Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Tuesday, 5 December 2017
Select Committee on Education and Skills
Estimates for Public Services 2017
Vote 26 - Education and Skills (Supplementary)
First, I offer congratulations on behalf of the committee to our former member, Deputy Josepha Madigan, who has now gone on to higher things. If this is a sign of things to come, I imagine Deputy McLoughlin will be getting the call-up soon. We have had three Fine Gael Deputies in this committee and they are all Ministers now. We are watching Deputy McLoughlin for the next vacancy.
The meeting has been convened to consider the Supplementary Estimate for Vote 26 – Education and Skills. We will have the opportunity to go through the Supplementary Estimate line by line. Essentially, it deals with salaries, superannuation, school transport and grants.
I will make two comments around teachers before we move to the Ministers. One of the major needs we have at this point relates to substitute teachers. The Minister should note that the committee has agreed to put this on the agenda for our first meeting after Christmas. All the correspondence we have received indicates there is a crisis at this point. The second point relates to equity in teachers' salaries. That is something those of us in the committee feel strongly about and we have spoken at length about it.
I welcome the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Bruton, and the Minister of State at the Department of Education and Skills, Deputy John Halligan, as well as their officials. I thank them for attending and assisting our consideration of the Supplementary Estimate. I thank them very much for the briefing material that was supplied and circulated to the members of the committee.
I propose that the following arrangements will apply to the debate. I am going to invite the Minister, Deputy Bruton, and the Minister of State, Deputy Halligan, if he so wishes, to make some brief opening remarks. After that, the main spokespersons may make a brief contribution. That is the basis of the formal speaking arrangements. We will then consider the Supplementary Estimate subhead by subhead. Following that, we can have some brief closing remarks. Is that agreed? Agreed.
I remind members that, in accordance with Standing Orders, discussion should be confined to the items constituting the Supplementary Estimate. I ask the Minister to begin his contribution.
I thank the Cathaoirleach. She has outlined the background to the Supplementary Estimate, which provides for €124 million. The main lump relates to superannuation for the increased number of people going out on pension. That provision amounts to €81 million. A provision of €4 million has been made for additional rental accommodation. Bringing forward the Lansdowne Road agreement has involved an extra cost of €35 million, but that has been balanced by some savings in other areas. The Minister of State, Deputy Halligan, will deal with school transport. There have been some savings on the national training fund. These have been applied to avoid a larger Estimate figure.
On the appropriations-in-aid there is the calculation of how much comes in from the single pension scheme contributions. These are the contributions made by people who are recruited after 2013. It is a technical issue but there is a €20 million shortfall. There is a delayed payment in EU funds of €17 million, which would have been expected in 2017 but now will be received in 2018. They will not make any difference to our spending estimate for the activity levels in 2018. That is it in a nutshell. We are happy to go through the Estimates, Vote by Vote.
School transport is the main issue I will be dealing with. Members will be aware that it is a significant operation managed by Bus Éireann on behalf of the Department of Education and Skills. The purpose of the school transport scheme is to transport to and from school children who reside a distance from their nearest school within available resources. Children are eligible for school transport if they are attending their nearest school and meet the distance criteria, which is 3.2 km for primary school children and 4.8 km for post-primary children. The outturn for 2016 was €182 million and the cost of school transport provision in 2017 is €190 million.
The key cost drivers for the increased cost of school transport is the increased demand for the transport of children with special needs. To that end there has been an increase of 4,500 children with special needs availing of school transport services between 2012 and 2017, which is a significant increase. The unit cost for special needs provision is approximately €7,000 and the escort provision is €9,000, as per the 2011 value for money report.
The support for children with special needs available while on transport has increased from €23 million in 2016 to €25 million in 2017. The demand for individual services for children increased from 1,032 taxis in 2016 to 1,115 taxis in 2017. That is a significant cost and it is a complex operation of moving 112,000 children in buses and taxis. Of course, the objective of the scheme is that every eligible child and every child who has special needs will be brought to their nearest school. There are problems with those who travel on concession passes and I will take questions on some of the difficulties later on.
May I apologise in advance to the Chair and to the Minister and Minister of State as I will have to leave very shortly?
There is one stand-out figure in this particular Estimate, that is the more than doubling of the Estimate for the number of retirees from the teaching profession. There are extra retirees in the IT sector as well. The figure originally projected was 823 retirees, but now there are some 1,773 retirees. This is obviously costing a great deal of money but it has implications down the line as well.
