Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Wednesday, 28 March 2018
Select Committee on Education and Skills
Estimates for Public Services 2018
Vote 26 - Education and Skills (Revised)
I welcome the Minister and thank him and his officials for attending. The purpose of this meeting is to examine the Revised Estimates. Although the committee has no role in approving these, there is an important ongoing opportunity to make the process more transparent and engage in a meaningful way on relevant performance matters. The programme-based structure of the Estimates is intended to assist the committee in focusing on what the Department has committed to achieving in terms of outputs and outcomes, considering whether the performance targets included in the Estimate are a sufficiently complete description of the services provided by the Department and whether those targets strike the right balance in terms of the needs of society. We also consider whether the information provided by the Department makes clear how the moneys available are allocated between services and whether those allocations are the most appropriate in the circumstances.
I thank the Department for preparing the briefing notes. As the meeting started, we received some speaking notes from the Minister. I thank him for those. I also thank the committee secretariat, particularly Ms Brenda McCauley, for preparing a document for the committee that will help members debate the matters we need to and offer more detailed analysis. I propose to proceed by programme and subhead. I remind members and officials to ensure their mobile phones are switched off for the duration of the meeting as they interfere with the broadcasting equipment, even when on silent mode.
I thank the Minister for his support so far. I will refer to the briefing document that has been prepared by the Department to guide our consideration of the Revised Estimates. We will commence with programme A, which is dealt with on pages seven to 18 in the Department's briefing and C4 to C7 of the committee secretariat briefing. In posing questions, I ask each member to clearly indicate the subhead he or she refers to within the programme and to limit the questions to one subhead at a time, allowing other members with questions on the subhead to speak before moving to another subhead. Does the Minister wish to make an opening statement?
I thank the committee for taking the Estimates. We are in a period where we are seeking to rebuild in education after a very difficult time, which we all acknowledge. We are in a position to expand the number of teachers we are employing and in the past two years we have seen approximately 5,000 extra teachers deployed. In particular we have looked at areas like special education, and we have a new system in place that is working well. We are looking to the future to further enhance the provision for special education and we are focusing on the restoration of funding to further and higher education. We have significant ambitions in areas like apprenticeship, which traditionally have been poorly developed in Ireland. They fit with the new opportunities that are emerging. We have a fresh plan in the disadvantage area.
This is a time when we are trying to address many areas of importance in order to achieve the goal we set that by 2026 we would have the best education and training service in Europe. It is a realistic ambition. We saw recently that our ten year olds are the best in Europe with regard to reading and mathematics. We have a good quality of education and good teachers. I know there are always matters that members will want to raise but we are in a period of rebuilding. We are also in the fortunate position that we have an expanding young population. It is stabilising at the primary level now but significant growth can be anticipated at second and third level in the coming years. In a young and vibrant economy, education has a vital role to play in shaping economic and social progress in the coming years.
I thank the committee for its work in the field of education. It is crucial to our future and I appreciate the contribution this committee is making.
I refer to programme A, first, second and early years education, on the current side. I do not want to delay the meeting but I do have some questions. I acknowledge that contained within that are the commitments in the confidence and supply agreement in respect of the pupil-teacher ratio and guidance counsellors. It is welcome that the pupil-teacher ratio will drop to 26:1 at primary level next September. The commitments in respect of guidance counselling are being met under the confidence and supply agreement. I acknowledge that. That is important. They are both crucial issues on which the Government is delivering on foot of the confidence and supply agreement with Fianna Fáil.
There are many other issues in education. The first one the Minister is going to hear much about next week is the salaries of newly qualified teachers. That comes under the subhead of salaries and allowances. There may be an obvious answer to this question but I will ask it. Is there scope within the budget this year to cover any possible change to the salaries of newly qualified teachers? In that context, will the Minister comment on what the Taoiseach said yesterday in the Dáil? I think the Minister was sitting beside him. I refer to the possibility of opening up negotiations on the salaries of newly qualified teachers after the conferences. Is that something that is planned and likely to happen? Is it something that is going to be announced next week or perhaps here today?
On capitation and grants payable to schools, primary and post-primary, effectively those payments are static. There is a minuscule increase despite the number of pupils going up quite a lot. Will the Minister acknowledge that it is difficult for schools to cope at the moment because of the static nature of the overall grant? It means parents are forced to fundraise and some schools can fundraise better than others. However, all the time, schools are put to the pin of their collars, so to speak, in regard to operating with the current costs. I will not talk about capital at this point but I will later on. I refer to the current costs of insurance, extra ancillary help etc. Schools are finding it really difficult. Has the Minister any plans to increase capitation and grants?
I want to highlight another issue that is a disgraceful indictment, namely, broadband. While the Department states that 100% of post-primary schools have access to high-speed broadband, the number of primary schools with access to high-speed broadband was listed at 23% in 2016. Last year, there was a target of 33% and this year there is a target of 37% of schools. That is extraordinary. I would like the Minister to comment on that because we get this all the time as constituency Deputies. The schools are finding it increasing difficult to operate without broadband. Some programmes can be delivered online to assist teachers. Teaching methods can also involve online resources. It is also frustrating when people see broadband being put into a local village but not being extended slightly up the road to the local school. What discussions has the Minister had with his colleagues in Government, but also with Eir and other providers as well, such as SIRO, about providing that crucial resource to schools?
Like Deputy Thomas Byrne, I wish to refer to pay restoration. I see the circulated document gives a figure for pay restoration. There is a budgetary allocation that includes provision of €236 million for salary increases to more than 106,000 whole-time equivalent staff numbers under the various pay restoration agreements. Will the Minister clarify if that is the figure he is working with? We all heard what the Taoiseach said yesterday about possibly going into further negotiations. It is a similar question, but on whether that figure is negotiable. I think it can only be negotiated in discussions with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform.
