Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Thursday, 2 July 2020
Special Committee on Covid-19 Response
Impact of Covid-19: Education – Return to School and School Transport
This session will focus on education and the return to school, including school transport. Witnesses are joining us from committee room 1. I welcome from the National Parents Council Post Primary, NPCPP, Ms Mai Fanning, president, and Mr. Paul Rolston, communications director, and from the National Parents Council Primary, NPCP, Ms Áine Lynch, CEO, and Ms Catherine Cross, services manager.
I wish to advise the witnesses that by virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to the committee. If they are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and continue to so do, they are entitled thereafter only to a qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person, persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable. While we expect witnesses to answer questions asked by the committee clearly and with candour, witnesses can and should be expected to be treated fairly and with respect and consideration at all times in accordance with the witness protocol.
I invite Ms Fanning to make her opening remarks. I ask that she limit them to five minutes as her opening statement has been circulated in advance and we wish to leave enough time for questions and answers.
Ms Mai Fanning:
The NPCPP is grateful to the Special Committee on Covid-19 Response for the opportunity to make our submission. We have advocated that all partners in the education of our nation's youth must work together to ensure that pupils and students are not negatively affected by the restrictions imposed due to this virus. The mental and physical well-being of our children must continue to be the main focus and concern for parents and educators. Commitment, creative thinking and support for pupils and schools inside and outside the classroom, and the financial investment required, must now be demonstrated and forthcoming to assist our children and students. Flexibility will also be required to ensure that our nation's children are offered the educational supports they need.
The NPCPP is particularly aware of the additional difficulties and challenges experienced by many students who suffer disadvantage due to their geographical location, background or family circumstances, those who require additional learning support and those with special needs. They and their parents need to be assured of the fairness and support they deserve in their pursuit of goals and opportunities to reach their full potential.
Boarding schools also face additional challenges and require guidance and support. The NPCPP emphasises the importance that we and all parents attach to seeing our students return to normality in education as soon as possible. Obviously, that will require stakeholders to continue to accept that unusual circumstances and conditions remain. Flexibility, understanding and a willingness to work together with mutual respect and support will be required from everyone as we progress.
Pupils and students moving from primary to secondary school and those in junior and senior cycle and transition year have already lost three months of classroom and school time in 2020. Those facing State examinations in 2021 have lost crucial midstream classroom learning and interaction time. This will potentially have an even more stressful effect than school closures had on the 2020 exam students. Learning opportunities presented by these enforced changes should be utilised fully to assist towards adjusted methods of education and final assessment.
One of the biggest problems and causes of stress and frustration in 2020 was the lack of clarity due to the unknown and rapidly changing landscape.
We know more about this pandemic now. We are beginning to function with the virus as a part of everyday life and we are aware of the many of the difficulties it brings with it. We must plan early and issue timely communications indicating the procedures and processes to be implemented in order to meet a number of possible scenarios. Doing so will ensure smooth transition and minimal stress for our students, teachers and families.
There is an opportunity - and maybe a necessity - to change the learning or study model as we move into the next academic year and into the future, but school, college and related social and community benefits to our students are as crucial to the education and development of our students as are the academic study aspects of schooling. The NPCPP appreciates that reopening our schools may present some considerable difficulties in education during the pandemic, and it has been demonstrated how vital it is for the State, school and home to work together.
Inevitably, there will be additional costs attached to getting our children back to school and education while the pandemic still looms large over all aspects of life. There must be a commitment on the part of the State to meet those costs. Some key considerations and concerns regarding the reopening of schools include: schools must have sufficient handwashing facilities and availability of hot water, antibacterial washes and hand sanitiser to satisfy hygiene requirements; schools must have induction and ongoing health training for students and staff; there should be a designated, trained, Covid-19 co-ordinator in each school, supported by Covid-19 liaison officers from the Department of Education and Skills, who should be available as and when required; schools must have additional pastoral care, counselling support and professional resources available should problems occur; systems and training should be put in place to facilitate early identification of infection; there must also be adaptability and the supported ability to respond quickly to identified problems or issues in each individual school - this will require input and co-operation from those on the ground and financial and practical assistance and support by the State and the Department of Education and Skills; and confidence in the ability of schools to manage and cope with any future pandemic.
The NPCPP wishes to assure the special committee, and all the partners in education, of its commitment to support the ongoing processes and consultations required to effectively deal with the difficulty presented by this pandemic.
Ms Áine Lynch:
That is fine. The NPCP welcomes the opportunity to make its submission to the Special Committee on Covid-19 Response regarding the reopening and operation of primary schools. While the NPCP believes that there are many considerations in the context of the reopening of schools, this submission will focus on what we believe are the top four key issues. To support this submission to the special committee, the NPCP conducted a snap 24-hour survey on Thursday last, 25 June, to which 28,744 people responded.
