terms of schools that might have received discounts for buying or purchase. I am unable to say how many schools availed of the offer from the book publishers. I am afraid we simply do not have the information.
Deputy Daly raised the issue about the definition of the book rental scheme. We do not have a definition whereby we can say that a given scheme is a book rental scheme while another is not. As the president of the INTO outlined in his submission, it can vary from a number of books on a particular subject to the full range of textbooks. For example, infant classes, generally speaking, do not have textbooks or at least not many. Therefore, it is difficult to have a definition that we can use across the board. I will explain the position for post-primary schools. Next year, when we ask the question in the October returns, we will ask the schools whether they have a book rental scheme. If they reply in the affirmative we will ask them to clarify whether it applies at junior cycle only, senior cycle only or both cycles. We are attempting to refine the information we get back from schools in terms of the type of book rental schemes they operate.
I have already explained the differential in the returns between the 100 or so schools that have not taken it up. I acknowledge on the Department's behalf that there was a lack of engagement with some of the education partners around how this scheme would operate. In hindsight, we probably would do it differently. We would certainly acknowledge that.
Reference was made to the issue of boards taking responsibility for book rental schemes. The guidelines that I referred to earlier, published last year, put the onus on the board of management, as the school authority, to take ultimate responsibility. However I acknowledge that de factoit is the principal teacher and the staff of the schools who operate the schemes.
Reference was made to having a general scheme whereby all books are free. Probably in an ideal world one would be moving towards that, but it would be difficult at this stage to ascertain the cost of it. We know that the overall book rental business, between first and second level, is worth approximately €60 million per annum. That might give the committee some idea of the cost of having a scheme that operates across first and second level whereby books are free for everyone. Those are the issues. If I have missed anything I can come back in.
Ms Anna Heussaff:
I wish to respond to several points that were raised and the specific question asked by Deputy O'Brien. I am rather disappointed that the Department referred mostly to new schools. New school design is evidently of a high standard, in particular a high energy efficiency standard but, as Senator Power said, most schools are not new schools. Therefore, unless energy reductions are achieved in most schools then serious cost savings will not materialise for decades to come and we do not have decades to spare.
The summer works scheme was mentioned in this regard. It can help with insulation schemes. One scheme specifically for insulation was introduced five years ago but there has been nothing since then. Summer works schemes cover resurfacing schoolyards, toilets, furniture and all sorts of other things as well as energy issues. Therefore, it is not a substitute for an energy policy to deal with the third element, which I did not address, that is, the retrofitting element. Senator Power raised this issue. The fabric in many schools is poor and they can only get to a certain point. However, our experience is - this is the strongest message we have - that there is a good deal of low-hanging fruit with regard to energy saving in schools that has not been picked. Green-Schools estimates that there is approximately €4 million of energy saving in the schools it is working with now. However, having spoken to its representatives I understand that if there was a proper implementation plan for all schools with targets, etc., across the board then there could be between €18 million to €20 million to be saved. We argue in this country over every thousand euro that has to be saved. Therefore, it seems like a lot of money not to be chasing and we should chase it as quickly as possible and in as structured a way as possible. The Department did not deal with how the roll-out of monitoring and reporting by schools will happen next January, especially since there is only a small pilot under way at this time.
The question of sanctions was raised. We wanted to raise the issue because at the moment the policy seems to be that it is nice if a school does it and the Department is glad, but the Department is not actually requiring or even requesting any school to impose them to save this public money. The main element of schools being involved is by voluntary engagement and such that the whole school works with pupils and teachers and so on. The idea is to highlight the rewards the schools themselves would get for that effort, including the financial rewards and other rewards. A major question remains. If certain schools did not engage with the process or simply ticked a box to produce a plan but actually could not show that they had done the work on the low-hanging fruit and the low-technology changes that can bring a good deal of savings, then perhaps the question of financial sanctions could arise.