When we were asked if we had any particular issues, I indicated I was interested in special education. I refer in particular to the new model and what the financial implications might be. In the circulated document there is a figure of 100 additional resource teachers to be appointed from September 2018. It says that is to meet the needs of new and rapidly developing schools and funding is also to meet the costs of teaching posts in special classes in special schools. All of that is welcome. However, I just wanted to get a sense of whether and how the new model was affecting the financial resources towards resource teachers? Are the figures growing in largely the same way as they would have under the old model or is there a change? It may be more of a policy issue, but I would be interested in how the new model is working in schools.
Special schools are also under particular pressure because we have so many special classes now. That is a good thing. Many children are able to go to regular schools in special classes. I refer in particular to children on the autism spectrum. However, that means that children in special schools sometimes have greater needs. How are those extra posts allocated? We do have figures on special needs assistants, SNAs. I do not think there is any need to ask a further question except to note that they are continually rising, as they have done over a number of years. Again, that is responding to need. Is there a ongoing review of the SNA system?
On the curricular reforms, particular at junior cycle, is extra funding required for subjects like well-being for example? Is there a specific extra allocation in that area and for the other curricular reform areas? I think they are in the figures but whether they are specifically anywhere in the figures, I am not too sure.
Like the previous speakers said, the elephant in the room is pay equality. I understand there may be some moves towards that and I welcome the Taoiseach's comments yesterday on possible new talks on the issue. It is something that needs to be tackled with the utmost urgency. Are the Taoiseach's comments an indication that the Government is finally willing to commit to the principle of equal pay for equal work? We know it cannot be done overnight. The recent report shows that. However, would the Government be willing to indicate a timeline for the delivery of equal pay for equal work?
I have read today, like other Deputies, that, alarmingly, we do not have enough junior certificate home economics teachers to examine the practical element. It is going to delay it, which will cause stress for the students involved. Will the Minister outline the measures he is taking to address that issue or how will that effect the budget Estimates here? On career guidance counsellors, I do welcome the additional 100 posts. That will bring us to 500 of the 600 posts cut having been restored. However, that is based on the number of career guidance posts needed in 2011. The Minister in his opening statement referred to an expanding young population, so surely we should not be working towards a number for career guidance counsellors that was needed in 2011. It is 2018 now. We should be looking at delivering one guidance counsellor per 500 students at this stage. We are not going to achieve that if our marker is the 2011 number. What is the Minister's intention to deal with that?
On the superannuation subhead, A8, and indeed in C10, in each of the past two years we have had to vote through a considerable Supplementary Estimate at the end of the year in respect of superannuation payments for teachers. I see this subhead is down 5% and 7% for the equivalent at third level this year. Does the Minister anticipate that we will be looking at a similar increased Supplementary Estimate come the end of 2018?
Rather than repeat some of the questions that have been asked, I will say that I welcome the increase in the number of SNAs.
How many additional special needs assistants will be recruited by the end of 2018? When is it envisaged that the 100 additional resource teachers will be recruited? Funding of €2 million has been allocated for the development and implementation of a new model of speech and language therapy. How will this money be spent?
I fully agree with my colleagues on the issue of pay equity. If we want to have the world-class education system to which we all aspire, we must have the best people in our classrooms. We must support teachers by providing for pay equity and restoring middle management positions that were removed in the past because the lack of such positions is causing problems in schools.
The 1% increase provided for capitation grants is small given the growing school population. In two schools in my constituency, capitation grants are not paid for 150 pupils because the schools are considered too large. This approach is wrong because small and large schools face particular challenges. I welcome the funding allocated for the pilot model for in-school speech and language therapy because it is badly needed.
On special educational needs, are there plans for developing a student-teacher ratio for special needs schools? This issue is referred to in the Minister's briefing document. While additional funding has been provided for resource teachers and special needs assistants, children with special needs living in urban areas and in counties close to Dublin cannot secure places in mainstream schools. This is a serious problem at primary and secondary level. If the Department is satisfied that sufficient funding is being provided to pay the salaries of resource teachers and special needs assistants, it must also provide matching capital to enable children with special needs to attend their local mainstream school.
The briefing document provides for funding for additional school bus routes. Will this result in greater flexibility regarding eligibility for attendance at a school of choice? I invite the Minister to respond to the questions members have asked.
Deputy Thomas Byrne acknowledged the progress we have made in areas such as the pupil-teacher ratio, guidance and resource teaching, for which he is a strong advocate. These improvements have been significant and I welcome the Deputy's support for them.
The Deputy also raised the issue of newly qualified teachers. Negotiations with teachers, which took place within three months of my appointment, delivered significant improvements. As a result of these changes, which were rolled out in January 2017 and January 2018, approximately 75% of the pay gap for newly qualified teachers and teachers has been closed. A new entrant to teaching will now earn €36,000, which is a significant improvement. I acknowledge that this is a continuing source of concern for the teacher trade unions and creates tension in the workplace. For that reason, this matter was specifically listed when the most recent public service pay agreement was negotiated. While no specific provision was made in this area, it was listed as an area in which a process should commence and a process commenced last October when the teachers' unions entered into the agreement. As agreed in the Financial Emergency Measures in the Public Interest Act, a report was laid by the Minister for Finance around St. Patrick's Day setting out the costs of addressing new entrant pay across the public service. It is in the context of that report that the Minister indicated he would start discussions with the trade unions, including the teacher unions. The issue is not a sectoral one but extends across the public service. I understand it is intended to commence discussions on the matter shortly. Deputy Catherine Martin indicated that the Government has not set timelines or pathways. As has been signalled, this is the start of negotiations.
Capitation levels are without doubt an area of pressure for schools. While we are providing a significant increase in funding of €450 million this year and we provided a similar amount last year, it still comes down to many competing demands for the money available. In the past two years, we were not able to make provision for an increase in capitation, although we made provision in other areas such as investment in digital resources, the pupil-teacher ratio, guidance and special needs. There has always been competition for resources. I am conscious, however, that capitation needs to be addressed.
