Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Thursday, 12 December 2019
Select Committee on Education and Skills
Estimates for Public Services 2019
Vote 26 - Education and Skills (Supplementary)
This meeting has been convened to consider the 2019 Supplementary Estimate for Vote 26, education and skills. This was referred to the committee on 27 November with an instruction to report back to the Dáil not later than 12 December 2019. We are hitting the last moments of that time. Our role is to consider the Supplementary Estimate and report what we have done by way of a message to the Dáil. The purpose of this part of the meeting is to have an engagement with the Minister for consideration of the said Estimates. On behalf of the committee I welcome the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Joe McHugh, and his officials. I propose that the Minister make a brief opening statement, which will be followed by a question and answer session with the committee. We will be individually considering the nine subheads which make up the Supplementary Estimate. Some of them may overlap; subheads A.3 to A.6 relate to additional funding for teacher and special needs assistant, SNA, salaries. We will then have some brief closing remarks. Is that agreed? Agreed.
I remind members that in accordance with Standing Orders, discussions should be confined to the items constituting the Supplementary Estimates. Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the House or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.
Gabhaim buíochas leis an gCathaoirleach agus baill an choiste. Tá mé iontach sásta leis an gcuireadh theacht os comhair an choiste, ionas go mbeidh díospóireacht againn ar an ábhar seo. Má tá aon cheisteanna ag aon duine ina dhiaidh seo, beidh mé sásta iad a fhreagairt. Gabhaim buíochas le baill an choiste go léir as ucht an deis a thabhairt dom a bheith anseo leo. Tá oifigigh ó mo Roinn liom ar mo chlé agus ar mo dheis.
I thank the committee for the opportunity to speak here this morning and for its consideration of my Department's Supplementary Estimate. Following approval by the Government, my Department is seeking a net Supplementary Estimate of €68 million. This is the lowest supplementary requirement from my Department in recent years. It represents a variation on the Department's overall net allocation for 2019 of less than 0.7%. My Department has provided detailed briefing on this Supplementary Estimate, but I will briefly outline the key elements for the information of the committee.
There is an additional pay requirement of €52.3 million in the school sector across several subheads. For context, the pay allocation for the schools sector is more than €5.3 billion in 2019, so this represents a variation of around 1%. The main drivers of the additional demand are in the areas of substitution, additional costs for teacher supply initiatives, demographics and some technical issues in the education and training board, ETB, sector.
An additional €19.9 million is required for school transport in 2019. Around 90% of the additional cost relates to the provision of transport for children with special educational needs, which has been the main cost driver in the scheme over recent years. The remaining 10% relates to general costs in areas such as increasing fuel costs and demographic increases.
An additional €9.9 million is being sought for the State Examinations Commission, SEC. As members of the committee know well, the SEC is responsible for the development, assessment, accreditation and certification of the State's second level examinations. The SEC was required to incur a range of additional costs in 2019, in large part due to the need to implement changes to the marking process to facilitate earlier leaving certificate appeals timelines as a result of a High Court judgement. I take this opportunity to acknowledge the work of all staff members within the SEC, who have been very proactive and responsive to these changes.
Some €7 million is sought to cover additional expenditure on the rental of temporary accommodation due to a higher level of approvals required to meet immediate school accommodation needs, along with a €1 million contingency for some uncertainties around the level of rental approvals before the end of the year.
Some €0.4 million is sought to cover the knock-on costs in the education and training sector arising from the Government's decision to award a Christmas bonus payment to recipients of social protection payments. A number of participants on SOLAS-funded further education and training programmes are in receipt of a training allowance in lieu of their Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection benefits. The Government has made a decision that these participants will also receive a Christmas bonus.
The final issue on the expenditure side is €9 million to provide for the knock-on costs in the higher education sector of a pay deal which was agreed in the health sector for medical consultants. This will cover the cost of pay arrears which are due to be paid to academic medical consultants.
An estimated surplus of €31.5 million in appropriations-in-aid is being factored into the 2019 Supplementary Estimate to offset these expenditure pressures. The Department has received additional receipts of €39.1 million in European Social Fund moneys over the amounts profiled for 2019. These are reduced slightly by a €7.6 million shortfall in superannuation receipts as a result of technical issues regarding the treatment of these receipts.
I am happy to discuss these issues in more detail and I commend the Supplementary Estimate to the committee.
I welcome the fact that the Supplementary Estimate is not very big. One probable reason is the fact that there was always uncertainty around the number of teachers who might retire and uncertainty in the special needs area. There is a small increase in SNA salaries. Can the Minister explain where that is coming from?
We have a figure of €19.9 million for additional expenditure on school transport, but there has only been a fairly small percentage increase in the cost of diesel. Why has expenditure increased to the extent that it has? Provision for children with special needs accounts for the majority of that. Can the Minister give us those figures?
I also wanted to ask about the medical consultants who are academics. Is it normal for the Department of Education and Skills to fund that even though the agreement is primarily around health? These consultants operate in hospitals and health settings as well as in academic circles. Can the Minister provide an explanation of that?