Can the Minister give a breakdown of the figures by the number of primary level and second level teachers who will retire this year? Is it possible to give a breakdown by subject of the second level teachers who will retire? How does this rate of retirement affect the shortage of teachers in both primary and second level schools? Is this one of the reasons for it? It looks as if people are running out of the profession and what is the reason for that? It is worrying if retirements at this rate continue. What representations has the Minister made to the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform on the Public Services Stability Agreement 2013-2018 and the impact that has on people's decision to retire?
I understand why it is not always easy to predict the figures for some of the demand-led costs, for example superannuation and retirements although I would share Deputy Byrne's concern at the numbers of teachers who are retiring. Obviously there is an issue about supply.
May I address the savings rather than the extra expenditure? I am concerned about the saving in the national training fund and the explanation that has been given for the savings of €7 million on the apprenticeship programmes where some additional off-the-job provision on existing programmes and the introduction of some new apprenticeships was slower than expected. I wish to express real concern about that. I am sure the departmental officials and the Minister are also concerned because clearly there is a commitment to expanding the type of apprenticeships that are available. There is a dire need for more apprentices in the trades areas because of the need for more houses to be built.
I am sure there are young people who would be willing to take up a trade and become apprentices but are there difficulties in finding sponsors in the trades who will take on the apprentice? Is that the issue? Why is there a saving in this area? I welcome the roll-out of the new apprenticeships that have been coming on stream. There is a strong commitment to this particular area of policy which applied previously and now but I would be concerned about obstacles and delays in this field. That is the main issue I wanted to raise.
I will address Deputy Thomas Byrne's point. The actual number of retirees is not that different from last year. There has not been a big surge. Forecasting in this area is, as Deputy Jan O'Sullivan states, a difficulty. People have discretion to retire between the ages of 55 years and 70 years. There has been a difference in forecasting method as between our forecasts and those accepted. I think the situation is that retirements are a steady feature. I think 1,114 teachers will retire this year and the number of teacher retirements in the previous year was 1,168. We do not have the figure broken out by subject, but I am sure I can give the committee the figure for the number of retirements at primary level which is 670 and 444 at secondary level. The figure has been relatively stable.
The overall numbers graduating from initial teacher training is well in excess of those numbers and is well over 3,000. We have been recruiting in the past couple of years. I think the figure for recruitment of teachers was 2,900 in September 2017 and 2,400 in the previous September. We are filling the vacant positions. It is not the case that we cannot recruit the teachers, but there may be difficulty in the recruitment of teachers with specific subject areas. We are looking at ways in which we can address those difficulties, particularly in the light of the need to address the tightness of supply of teachers with STEM subjects, foreign languages, home economics and Irish.
We are looking at initiatives in each of those areas to address the need to attract more people who study in those areas to teaching. That is an issue that we are examining. Deputy Halligan may want to deal with apprenticeship.
Yes. Deputy Jan O'Sullivan asked about the variation for 2017, the €7 million. The total provision for the training fund in respect of 2017 was €366 million. The savings were due to the expenditure in both 2017 and 2016, some of which was reflected in SOLAS accounts. The €7 million relates to the apprenticeship programme of 2017 where some of the off-the-job provision on existing programmes and the introduction of some new apprenticeships was slower than expected. The €7 million was due to the recovery of the cash surplus of 2016 from the accounts of the education and training boards and that was declared in 2017.
On the apprentices themselves, we have already exceeded the 2017 target for registration of craft apprenticeships, which was way ahead. We are unlikely to reach our target of 800 new registrations across 15 cumulative schemes in new apprenticeships this year. To date, nine of the newer programmes are operational. We are not that far behind. We have initiated new apprenticeships in insurance practice, industrial electrical engineering, polymer processing technology, manufacturing technology, international financial services associate, international financial services specialist, commis chef and accounting technician, and two further programmes of ICT network engineer and software developer have been developed.
In general, from the downturn in apprenticeships during the recession to where we are today, the change is substantial. The IT apprenticeships, in particular, have been substantially taken up. Some are slow. There are many reasons for that, such as that the take up is slow, people may feel the opportunities are not there and the information needs to be relayed more clearly. However, we are confident that we should reach our targets.
