Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Tuesday, 8 December 2015
Committee on Education and Social Protection: Select Sub-Committee on Education and Skills
Estimates for Public Services 2015
Vote 26 - Education and Skills (Supplementary)
I ask everybody to put their phones on safe or flight mode or switch them off. The general note on privilege applies. Absolute privilege applies in respect of evidence but if anyone is directed to cease giving evidence on a particular matter, only a qualified privilege applies. Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not criticise or make charges against any person outside the Houses or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable. I welcome the Minister for Education and Skills and officials for her Department. We are meeting to consider the Supplementary Estimate, Vote 26 - Education and Skills, for the amount of €175 million. For those allocations under discussion, the committee has an opportunity to review the additional allocations being sought on an item by item basis, focus on why they are being sought, and review the targets set for the relevant items, the resources available for them, and the outputs and impact of the activities concerned. I invite the Minister to make brief opening remarks.
I thank the select committee for the opportunity to discuss my Department’s requirement for a Supplementary Estimate of €175 million for 2015. My Department provided background briefing material to the committee and, therefore, I propose to keep this opening statement brief.
The Supplementary Estimate sought will increase my Department’s overall net voted allocation from €8.012 billion to €8.187 billion. The additional €175 million sought comprises €125 million for current expenditure and €50 million for capital expenditure. A sum of €40 million in current funding is required to cover the cost of a projected 600 additional retirements across the education sector in 2015. While 1,540 retirements were originally provided for, the number being forecast is in excess of 2,150 retirements. The additional funding is required to meet both the lump sum element and the ongoing pension cost element of the additional retirees. My Department has little control over this component of expenditure. Estimating the number of retirements in recent years has been difficult, due in part to the extension of the grace periods with regard to the calculation of retirement salaries - subheads A8 and C10 refer. A further €78 million in current funding is required to cover additional costs associated with third level student supports in 2015, €61 million of which is needed to alleviate financial pressures being experienced by higher education institutions, HEIs, by bringing forward to December 2015 payments in respect of the student contribution that were originally due to be paid to the HEIs in January 2016. An additional €17 million is required, in large part to meet upward demographic pressures not originally provided for - subhead C11 refers.
The €50 million required in capital expenditure is needed to progress projects under the 2014 summer works scheme that were not progressed or finalised in that year. Applications were submitted by schools in November 2013 for inclusion in the 2014 scheme. A total of 787 schools were initially approved to undertake school improvements across five categories of projects - gas, electrical, mechanical, the upgrade of toilet facilities and roof improvements. Schools whose applications were not reached in 2014 were advised that their applications would be reviewed in the event that funding became available.
In April last, a further 559 schools were approved to undertake works across the remaining four project categories - upgrading and replacement of windows, school specialist room refurbishment, school building improvements and external works such as closed circuit television and fencing. The total value of these projects was €108 million and €50 million is needed to complete this work in 2015 - subhead D3 refers.
A further €6 million is required to provide for the increase in demand in the number of students requiring access to special needs assistants, SNAs, in schools, including students in special classes and students enrolling in special schools. Government approval for an additional 610 SNAs was granted in July 2015. This builds on the increases of 365 additional SNA posts provided for in last year’s budget and the 390 additional SNA posts announced in December 2013. The July 2015 decision increased SNA numbers from 11,330 to 11,940, and represents an increase of 11.7% in SNA posts available for allocation to schools since the Government came to office - subhead A6 refers.
A total of €12 million is required to cover an estimated shortfall in appropriations-in-aid receipts, due to an overestimation of the level of these receipts to be brought to account in 2015. These receipts mainly cover superannuation contributions, pension-related deduction receipts and European Social Fund receipts. The receipts are effectively offset against the Department’s gross expenditure figure to produce the figure for net expenditure. The 2015 Revised Estimates allocation provided for receipts of €573 million, but this will reduce to €561 million in the Supplementary Estimate.