While I do not have figures with me on broadband, we started from a poor base in primary schools in 2014-2015. High-speed broadband is now available in 1,100 primary schools, which, as the Deputy noted, is approximately one third of the total. We hope to connect another 400 schools this year, with further schools being added in subsequent years. While HEAnet does the connecting up of schools on behalf of the Department, it still depends on the roll-out of national programmes that can be accessed by schools. I fully agree that an upgrade is required in this area because high-speed broadband of speeds of 30 Mgbs or more needs to be delivered.
Deputy Jan O'Sullivan asked to what the figure of €236 million relates. It covers pay restoration, not only for new entrants but also other elements.
I pay tribute to Deputy Jan O'Sullivan for the work she did when she was Minister for Education and Skills. During her term, she implemented a pilot programme and gained acceptance for the new approach, which I fully support. The new model provides a better, more integrated service for children with special needs and encourages the whole school to take an interest in children with special needs. It is good for children with and without special needs and encourages leadership in schools to be more creative in the use of available resources. This model presents a win-win scenario in that it moves away from the requirement for diagnostic testing which was a source of inequity in the scheme. On the basis of the work that was done, we rolled out the new approach nationwide from this year onwards, while also providing more resources for special educational needs. This year, for example, provision was made for 900 additional resource teachers to ensure we had the capacity to roll out the new model without creating losers and in such a way as to meet the demands of appeals and so on. As the Deputy noted, provision has been made for 100 additional teachers in rapidly developing areas as well as provision for normal demographic expansion. While the scheme will not grow as rapidly as it did under the old model, schools will be geared up to have the resources to meet their needs.
Deputy Jan O'Sullivan also asked what action was required in the area of special needs assistants. The National Council for Special Education is carrying out a review of best practice and I understand it has examined the position in 33 different countries.
It is working to come up with proposals that would offer a better approach to supporting the requirements of children with special needs, for some of whom a special needs assistant is not the only requirement. Deputy McLoughlin raised the development of a pilot speech and language therapy programme. That pilot programme is a first toe in the water of having a speech and language therapy service delivered within schools, whereby speech and language therapists would support schools in order that both special needs assistants and teachers could help deliver a speech and language service to children in the school. There are many gains to be got from that. It is a toe in the water of how that can be done. It is only a pilot programme at this point.
On the issue of special schools, we are making provision for the allocation of additional teachers to special schools. A pupil-teacher ratio operates within schools. It is made up of different ratios depending on where pupils are on the autism spectrum disorder, ASD, ranging from mild to more complex. There is an pupil-teacher ratio underpinning the allocation to special schools in place. It reflects the complexity of the children they are dealing with. If there is a higher level of complexity, they would be seeing a higher level of resources.
On the junior cycle reform and well-being programme, we committed to the allocation of the equivalent of nearly 600 extra teachers to provide professional time to allow the junior cycle to be rolled out, including the well-being programme. It was a significant investment of resources to underpin that. The well-being programme is being rolled out from this year. It starts at a 300-hour programme and it is hoped that will build over time. There has been a warm welcome for the programme. Most teachers and schools recognise the difficulty in this area.
We have made provision for additional recruitment of home economics teachers for St. Angela's College in Sligo for the past two years. There is a recognised deficit there. We are making other provisions to address teacher supply issues generally and we had the first meeting of a teacher supply group this Monday to address that issue.
On the issue of the career guidance service and where it is heading, we are conducting a review of it this year and we will examine how effective it is. The review will also examine how young people get access to career information and if we should be looking at other channels of information for young people. It seems that the way in which young people get access to information is more complex than we thought and perhaps there are other initiatives we should be taking to get good career information into the hands of young people, as well as career guidance counsellors who have other roles to play. There may be other ways we can address that.
On the issue of superannuation, we will have to meet the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform and discussions are taking place with that Department. Our forecasts of expected superannuation are accurate but we need to have an agreed provision with that Department. Discussions are taking place in the context of next year's Estimates to deal with that.
In response to Deputy McLoughlin's point on the number of special needs assistants, this is the first year in which we have moved away from an assessment of requirement for special needs assistants that had to be conducted in the spring-summer part of the year, after which Government approval was sought, which was the old way it was done. This resulted in late notification to schools as to when special needs assistants were being allocated. We changed that this year. Last year's budget made provision for 1,090 special needs assistants, the anticipated provision that will be needed for this coming September. We will be in a position to notify schools earlier as a result of not having to go back and get a separate budgetary provision.
The Chairman raised an important issue about middle management. Significant progress on the issue of middle management was made this year. We made provision for 2,600 additional assistant principal posts mixed between primary and second level. That was on foot of a new approach to the appointment and deployment of middle managers in schools, which will be more flexible. This is the start of building a stronger middle management, which will be important for the challenges we have to address in schools and which are becoming more complex. There will be more flexibility in the way responsibility is given to such middle managers, how they report and record progress and so on. A more professional approach is being taken to middle management, and responding to that we have invested in 2,600 additional posts at assistant principal level.
On the issue of the availability of places for children with special needs and the capital provision for that, our Department is very responsive to needs in this area and it gets special access to capital. As approximately 80 additional special needs classes are being provided each year, the provision is growing very rapidly. It has more than doubled in the past four or five years. The experts are here but, as I understand it, the breakdown of that is that 60% go to mainstream, 20% to special classes, and 20% to special schools. At this time of the year, people are considering what is the appropriate placement, assessments are taking place, there is engagement with special education needs organisers, SENOs, and so on. I can understand parents being anxious at this time of year but, by and large, we are meeting all those needs. There can be a difficulty in placing individual children and that takes time. Of foot of a recommendation of the Chairman's party, we will be introducing a measure whereby the National Council for Special Education, NCSE, will have the power to require a school to open a special needs class in the event that schools are not co-operating. By and large we are seeing that level of co-operation. The number of special classes has increased from 540 to in the region of 1,200 in the space of five or six years. That is a very rapid expansion. It is moving from being at primary to now being at second level, reflecting that children are being retained into second level, which is what we are trying to achieve. Those the issues the members raised.