The first issue is partnership. Planning for reopening and operation at national policy level and at school level must be done in partnership with all stakeholders. While this has started at national level, it is vital that the reopening of schools at a local level also takes place in partnership. For the whole school community to feel safe in the return to school, children, parents, school staff and the board of management need to have input into the local arrangements that will be made in that individual school context. Better outcomes will be arrived at when all voices are taken into consideration regarding the challenges and solutions in the local setting. This may include: the establishment of a stakeholder partnership team of students, parents, representatives from the parents' association, where one exists, school staff and representatives from the board of management; a survey of parents, children and school staff; and agreed local procedures for behaviour, particularly those relating to Covid-19, and adherence to public health advice. This should all be within the context of schools' existing code of behaviour.
The survey looked at several areas concerning local and national planning. At national level, parents were asked how important it was that their children returned to school fully at the beginning of the new school year. The survey found that 91% of parents said that this was important or very important, with 20% stating it was important and 71% stating it was very important, while 8% felt that it was slightly important or not important.
At a local level, when asked what was the best way to involve parents in planning for the reopening of their children's schools, 67% indicated that the school should conduct a parent survey and 35% said the planning should involve the parents association.
The second issue that emerged from the survey is the need for all schools to be resourced and supported to identify and assist those children for whom the long school closure may have had a greater impact than it had on others. This support could include efforts to do with learning, social or emotional impacts. While schools might already know of children who fit into this category before the closure, children's lives may have been impacted in ways their schools are unaware of during the six months since they will have seen the pupils and their families. Negative events happen in the normal course of life. However, under the current circumstances and restrictions, families will have had an increased possibility of being affected by serious illness, bereavement and family relationship issues. Due to the closure, schools may be unaware of these events.
The survey addressed some specific issues relevant to this area. Specifically, parents were asked what the impact of a blended learning return to school might have on their child with a special educational need or on children who are transitioning from primary to post-primary school. A total of 84% of parents who have a child with a special educational need indicated that it would be somewhat or extremely difficult if their child were to return to school with blended learning in place. A total of 83% of parents responded that it would be somewhat or extremely difficult for their child to settle into their new school if blended learning was in place during transition.
The third area of prioritisation to emerge from the survey is the need for the social and emotional needs of the school community to be addressed in the first instance of schools' reopening. While curriculum learning is usually the core business of the school, this will not be successful if pupils' social and emotional needs are not addressed first. The whole school community will need support in this area. Parents need reassurance that their children will be safe. Children will need to know they are safe, they will need to reconnect with school life and routine, and they will need support in the changed environment. School staff will also need to know they are safe and supported. These are just a few of the aspects that will need attention. In the initial stages of their reopening, schools will need support and resources to help them through this work. This should include the existing supports provided by the National Educational Psychological Service in regard to well-being, with adaptations and enhancements where needed.
The importance of meeting the needs of students informed several questions in the survey. Parents were asked to rate the importance of a number of statements relating to different types of needs. While the respondents felt all the statements were important, some were deemed more important than others when it came to their child's return to school. The top statement of importance was that their child should feel safe, followed by, in order of importance, socialising and reconnecting with friends, the child's emotional needs being met, school staff feeling safe, parents feeling safe and, lastly, the importance of children catching up with their academic work.
When asked about their child's anxiety levels regarding the return to school, the majority - 62% - of parents rated their child's anxiety below five on a scale from one to ten, with ten being the most anxious. However, it is worrying that 3,528 respondents, or 13%, rated their child's anxiety at eight or above. The survey also asked if parents felt their child would need additional support from outside of the family to help with anxiety on his or her return to school, to which 11%, or 3,085 respondents, said their child would need such support. Of that 11%, the majority - 64% - felt their child would need individual support from their teacher. However, 45% felt their child would need professional therapeutic supports to help them cope with their anxiety.
The fourth theme emerging from the survey is that children and parents need certainty about the structure of the school day and school week. Parents have raised concerns with us regarding the possibilities of shorter days and-or weeks and blended learning. The logistical minefield such arrangements would bring for families will, in some cases, make it impossible for children to return to school however much they and their parents want this to happen. The survey looked at specific issues for parents regarding blended learning and how they feel it might impact on their child's motivation in terms of their learning at home. A total of 72% of parents felt their children would be only slightly motivated or not at all motivated to learn at home, with 28% reporting that their children would be very motivated or motivated to learn at home. This raises concerns as to whether there would be blended learning actually taking place or if, in effect, pupils would be doing a shortened school week.
I thank the witnesses for being with us today. This discussion is an opportunity for the House to acknowledge the huge stress many parents have been under during the Covid period. We have thanked many front-line workers, retail workers and all of those who have supported us through the Covid crisis.