All these additional expenditure requirements amount to €186 million. However, my Department has also identified offsetting net savings of €11 million in the Supplementary Estimate. These savings arise on subhead B5, covering grants to SOLAS in respect of further education and training activities. The net saving of €11 million comprises savings of €14 million. Based on expenditure returns received from the education and training boards, ETBs, there is an estimated accumulated surplus of €14 million in the Exchequer funding from SOLAS to the boards in respect of further education grants. SOLAS has agreed with the ETBs to recoup these surpluses by reducing the final tranche of payments to be made to them before the end of the current financial year. The saving of €14 million in the ETBs will be offset by additional expenditure of €3 million, which will be required to cover the cost of the 75% Christmas bonus announced by the Minister for Social Protection in budget 2016. This €3 million will cover the cost of paying the bonus to 18,000 participants on vocational training opportunities scheme, VTOS, courses and other ETB programmes that fall under my Department’s remit.
This summarises my Department’s requirement for a Supplementary Estimate and I am happy to respond to any questions the committee may have.
I thank the Minister and her officials for attending to discuss this Supplementary Estimate. The 610 additional SNA posts, which the €6 million increase will cover, is approximately 5% more than was projected in the original Estimate for 2015, which is a significant overshoot. What has led to the increase of 5% in demand? Is that indicative of increased application numbers or did the number of applications increase by more than 5%?
I presume that figure is not the full year cost but rather the cost from September to December. Next year we will have to have a full year cost. Is it fair to say the extra cost will be €12 million next year?
It is always difficult to estimate exactly what the needs will be. The National Council for Special Education will give an indication early in the year as to what it thinks they will be. As members will understand, as children are enrolled in schools and their needs identified, further applications are made through SENOs. It is difficult to predict in advance, therefore, what moneys will be needed. Members will see from the figures - it also happened in previous years - that last year an additional number of SNAs were announced later in the year. It happens consistently as the year goes on, coming up to September, that one finds that one needs more than anticipated. Everybody here wants to ensure that where a child is in need of SNA support, he or she will receive it. We estimate as well as we can in advance what the needs will be, but the experience in recent years has been that they have turned out to be greater than anticipated. It is hard to answer Deputy Charlie McConalogue's original question because there are more children who are in need of support and we can all understand why.
The information we receive is improving all the time. On a related issue, one of the reasons we were not able to introduce the new model for resource teachers was that we needed to receive more accurate information on children with complex needs. Much of it was coming from the preschool sector and the HSE on what they had identified as being the needs of younger children. We receive a certain amount of information, but we are constantly trying to improve on it in advance in order that it is as accurate as possible in predicting needs. I have some figures which I can circulate to members for the school years from 2011 to 2015-16 for students in mainstream education accessing SNAs, students in special classes and students in special schools. For example, in mainstream primary school classes in the 2011-12 school year the number was 12,150 students; in the 2015-16 school year it is 16,023. There has been a gradual and steady increase in the intervening years. In special classes the number increased from 3,286 to 5,100 students, while for special schools the figure increased from 6,848 to 7,607. I assume the increase is due to a combination of increased awareness, increased demand and, possibly, increased need.
We would be cribbing if the Minister did not provide the extra €6 million. The increase in the number of SNAs is welcome and it is a trend that will continue as teachers are becoming more aware of the special needs of students and identifying them earlier. While the process of identifying additional needs improves, one cannot put a figure on it. I have no issue with the subhead included in the Supplementary Estimate.
The Minister will recall a considerable discussion earlier in the year on the need to move towards an input-output model of reporting along the lines of the New Zealand model that we saw as being the standard. Obviously the increased number of SNAs is an increase in input. How can we look at the numbers in terms of moving towards that input-output approach? In terms of output what will we see as a result of the increase? The Minister might argue that it is an increase to meet a particular need or growing numbers. In terms of expectation of literacy and numeracy what can we expect?
The purpose of an SNA is to provide for the care needs of the child in school so that the child can attend school. We are not necessarily looking at an educational outcome but we would measure issues such as improved attendance and improved school retention. In other words, that the children who need that support actually attend school more regularly, stay in school longer and remain on to complete the leaving certificate and, possibly, further studies. Those are the outcomes we would measure rather than academic attainment.
On that point, the purpose of an SNA might have to do with care but, obviously, it would free up teaching hours. An issue that has arisen is whether the SNA facility was being used in the correct way. The reform being proposed by the national council as to how we look at these matters is that we are not just putting in the numbers of SNAs, but asking if they are needed, if they are being used correctly and allocated correctly around the system. The Minister mentioned the number of SNAs but we have no idea of the number of pupils it relates to or what it means in terms of outcomes in the classroom. The question of literacy and numeracy is related. If an SNA is provided does it mean that more effort can be put into the teaching and learning? What does the number of SNAs mean in terms of the number of pupils who would be affected? Has the Minister any views on that issue?