Will the Minister set out clearly his view on the equalisation of teacher pay scales and whether he supports the principle of equal pay scales for teachers? He should indicate whether he will make such a statement at the teacher conferences next week. There has been enough talk about this issue. The parties in the Dáil, except for Fine Gael, are united on this. What the unions or, more importantly, their members will be seeking is a commitment that this Minister and the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform want this and that it will happen. Moreover, they will want to know when it will happen. That needs to be set out clearly in the Dáil and at the teacher conferences next week.
The Minister mentioned the inclusion of a provision in the schools admissions Bill for which Fianna Fáil has pushed. We indicated that we would not support that Bill unless that specific issue was addressed. The Minister has graciously agreed to include a power in that Bill, namely, to give the National Council for Special Education the power to mandate schools to open special classes. That power will be included in the schools admission Bill. In this Estimates document, that Bill is listed as a 2016 output outturn. It is now 2018 and we still have not come anywhere close to finishing that legislation. That reason for that is that the Minister has not come back with his amendments from the Department. He has not set out his final position on that Bill. There are many important issues with that Bill but a crucial one for us is the one the Minister mentioned. The Bill is listed in this document as a job that was done in 2016, but it has not been done.
It is nowhere near done. It is not the fault of the Oireachtas. We have done our job but are waiting for the Minister to come forward with his final amendments. Perhaps he could outline the current position with regard to the Education (Admission to Schools) Bill 2016. What is the delay?
I thank the Minister for his response. I asked whether the comments made by the Taoiseach yesterday indicate that the Government is finally willing to commit to the principle of equal pay for equal work. The Minister mentioned that a review of career guidance posts is under way and suggested that students might be able to access vital information in other ways. Another aspect of the role of the career guidance counsellor in the school is often forgotten even though it is essential. The career guidance counsellor is the only trained member of staff to whom a vulnerable child with mental health difficulties or family difficulties can turn. I respectfully request that when the Minister is reviewing this area, he should not confine his considerations to the career advice aspect of the role of the career guidance counsellor but should also pay attention to the counselling aspect.
I would like to reflect on what the Minister has said about special education. I accept that progress has been made in the past decade. There is a lack of forward planning in this area, however. I would like to mention a specific case in which an ASD unit was opened in a primary school - Scoil na Naomh Uilig, Newbridge - but, eight or ten years later, no such provision was made in the secondary schools in the community. Having spoken to my colleagues from around the country, I have no doubt that this situation is mirrored elsewhere. Solutions tend to be found at the last minute. They are cobbled together in the run-up to September - perhaps just six months in advance - to try to resolve the issue. I do not think the section 29 system is the right system to use because it puts schools in difficult positions and creates adversarial relationships between parents and schools from day one. There could and should be much better planning to ensure children with special needs who have had the opportunity to be in mainstream primary schools - I agree with the Minister that this is the best situation for such children - get the proper type of follow-through at second level. We still have an awful lot of work to do in this regard.
I would like to add to that briefly. Some time ago, I tabled a parliamentary question on the subject of section 29 appeals in respect of expulsion, suspension or admission. The figures I received in reply, which are on the record of the Dáil, show that children with special needs are disproportionately more likely to be users of the section 29 system. It is utterly disproportionate. I think it could be up to a third although I do not have the figures to hand. The number is massive. I agree with the Chair that there needs to be a change in this regard and I certainly will be highlighting that. The stories we hear in this regard are heartbreaking. Children with special needs and their parents are disproportionately affected in this regard. The number of them who are obliged to resort to section 29 appeals is much greater than would be expected on the basis of the numerical amount.
Absolutely. It is very difficult for parents and family members. It is difficult for the schools as well. We want a solution that works for schools. They should not be put in a position where they are forced to do this. It has been proposed that the NCSE should be able to make plans with schools for what will happen down the line. In some cases, there is uncertainty from month to month about where a child will be placed. There has to be a better system out there. I will hand back to the Minister.
Both sides have to enter into negotiations on the pay issue in good faith. I am not going to seek to represent a certain view. This issue exists across the public service and is not confined to teachers, nurses or any other group. The public service pay agreement that provided for €900 million was negotiated with the trade unions, which did not prioritise new entrant pay for that-----
Provision was made for this to be discussed through a process and that process has already started. A cost has been indicated. The Government has indicated that it will start negotiations on foot of that report. That is the current situation. I have to say that all of these pay cuts happened before I became Minister for Education and Skills. Indeed, some of them were initiated when Deputy Thomas Byrne's party was in government. There is no superior moral position. I sat down immediately and negotiated a reduction of 75% in the gap. We got a series of improvements for new entrants, not only on pay but also on earlier permanent contracts. As the Deputy mentioned, I have negotiated posts of responsibility for people. We are continually seeking to improve the position of teachers within our system. The issues still have to be negotiated. The €200 million cost of this has not been provided for. The Taoiseach has signalled that it has to be negotiated.
I acknowledge that the Education (Admission to Schools) Bill 2016 has been delayed. It has been delayed because the committee has raised three important issues, which are not easy to resolve. The first of these issues is the use of religion in admissions policies. Deputy Thomas Byrne mentioned the second issue, which is the need to make provision for special needs. For example, we are looking at whether the NCSE should be in a position to require a school to open an ASD unit. The third issue is access to Gaelscoileanna. These complex issues have required a considerable degree of complex work by the Department and the Office of the Attorney General. I assure the Deputy that there is no unnecessary delay. We are doing our very best to move this important legislation forward.