Finally, it may be slightly off topic, but I wish to refer to the figures for appropriations-in-aid under subhead D.
It concerns receipts in respect of the European Social Fund. The figure is €39.5 million, less a shortfall. That is fairly standard. The European Globalisation Adjustment Fund is also administered through the Department of Education and Skills. I am aware that a factory called Molex in Shannon, County Clare, closed with the loss of 500 jobs. Consideration is being given to applying to the fund. This was done for a number of companies in the past, including Dell and Waterford Glass, I believe. It could be argues there was a globalisation element to the reason the jobs were lost. I submitted a parliamentary question to the Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation and she indicated that applying to the fund would have to be done through the Department of Education and Skills. The Minister might not have the answer today but I am interested in knowing whether, if the funding is applied for, as I hope will be the case, how it will be accounted for. Is it under the same type of heading? I am aware that it is a different fund but it is a European fund. That is slightly off the subject of the Estimates but if the Minister has any information, it would be welcome. That is all I wanted to ask.
Subheads A3 to A6 concern teachers’ salaries. What is very notable about these Estimates is that this is the first time since I have been elected that we have not been dealing with substantial overexpenditure on superannuation, as has been the case in recent years. I presume the Department has managed to get the issue under control.
Subheads A3 to A6 relate to a Supplementary Estimate ask of more than €50 million for teachers' salaries across primary and post-primary levels. While the subheads are extremely large and make up the majority of the expenditure for the entire Vote, the Supplementary Estimate as a percentage of the total is quite small. The amount in question is still remarkable, however. I understand this is primarily as a result of substitute cover for more paid leave than was anticipated. Does the same issue arise in the same way under each subhead? What measure is the Minister pursuing to calculate more accurately in this regard next year?
With regard to subhead A9, on school transport, adequate school transport is an essential part of ensuring equality of access to education for all students, especially those with special educational needs. My question on the subhead is more about the future. What is the Minister's projection for spending on school transport in the future? Will he outline what engagement he has had with Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport and the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment to mitigate against the rising cost of school transport? Ensuring sustainable, clean, effective transport is not just an issue for the Department of Education and Skills because there should be joined-up thinking.
Public consultation on BusConnects closed this week. Revision of the bus network is crucial in Dublin. I welcome the engagement there has been on this and some of the changes over the past year. I noticed that, with regard to the major routes, peak times are identified as being from 3 p.m. and 4 p.m. onward. In some cases, school finishing times are not treated as peak times. I noted this in my submissions to BusConnects last year and this year. Rather, the focus is on the slot from 5 p.m. to 6 p.m. Did the Minister have any engagement in the process or with the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport on how our bus and other public transport services need to be working for students and on how school finishing times need to be regarded as peak times so we can have adequate service options for students?
What engagement has there been to ensure safe routes for cycling and walking to schools? These are required, especially in urban areas.
Regarding subhead A11, additional expenditure pertaining to the State Examinations Commission is due to the High Court decision on appeals related to the leaving certificate examinations and the need to process them in a much shorter timeframe. I absolutely welcome the fact that action has been taken on this matter. Is the cost incurred to ensure the new system is implemented just a once-off cost? Will the increased expenditure be necessary every single year? Is there any mitigation activity that could be engaged in with a greater amount of planning next year?
On subhead A15, concerning primary and post-primary infrastructure, the overexpenditure seems to be related entirely to current expenditure. It is €8 million over the projected budget of €19 million. This is quite substantial. Is the expenditure primarily on rent? Is it due to an increase in rent or an increase in the number of properties being rented? If both, could we have a rough breakdown? It brings into question something I have raised before with the former Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Bruton. Is the Department announcing schools without even having sites identified? This causes a dilemma for principals, teachers, and parents who are trying to work out where students will be placed.
A few years ago, a school in my constituency was moved from place to place as it sought a permanent solution. A primary school was moved to a secondary school. A cost was incurred to make the premises suitable for a primary school. I am aware of a school in Wicklow where the same thing is going to happen next September. A primary school that is no longer fit for purpose has a new building built for it. A secondary school is now going to be moved out of its temporary location to this primary school as another temporary location until the other one, the permanent location, is found. It has to be fitted to be made suitable as a second level school. What are the costs incurred in the circumstances? Are they included in these figures? I am curious about the cost.
Subhead C4, which pertains to higher education, is quite specific in regard to medical students and the High Court ruling, as the Minister said in his statement. My only comment on this subhead concerns the chronic underexpenditure over recent years. In 2008, State funding for third level education was just under €9,000 per student. It is not much higher than €5,000 per student 11 years later. Our higher education institutions are in financial crisis. I feel the Government has continually delayed in engaging on the Cassells report. This committee has pointed this out several times. All the time, third level institutions are crippled by financial strain, and the education of their students is suffering.