I would take a slightly different approach from that of the Chair. In terms of SNAs, one cannot measure the outputs in educational terms because they are not teachers and are not there to teach but to assist the individual pupils with their needs, such as helping them go to the bathroom, to get on and off buses and with extra-curricular activities such as swimming. Therefore, it is much harder to measure SNA outcomes.
I would be wary of trying to get an outcome based on literacy and numeracy. That should be based on the class as a whole rather than individual pupils who have access to SNAs.
It is not that they are not interconnected. A special needs assistant in a classroom has a relationship with education. That may not be the SNA’s role, although many would argue differently. The SNA is there to help the child stay in the classroom.
The SNA helps the teacher and the functioning of the classroom. Deputy O’Brien is right that SNAs have transformed classrooms. We should support this. The Minister is right to support this area in a practical way.
The information is provided in the old fashioned way, a certain sum of money equals a certain number of SNAs. It does not tell us anything else. If the Minister and the Department are sympathetic to the idea that we use SNAs to the best of our ability for a system of education, it has to be more than €6 million equals 300 or so extra SNAs.
One way to measure it would be to say if a pupil in a mainstream school did not have access to a special needs assistant would he or she be able to remain in mainstream or have to go into a special school. It is not possible to measure outputs in terms of literacy and numeracy because there are more factors than having a special needs assistance in a classroom.
The SNAs are there for the care needs of the children. That is their purpose. We can measure the number of extra children who can be in a mainstream classroom because they have a special needs assistant. The teacher is the educational professional. The children are given the SNA support in order that they can benefit from the professional teaching and have their care needs attended to, so that they are on an even playing pitch with the other children in terms of educational opportunities. We have very good measurements of literacy and numeracy which show that Ireland has been improving in those areas. They are good for a variety of reasons, one of which is that children have SNA support who otherwise would not be there to benefit from the opportunities to learn and improve literacy and numeracy. We can use this measure for educational outcome in other areas of my budget. In this area it is a question of being in mainstream classes or in special classes in mainstream schools, or in special schools. We should be able to give figures on attendance and retention. This is one of the areas on educational outcomes where the input of the SNA is primarily to facilitate children to be in the classroom to benefit from educational opportunities.
If there is any way the Minister can develop this process and work with us and the committee secretariat would be welcome. Could it be said, if this discrete group of pupils improved their educational outcomes, that the improvement related also to SNAs, resource teachers or technology to help students with special needs?
Money is being spent by the Department. It is not that it is not connected to educational outcomes at all, it must be. I would not go along with the idea that there is no relationship. I understand exactly what an SNA is but it is not separate from the educational outcomes. Perhaps for future reference we could develop the information provided. This is very much what we would have got in the past.
It is very difficult to measure the educational outcomes from having an SNA in a classroom. I speak from my experience of dealing with SNAs. They are there to provide for care needs and, yes, that will allow a student to be in class more often. However, because the student is in class more often does not mean that better educational outcomes for him or her are due to the SNA. They are due to the teacher and the child’s ability. A child with dyspraxia, Asperger’s spectrum disorder and dyslexia who has access to an SNA to look after his or her care needs will not improve his or her educational attainment. The improvement will happen only because the child is in a mainstream setting and accessing education. I do not know that they can be correlated.
No, I am saying if they stay in a mainstream setting they have educational opportunities but those opportunities cannot be measured because every individual student must be assessed on his or her own ability. If somebody is severely dyslexic, whether he or she has access to an SNA does not change the fact that he or she is dyslexic. The education he or she receives is down to the teacher and the relevant programmes - such as those which involve assistive technology or those which are part of the curriculum - that are in place. If there are two students with severe dyslexia, one with access to an SNA and one without, it is not possible to correlate their educational outcomes. That is impossible.
The Minister gave some figures but I did not catch to what they referred. Was it the number of students transferring from mainstream to special schools or from special schools to mainstream?
There are three sets of figures, information relating to which I can give the Deputy afterwards. The number of students in mainstream primary and post-primary accessing SNAs - approximately 12,000 in 2011 and going up to 16,000 - comprises the first set. There is a second set of figures for students in special classes who are accessing SNAs and a third set in respect of those in special schools who are accessing SNAs.