I assure Deputy Catherine Martin that I recognise the much wider role of guidance counsellors in providing guidance and counselling in respect of education and career options. We are looking specifically at the career area to ascertain whether we should be thinking about additional things in that regard. We want to see whether there are ways of supporting and building on resources outside the school system that could be very relevant and supportive.
I must defend the approach to special education that has been taken by the NCSE and the Department of Education and Skills. Resources were increased by 40% during the most difficult years this country has experienced. Provision for children with special educational needs has been expanded rapidly. The NCSE works with parents and experts to identify the best placements for children. When additional special needs units have been required in schools, they have been built at breakneck speed in public service terms. The provision in this area has been more than doubled in the space of a small number of years. The capital branch of my Department gives this area priority for funding. The NCSE recognises that some of the models that are in place are not fit for purpose for the long term. It has brought parents and stakeholders with it throughout its pioneering work in designing new models that are robust for the long term. Deputy Jan O'Sullivan was involved in the difficult process of planning, which has worked. We need to do the same in respect of other needs, as well as teaching needs, which children have when they come to school. I appreciate that there are difficult cases. I absolutely accept that. Historically, very little provision was made in this area, but we have moved on and it is now a major priority. Of course it is of great concern every time a child has difficulty getting a placement. Deputies raise such cases and section 29 appeals are made. We have a strong independent system under the NCSE. We have given the NCSE its independence. It advises us and we act on its advice.
We are seeking to make sure that every child with a special need has his or her needs met. We have shown that the resources are going in to back that up.
I am shocked the Minister has decided to blame the trade unions. It is fair enough to throw Fianna Fáil into it. We were in government up to 2011. We fought an election against the Minister under sustained criticism by him at the time. We are seven years on from that.
Seven years on from that, the Minister turns around to blame the trade unions. It is just extraordinary. The comment should be withdrawn by the Minister. A Government decision is required, not a decision by the trade unions. The teachers' unions rejected the pay agreement at the time. Perhaps the Minister will give us more details on those pay talks, to which I am not privy, and the suggestion that the unions did not fight for this.
There are collective agreements. We committed to a system of collective agreement within the public service. That means the trade unions negotiate for the entire public service, right across every branch. We do not have separate negotiations for some parts of the public service because they are intricately related. We cannot give increases in one area without recognising the knock-on effects in other areas. The work the Minister, Deputy Donohoe, has done recognised the issue of new entrant pay is an issue right across the public service. He set out what the cost is. Some of that cost is in education but much of it is elsewhere. He indicated he will sit down with the parties involved and discuss it. As with every issue, if extra money is to be found for one thing it has to come away from somewhere else. That is all I am saying. There will have to be give and take on all of these discussions. We cannot make any one thing an absolute requirement. That is why we have negotiations and why we have collective agreements. All of the public service unions recognise the value of these agreements to give certainty. They are making provision for pay increases. The trade unions decided in the negotiation that the lowest paid should get great priority. That is the way the structure of the agreement was - there would be increases for everyone and they would be weighted more towards the low paid. That is what they sought to negotiate. We have to accept that was the approach that was taken. It also recognised there are outstanding issues on new entrants' pay and to areas where there is difficulty recruiting. Separate processes have been established for both of those and those processes are now in place under the agreement and they are proceeding. As the Taoiseach indicated, following that report by the Minister there will be discussions and negotiations starting in the near future.
We certainly hope those negotiations will start soon. With the indulgence of the committee, I ask that Deputy McLoughlin takes the Chair for a few minutes. I need to go to the Chamber. Is that agreed? Agreed.
We have completed programme A and will now move onto programme B on pages 19 to 24 of the Department's briefing. When proposing their questions, I ask members to clearly indicate the subhead they are referring to within the programme. They should limit their questions to one subhead at a time allowing other members with questions on that subhead to speak before moving on to another subhead.
In subhead B, under the heading of skills development, there is an estimated substantial surplus for the national training fund, NTF. A review is being undertaken on the structure and direction of the NTF. Will the Minister indicate when that review will be completed and the impact it may have on the national training fund surplus? Under the equality budgeting and performance indicators, I am looking at the number of female apprentices. The output target for 2018 is 300 which is up from an output target of 145 last year. Did we reach the target of 145 last year and are we on track to meet the target of 300 for this year?
I was going to raise the same issue. The only point I will make is it is one of the few areas of gender equality where we are disgracefully embarrassed by the figures. There is a collection of reasons for that. Deputy Catherine Martin has asked about it.
I will try to get the figures. Traditionally, apprenticeships were in male-dominated areas. As members are aware, they were mechanics, engineers, electricians, plumbers and so on. What we are doing now is developing an entirely new suite of apprenticeships. The 27 traditional ones are there still and we are seeking to develop over 50 news ones. They are at various stages of development and 11 have gone live. In those, we already see much more significant female representation. The traditional trades are still the dominant element of the overall make-up of apprenticeships and that is what is reflected in the low participation. The work we are doing will make it easier for women to get into traditional apprenticeships but will also broaden the scope of areas where apprenticeships can be obtained. We have the ambition to very significantly change those numbers over the coming years.
A review of the national training fund is being undertaken. It is due to be completed before summer. The issue of the surplus is slightly different. We can only spend in accordance with what is permitted under the fiscal rules. The fact of a surplus in a particular fund does not allow us to spend it. Under public spending rules, it is spending that is restricted. We cannot run down a surplus and not regard it as spending under the spending rules. The spending rules still constrain us. It is being reviewed and the issue of how it is handled in a budgetary context is being examined. Now that we are expanding the NTF and looking for additional contributions from employers, we want to ensure the purposes to which those funds are being put are transparent in the way they are reported and that their impact is shown. That is also part of the work of the review.