I realise there is a legal problem with the status of schools and so on. It is not something that we have looked into in detail. However the point is to underline how we believe this is public spending and there are problems if schools are not being sufficiently supported and assisted, as is the case now, to gain it. If that does arise and they are still not doing it then maybe there is a need for sanctions at some point. Perhaps that is something to evaluate after two or three years of a national strategy actually being implemented.
We have not raised the issue of the involvement of third-level colleges. They have a large number of buildings and my colleague will make a brief point on this to give an example of what is possible.
Ms Nicola Winters:
It is interesting that one of the hearings today is on the need for funding and the other relates to cost-saving measures. As we said earlier, this must be emphasised at all levels from Government to institutions to students. My role is with Young Friends of the Earth so I deal with students in universities and other third level institutions. They believe there are good initiatives and policies in place at a governmental level but the issue is how they trickle down and are played out. There must be support for implementation so students will feel responsibility for saving energy and becoming sustainable is shared across the board from the Government to society in general.
In terms of measuring savings, I spoke to a green campus co-ordinator recently. I was told of a campaign over Easter, Campus Unplugged, as a result of which phenomenal savings were made. Those involved were surprised by the level of success. As Ms Heussaff said, it is a matter of addressing the low-hanging fruit and we should take advantage of this.
Ms Deirdre McDonnell:
I am here to talk about energy procurement. We ran an energy electricity competition in late 2013 that was open to all schools in the country. We received expressions of interest from around 1,700 schools. These were put into competition and contracts were provided to be signed. Savings in the region of 10% to 15% could be made on existing energy costs and overall the saving estimate from the competition was €1 million across all schools. This money was retained by schools that signed contracts and could be spent by them elsewhere. To date we have received around 1,300 contracts back and they are being processed by the Office of Government Procurement and the energy suppliers. Another 230 schools have signed up for the natural gas competitions that are being run and other energy contracts where savings can be achieved are open to schools. These projects are ongoing and details are on the Department's website. We are also working closely with school management bodies to involve them in promoting these competitions and encouraging schools to sign up.
The issue raised at the Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform is not within our area of responsibility. There are detailed guidelines for school boards of management, particularly at primary level where they are appointed for four years. Different rules and regulations apply to Education and Training Board, ETB, schools so we can examine the idea put forward at the Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform but we would have to see how it would fit within existing structures.
Mr. John Dolan:
I will address Senator Power's question on grants for existing schools. The insulation scheme was carried out in 2009 and it was 100% grant-aided. It was decided in advance that it was to be a one-off scheme and €15 million was spent on it. The scheme has not been repeated because we cannot re-insulate cavity walls and attics that have already been insulated. The water conservation scheme took place in 2010 and cost €7.4 million. It was 100% grant-aided and all schools could apply. This year's summer works scheme focuses on mechanical, electrical and roof-related matters so the goal of energy saving is a significant element though not the sole motivation. Some €60.3 million will be spent on this.
We are working with the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland, SEAI, on contracts to attract private finance to improve energy performance in schools. Our energy and education website gives clear guidance on low-cost and no-cost opportunities for schools to maximise potential and reap the low hanging fruit. Any energy savings made in this scheme are kept by schools.
On Deputy O'Brien's question relating to the imposition of penalties, our goal is to encourage energy saving by allowing schools to retain any financial savings made. We do not favour the imposition of penalties. On measuring the success of our schemes, we pilot all new technology and designs that are used in schools because we aim to ensure that something works before it is rolled out across the country. In some ways we view schemes that do not work as more successful than those that do because they allow us to ensure faulty technology is not rolled out nationally, becoming a headache for school principals and caretakers.
We aim for a building energy rating of A3 for new schools and this must be proven by the design team. This is achieved through modelling as designs are developed. The end results are tested. For example, air tightness testing is carried out independently to ensure it is satisfactory. The more airtight a school is the less heat will leak during the night and the less heat will be needed in the morning to bring it to the requisite temperature.