The figures we are being given and the explanations for them are exceptionally fudgy. They do not explain the dynamic of this increase. I welcome it because I know from engaging with schools that there is a real stress factor in respect of matching up the need for SNAs with the provision of SNAs. In many cases there is a sense that there are not enough to meet the need there. The 610 extra SNAs is an increase of 5.4% on the total number. That is welcome but it is a very significant increase in one year. There is no explanation of what is behind that. We are being told that demand is increasing, that more students are coming in and that this leads to an increase. We are expected to accept this as the explanation.
However, something much more substantial is leading to this. There was insufficient resourcing in previous years, where it was suppressed, and the provision for SNAs was tightened up. Now, however, resources are starting to be released. That seems to be the primary explanation behind it because I presume in making projections for the 2015 Estimates and having looked at previous trends, where the number of SNAs was increasing as demand was increasing, an increase in demand would have been built in.
Even with that built-in additional demand based on experience we are still in a position where there is a 5.5% increase in the number of SNAs. There is some dynamic here and we are not being given a clear explanation as to what that is. I do not have a clear answer but I would have thought that it having been delivered and the money allocated for it, we would have a clear explanation as to what was at play. If there is a 5.5% increase in the number of SNAs, has there been a core related increase in the number of resource hours being allocated to schools during this period? If there is a dynamic leading to a 5.5% increase in SNAs why are we not given a similar request for a few hundred extra resource teachers? Certain things can be done in terms of projecting the number of SNAs who will be required. It is difficult to know for those who are starting school what their demand will be. However, there is a band within which the Minister can project that demand will be similar to the previous year plus a bit extra. For those who are moving from junior to high infants, if they had an SNA in junior infants there is every likelihood they will carry it on to senior infants, and likewise through all the classes. For those already in the school system, projecting the SNA demand for next year is a manageable job. That confines it to those who are entering the system for the first time. In that case, that goes nowhere near explaining a 5% increase. When there are 14 classes all together in the primary and secondary system, a 5% increase in SNAs cannot be identified as being simply down to those entering the school system for the first time.
For a number of years the financial support to the schools for this category of work was not being delivered. What is happening now is that a catch-up is starting in terms of extra provision. There was a time when the assistance needed was not being provided in terms of SNAs.
It is a combination of many factors. It is not a case that when a child enters junior infants we suddenly discover he or she needs an SNA. There are children in mainstream schools who, due to the changes in the curriculum in recent years, are only being identified with additional needs when they move from senior infants to first class. It is a progression through the school as a whole. I know many children who have been only recently diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome or dyspraxia at the age of six or seven years. The curriculum is designed to try to find those special educational needs of students. There is a better understanding of children's needs and a better detection system within schools. Teachers are more aware of special educational needs which are identified, not only at entry level but at senior infants and second class level.
No doubt a catch-up is in place but the 5% increase cannot be put down to solely catching up. I think there are other factors such as better understanding and detection.
I will try to answer some of the questions including specific ones from Deputy McConalogue. We did allocate an extra 365 posts in the Estimates process before last year. We allocated funding for extra SNAs but on top of that we had to allocate the additional ones. We are carrying out a focused policy assessment of the SNA scheme which is currently under way. It will involve the identification, analysis and evaluation of relevant data to ensure that the scheme continues to meet its objectives and that resources are being utilised effectively and efficiently in line with the guidelines. A review is ongoing to ensure that the funding is being appropriately spent.
In 2011-12, the number of special classes attached to mainstream schools was 549. There are now more than 1,000. Members will be aware from their constituencies of schools putting special classes on to mainstream schools, especially for autism. It is the right thing to do. Deputy O'Brien and Deputy Conaghan are correct. We are identifying the need and it is right that we are meeting that need.
I wish to inform Deputy McConalogue that we also allocated an extra 600 resource teachers. There is also an identified increasing need for resource teaching hours as well as for SNAs, albeit that the purpose-----
We are better able to identify the resource hour needs. As Deputy O'Brien said, the SNA need is sometimes identified during the school life of the child. I accept that we want to be more accurate in predicting these issues and we are happy to work with the committee in doing that. The review will help us. The percentage of students accessing SNA, relative to the demographic increase, is constantly higher than the actual demographic increase. Clearly, we are finding more need in the growing number of students as a whole. I think that is due to the fact that as a nation we are becoming more aware of the needs of children who have particular learning difficulties or particular physical needs. When we identify those needs we endeavour to find the resources to meet those needs.