If the Minister does not have it now, is it possible to forward to us information on whether the target of 145 for female apprentices was reached last year? I understand the Minister might not have the information to hand but I am interested in it.
I have a question for the Minister. Where does capital expenditure on further education come into the Estimates? Is it in the grant to SOLAS under this heading or is it part of capital expenditure? Does it exist at all?
It did not, until this specific provision, but from 2018 to 2021 a specific element is being introduced. I think it is combined with higher and further education and it is under the NTF. There will be a specific provision. It is €70 million over the coming years. Previously it had been running at a very low level and it was not shown separately in the Estimates.
I can ask the question then. It concerns the commitments the Department has made on capital spending in further education such as, for example, in respect of Dunboyne College of Further Education and elsewhere around the country. From where are they supposed to be funded? The Minister made commitments under school building lists.
I will not blame the Minister for writing that list, as it was Deputy Jan O'Sullivan who did so in December 2015 when she was Minister. From where is it envisaged that the money for it will come? Is it part of the SOLAS budget or the Department's budget, for example, to build Dunboyne College of Further Education in my constituency? There are others.
As part of the mid-term review of the national development plan, a provision of an additional €50 million was made for further education from 2019 to 2021. That is a commitment of additional funding. In the national development plan, the overall envelope for the ten years is €300 million. Provision has been made under the Department's capital plan. The allocation of this obviously will go through SOLAS if it is being allocated to education and training boards. The intention is to show it as a separate provision.
It is the ETB that will develop the individual proposals for sanction but SOLAS has an oversight role. It is the individual ETBs that will draw up the capital projects and will work with the Department in terms of the cost-benefit analysis and assessments of the proposals.
That concludes programme B and we will move on to programme C. Pages 25 to 30 in the Department's briefing and pages C11 to C13 of the committee secretariat's briefing relate to this programme. I ask members to clearly indicate the subhead within the programme to which they are referring.
I will not dwell too much on this. It is an issue I have highlighted on numerous occasions in the past and, quite frankly, the same issues remain. There is general underfunding of the third level sector. What plans does the Minister have to increase funding from the State's purse? Even if we look back at the Cassells report, whatever option is chosen at whatever point in time in the future still will require substantial extra resources from the Government.
I welcome the increase in the allocation for higher education in subhead C4, but the fact remains it is simply not quite enough to address the needs of the higher education sector. With regard to subhead C11 on student grants and support, despite an overall increase in the budget attributed to the higher education sector this year, there has been a fall in the funding allocation under subhead C11 with regard to student support. Why is this the case?
Last week in the Dáil, along with other Deputies, I raised the fact that the lack of investment in student support is resulting in third level institutions pushing more and more of the burden onto students. We saw this recently in the Trinity protests with regard to supplemental examination fees. Only today we have seen that next year, the privately owned Shanowen Square in DCU will charge up to €9,000 for nine months' accommodation. It is not right and something needs to be done because the students are feeling too much of a burden because of a lack of investment and they are being forced to carry the cost.
The position on higher education funding is that last year we provided an additional €36.5 million and another €64 million this year, which brought it up to €100 million. Part of this is being funded through the national training fund. There has been a significant increase in the higher and further education budget over the past two years. There is, of course, the issue raised by Peter Cassells on whether we should move to a new income contingent loan scheme, and I know the committee recently wrote to me about this. This clearly is another strand. In terms of the issue of providing, as Peter Cassells sought, additional State funding and additional funding from employers, we have moved forward with this. We have also indicated that over the next two years there will be additional increases on these from the Exchequer and the training fund source. We are going ahead in making provision for additional funding. We are also reforming the allocation model, so the way in which money will be allocated will be more equitable and more effective in promoting expansion and the goals we have set for the higher education system in terms of access and meeting skill needs.
In terms of the longer term, of course we have committed in the ten-year plan to a €2.2 billion increase in the investment in capital at higher level and this is a massive increase. As committee members know, the Exchequer fund provision up to the mid-term capital review was only €110 million in Exchequer and €200 million in public private partnerships. This is a massive expansion of our commitment to the future investment in third level facilities on the capital side.
With regard to SUSI and grants, although we made some changes to improve the terms of access to grants, the main thing is the changes in the economy. They are means-tested schemes and the proportion of people who are qualifying is down slightly as a result of the reduction in unemployment. There has been some reduction in grant holders as a result of this but there has been no restriction in the terms of access in any of these areas.
I have to say I am deeply concerned about the capital programme and I assume the Minister is also. Quite frankly, it seems the Minister does not have enough money to meet the demand for school places and, in particular, to meet the commitments his predecessor, Deputy Jan O'Sullivan, made in 2015. Very little progress has been made on this particular capital plan. The number of projects, as listed in the Estimates, which the Department has completed has dropped dramatically in recent years. In 2015 there were 936 small extensions and upgrading of facilities in primary schools and this dropped to 600 last year. In post-primary schools it dropped from 269 to 200. This is a dramatic drop in works carried out in primary schools in the two-year period and a large drop at post-primary level.
There is also not just a creeping back of prefabs but a dramatic expansion of them under the Minister's reign, at the time when it is recognised my former colleagues, Batt O'Keeffe and Mary Coughlan, made progress to try to replace prefabs with classrooms. Ruairí Quinn as Minister certainly spoke about it and some progress was made, but under the Minister's watch, the number of prefabs rented increased by 25.7% in one year, and it is an even larger increase since 2015. What is the Minister's answer to this? It is a disgraceful situation that it is happening.