We are at a stage at which we are required to meet the first benchmark of the Cassells report. We are to be annually €600 million over and above the 2015 level by 2021. We are at a standstill, however. I urge the Minister to take on the task of recognising the crisis at third level and to fund this vital sector adequately.
Every year, I take the opportunity as a former teacher to talk about equal pay for equal work. This is a major issue. I taught alongside teachers who were doing the same job as me and getting different pay. This needs to be dealt with as a matter of fairness. We need to value our educators right across the board. That is not happening in the jobs they do.
I will pick up on two points raised by Deputy Martin, one concerning equal pay for equal work. There is growing frustration among some of the cohorts who have not seen equalisation happen. The Minister will be aware of that. I hope that can be dealt with as early as possible. There was a Topical Issue debate on this yesterday but I was not in a position to participate in it. Will the Minister give us an update on the discussions with Fórsa and the pay of school secretaries? Pay varies radically from school to school, depending on whether the arrangement is based on the ancillary grant or direct employment.
Some of them are on very low pay and their employment conditions are poor. That issue needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency. What is the position of the Minister and the Department in that regard? Is he personally involved in negotiations or are his officials involved in them?
On further education, the number of apprentices and trainees has doubled from 6,200 or thereabouts to approximately 12,000 in recent years, which is welcome. I would like the figure to increase further. We need to improve the quality of our apprenticeships. The combined allocation for the national training fund and Solas has only increased by 9% even though the number of apprentices has doubled. Clearly, the figures do not match up.
I wish to flag that there are significant issues with school transport. Every Deputy deals with them. As I represent an urban constituency where fewer people rely upon the service, I may deal with fewer such issues than certain other Deputies. However, I am aware from colleagues, as well as cases referred to me, that there are significant issues in this area. People who were previously eligible for school transport are now deemed ineligible. Often, parents of children with special needs apply to many schools in order to try to get their children child into appropriate units. They may fail to get places in several of those schools, including specials schools. When parents get a place for their child, they may be unable to access the school transport scheme because the child will not be travelling to the school nearest to his or her home and may pass two or three schools at which his or her needs would be met. The refusal to grant access to the scheme disregards the fact that the child was not admitted to the schools in question. That is a significant issue. In general, the scheme requires significant investment and possibly an overhaul in order to increase its scope and the number of people who can access it. Many people would like to be able to access it.
School traffic is a big issue in urban and rural areas. The more children we can take out of the queues of cars outside schools and onto buses, the better. That would be of benefit in terms of traffic, climate change and many other areas.
Additional funding for the State Examinations Commission would be welcome. There were issues in respect of the junior certificate and the additional examinations this year. I wish to flag the campaign backed by the Irish Second-Level Students Union urging greater compassion for children or people sitting the leaving certificate who are ill and who encounter difficulties in deferring their exams. I ask the Minister to take that on board.
I tabled several parliamentary questions relating to DEIS during the year. I have regularly raised with the Minister the need for schools to be given the opportunity to apply for DEIS band 2 and for the ratio to come down for DEIS band 1. The INTO held a protest last week on the latter issue. An opportunity was missed with DEIS band 2. Many schools that would not qualify for DEIS band 1 were not given the opportunity to be considered for DEIS band 2, which was a disappointing failure. There are significant advantages to DEIS band 2 - which is less expensive than DEIS band 1 - in terms of access to the school completion programme and home-school community liaison teachers who are of great benefit. Principals have told me that they are dealing with complicated cases but want to get on with running their school. People are not aware how difficult it is to deal with such cases. If a school has a home-school liaison teacher, much of that work is taken off the desk of the principal. Does the Minister plan to reintroduce DEIS band 2? Some of the answers to the parliamentary questions I tabled stated that he is looking at the area of educational disadvantage generally and that there might be some new approach. Is there any update in that regard? Although only a minority of the children in certain schools may be disadvantaged, the schools still require access to home-school liaison or school completion services. Perhaps a clustering system whereby several schools could avail of the services could be considered. We have not heard much on the issue recently. The general answer is that the Department is examining it. This is very important and it could make a significant difference.
It is to be welcomed that the amount of the Supplementary Estimate is less than in previous years. On subhead A3, which relates to school salaries, the Minister referred to some of the funding going into a supply panel. Such panels are always welcome. The committee made recommendations regarding the possibility of setting up supply panels to support teaching principals at primary level. Last Thursday, the issue was discussed with the Minister in the Dáil. It would be helpful for schools to be clustered such that every teaching principal would have one day per week to deal with the various difficult administrative burdens they have.
On school salaries, the issue of school secretaries has been mentioned. I fully support equal pay for equal work. Some 90% of school secretaries are employed by boards of management rather than the Department. They are outside the public service pension scheme, many of them must sign on for social assistance payments outside term time and they do not have certainty from year to year. That should be factored into future Estimates.
Every school should have a home-school liaison teacher. The work they do is quite incredible. Since the concept was introduced by Sr. Concepta Conaty, it has made a very positive difference to many schools and communities. It may the case that consideration should be given to supply panels in that regard.