It is also quite focused. We have already implemented some of the recommendations of the value for money report because they were specific. Many of the others are ongoing in terms of implementation. This is a specific focused review of the SNA. If it is identified that one suddenly needs to spend more money than anticipated it is important to identify why one was not able to anticipate that need and, second, to ensure it is appropriately spent. We have to be conscious of value for money but we also have to be conscious of need and ensure these young children can benefit from the educational opportunities.
In terms of the extra 610 special needs assistants, is it that they are employed and then the Department has to supply the money?
There is no issue around having to employ those people now. They were employed in addition to what was anticipated and now the money has to be put in place. The expansion was made without the sanction. What is the procedure there?
It would be for the forthcoming year. The Estimates are done in the autumn and the first set of identified needs comes in January. More come in later in the year. One then finds one is going to need more, so the money has to be put in place to employ the people for the following school year.
How many additional special needs assistants are in the system for the school year September 2015 to June 2016? I know there were 610 posts, for which approval was obtained in July. The Department's explanation is that this builds on the increase of 365 additional SNA posts provided for in last year's budget. Does that mean it was the 2015 budget? Was the total number of additional SNAs starting this year 975?
I thank the Minister. Are there other questions? If members are happy, we will move on to superannuation in respect of first and second level schools and institutes of technology. I refer members to pages 4 and 5 of the committee secretariat brief and page 3 of the Department's brief. Are there any questions or comments? We will move on to student support and related services on page 5 of the committee secretariat brief and page 4 of the Department brief.
I have two questions on this. On the additional funding we will provide before the end of the year, we were due to split it 50-50 and yet we are now moving towards providing 80% of the funding in 2015 and 20% in January 2016. What consequences does that have for next year? The higher education institutes are stating that they are having difficulty with cashflow and that there are cashflow pressures within the institutes. I imagine those pressures are not going to just disappear overnight. What impact does it have if we are giving them more money this year which was earmarked for next year? What will be the knock-on consequences for next year?
In respect of the figure of €17 million to meet demographic trends which we did not account for, how did we not account for demographic trends?
No, it does not. Some of the institutes of technology in particular have issues and the Higher Education Authority is in discussion with the sector. Everybody knows that the issue is under consideration by the group led by Peter Cassells, which is due to report shortly. I will publish that report. It is a broader issue in terms of the funding of higher education in general. There are various views about how those pressures should be dealt with. In terms of this matter, it is intended that we would do the same next year as this year, with 80% provided before Christmas and 20% after.
We have to get to a stage at some point where we are not in a position of having to front-load it. Are we saying that the Cassells report is going to address some of the reasons there are cashflow issues within the institutes?
It will certainly be an issue and probably one on which the political parties will take positions. It is going to be a big question for the future funding of the sector. It is not just a cashflow issue but is more generally linked to the fact that the demographics are constantly growing. I will come to that in response to the Deputy's second question. The population is continuing to grow. It will even off at primary level around 2019 or 2020 but will not do so at third level until we are way into the late 2020s or further on. We will have to consider how we fund higher education with the demographic growth that is going to continue for quite some time. That is a broader question than what we are addressing today and is probably one on which we all have views. We will exercise our minds about it.
On the upward demographic pressures that account for some of this figure, the CAO applications for 2015 were up by 1.82% or 1,333 applications as compared to 2014. The number of those sitting the leaving certificate in 2015 went up by 2.25% on 2014. The number of postgraduate and undergraduates enrolled in higher education was up by 2% in 2015-16 compared to 2014-15. The number of grant holders for 2014-15 was 80,555 compared to 78,965 for the previous academic year. That is also a 2% increase. That demographic is showing itself in the need for increased funding for student support.
On bringing the payment forward, has the Department considered whether the pressures might come up again before the next front-loading, say if there was a similar cashflow problem towards the summer if the money is paid earlier? It is just deferring the problem.
The Higher Education Authority is watching their financial position. They are feeling pressure which we want to try to alleviate insofar as we can. They are aware that there is a full year to plan for and they have to do that.