If the Deputy wishes, we can send her out a complete detailed analysis of the programme that we have put in place up to 2019 in all of the apprenticeship schemes - where we are, where we plan to be, the take-up on the schemes and where we were when we introduced all the new apprenticeships in the first place.
When we are getting into the particular subheads, there are a few issues in relation to them that we would all like to offer thoughts on.
Now I will move to subhead A03, primary teachers' salaries of €7 million, which is the first one. Is that agreed? Agreed. Is subhead A05, ETB teachers' salaries, the extra allocation of €3 million, agreed? Agreed. SNA salaries, subhead A06, involves an additional allocation of €8 million. Is that agreed? Agreed. Subhead A08, superannuation in respect of teaching and non-teaching staff, is the largest amount that we have to deal with here. It involves an extra allocation of €71 million. Are there any questions, queries or comments? Are we all in agreement?
Apologies, I should have come in on subhead A03. In general, I cannot let the opportunity go without raising the issue, as the Chair has referenced, of equal pay for equal work. Our young teachers play a vital role. They are highly skilled, specialised classroom practitioners with significant far-reaching responsibilities for our children on a daily basis. They are being devalued. The Minister spoke earlier about the recruitment in certain subjects. We will continue to shed teachers from urban areas due to extraordinary high rents. Their jobs simply are not allowing them continue teaching in the schools of their choice where they have permanent jobs. They are leaving, which is not good for the students. I would ask the Minister, not for the first time, to commit to the principle of equal pay for equal work and set out a timeframe. I ask him to make that commitment and set out a timeframe. It cannot be done overnight but to give respect to these young teachers, I ask him to set out a timeframe for implementation.
On the superannuation, the underestimation of those seeking to retire is worrying. On a breakdown, does the Minister know if teachers retiring early? As a former teacher, I looked to the more senior members of staff. They play an extraordinarily important role in guiding a young teacher when he or she joins a staff. Are they retiring before their time? If so, has the Minister any idea why they are doing so? Is it a reflection of stress in the workplace? If that is the case, has any research being done on it? Does the Minister know whether any data has been gathered on that?
There are amendments in the Public Service Pay and Pensions Bill 2017, that is coming to the Dáil later, specifically on the issue Deputy Catherine Martin is raising around equality for young teachers and the pay restoration. I do now know whether the Minister for Education and Skills can comment on that. It is the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform who is taking the Bill. It certainly is something that needs to be restored as quickly as possible.
First, on teachers' pay, I was in a position to negotiate on the restoration of teachers' pay and we succeeded in restoring 75% of the gap. We have also reached a point where the scales at higher levels are now identical. Substantial progress has been made before the more recent agreement.
Under the most recent agreement, a settlement of €900 million to be paid over the next three years was negotiated with the trade unions. As the committee will be aware, that did not include provision for new entrants. This was provision to provide increases across the board.
However, a process was established to look at the issue of new entrants' pay. It is, as the Deputy states, a bigger concern for teachers' unions than for many of the other unions. That process has started and there is full engagement by all of the teachers' unions in it. While the provision of the €900 million did not make any particular provision for new entrant pay, there is a process in negotiation. Obviously, the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform is dealing with those negotiations because the new entrant pay issue applies not only to teachers but right across the public service. It is not only a question of one Minister or one sector getting some deal. It has to be negotiated in a way that applies to everyone.
On the issue of retirement, there has been a pattern for many years of teachers retiring before the mandatory age of 65. This is not new. Some 90% retire before their mandatory retirement age. The pension scheme had been a feature. There is a pension scheme where in early retirement there is not an actuarial reduction in the pension one draws and there are attractions in taking early retirement for some teachers.
This is not new. There is no unusual outflow. There were 1,114 last year and 1,168 this year. Last year was higher, with the previous year being in or around 1,000. The previous again was back up to 1,100. It is a pretty steady pattern of around 1,100 over a number of years. That is the pattern. We do have to get better agreement between ourselves and the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform on the forecasting model. There is not a consensus on the forecasting model but work will be done to try to achieve that.
On the issue of SNAs, we have recruited about 1,000 in the each of the last years. We have committed in the recent budget to recruit again around those numbers. The difference this year is that, unlike previous years, we have provided for it in this year's Estimates for 2018. As Deputy O'Sullivan will be aware, in previous years Ministers came to Cabinet in June looking for sanction for a newly assessed need. It was not in the previous year's Estimates. Now it is in the Estimates. The advantage is we will be able to signal the allocation earlier in the year because we will not be waiting for Cabinet approval. It will be better for schools to be able to plan in advance with this new approach.