On subhead A9, school transport, the overspend is quite significant. We must help to get our children to school in a safe and secure manner. Every school has a problem with pinch points at school starting and finishing times. Every school has been in touch with its local authority regarding traffic calming and money that needs to be spent to ensure that children get to school safely. The number of cars outside schools always amazes me. When I travel from my home to the Dáil, I must go through a pinch point where there are three schools, one bridge and thousands of children. The Minister can imagine the chaos and the number of cars at the location. It would make far more sense to put our money into approaches such as the safe routes to school programme that was mentioned such that children can walk or cycle safely to school and that our school transport system is opened to those who live a little further away. All Deputies deal with these issues. Many families may not be able to afford a car or a second car. It is wrong that families must have a second car just for the school run. The committee should send an important message in that regard. We need to turn the school transport system on its head and provide a space for every child who needs to access transport. Obviously, that would also involve a cost to the family. In this day and age, the system whereby a child must live 4.8 miles from his or her school in order to access school transport is wrong.
That figure may be incorrect, but it is close to the reality.
Obviously, additional funding needs to be provided for the State Examinations Commission under subhead A11. The junior certificate results were released quite late this year. They were not issued until October as a knock-on effect of the decision to release the leaving certificate results earlier in order to facilitate appeals. All of that is to be welcomed. We understand why an extra cost is involved. Is it possible that we will see all State examination results coming out at an earlier stage? When those who are going into fifth year are making their subject choices, it would be helpful for them to receive their exam results a little earlier.
Subhead A15 brings us back to the prefab situation. It is very frustrating to see so much money being spent on temporary accommodation. Would it be possible for the Department to improve its forecasting to enable pupils to be taught in non-rental or non-temporary accommodation? Provision should be made for permanent school buildings instead. It is particularly frustrating to see this in my own constituency. I am sure all Deputies see it. When commitments and promises are made in respect of schools, the timelines move out all the time for site acquisition reasons or because of other issues. In such circumstances, more money has to be spent on prefabs, which tend to be placed in green spaces. Many schools have quite small green spaces, so it is far from satisfactory for these to be taken over by temporary school buildings. Surely the Department can get it right. Its forecasting needs to be better if schools building projects are to start on time. As the Minister will be aware, over a year has passed since he announced that there would be a new secondary school in the Curragh-Newbridge area of south Kildare. That news was welcomed at the time, but there is no news whatsoever, even with regard to site acquisition, at this point. There are parents who have their children on waiting lists on an ongoing basis. There are more than 100 children on waiting lists for some schools. There are many temporary buildings in some of these schools. They are unable to add to their temporary stock. This is a really big issue.
I will conclude by referring to subhead C4. I echo the comments of Deputy Catherine Martin about the significant investment that is needed at third level. I do not know how the third level sector is functioning as well as it is. Given the likelihood of a hard Brexit on 31 January - none of us knows what will happen - we need to bear in mind that 12,500 Irish students are studying at third level in the UK. We would not be able to absorb such a number of students back into the Irish system. As the Minister is aware, the joint committee had a discussion last week on the granting of university status to the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, RCSI. A motion granting such status has since been passed by both Houses of the Oireachtas. I wonder whether this new status will have any impact on the moneys that the RCSI is eligible to draw down or on the Department's Estimates. Given that this change of status relates specifically to the medical end of things, I wonder what its impact will be. I ask the Minister to respond to our comments and questions.
I acknowledge the help provided by this committee by proactively making proposals, etc. Today's engagement is important. As the committee examined the PISA results in recent weeks, it identified areas in which we are making gains. The DEIS scheme has been mentioned. It is great to see that the gap is being bridged at the lower levels. It is getting closer. The support we provide to more vulnerable and disadvantaged students is far in excess of other OECD countries. I know this committee focuses on such matters.
Deputy Jan O'Sullivan mentioned the number of teachers who might retire, the special needs area and the increase in SNA salaries. I will provide some specific figures in that regard. An additional €2.1 million is required to cover SNA salary costs, which are higher than expected, mostly because the increase in SNA posts in 2019 has exceeded the provision in the Revised Estimates Volume. The number of SNAs will reach 17,000 by September 2020 as a result of the addition of an extra 1,000 SNAs. This country has more SNAs than gardaí. They are doing important work. I know that the Deputy values the role they play. We need to ensure that we are building on the capacity, especially in the area of training. We are working on the recommendations that came out of the SNA report with regard to a higher training authority, upskilling and ensuring they have the capacity as well. I look forward to working with this committee in this area.