On Deputy Daly's question, we have publicised various schemes, including the energy and insulation scheme and the energy and education scheme, which was launched with a press release by the Minister in 2012. Our partners in education tell us that the problem is there are only good news stories on energy and education matters and such stories do not receive coverage.
I will now address guidance, prerequisites and the issue of ensuring that our work is future-proof. We decided that energy saving should be incorporated into school technical guidance documents so that it would not be treated as an add-on that could be removed when budget issues dictated. Some people are unaware of our energy saving policy because it is a core function of the design that we insist upon. The school we tested in 2009 was built to 2004 guidelines in 2006 and got a top band rating of A3 so this is evidence that we try to render our schools future-proof as much as possible. The new building regulations will apply next year and our guidance documents from 2004 indicate we will have little to do to satisfy the next generation of building regulations. We continue to future-proof as much as possible in the education sector with an emphasis on the reduction of maintenance and running costs for schools.
Deputy Ó Ríordáin referred to the amalgamation of schools and this is a choice that is open to schools that may have the benefit of a modernised building with lower operating costs for those involved. Regarding financial committees, on our energy and education website we try to focus on the entire school community. In my submission I read the long list of people at whom the website is targeted. It is a whole-community approach and the tools are provided in our energy and education programme.
The matter of monitoring and reporting on schools and public bodies is the remit of the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland under legislation. The Department is not responsible so I cannot comment further.
The energy and education scheme was piloted in 2009 and was rolled out by the SEAI in 2012 and it gives schools the potential to make savings.
However, the fact that it has reached less than 10% of schools is an issue. Clearly, the Minister's press release did not cut it with regard to publicising the scheme. Is the Department considering issuing a circular or engaging with schools on a proactive basis rather than just stating that there is a scheme in existence and that schools have not, for whatever reason, engaged with it? Schools themselves may not even know of the existence of this scheme.
Mr. Ryan indicated that there is no information available in respect of the voluntary code of practice and that, therefore, it is not possible to gauge the success of the school book rental scheme. I do not know if the INTO has any information in respect of this matter and I accept that it may be unfair to put its representatives on the spot in terms of asking them to answer that question. A commitment was given to the effect that schools which bought school books in bulk would receive discounts. However, we do not know if this is happening in practice. How can we measure the success or otherwise of the scheme? How will we know whether we should move from a voluntary to a mandatory code of practice? We do not have basic information in this regard. Will our guests indicate what is going to be done to rectify that?
It was stated that it is not within the power of the Minister for Education and Skills to make the school book rental scheme compulsory. That is a matter of opinion. I am of the view that he does possess that power under section 7 of the Education Act 1998, which clearly outlines the role of the Minister and bestows extensive powers upon him or her. The section does not specifically state that he has the power to introduce a school book rental scheme but it does say that he has the power to implement policy decisions and ensure good quality educational outcomes. If one of those outcomes were to be the introduction of a mandatory school book rental scheme, it could be done by means of the introduction of a statutory instrument as opposed to primary legislation. As already stated, it is a matter of opinion. The Minister possesses the relevant power and perhaps the officials from the Department could investigate the matter further.
One of the roles set out for the Minister under section 7 of the 1998 Act is to plan and co-ordinate support services. Surely the introduction of a school book rental scheme across all schools would coming under the heading of planning and co-ordinating support services for students. I accept that the Attorney General has stated that the matter falls outside the Minister's remit.
I can see the Attorney General's point and I am aware that her office has become much stricter in the context of powers being devolved to Ministers in circumstances where such powers are not bestowed in primary legislation. However, a one-page Bill could resolve this issue and the Minister could easily bring one forward if he so desired. I suspect that the real issue is that he is of the view that it would be unreasonable to introduce a mandatory scheme without providing schools with the necessary funding. Perhaps it is easy to say that he is hiding behind the legislative barrier when the reality is that a mandatory scheme could not be introduced unless funding could be made available to schools.