I have to say I do not think the Department is at the races, with all due respect to everybody, on the increases in population. I see it in my constituency. I had reports today, for example, of Oldcastle, which is a rural town, where the secondary school is oversubscribed. I never heard of that before in a rural town where there is not much other choice. We know there is oversubscription in Dunshaughlin Community College also. We know there is massive oversubscription in Ashbourne, and the Department has been notified by school principals in that town of their assessment of the absolutely unprecedented oversubscription. I am speaking about my constituency because it is the one I know best, but I know Dunshaughlin has similar issues. Not enough work is being done with regard to the houses that are being built.
A quick drive around many of these areas, whether in Meath, Kildare or Dublin, would show that houses are being built. I am sure it is also starting to happen in Kilkenny and, perhaps, Sligo. In towns in my constituency, such as Ashbourne, it is almost impossible to get a primary school place for a child above junior infants level. One will not find a place for children in third or fourth class. I am hearing from principals that it will be very difficult for some people to find places for junior infants next September.
I do not believe the Department has enough planning done and, crucially, I do not believe enough budgeting has been done. This is shown by the substantial drop in the number of projects, the lack of progress on the schools building plan and the dramatic increase in the number of rented prefabs the Department is now using, shockingly, to deal with the issue. We believed we had seen the last of them.
My question is on the provision of physical education facilities in schools. I welcome the introduction of physical education as a leaving certificate subject. I find it remarkable, however, that not one request by a secondary school to build or operate a sports hall has been approved. How is a school expected to deliver PE at leaving certificate level on an equal footing with another school if it simply does not have a PE hall? A school in my constituency, Dublin–Rathdown, opened its doors in 1980 but, almost 40 years later, it still does not have a PE hall. How many second-level schools do not have PE halls? I have asked this question before. I do not get a direct answer to parliamentary questions. I am told that if a school does not have a hall, there are facilities for it in the community. The school in my constituency is a DEIS school and it cannot afford to hire a bus to go to a community centre or swimming pool. It should not have to use part of its double period of 80 minutes to do that. It is not putting the school on a level footing with others.
I presume that, in the pilot programme the Department is running with 80 schools, at least one school with no PE hall is included so the Department can monitor and evaluate the fairness of the system. How is it fair that schools do not have PE halls? How will that work in terms of rolling out the new PE subject? Has one of the schools with no PE facilities been chosen for the pilot programme so that it might be evaluated? This needs to be done in order to ensure the fairness of the system. I just do not know how it works. It is not fair on teachers or students.
In support of what the Deputy said, I raised with the Minister this week the question of physical education in the pilot programme. Approximately 80 pilot schemes are in place. I was very disappointed that there is none in my area. I highlighted that to the Minister. Some counties have a number of schemes while there is none in others. The Minister has given me an explanation but I still feel aggrieved. I ask the Minister to answer the questions on programme D.
The position is that capital will always be scarce when coming out of a recession, as we are. We are expanding our capital provision steadily, however. At the low point, capital provision for schools was under €350 million. It is now up to €540 million. That is a substantial increase, of over 50%, since 2012. For the period 2019 to 2021, a further €70 million is being provided for the average of those years. We are expanding, therefore. Some €875 million has been allocated for the five years beyond. We are making provision for a substantial ramp-up in the capital-----
On a point of order, the question is about this year's Estimates. We can have a discussion about the capital plan again but we are talking about the here and now, or about what the Minister is doing at the moment.
Three hundred and forty schools have completed the programme and 120,000 places are being provided. We are providing places at double the rate that obtained when the Deputy's party was previously in government. We have expanded. Of course there are demands. There is a growing number of children, particularly at second level, but also at primary level. This is a period of very high demand for additional resources for new buildings. We have had to prioritise new places above and beyond other areas of desirable capital expenditure. That is why PE hall provision is not part of our capital expenditure programme at present. As part of the capital plan, however, we have recognised that both PE halls and laboratory facilities require investment. We will be investing but it will not be in the medium term. In the immediate term, 80% of money must go towards getting places for the children who are coming through.
I have acknowledged there is more use of prefabs but there will be a programme of prefab replacement from 2019 onwards. We have to use the money made available each year as best we can. I assure the Deputies that we are investing more money and delivering significant major investments. We have 200 new schools. There are currently 85 projects under construction or progressing to construction this year. Therefore, projects are continuing to flow through. We never hand back a ha'penny of the money that is allocated to us. We make sure that every penny in education capital that is allocated is spent. That means building a supply chain of projects that are ready to roll.
On the issue of schools where there are demographic pressures, the Department is currently undertaking a demographic exercise to consider not only population trends, child benefit claims and the number of children in preschool but also the local authority housing projects that are in the pipeline, and it is factoring these data into the assessment of where new schools and new school accommodation are needed.
On the final point, I have raised this in the Dáil and with officials over the past couple of years. In the context of asking local authorities about housing developments, does the Minister know the nature of the question asked? I have been told by local authority sources - I have not seen the letters so I should obtain them through a freedom of information request - that the Department asked how many developments with more than 100 houses were taking place. Was that the question, or something along those lines? It certainly would not be relevant. There are many developments with smaller numbers of houses. That is the word coming back to me. There was certainly a lot of discussion among councillors in Meath on that particular point.
We acknowledge that the Minister and his officials spend every penny. It always happens with this particular budget. The truth, however, is that land costs will potentially eat up a considerable amount of the budget because they are rising all the time, as are construction costs. Has the Minister told his colleagues in the Cabinet, including the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, that he just does not have enough money and that, while he is spending every penny he has, the system will not be able to cope and is really falling back. Has he asked for more money to deal with this? It does not look like the Minister has done this. The capital budget is greater than it was a few years ago but it is in the same ballpark. The figures look similar. I acknowledge there is an increase but it has been eaten up.
I am absolutely shocked about the position on prefabs. The former Minister, Ruairí Quinn, famously had an official prefab replacement programme but so did other previous Ministers, Mary Coughlan and Batt O'Keeffe, although theirs was more under the radar. The latter two individuals replaced a lot of prefabs also. It is shocking that another prefab replacement programme must start because the number of prefabs has shot up dramatically.