The Deputy also mentioned the provision of €19.9 million for school transport. The area of special educational needs has been identified for an increase. Extra money has been more or less ring-fenced for these increases. There are increases in costs, including fuel costs, as well. We are still working on a meaningful inclusion system. We do not want buses to be passing schools, but buses are passing schools. I appreciate that buses have to pass schools when young people with special needs are going to special schools like Kolbe special school in Portlaoise and the Little Angels special school in Letterkenny. They are travelling long distances to go to such schools. There are students passing schools that do not have units. I am trying to remind myself not to use the word "unit" because I am aware that parents of autistic children and children with special needs do not like it. I would like to use this public platform to appeal again to schools in areas like south Dublin where there is a demand for special classes, and where schools have the capacity to provide such classes, to work with the NCSE and the Department to see how their fears can be allayed. There are genuine fears about putting special classes into schools. People are worried about resources and administration. They fear that these young people might not get the special support they require. We have a short history in the year that has just passed in the Dublin 15 area. The Catholic patron, under the stewardship of Archbishop Diarmuid Martin and Monsignor Dan O'Connor, was very proactive on the ground in trying to appeal to schools about the importance of this form of educational provision as part of the inclusion journey. I want to acknowledge all the people who were involved in making this happen. Up to eight schools have put on additional classes. Danu special school has also been created. All of this has happened in a period of nine months. I am repeating my public appeal in the awareness that this can happen.
Deputy Jan O'Sullivan mentioned medical consultants. There is an academic responsibility on us when such people are lecturing in third level colleges.
We contribute a percentage depending on the number of hours provided for under the contract. I will get the Deputy more detail on this matter if she requires it. We want to ensure we continue to have this vital voice and expertise in our third level sector.
This brings me on to our university ranking for research. One of the fundamental factors underpinning the ranking system is the need to ensure more research is done. I will have more to say about this aspect of the matter later when we move on to third level funding. It is clear, from the feedback I am getting from third level colleges, that we must continue to put public funds into research.
I am happy to follow up with the Deputy on the matter of the European Globalisation Adjustment Fund, Molex and the loss of 500 jobs. I was in the midlands recently and saw that the education and training boards, ETBs, and the likes of Athlone Institute of Technology are working together to upskill people through retraining and are engaged in capacity building in anticipation of changes in work practices. An example close to my home, as a Donegal man, was the 3,500 affected workers at the Unifi textile plant in Letterkenny when Fruit of the Loom decided to move away from Donegal between 1999 and 2001. We had to upskill and retrain those employees, and that capacity building and the education sector are areas I want to keep a focus on. If there is a specific avenue through the European Globalisation Adjustment Fund, I would be happy to support the Deputy on that.
Deputy Martin talked about teachers' salaries. Our Supplementary Estimate is down this year. We are not in any way complacent about that and we tried to get it down as low as possible. One of the messages from this committee last year was to get more of a handle, for want of a better word, on projected pension increases. I acknowledge the Deputy's role in that regard and I particularly acknowledge the roles of my officials in the Department who have worked hard on that. The annual figure for pensions alone is €1.3 billion, which is significant. It is about getting it right, and getting the guesstimate right in advance. I thank my officials for that.
Deputy Martin also mentioned getting more accurate measures for substitute cover. It is difficult because that is a day-to-day matter, covering sick leave and maternity leave, and there are other factors involved. Through our primary school panel, we are trying to help the system and the principals at the coalface who need that cover at short notice. The pilot of that panel is only in its infancy for Cork, Galway, Dublin, Meath and Kildare. We will keep an eye on that but I would like to see it rolled out further.
I am also conscious of constraints. There are constraints when it comes to the demands in the greater Dublin area and there are issues around the cost of accommodation, which is a reality facing many young teachers in Shanghai, Beijing, Abu Dhabi and Dubai. I have met those teachers and have tried to listen to where the constraints are. That is one of the barriers to bringing them back. We will continue to engage with them to see how we can try and help provide cover in the future.
Transport has been mentioned by all four of the committee members here today. We are committed to a review and that process has started. One of the commitments I gave in my budget contribution was that we would look at transport. We are up to €220 million, going into next year, and between the special education sector and the mainstream, we are talking about providing for more than 120,000 pupils day to day. As Deputy Martin suggested, we need to look under this issue. We can be smarter in getting people to educational facilities using less transportation and fewer vehicles. There are smarter ways to do that. It will require engagement with the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport. I am asking my officials to engage with the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport and the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Bruton, who has overall responsibility on climate change. Traffic congestion, as the Chairperson mentioned, is a matter of safety for children going into primary schools in rural and urban areas. As part of the review of transport, I want to incorporate a wider element that specifically includes examining if we can have more interdepartmental collaboration and address safety aspects.
Deputy Martin is welcome to engage on BusConnects. There is a piece of work that we can do through further engagement in that space.
The peak-only routes do not include the very busy time after school has finished. That needs to be identified so extra buses are available. The Minister knows what it is like at the end of a school day.
We have to get into that space and find smarter ways of doing things. It will be music to the ears of those in the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform if we can make savings in that regard and have fewer buses on the roads. That said, we are here as servants of the people and not of the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform and must ensure that services are there. We are focused on ensuring that young people have access to their schools. I intervened for post-primary schools this summer when we made a policy change if there is a traditional route to the second closest school and put in extra finances for that. The Chairperson also spoke about the 4.8 km policy for post-primary schools. When we are looking at the overall review of transport, we bring everything into the mix because there are areas where acute problems remain.