It is partly increased numbers.
It probably is the fact that the financial position in recent years has not allowed the Government to provide more funding for higher education, as it would have wished to do had more finance been available. Obviously, there are pressures at all levels of education. It is a matter of balancing and, for example, not wishing to increase class sizes at primary level possibly means one cannot then increase funding at higher education level. It is a matter of judgment when one is working with reduced budgets, with which my predecessor obviously was working. We have been fortunate in that we have had slight increases in budgets this year and last year because of the improved economy. I will not make a political speech about that but the reality is one must balance the different levels and try to do the best one can with the budget one has.
While the explanation by the Department describes the problem as being purely a cashflow problem or in terms of cashflow pressure, it appears as though it might be more than a cashflow issue. In respect of getting 50% earlier and now getting perhaps 80%, the sector will be getting approximately 120% in this year. Will this need continue in future years or will the changes in the way in which it is being delivered be adequate to meet the needs? It has been written up as being cashflow pressure but one can see it is more than that, in that basically, they have a need for greater funding than they are getting.
I have acknowledged in my reply to Deputy O'Brien that higher education in general undoubtedly is experiencing difficulties in trying to provide for increased numbers of students and in trying to provide a wide range of courses in response to pressures from the workplace. I refer, for example, to instances in which workplaces identify the need for a certain number of information technology specialists or whatever it might be and colleges then are trying to respond to that. They certainly are facing pressures but this is an effort to assist them with what I acknowledge to be the same amount of money, albeit they will get some of it a little earlier. In addition, there is another element to it, in so far as Student Universal Support Ireland, SUSI, now also has become quite efficient. There was a time when not all the grant applications were processed as early as is now the case. People will acknowledge SUSI has become more efficient in the speed at which it processes applications. That may be part of it, although I do not suggest this is the main reason this measure is being taken. However, there was a time when SUSI perhaps did not have a lot of the applications processed before the Christmas period whereas it by and large now does, unless there is some extremely complicating factor.
Obviously, it is not just cashflow and as Deputy Ryan has observed, it cannot simply be a cashflow issue. There must be some reason behind it and there are some pressures on the system. Will the introduction of technological universities address some of the pressures the higher education institutions, HEIs, are experiencing? I am aware there is a proposal to bring through that legislation before the Oireachtas breaks for Christmas.
As the Deputy is aware, the Bill now has been published and I hope to be able to introduce it. Obviously, less than two weeks of Dáil time now remain but I intend to introduce the Bill. Some funding is available to help with the process of the different regions getting to the point of applying for the status of technological university. However, I must acknowledge this again is not the major factor in terms of the pressures on the higher education sector. The major factor really is it is the sector that constantly is in a competitive space with the rest of the world in the first instance. While might not agree with league tables, I am told they are things of which one must take some note. The other point concerns the growing demographics and the growing demand from the workplace for higher levels of educational attainment.
Whereas one previously could get a job with a primary degree, one now might need a higher qualification for the same job. The higher education sector is dealing constantly with all these pressures and obviously, the funding then becomes part of the issue with which it must deal when the Government has not been able to increase the sector's funding in any significant way in recent years.
At the same time, I note the Irish Universities Association appeared before the joint committee. At the time of cutbacks, the universities increased the level of funding they brought in from other sources in different ways, such as by providing courses, through philanthropy or whatever. A couple of issues arise from that. First, as we are coming out of the recession and a recovery is under way, surely now is the time to start spending more at the different levels, including third level? Second, has the Higher Education Authority been consulted to figure out whether part of the sector is more under pressure than other parts? Is the university sector better than the institute of technology sector and, if so, has this been considered or examined?
On another point, which I acknowledge is a discussion for another day, as a country, we were able to go from spending €15 billion per annum on social welfare to €20 billion per annum for X number of years. As it is known there is a defined period during which the demographics will increase at third level and obviously, more people will be at work to pay taxes, can a decision be made to the effect that the type of increase that was made for a little while in respect of social welfare - because obviously there was a crisis with which to deal - could be made in respect of third level education for a defined period?