I thank the Minister, Deputy Bruton, for that. I am moving on to subhead A9 on school transport. I refer to school transport for children with special needs to bring them to the place that best suits them. I am dealing with a situation which I suggest is probably not atypical. A child with an intellectual disability has been assigned to a particular school but has not been given transport. There is a bus bringing a neighbouring child with an intellectual disability to the same school. There are spaces on that bus. However, there was a cut-off date for when children could access this particular transport. The parent has to drive the child to the school every day and, essentially, follow the bus. It does not make sense. I have put in a parliamentary question. It is not in my constituency but it is something I have been following. I will write to the Minister of State, Deputy Halligan, about it. It does not make sense, particularly when there are places on the bus. Someone is being denied a place just because there was a cut-off date.
I would like to acknowledge the work done on occasions when I have had issues in relation to school transport in my constituency of Sligo-Leitrim. However, there are still a couple of outstanding areas. I know of one or two cases where the first child and second child in a family are going to a certain school but then the third child is being prohibited from doing so because of the distances that have been mentioned. That is unfair. The first two children are allowed on the bus yet subsequent family members are not. Can that be reviewed?
A case relating to a school which is the same distance from Tubbercurry as it is from Ballymote is being dealt with. I attended a meeting with my Oireachtas colleagues to consider why the pupils cannot attend either one or the other? The option should be left open to them in relation to school transport. It is a very emotive issue in the constituency, particularly in the area of Bunnanaddan in County Sligo.
I have dealt with the Deputy on a number of occasions when he was rightly representing his constituency. The difficulty we have all experienced, and that I have experienced since coming into this office, is the criteria laid down for the school transport scheme in legislation. Every child with special needs can avail of school transport or a payment. A special payment is made if a bus was not near the area. he difficulty we have is with concessionaries. The scheme initially was never set out for concessionaires. It was set out for eligible children. I will explain this with an example. If we had a bus with 20 seats to take 16 people from a particular place to their nearest school, rather than leave the bus with four empty seats, we would fill that bus with concessionaries. Difficulties then arose. It became complex in the sense that once that bus had those 20 people - 16 eligible and four concessionaries - if an eligible child needed to use that bus we were obliged to make sure that child got transport on the bus. The difficulty that has arisen since the school transport scheme was put in place and since we agreed to carry concessionaries is that there has been a dramatic increase in concessionaries from about 2,500 to well over 20,000 at this stage. Financially, we do not have the wherewithal. Concessionaries and eligible children increase in number every year. The number of children with special needs increases every year.
We are obliged to carry every eligible child and every child that has special needs within the budget and the criteria laid down. We are not obliged to carry concessionary children. I may be wrong, but the three children the Deputy is talking about could be concessionaries. I will look into the Deputy's case. That is the difficulty with the scheme. We are doing 100 million kilometres annually. It is a complex detailed scheme. There are 11,000 children with special needs and 4,500 vehicles in use daily. We run into difficulties.
The second issue is the distance and geographical way to a school. I am not in a position to determine that. It has to be determined by Bus Éireann, which transverses the route. We allow Bus Éireann to do that rather than the Minister or officials from the Department because we are not qualified to do that. It can be complex and difficult and there can be issues in areas. What we try to do is to meet every person, Minister and public representative who has an issue. The officials do their best to meet them. We have not failed to meet a public representative yet. I have travelled to different parts of the country to meet public representatives if they cannot travel to me. I do not like the idea of children not being able to get to school. We do everything in our power. The officials, to be fair to them, try to tweak and twist the scheme as much as possible within the legislation and the criteria laid down. We have difficulties with concessionaries and we will have into the future. They are not eligible for the school transport scheme. However, we can talk to the Deputy about his issue. That is no problem at all.
The school transport system is very good generally, when it is possible to get it. My two kids go on the school bus everyday. The difficulty for many kids is they cannot access it. Is there a review of the scheme on the cards or has there been one recently? A basic lack of common sense seems to surround most of the school transport issues. The school bus I am referring to is not full so there are other kids who could potentially avail of it. There is an issue around the nearest school rule. For example, in Kilkenny city, it is difficult to get a secondary school place.