Safety and safe routes to schools in urban areas were also raised. Safety must be at the heart of this. I acknowledge the officials at county council level who draw down CLÁR funding for safety measures outside schools. We must go further and look at what actually happens when a number of vehicles and young people are in a populated area and traffic is passing by. We have to look at everything, including speed between 8 a.m. and 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. and 4 p.m. There are things we can do within this review and we can hopefully-----
One suggestion is for the Minister to talk to his colleague, the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Ross, and reconsider the current investment of 2% of the entire transport budget on walking and cycling when the UN states that it should be 20%. That could be a starting point to help make our roads safe for cyclists and pedestrians. The Minister should also engage with the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Bruton.
We are having engagement on transport in general and have had conversations about safety and what we can do about speed limits at schools. I have heard what the Deputy has said about investing in pathways and cycle routes. It is a different type of scenario in many rural areas because of the distance that pupils have to travel, in some instances on narrower roads. We cannot just come up with potential solutions for urban areas. We must take a comprehensive approach that covers rural and urban areas.
The Deputy also referenced the High Court decision related to the State Examinations Commission, SEC, and welcomed the action that has been taken. There has been a big change and impact this year in that an extra €9.9 million has been allocated to the SEC. Once a system starts to embed, we hope we will not have to use the same amount of money every year. Officials, civil and public servants sometimes get a hard time but this was a great example of them responding to a High Court judgment in a short time, and they did an incredible job. I made a decision earlier this year that provided for alternative sittings of State examinations for students who experience bereavement. Those officials worked hard on that. More than 40 families went with their sons or daughters to Athlone in July to sit those alternative examinations. Deputy Ó Laoghaire used the word "compassion" and the human support system that was put in place for the parents who were waiting for their children to complete those exams was incredible. That was a difficult and sensitive time for those families and I again acknowledge the contribution of officials, civil and public servants in that.
Reference was made to renting prefabs and properties. We replace 600 prefabs per year but we continue to have extra demands. Last year, for example, demand for school places was especially acute in Ashbourne and Ennis. This year, we are monitoring enrolments in Kilcock in north Kildare, Skerries in north Dublin, east Cork and Trim. Every year, we are faced with new pressure points at post-primary level. We have a geographic information measurement system. We are monitoring and engaging with councils and trying to figure out where planning permissions are coming up and where there will be extra people. There is constant demand for temporary provision. This is not a position I like to be in and it is certainly not where the Department likes to be because it involves paying for temporary prefabricated accommodation until buildings are eventually constructed to replace them. We do not like to spend money on temporary provision.
Deputy Catherine Martin referred to decanting in County Wicklow. It was a primary or secondary school-----
A secondary school in a temporary location in Bray has to move again to another temporary location. It is a secondary school moving to a primary school premises that is not fit for purpose. The primary school has moved on and the premises has to be fitted out. The reverse happened in my constituency where the school in question finally secured planning permission. I see it happening again in Bray. What is the annual cost of fitting out schools?
There is a cost in the documentation. We are using a number of temporary buildings as well as prefabricated buildings. We have decanting and moving costs. We have to set up the proper infrastructure for schools. Some schools may be in a temporary building where the lease runs out and the school may then have to move. There are many challenges in this regard. Ultimately, we want to be able to ensure we move through the system to provide a building. Whether we are talking about Monasterevin or Newbridge, we want to ensure we get it right.
There are numerous processes involved. Sometimes parents, teachers, principals and politicians get frustrated with the process. We all do because it happens in our constituencies, including my constituency. We have to go through stage 2A, stage 2B and design stage. We start asking whether the stages unfolding in a phased out way are leading to delay. I learned in the first 48 hours in this job that we must have those stages and processes to ensure we get it right. We must ensure we have near-zero energy building requirements. We must ensure the design and building are right and we do not have a repeat of the situation that faced me in my first 48 hours in the job.
Where a school is being moved from site to site and a primary school is being refitted to suit a secondary school, can something be done? That is undesirable. It is a nightmare for a principal but it would ease that nightmare if the refit of the school could be done before the summer holidays. That seems to be an issue. The school in this case is getting word but those involved still do not know what the new school will be like. They are working up until the date of the new term, whether it is the end of August or September, but they still do not know what is happening. It is difficult when the staff are gone. Is there some way of speeding up that process?
Ideally, we want to have the work done during the summer. However, issues sometimes arise in October or March. These are things that are out of control. If there is something specific relating to the school in question, I would be happy to get my officials to follow up on it.
Reference was made to higher education and the Cassells report. I know the committee deliberated on the report recently. We have to maintain at the heart of the education system publicly funded higher level education where the burden is not on parents or students. Decisions will have to be made, including political decisions, once the processes are finished at commission level. The Minister of State at the Department of Education and Skills, Deputy Mary Michell O'Connor, has been proactive on this issue. A decision will be needed on funding. As I said, having spoken to leaders in the third level education sector, I believe the whole area of research is an important area. University rankings are an area where investment will be required.