I inquired earlier about the gap in funding between schools that are setting up schemes under the new initiative and those which already have schemes. I appreciate that €8.3 million is being given to the remainder of the schools but that still equates to €20 per pupil for DEIS schools and €18 per pupil for non-DEIS schools introducing schemes now, as opposed to €150 and €100 per pupil for schools which already have them. There is a huge gap in this regard, which is unfair. In the context of the forthcoming budget the Department should be seeking money to bridge that gap. Priority should be given to finding money for school book schemes. I accept the point that only €6 million was available to begin with and that a policy decision was made to the effect that the best way to use this was to focus on a small number of schools.
We can argue about the equity of this but it must be accepted that the current position whereby one school is receiving €20 per pupil while another is getting €150 is unfair. As the INTO representatives pointed out, the school in receipt of €20 per pupil might not have a big scheme in place and may only have just introduced it. These schools may only have a handful of books as they begin rolling out their schemes and they will not then have the funding necessary to allow them to catch up. That is unfair and perhaps our guests from the Department will seek to procure additional funding in this regard in the forthcoming budget.
In the context of energy, it was recently brought to my attention that schools which erect their own wind turbines cannot sell power to the grid. This issue was raised with me six or nine months ago by the management at a rural school and when I raised it with the Minister, he confirmed that schools cannot sell power they produce to the grid. Has any further consideration been given to this matter? The school to which I refer is in a location where there is a great deal of wind. There are some 4,000 schools throughout the country and many of them would be in locations similar to the school in question. Small schools could, if they so desired, erect small wind farms to meet their energy needs and any excess could be sold to the grid. Surely these are the type of projects to which we should be giving consideration. I do not know if any action has been taken in respect of this matter in the nine months since I was contacted by the school to which I refer.
Mr. Ryan referred to questionnaires being be sent to post-primary schools. I welcome that they will seek information other than that which indicates whether they have book rental schemes. If I understood what Mr. Ryan stated, the questionnaire will seek to establish whether their schemes apply to both the junior and leaving certificate cycles. It will be necessary to dig a little deeper than that in order to establish how many subjects will be covered. For obvious reasons, a larger number of subjects are covered at post-primary level than is the case at primary level. A school might indicate that it has a book rental scheme for the junior cycle but this may only relate to one subject out of a possible eight, nine or ten. In view of the forthcoming changes to the junior cycle, it is important that we obtain exact data.
Will the representatives from the INTO indicate whether the announcement made prior to the teachers' conferences in respect of the additional funding made available to schools which are already in the scheme was welcomed?
Mr. John Dolan:
In the context of Deputy O'Brien's questions, training and mentoring form only one aspect of the energyineducation.ie website. The website is a self-sustainable platform or energy portal. It is populated with a significant number of fact sheets and videos featuring children in order to show how saving energy can be child's play. Last year there were almost 5,500 unique users of the website and they viewed in the region of 26,000 pages of material. The figures to April of this year show a significant increase in the number of users. Training is only one aspect. Many schools or school communities can download information themselves.
Mr. John Dolan:
I can determine whether that is the case for the Deputy but I imagine it would be possible.
Deputy O'Brien's second question related to engagement with the representative bodies. Those bodies are all partners with us in this. We meet their representatives and had significant engagement with them prior to the launch of the scheme. They organise the training for us, provide the venues and encourage their member bodies to attend. They are significant players in this area and in helping us to roll out the scheme.
On Senator Power's questions, the Department has trialled and tested such turbines. Our opinion, which is supported by the SEAI, is that school playgrounds are not the place for such turbines. This is because they involved a significant high-maintenance aspect and they need to be inspected in the aftermath of storms, etc., in order to discover whether there are any health and safety issues in the context of blades separating from masts. There have been instances in other countries where blades have become detached and fallen onto school playgrounds.
We take the view that it is far more reasonable for schools to consider purchasing wind from the grid. We are examining other areas where renewables can be applied to schools, such as photovoltaic panels or electrical generation. These have no moving parts and are user-friendly to some extent. We have several trial projects in hand. With regard to a renewable energy incentive for heat or electricity which would allow schools to benefit from selling back to the grid, such a process should be quite simple so schools could tie into it. This is not an area over which we have control so I cannot speak any further on it.