Therefore, many children, by default, are going outside the city to go to secondary school, and parents are then told they are sending their child outside the catchment area. There are a lot of things like that which should be basic common sense. If there was a review of the scheme, it might highlight some of the issues that could be addressed. Obviously, some of the issues are due to funding, but not all. Some of the issues raised by the Chair and by Deputy McLoughlin are not necessarily funding issues but are more about looking at the issue and applying a bit of logic. While there is the opportunity, I ask the Minister of State whether a review of the scheme can be considered.
We had a value for money review in 2011, which was a very comprehensive review of the scheme. We have not had a total review of the scheme since then, although we had a review of concessionaires. The Deputy may recall I invited representatives from the different parties to have an input into that review and many did so, including Deputy Carol Nolan, who sent in very interesting ideas. I want to make it clear that if a student cannot get to the nearest school and is eligible for school transport, the student is entitled to get to the next closest school. We attempt to review the scheme every year before the beginning of the school year to determine how many extra children are coming onto the scheme, including the number of concessionaires and special needs children, the number of carers of children with special needs, the number of buses and taxis and so on. It would not be possible to review everything when we consider the huge size of scheme.
The Deputy is correct that 99.9% of people will say it is a wonderful scheme and great value for money. The value for money review showed that if one was to drive rather than go on a bus or take a taxi, the average cost would be €1,200 per year, whereas for reasonable money people can avail of this service. We take submissions and ideas from Deputies all the time in order to help deliver the scheme better. We are always trying to deliver a better scheme. My problem is that there are financial restraints and criteria I am obliged to work under, given the terms of the value for money review of 2011, which, by the way, was passed by the Dáil. It is a good scheme. We carried out a review of the concessionaires. While we do not have it in mind to do another review at present, I would advise Deputies that, if they have ideas, suggestions or submissions, the Department would be delighted to hear from them.
First, I want to acknowledge how willing the Minister of State always is to listen to and engage with Members when they raise individual constituency issues, and that has definitely been my experience. I thank him for that.
I have spoken to the Minister of State on an individual constituency issue so I will not deal with the ins and outs of it, although I may have to follow up with him after this meeting, if that is okay. There is some confusion over the application process and this has caused immense stress for some of the parents involved. As I said, I will raise that with the Minister of State after the meeting.
The second issue is in regard to schools that have temporary rather than permanent homes. There is a school in my constituency which has had a site identified in Ballinteer but there have been planning issues in regard to getting a permanent home, so the school has been temporarily housed in Churchtown. The students have been in Ballinteer and it has been a Ballinteer school for six years, but it is now in Churchtown. Some of the parents do not have cars. I am sure this is not the only place in Ireland where this has happened. Are there any plans to give some leniency in regard to providing school transport for students in this case?
There is a planning issue in Ballinteer. The school has been moved as the site could not hold it any longer, given the number of students. They are being temporarily housed in a school that had been closed down.
What we tend to do is look at issues like that on a case-by-case basis. If flexibility is possible, we will certainly consider that. If we meet with the Deputy on that issue, we can see if it is possible to work something out? Is that okay?
I am looking for approval for subhead A9, which deals with the addition of €8 million to transport. Is that agreed? Agreed. Subhead A11 deals with grants to primary and post-primary education bodies. Are there any questions on that? If not, I will ask for agreement in regard to the additional €2 million. Agreed. Subhead C4 deals with general grants to universities, institutes of technology and other institutions of higher education. If there are no queries on that, I will look for agreement in regard to the additional €3 million. Agreed. Subhead C10 deals with superannuation payable to former staff of universities and institutes of technology and is in the region of €10 million. Is that agreed? Agreed. Subhead D3 deals with primary and post-primary schools infrastructure.
On that, while this relates primarily to prefabs, there are some situations where a school is renting something other than a prefab. In particular, I am aware of a school which is currently renting a certain amount of space from another school, and both schools are fairly disadvantaged, so neither has an awful lot of money. The school that is the renter has had to put up the cost of this but it cannot pay for basic costs. Can a school in that situation look for extra funding where it is being charged extra rent? While I am thinking of a particular case, I am sure there must be other cases where schools are renting premises other than prefabs.