Reference was made to equal pay for equal work, the 2011-14 cohort and value. I met a large number of the 2011-14 cohort when I was in the United Arab Emirates. There is anger and a pent-up frustration in that regard. It is interesting that when I go into staffrooms it is not necessarily members of the 2011-14 cohort who raise this issue with me. It is the other teachers because they do not believe it is right that there is inequity in the system. Deputies will hear this from constituency visits. This is something I was determined to make progress on at an early stage. During the Easter conferences last year, I was able to get a commitment from the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform that the inequality issue will form part of the next round of pay talks. The next round will take place in the coming 12 months. I know this has been frustrating but there is a commitment from the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform and my Department that pay inequality will form part of the discussions.
Deputy Ó Laoghaire also referred to inequality and raised the issue of school secretaries, which was also raised last night. There is a process, which has not broken down. I re-emphasise that point today. I appeal to Fórsa to continue to engage with Department officials. Deputy Ó Laoghaire asked me whether I was part of those deliberations. I am not. I am not around those tables but the officials know where I stand on the matter. This issue has been around since 1978. I was six years of age at that stage and Deputy Ó Laoghaire had probably not been born yet.
Technically, as Minister, it is not my role to be at the Workplace Relations Commission talks. Deputy Jan O'Sullivan will be able to attest to that. From my time in politics, I have learned that nothing gets sorted if people do not talk or engage. The only way we can make progress is if the mechanisms in place continue to be used.
The 1978 scheme was changed in 2008. I find it interesting that when I go into schools the secretaries do not lobby me directly on this issue because they are busy. They have such a focus and are so central to every school. They know their role but they do not go out of their way to make a big issue of it when I walk into a school.
There is a lesson to be learned in terms of how we get the message across. The school secretaries do it through the channels open to them. They have had protests and there was a campaign in all the constituencies. I believe this issue has gone on for far too long. We need to get people talking around a table.
Deputy Ó Laoghaire spoke about school transport, special needs and buses travelling past schools. I have no wish to go over this issue again. Next year, we will spend €220 million on school transport. The Deputy referred to school traffic, which we have also covered, and referred to the State Examinations Commission and compassion. We have made changes with regard to bereavement. If a conversation has not already started about illness and different reasons, one will start. My officials are well aware that the conversation will require consideration as well. For the moment, the change relates to bereavement. I thank the officials for the compassion they have shown on that issue.
Reference was made to PISA results and the DEIS programme. We are investing €125 million in DEIS.
We can and should increase that investment. The current cohort of 870 in the entire DEIS system see the complexity of their world, in terms of societal change, dealing daily with NEPS, referrals to CAMHS and that constant frustration and the extra administration around that work. We have to look at that cohort, whether in band 1 or 2. The other schools are knocking on the door and saying they have complex issues too. When DEIS started in 2005 it was based on geographical grounds linked to socioeconomic disadvantage. Life has become much more complex and geography does not now necessarily determine whether a school needs DEIS status. We need to consider building on that. We have a group working on class size and we will produce a report on that in a few weeks' time. That will be relevant to all schools but particularly DEIS schools. We have made significant progress in our analysis of DEIS and gathering socioeconomic data. We are approaching the endgame and our next steps on DEIS. A big conversation will be needed. If I still hold this position in the new year – I am not going to get involved in talk of an election today – I will ensure that pioneers of DEIS, the stakeholders, the teachers and principals who were, and continue to be, involved in it from day one are part of that conversation. They have to be part of the solution. I do not need to tell anybody on this committee about the complexities, the mental health issues and anxiety that teachers and principals have to deal with from day to day. We must keep that to the fore.
Could the Minister be a bit more specific? He says he is coming to the last steps but what happens next? Will the Department produce a report on DEIS, or a consultation document? When will the analysis be done and what will happen?
Once we get that analysis and the data, this committee will be the first port of call. We can then see how we progress that. There will have to be a consultation with stakeholders. Without wishing to pre-empt this, it will take apart the original geographical grounds. I hope it will be a signpost for us as to where to go. The first port of call at the democratic level should be this committee. Once we have that information I will ensure that happens.
The Chairman asked about school salaries. I talked about supply panels, the pilot and school secretaries. I acknowledge her point about home school liaison. That link with communities has never been more important. Home school liaison officers get right into the house, sit down at the hearth and drink tea with the families. They get to know parents and build up a relationship which is very important to building confidence and ensuring that attendance at school is positive.
We had an opportunity to debate this last Thursday evening with the Minister. We need to understand the huge administrative burden on teaching principals at primary school, being leaders of education within the schools, having to deal with the board of management and parents, as well as all of the things that can go wrong in the building. One of our recommendations was that they have one day a week that is committed and dedicated to all of those administrative burdens and to dealing with the Department as well. They could get a substitute teacher for that one day a week. This measure would cost about €10 million. The idea is to have a supply panel set up where schools could be clustered, maybe with five in a cluster, which would make life much better for the whole school community.