I have not seen the INTO's submission so I cannot comment on the four points.
I will run through it. The INTO's proposals include that all school boards of management be required to have an energy management plan as part of their financial responsibility and that financial sanctions be available, although I take Mr. Dolan's point on this; that all schools have access to external support and guidance to implement the policy; that Green-Schools is best placed to provide such external support, but that this should be left open for the Department to decide; and that the committee and the Minister promote the issue publicly as an urgent opportunity to achieve cuts which would not hurt. The main proposals relevant to the Department are the requirement for boards of management to have an energy management plan and that external support and guidance be available.
Mr. John Dolan:
I understand that updating the guidance for boards of management has commenced and we have plans to include a section on energy to give school boards of management specifically targeted advice. This advice is available already on our energyineducation.iewebsite. With respect to access to guidance, we feel a significant amount of guidance is available for schools to utilise through energyineducation.ieand that this provides external support. For schools that want additional support, mentoring and training is available from the SEAI.
Ms Anna Heussaff:
It is helpful to hear Mr. Dolan make these points. On the one hand we have the Energy in Education programme which was established by the Department and the SEAI, and on the other is Green-Schools, which is not funded by the Department. Our sense is that the policy and its implementation are falling in a gap between the two programmes. The Energy in Education programme is proceeding, but - this is not a criticism of the SEAI, as it may be short of resources, with three people at most working on its entire public sector programme, of which education is only a small part - it takes a long time to publish any data, and we are still waiting for 2011 data, never mind data from 2012 or 2013. I am anxious about how long it might take it to roll out monitoring and reporting by schools. It is good to have guidance available, but if there is no plan for how many schools will be engaged over a particular period of time, we will be here in three or six years stating that it is a pity we did not get this done faster.
Green-Schools has an infrastructure for engagement and relationship with schools which seems to be considerably more extensive. Proposals have been made to make its programme more structured and medium-term, but these have not happened either. Our concern is that the opportunity for savings is falling between these two stools and is not being realised.
Mr. John Dolan:
The SEAI has met Green-Schools to see whether there are gaps, and we do not believe there are. The Green-Schools flags programme has five flags and only one is for energy. It is a wider programme, whereas our programme specifically targets energy use in schools. Discussions have taken place but we do not believe anything is falling in the gaps between the two programmes.
Mr. Sean McMahon:
The Chairman asked what is the INTO's perspective on the support now being made available to schools already in the scheme, and of course we welcome it. I merely pointed out that this support is €9 for each of two years, which amounts to €18, for schools already involved. Schools not involved will receive considerable funding. The word "amalgamation" has been used on a number of occasions. The documentation pertinent to amalgamation dates from 1976, and even at that point in time there was an agreement between the INTO and the Catholic Primary School Managers' Association, CPSMA. The INTO, as do some of the managerial authorities, continues to call for a new set of protocols and circulars on amalgamation, and as recently as last week we had a meeting with the Minister. I agree there are certainly avenues to be pursued in this regard.
Mr. Peter Mullan:
I reiterate what Mr. McMahon stated. We welcome any funding provided for schools, but in this instance the additional funding does not mitigate the sense of unfairness felt in schools regarding the structure of the scheme. It will not quell the demand among principal teachers in particular to go back to the drawing board to try to devise a fairer scheme to provide free books. In some cases the actual cost of books amounts to one third to one half of all costs of so-called "book bills". Arts and crafts and PE are required subjects in primary schools but there is no funding for them. ICT has not been funded in schools for several years and, as was pointed out, the cost of one bulb in a classroom can be substantial. There is no equipment grant for an infant classroom. We need to factor all of these into an overall examination of primary schools funded on the basis of less than €1 per pupil per day for every day they are in operation. We should record the great work done by principal teachers to keep schools open on this level of funding.