On a somewhat related point in regard to the minor works grant allocation, which I was delighted to see the Minister of State announce today, I notice that in 2015 it was announced on 5 November, last year it was announced on 17 November, this year it has been announced in December and it is indicated to be announced next in January 2019. This is very frustrating for schools and many schools have contacted me. One, a developing school, is delighted to have a brand new premises but it is spending 70% of its capitation on heating the school because, as a developing school, it gets the same funding as a small school in rural Ireland. The principal found the school was tapping into the money for books for next year to pay for salaries for cleaning and for heating. Are there any plans to announce the allocation sooner? I am a bit alarmed to see January 2019 has been indicated for the next announcement, which means the principal must face into next September still not knowing the allocation, which is quite difficult for a small developing school.
To follow on from Deputy Martin's point on the minor works scheme, I was at an event on Friday, the opening of a Gaelscoil in Sligo, which was attended by a number of the principals of the national schools which fed into that. They were very concerned about the announcement of the minor works scheme. Now that it has been announced, can we have an indication of the figures for these schools?
The heading we are discussing deals with prefabs. Sligo-Leitrim is a rural constituency. If I had my way, I would not have any prefabs at this stage. Many are past their sell-by date and it is time to look at a more structured system in order to provide buildings that are fit for purpose. I have visited many schools to meet teachers, parents and boards of management, so I know they are very concerned. I would like to know what are our plans in regard to prefabs in these schools. It might be best to eliminate them and have a better structure which would contribute to health and safety.
Before I go back to the Minister of State, I want to comment on the whole issue of prefabs. On Deputy Jan O'Sullivan's point, there should definitely be a better system.
A building which is already there could be utilised and supported financially rather than maintaining existing prefabs which have gone way beyond their sell-by date. There is also possibility of new prefabs. I thought we had gone past that stage. It is a waste of money.
On the question of grants I welcome the provision regarding the minor works scheme. From having spoken to a number of principals and boards of management - I am sure everybody has done the same - I understand small grants are being drip fed throughout the year. From a school planning point of view, it would be much easier if at the end of the school year in June or July every school had a sense of what they would have for the next 12 months. That would allow them to plan appropriately. To a certain extent, I include some grants outside of the control of the Department, such as the sports capital grant. First time schools were included in that for the first time. I appreciate there is no control over that. The life of a principal is difficult and, but trying to plan for all eventualities without knowing whether they will get the required money is very difficult.
The Chairman raised a number of issues. As I understand it, rent paid to another school is met from the normal capitation with which schools are provided. There is no arrangement whereby schools submit applications for extra funding based on rising rents. There is a capitation scheme.
The minor works grant was, I understand, introduced a number of years ago to avoid individual applications for smaller works, such as replacing windows and so on. The system was unwieldy and required individual applications. It was not intended to meet heating needs. It is for minor capital works and comes from the capital budget.
In response to Deputy McLoughlin, the figure is €5,500 per school, plus €18.50 per pupil. It is weighted more towards smaller schools. Every school receives a certain amount. That has been the traditional position. The reality is that we are running really hard with our capital budget just to keep up with the population bulge. Each year we are now providing about 15,000 new school places and 5,000 replacement places. That has reflected a population bulge going through primary and now secondary schools. We have had to prioritise that. The minor works grants and other schemes have tended to involve residual amounts of money.
A case can be made for establishing the minor works grant on a more permanent basis. In terms of the medium-term capital plans, I would strongly argue for that so there is more certainty for schools about what is coming their way. At this stage it is competing for scarce capital money with new builds. In anticipation of the level of new build next year, we do not see that the 2018 budget will be able to provide €29 million next year and still meet commitment to building projects which are underway. We are trying to manage the available resources.
The point about prefabs is well made, but the reality is that if we approve a new school for opening under a constrained capital budget we will not build a 16 class school if only one stream is coming in. There tends to be prefabs for a number of years and the build is then stitched through thereafter. That is why an extra amount has been allocated. A number of schools have projects in the pipeline and more money is being provided for one reason or another.
I can see the point the Chairman is making on the economics of prefabs. In a capital constrained environment, we have to decide whether we build prefabs at a cost of €11,000 for an 80 sq m construction or build a permanent structure at a cost of €100,000. We can meet the short-term need more quickly and at about one-ninth of the cost of a permanent structure. Places are being provided more quickly. If we need to make sure every child has a place to go to, prefabs are a part of the rational provision of space. In the longer-term, we would like prefabs to be done away with and. I understand a scheme will start in 2019 to systematically replace prefabs. That is built into the capital budget to 2021. There will always be an element of meeting short-term needs with prefabs. They are relatively cheap to provide, but only have a certain life span. We are trying to balance needs.