I would love to have more money to spend in education but obviously, that is a matter for the Government to decide and is a matter for decision of Estimates etc. As for demographics, for example, in respect of school building and capital programmes and in maintaining the pupil-teacher ratio - and improving it slightly this year, as was done at both primary and post-primary levels - in all those decisions the Government has recognised the demographic pressures, particularly in the school capital programme, must be dealt with. This is why the Government was building schools and providing money for building schools despite the recession, as well as ensuring there were additional teachers every year and additional resources for schools, particularly additional teachers, even during the difficult times. However, on a broader scale I am sure everyone at this meeting probably would agree we should be spending more money on education and that it is an area in which there are growing demographics. However, that must be a matter for the Government, whosoever is in government at a particular time.
If I might make an observation as a new first-term Deputy, I believe all the Departments work in silos. All Departments are fighting their own corner and there is no overarching examination of how the Government works. If one examines those countries that have some of the best education systems, such as Finland, they prioritise education. It is a joint decision by the Government, everyone works towards that goal and it pays long-term dividends, whereas I believe we have five-year cycles in Ireland where everyone in government is just looking after his or her own little corner and there is no long-term vision.
Clearly, we have programmes for Government that are agreed. While we are straying away a little now, a programme for Government that is agreed at the outset of a Government's life presumably makes decisions on priorities. Everyone present would agree that education must be a priority.
I believe it is the case that in the institute of technology sector in particular, the institutes statutorily are not allowed to run a deficit and consequently must balance their books by the end of each year. Is it the case that a certain number of institutions are telling the Minister they will be in the red at the end of the year unless there is a bailout in the form of this front-loading of the student contribution fee? If this is a factor, is it only a factor at the level of the institutes of technology and if so, how many institutes of technology might be in that situation? Is this also the position at university level?
The student contribution charge has increased from €2,000 to €3,000 during the past four to five years. Is it the case, and the Minister might be able to explain this, that as that additional amount of student contribution has been paid for grant students by the Government to the college, the amount being paid in other capitation fees and grants to the colleges has been reduced commensurate to that? The additional €250 imposed on students each year has not been an additional €250 each year per student going to the universities.
This is a €1.5 billion additional Estimate, of which the €175 million with which we are dealing with today is part. It came in at the side of the scrum, so to speak, in that it was not flagged. It was a surprise. It certainly was not part of parties' budgetary projections. My understanding is that taking it as a whole, €1.5 billion is now built into the system in that it is recurring expenditure. Therefore, is the net Supplementary Estimate of €175 million for education this year now built into the budget for next year?
This particular pot we are dealing with, the €1 million, has been front-loaded for the higher education institutions into 2015. Does that mean there will be a similar breakdown of that €175 million extra in the budget next year, according to the different sections, or will it be up for grabs again depending on what part of the education system needs it?
I will try to answer all the questions. With regard to institutes of technology, they would be in constant contact with the Higher Education Authority with regard to their cashflow issues. We are not talking about the scenario the Deputy painted. They would constantly work with the Higher Education Authority in terms of ensuring they are able to continue to carry out their functions during the year. However, there is a difference between them and universities in that universities can borrow whereas institutes of technology cannot under the current legislation governing them.
With regard to the student contribution being offset, that is the way it has been consistently, and is not something that has come in either this year or in the past few years, where the student contribution is offset against the funding generally paid to colleges. With regard to the €175 million, it is built into next year's funding so it would be there as part of the base for next year. Of the €175 million, €50 million is capital, but the non-capital element of it is built into the base.
Does the offsetting, to which the Minister referred, mean that the additional increases in the student contribution fee have not increased in any way or have not gone directly to the college but have been offset by reducing capitations elsewhere? Is that correct?
No. I am not saying they are not in the red, I am saying that they are in constant discussion with the Higher Education Authority, which is the body with which they would deal directly, to ensure that they can continue to operate financially.
The Minister said that some of the front-loading is related to the greater efficiency achieved by the Student Universal Support Ireland, SUSI, which is a good sign, as it could be said that is a performance by the Department in the sense that it set up SUSI and it is delivering in terms of greater efficiency. It is part of the issue with regard to the front-loading of the money. Of the €78 million, can the Minister put a figure on the amount that is being front-loaded because of the greater efficiency of SUSI?
I will try to get the Chairman a figure for that. I do not have a specific figure. To be clear, the €61 million goes to the Higher Education Authority and it then deals individually with the institutes of technology and the universities. It is not the case that a specific institute gets a specific amount of money directly from the Department; it goes through the Higher Education Authority and it allocates it.