Each year, I am getting more money. Money is always tight and we are still working under budgetary restrictions, which everyone knows about. There are restrictions on our capital budgets, just as there have been on our current budgets.
Each year I get additional provision, which recognises a need. It has also been recognised that in the years ahead, which the Deputy is not interested in, we have got commitments for 2019, 2020-----
Yes. We secured a commitment to provide additional money in each of those years. As many as 85 projects will go through this year, and 340 projects have been completed which provides an additional 125,000 places. That proves we are executing a programme but of course we could do more. We would bring forward investment in physical education, prefabs and so on if more money was available. In terms of the Estimates each year, we have won more money and we are using that money effectively.
I acknowledge, as the Deputy has mentioned, that site costs and building costs are rising. That situation puts pressure on all budgets so we must cut our cloth according to the measure.
In terms of the resources that we receive, we must prioritise each year. I think we are using our money as effectively as we can. We have experimented very significantly with new methods of building to get more efficiency. We have used the Office of Public Works, OPW, the National Development Finance Agency, NDFA, rapid build and the educational training boards, ETBs. We have used a range of sources to ensure that our building programmes are executed effectively. The Department is innovative in its approach.
I am conscious that we can make valuable investments. On a positive note, over the next ten years as much as €8.5 billion will be spent on the schools investment programme. That is a very significant financial commitment.
The new pilot programme for PE will consist of 80 schools. Can the Minister confirm whether all of those schools have a PE hall? It would be useful if the Department compared the educational experiences of children who attend schools that have a PE hall with a school or schools that have no PE hall. I ask the Department to make that comparison. In advance of the official roll out of the new subject to all of the second level schools, will his Department conduct an audit so we can establish the exact number of second level schools that do not have a PE hall?
Yes. The Minister has used a new word for cuts. He said the word "cut" at one point, which is what has happened with the capital budget. Despite the number of places increasing, he said that we would have to "cut" our cloth according to the measure but, subsequently, he returned to using his buzzword "prioritise". Prioritise is the new word for cuts. The Department is not building as many PE halls, laboratories or school buildings as heretofore. It is a priority rather than a cut, which is a new one on me. He must approach his Cabinet colleagues and tell them that his Department is under pressure and, therefore, needs more money.
Yesterday, in a response to a written parliamentary question that I tabled, a list of seven schools was provided. The schools have had to apply for planning permission on a second occasion because the original planning permission lapsed. My attention was drawn to the matter because two of the schools are located in my area of County Meath. They are: Whitecross national school near Julianstown and Lismullen national school. I know I should not say anything about open planning files but both of the schools have had to apply again for planning permission. The Department has blamed many people for the problems. The fact that schools have had to renew planning permissions is a damning indictment of the capital programme.
The Minister has mentioned the building programme, which is important, but I have learned from experience that there are definite issues with site acquisitions and in some cases the wrong sites have been chosen. Also, it has proven difficult to secure leases for some chosen sites. Recently, a school was granted planning permission in my constituency. Despite the fact that 15 years have elapsed since an agreement was reached, no lease has been signed for a site located in Monasterevin, County Kildare. Therefore, meetings with local authorities are very important, particularly in terms of the growing demand for school places in Dublin, Kildare, Wicklow, Meath, Cork and Galway due to growing populations. Choosing the right site is crucially important. We must ensure there are no impediments to building once a budget has been sanctioned and planning has been granted because tenders can be issued.
There is no doubt that planning and site issues create delays. We have developed a very close working relationship with local authorities so that a protocol is in place. They developing areas, identify sites where schools are needed and inform us because we are a notifiable party. When they consider planning applications they notify us of their intentions or of the planning applications that have been submitted. As Deputy Thomas Byrne has said, we consider the big projects or the projects funded by the local infrastructure housing activation fund, LIHAF. We consider instances where substantial money is being put in to release projects. All of that information is taken into account when considering whether additional resources are needed, or get sites designated by the local authority or, indeed, acquired. All over the country we have experienced difficulties working with local authorities. Even with everyone wanting an outcome there are difficulties when acquiring or nailing down sites and it is a challenge.
On the issue of selecting schools to participate in the PE pilot scheme, Deputy Tony McLoughlin has raised this issue in the Dáil. As 360 schools applied for just 80 places the steering committee had to select schools in order to make sure there was a balanced mix of schools.
I will revert to Deputy Catherine Martin with a reply to her question on whether there is a school or schools participating in the pilot scheme that have no PE facilities. In order to quality for participation the schools had to prove they had the facility to execute the programme. I would say that a school that was not in a position to execute the programme would not be considered for the pilot scheme. The pilot scheme is just the first phase and we want to test the model.
Whether a school had the facilities or someone else had the facilities, that was not the issue. A school would have to show it could execute the programme. There was not a distinction made in that way. Clearly, this is the first phase of the pilot scheme. Therefore, we want to iron out potential challenges, if any. We want to test continual professional development, CPD, and upskilling. We need to test some of the examination methods because new methodology will be introduced due to the way the subject will be examined. We want to make sure that the system is strong before we roll it out nationwide in 2020.
Until we are in a position to commit to funding a PE programme, the scheme will not be rolled out this year or next year. We will conduct an audit in advance of the programme being rolled out. The scheme is not on the immediate radar. Priority lies elsewhere at the moment. The scheme is being built into the ten-year programme. As I said to Deputy Thomas Byrne, we will consider prefabs and their replacement next year. We will consider that type of issue in terms of how we prioritise the programme as it is rolled out. When we are in a position to roll out the PE programme, we will seek to prioritise based on an audit of what is available.
An audit is important as it would identify the deficits and where investment should be made. I thank the Minister for his replies. That concludes our consideration of the Revised Estimates for Vote 26, Department of Education and Skills.