I thank the Minister. We propose that D03 be agreed. Is that agreed? Agreed.
I want to note the offsetting savings because they are all under different subheadings. I note and will invite comment on them separately. We do not have to vote on them. I note A04 relates to savings in respect of post-primary teachers' salaries. A07 refers to savings in respect of non-teaching staff salaries. B05 refers to a saving in respect of SOLAS further education grants. C11 refers to student supports. I now invite any questions or queries on those.
I want to ask about savings under the student support scheme side. It may not be an issue in every area, but I am constantly asked about the 45 km distance and the difference it makes in terms of receiving a full or half grant. Are some of the savings based on that? We have come across many situations where people who live in the same town are classed differently because one lives 60 km away while another lives 44.5 km away. The rules seem to be extremely rigid. I have raised this issue with the Minister. It something which needs to be reviewed. SUSI more generally need to be reviewed. It is far too rigid in terms of the online application process. It does not suit everybody because not everyone has access to the Internet, in particular in rural areas. Can some of the savings be funnelled into addressing some of the issue with SUSI?
I refer to B05, SOLAS further education. I wish to tease out the issue a little more. The Minister of State, Deputy Halligan, responded to me. I am particularly concerned about crafts and trades. The Minister told me he will send me on the information on new apprenticeships. I know there has been some increase, but there is obviously a real need for more apprentices. I presume one of the issues is that there are not enough builders or employers to take on apprentices. Is the Minister considering the possibility of finding other approaches rather than having to have a sponsoring employer? Is bogus self-employment one of the problems? Many people who were employed by a company are now being described as self-employed even though they are actually working with one builder. We need to tease out the issue a little more. Can something be done? I refer in particular to the need for more housing. Many tradesmen have emigrated. We need many more to come on stream. It is a concern shared across the spectrum.
I refer to apprenticeships. Deputy O'Sullivan is right. I have been involved in the building industry. Unfortunately, there is a lack of tradesmen.
This includes chefs and others across the board. I was recently speaking to a hotelier and was told that it is difficult in restaurants, hotels and various other places to get qualified chefs and that is another issue related to apprenticeships. Deputy O'Sullivan is quite right. I have spoken to builders who are preparing to start schemes of social and private houses and do not have the personnel to start or complete some of the necessary work. It is vitally important that there is more emphasis on apprenticeships going forward and that we provide whatever incentives we can to people to take up apprenticeships and ensure that employers are anxious to take on apprentices.
I will make a few comments myself. On subhead AO7, I assume non-teaching staff salaries means ancillary staff such as caretakers and secretaries who are in many ways the infrastructure of the school. It is important that we have good people who are well-supported and well-resourced. I note this relates to delays in filling vacancies. In general, we have to recognise those who are in non-teaching roles and do what we can to support them because many of them are not paid adequately.
On the SOLAS grants, I thought we would have been in a situation where the Minister needed more money rather than giving money back to this. There should be more flexibility to be creative if there is extra money. For example, this committee spoke to the young people who represented Ireland at the WorldSkills Competition in Abu Dhabi. They were fantastic and won seven medals between them. A suggestion I made at that stage was that we should look at promoting these types of apprenticeships and skills, with such things as the BT Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition. That has raised the bar for young people studying science. We need to do the same. I know that SOLAS have a stand at the National Ploughing Championships. That is nearly the biggest space to be able to encourage and showcase what is happening. Could money be spent on different things like that rather than just not spending it? I support the views of my colleague on the question of SUSI grants. Surely if there is money in the pot it should be used in other ways to promote those who maybe did not get it in the first round? If there is extra money, it should go back into that. I appreciate that it would take a lot of time and resources but I think it would be worth doing.
I will address apprenticeships first. In general, we were coming from a poor place with apprenticeships. I will start with construction, which has been mentioned. Those would have been known as the basic apprenticeships. That is not to degrade the job itself but the basic apprenticeships at the time were bricklaying, cabinet-making, carpentry, plastering and so on. In the boom, we found that many employers, in the rush to build hotels, houses and so on, really did not take on the apprentices that would have been taken on in the 1950s, 1960s and so on and did not implement the same measures to address the need for apprenticeships. One would often see bricklayers or carpenters being bussed or flown in from other countries. There is nothing wrong with it and I am not arguing with it. I am delighted that people can come to work in Ireland. It did some damage to apprenticeships.