It is on page 6 of the secretariat briefing and page 5 of the Department's briefing. It is subhead D3, which covers building, equipment and furnishing of primary and post-primary schools. It is on the last page of our secretariat briefing.
I wish to ask about the additional expenditures relating to applications made under the summer works scheme the previous year where the applications were kept on file in the Department. In the interim period a number of the schools, on receiving news that their applications for the scheme in 2014 were not successful, would have carried out the works and funded them by taking out loans or by other means. They would then have got word in 2015 when the additional Estimates funding was made available that their applications were successful, but they already had the works completed. In those cases were those schools awarded the funding even though they may have had the work carried out?
In regard to the minor works grant, and the payment of that grant for this autumn, does any of this allocation relate to that or from where did the payment for minor works come because I understood no provision was specifically made for a minor works grant in the original 2015 Estimates?
In regard to particular projects that were not progressed or finalised under summer works scheme in 2014, would this be part of a typical pattern with regard to such projects over the years? Was this an unusual year in the sense that €50 million worth of projects were not finalised, or would this be something that would typically happen most years and, if so, why would it not have been forecast?
On Deputy McConalogue's question around the projects that did not proceed in the first year, the schools would have been told that the files were being held, in other words, that they were still on file should more money become available. As he knows, certain categories were done and certain other categories were held for the next year. The schools would have been told that if they held out, there was a chance that there would be further funding. There then was further funding. There were a small number of schools that did go ahead and carry out the work
-----but they would have been made aware that funding may become available. Apparently, there are only about two cases. I do not know what specifically what happened with regard to them. We can clarify the position if there are any such cases of which the Deputy is aware and that he wishes to bring to our attention.
The minor works scheme money was found in the overall provision for the Department. Deputy Brendan Ryan's question was on whether this would happen at other times. In some cases work would be delayed or started in one year and finished in the following year. This would have happened before.
Subhead E covers appropriations-in-aid and is the last item to be considered. I apologise, but there was another subhead, subhead B, on page 4 of the briefing document. It covers grants for further education and training activities. Expenditure under this subhead is projected to be €50 million, less than what was provided for.
There was a saving of €14 million. This was around the time SOLAS and the education and training boards were established. It extends over two years rather than just one. It relates to part of the agreement between SOLAS and the education and training boards. The Exchequer funding goes from SOLAS to the education and training boards and it is proposed to recoup the surpluses by deducting the amounts from the final tranche of payments made to the education and training boards before the end of the current financial year. In other words, SOLAS was allocating more funding than the education and training boards were drawing down. That is why there is a surplus. The surplus is €14 million, of which €3 million will be used to pay for the Christmas bonus to those on the relevant education and training courses.
Yes. According to my note, the main areas in which surpluses were identified were participant and training allowances under the vocational training opportunities scheme, VTOS, and Youthreach. The cohort of participants varies from year to year and it is difficult to estimate the cost of allowances, particularly for VTOS participants where they receive a training allowance in lieu of their Department of Social Protection payment. It was difficult to anticipate how many would be in that category and who would need to draw down the money.
Although it is not exactly related, I have been told, as a public representative - I am sure it has been said to others also - that a person may know somebody taking a training course and although the person does not attend, he or she is receiving the allowance. The people involved might declare themselves sick, for example. This has certainly been raised as an issue during the years. Are there checks to ensure there is no abuse of the system? In some cases, a person might receive more than he or she receives in social welfare. Are there checks to ensure the allowances are spent in such a way that we can ensure people are genuinely attending courses?
We are very conscious that people have to attend courses. The purpose in some cases is to reach those who most need to be given opportunities to find employment. This relates to the Youth Guarantee which is used in some cases and so on. We really want to reach the people in question to ensure they are attending and benefiting from courses From the Department's perspective, we put pressure on the education and training boards through SOLAS to track people.
To my knowledge, the ETBs ensure people's attendance is monitored but if I can obtain further information on that, I will provide it to the Deputy.
We move to subhead E, appropriations-in-aid. I understand the Minister must attend Leaders' Questions in the Dáil so if there are no further questions, we will conclude our consideration of the Supplementary Estimate. I thank the Minister and her officials for their attendance today and thank members for their input.