I appreciate the administrative pressure that teaching principals are under. It is not a simple world. As the Chairman says, they are involved in construction if, for example, there are summer works, emergency works or additional accommodation, and they have to work with the board of management. It is quite a complex job. I am constantly considering ways to give more in the budget for teaching principals, such as the extra release day. The Chairman mentioned clusters. Within the small school symposium, we ask how we can add value to them and to the networking that is already going on. Many principals already have ad hocsupport groups. They are great groups to meet because they give us ideas but the question is how we can add value at an official level.
We have covered the safety issues, traffic calming, the walk and cycle options, concessionary places and turning the school transport system on its head. The committee's role in that review of school transport will be important. We will keep in touch on that.
In regard to the junior certificate results in late October, they were a bit late because of the changes after the High Court decision. We proposed a Monday in late September but we are engaging with the education stakeholders. I see Deputy O'Sullivan smiling. For years the stakeholders had been advocating a Friday when normally the results were coming out on a Wednesday. We suggested a Monday in late September but the stakeholders preferred a Friday.
We never thought about that but it is a good suggestion. There was feedback to say we could not do it on a Friday because there would be carnage on a Friday night. Sometimes we have to trust the younger generation. The young people who celebrated their results on the Friday night did not do what some people expected them to do. That will be the date. It is too late in October so we will try to bring it forward.
We do not want to have temporary accommodation. In north Kildare, east Cork, north Dublin and Trim we want to be in a position to be more responsive.
Third level funding and the potential impact of students returning after Brexit was mentioned.
There will not be a change in university status for the RCSI. After 235 years, it is now RCSI University. I was there when the Minister of State, Deputy Mitchell O’Connor, was seeing this change through both Houses. It was a highly charged and emotional day for the entire team, which was very appreciative of the cross-party support in the Oireachtas. For anybody here who went to RCSI or knows anyone who went there, graduates of the college will be changing their CVs because it does not matter when they studied there, they will be able to say they have a university degree.
University status is a big issue on the international stage. As the committee will be aware, when one travels to China or India it is important to have a university degree, it is good for Ireland and enhances the reputation of the RCSI. I wish to acknowledge Professor Cathal Kelly, CEO, and his team for their work and engagement with everybody in the Parliament.
I apologise for being late but I had to attend a meeting of the Business Committee.
I welcome the Minister and his officials. Some of my questions have been answered. I wish to ask questions on the summer works scheme and the short-term demand for prefabs in some colleges. Summerhill College in Sligo has capacity for approximately 1,000 pupils but its enrolment is well in excess of that now. I welcome the recent announcement of additional rooms and laboratories for the college and when I met the principal, he was enthused about the funding. I ask for consideration to be given in the short term to providing additional accommodation for the new students that will arrive in September.
The school transport scheme has been revised and dealt with by the Minister and his Minister of State, Deputy Halligan, but issues arise on a regular basis. Perhaps the scheme could be readjusted or whatever.
I am a firm believer in apprenticeships. As I have mentioned here on numerous occasions, we must encourage more people to avail of apprenticeships because there is a scarcity of apprentices. It is vitally important that people at all levels be encouraged to consider an apprenticeship, with which I am sure the Minister and his officials agree.
I wish to mention a parochial matter - the Ballisodare school. I congratulate the Minister and his officials no the work that has been done at the school. Recently, I met the principal of the school and learned that there is a lack of recreational facilities. Perhaps the Minister will consider funding for them.
Recently an announcement was made that the Mercy College in Sligo had secured funding of €3 million. The announcement was warmly welcomed in the last couple of weeks.
Yes, but it is important that we highlight some of the good work that has been done and the moneys spent on education. I am talking about students, the welfare of families and their children in respect of what they have experienced over the past number of years. The Chairman would be the very first person to come in here and criticise if students in both national and secondary schools were not catered for. I welcome the funding as did the principals of each of the schools that I have visited.
I will never stop talking about Sligo at any stage and at every opportunity. Any money that is made available for education in Sligo I will acknowledge it to the Minister and his officials. A committee meeting is the place to do so and I make no apology to the Chairman or anybody else for that.
Since 2014, more than 2,600 projects have been funded as part of the summer works scheme.
My officials are very eager to work with school principals on temporary accommodation issues. I urge school principals to get in touch with the Department because we do not want anybody to be without a school place in September 2020.
I agree with what the Deputy said on apprenticeships. We want to continue to place a tremendous value on apprenticeships. SOLAS and the ETBs have continued to drive that because there are young men and women in the secondary school system who know, as do their principals and parents, that they will go down different career pathway and, therefore, we will continue to focus on that pathway.
The final question was on recreational facilities. The Deputy is a good man for getting sports capital applications in from his constituency. I urge him to encourage the schools to make a joint application with a club, if possible. That is an area I want to continue to support as well.