I am looking at some of the figures I have here on brick and stonelaying, plumbing, stone masonry and so on. There has been an increase. I do not know what the figure was in 2015 or 2014 - I can find it - but we have gone from 4,172 to 5,256 in 2017. Much of that relates to collaboration with employers, companies and so on, and exploring the necessity of having apprenticeships and pushing forward. Deputy McLoughlin mentioned commis chef positions. There are indications that we will need 8,000 chefs if the economy keeps growing as it is expected to grow over the next number of years. There are complications in chef training. We all know about them. I have met some young commis chefs who do not like the job and find the long hours prohibitive along with the money not being great. It is not everybody's forte to cook so that is a difficulty that we have and there is no question about it. We are looking into that.
The Deputy mentioned skills. We have a new skills package that will respond to the national skills shortages. The priority needs will be identified by the employer. We have what we call the national skills fora, which operate around the country and engage, consult and collaborate with employers about the skills that are necessary in particular areas. That has been quite successful. I mentioned earlier that we would have had very few apprenticeships in the financial sector. We moved from zero to 27 to 207 this year. That would have included toolmaking, polymer processing, technology, pipefitting, metal fabrication, manufacturing engineering and so on. In the financial sector, there are accountancy technicians, insurance practitioners and so on and we have found it to be quite successful because of the introduction of new apprenticeships. There is a slow uptake of the new type of apprenticeships but we think that the signs for them are good, looking at what has been achieved over the last years. We hope that Springboard will be part of that. We all know how Springboard operates and we hope for Springboard to have an additional 1,000 places in it in 2018. The signs for apprenticeships are good and I have just received the overall total. Overall, we had 10,185 apprenticeships in 2016. We are now up to 12,406 in 2017. It is not a huge increase but it is significant. I have before me data on all the different apprenticeships in electrical work, engineering, printing paper, motor trades, hospitality and so on. Perhaps the Deputies might look at the information. I think it would be interesting. Overall, apprenticeships are dramatically on the increase, coming from the very bad place we were at. Could one say that is a dramatic increase? It was 2,500 from 2016 to 2017. It is not bad.
The percentages are pretty good. As I say, we operate and open out new apprenticeships all the time for all areas of life in Ireland and the take-up is quite substantial but one has to remember that many new apprenticeships will take some time. The financial sector-----
We will get that information to the committee and members can look at it themselves. I see here, for example, that there are 276 apprenticeships in refrigeration. It is fantastic. I am not too sure where that would have been five or six years ago but it is an increase from 2016. We went from zero to 12 apprenticeships for international financial service specialists. We hope that the number of high-tech and IT apprenticeships will dramatically increase over the next years. We will give out all the relevant information to the committee as soon as we can.
To explain, the student support framework is decided at the beginning of the year and then we do an estimate of what it will cost. I am not at liberty to take money that is saved on that scheme and, halfway through the year, decide that I will run a new scheme. One has to go by a budget. There has been a small drop-off in the number of students getting grants. They are down by about 1,700 compared to last year so there has been a bit of a reduction.
Roughly 22,000 students are on the non-adjacent rate, while 19,000 are on the ordinary rate. There is the special rate in respect of which the split is roughly 50:50 between the adjacent and non-adjacent rates. The difficulty is where one has a criterion and the distance is 45 km, if one changes the figure, it will significantly change the cost. One has to do it as part of a scheme and announce it at the beginning of the year in order that everybody will know where he or she stands. I cannot change the distance arbitrarily when the scheme is showing some savings because in other areas of the Estimate we do not have a saving.
In October we make our best stab at what the take-up will be of different schemes and fund them on that basis. As such, it cannot be 100% accurate, but it does reflect a recovery in income levels that there has been a little drop off in qualification levels. Roughly half of all students qualify for some student contribution. This year the limit is €79,000. A big part of our investment at third level is in the provision of direct support for students. I do not have the option of making a change mid-year.
That concludes our consideration of the Supplementary Estimate for Vote 26. I thank the Minister, the Minister of State and their officials for attending. I also thank members for their contributions.