Many parents have been looking after their own children and trying to balance childcare needs with work being carried out from home, while also dealing with educational demands. I acknowledge the strain that has been placed on parents. It underscores the need for a return to school as soon as possible.
I also acknowledge a survey which had a very comprehensive response, with 28,000 people responding to some questions. I note the finding that 91% of parents indicated they wanted to see a full and normal return to school. We need to do everything possible in order for that to happen. I am interested in getting the witnesses’ views on some of these issues, many of which are matters for the Government.
While digital technology is possible, I have concerns that those on the margins often lose out. How has the lack of a digital learning platform impacted on the learning of some children during the lockdown? With regard to the DEIS programme, disadvantaged areas and the digital divide, what technology will be needed in the home and the classroom to assist parents in whatever form of learning we have? I will allow the witnesses to respond before asking a final question.
Ms Áine Lynch:
We hope the committee will take into consideration the finding that 91% of parents want a full return to school. Much of the discussion has been around what parents are juggling at home, including work and trying to homeschool their children. What we are hearing from parents, however, is that their greatest concern about children remaining out of school is the social and emotional needs of their children, their lack of connection with school and getting back into school to manage that, rather than the juggling at home which they also recognised was difficult.
We definitely saw a digital divide, not just in homes but also in schools. We saw it in teachers' confidence and competence in teaching through digital technologies. This period has also shown that teaching is more than just a platform. It is a human interaction. It showed that we will not move to a situation where we do not have school buildings and where children no longer go to school and interact and learn with other children. As learning has progressed, we have seen a lot more teamwork between children, involving creative thinking and exploring and developing together. These are key to education and cannot be done with children individually at home on their platforms. The lack of digital access, whether to devices or broadband, obviously had a severe impact on some children.
As well as the digital element, what came through as a key point in the survey was motivation around children learning at home on their own. Even with digital technology, motivation to learn for children sitting at home on their own or with their parents was a key barrier.
The finding that 33% of students were not motivated was a telling statistic in the survey. Whatever happens in September, we will need to support parents to ensure students feel motivated. We will also need to have checks in place to ensure there is not a tail-off in motivation over time. I thank the witnesses for attending the committee.
Are the witnesses aware of the progress that has been made in providing physical facilities related to hygiene and so on in schools? Have decisions been made on these facilities and has money been made available to schools to provide them? There will have to be a lead-in time to provide them if schools are to open at the end of August or beginning of September.
Maybe the witnesses from the National Parents Council Post Primary could answer that.
Mr. Paul Rolston:
I am not aware that specific funding has been forthcoming just at the moment; we have called for it as the Deputy heard in our opening statement and in our original submission. It is obviously critical that any of these matters will stretch already stretched budgets for all schools, post-primary and primary. Additional costs relating to that are going to have to be funded, assistance will have to be forthcoming and it is going to have to be picked up by the State.
As to general health and welfare, the stipulations that are going to be made by NPHET and the health advices will require at least significant handwashing and antibacterial facilities and the cost of that will have to be provided for. To answer the Deputy's question specifically, I am not aware of any funding that has come forward yet; I do not know whether it has for primary.
I want to refer briefly to the point on digital learning. At post-primary level, one of the big things was the digital divide, which was very evident, and the broadband deficit. Post-primary students probably do a little bit more work online and certainly moving forward to third level that is a requirement. In order to facilitate learning outside school and the potential of blended learning which may be required, particularly at post-primary level, these things have got to be addressed as well.
Regarding resources, do the witnesses consider it important, both at primary and post-primary level, that particular emphasis would be made for people who have special educational needs and DEIS schools in order that they would get priority for the funding that is available? Albeit that funding is always finite in this world, do the witnesses agree that there should be a particular emphasis on those sections of the community that might fall behind because of this or on the individual pupils who need extra education and extra input over and above the amount that would be available generally?
Mr. Paul Rolston:
Absolutely, and we have highlighted on a number of occasions that those with special needs should be supported and focused on. On the cost of this, of course funding is finite, but we have seen massive investment in business and in other activities to get Ireland back up and running and the education of our children is just as important. That is why in our opening statement we referred to the fact funding must be found as it has been found for business and elsewhere in our society. Funding must be found for our schools to ensure that our children are looked after properly. That should be a priority as much as getting our economy back; our education of our children is our future economy and we must see investment in that.
I would not like there to be any misunderstanding - that point is absolutely taken. In providing resources Mr. Rolston does agree that we have to have particular regard for the needs of the DEIS schools and for those who need special education.
I have one final question. I apologise but we are very tight on time here.
Has any of the witnesses any knowledge of the percentage of second-level students who are up against a barrier of either lack of broadband or lack of devices? It could be the two different problems in two different areas, or it could be both problems in the one area. Do we have any percentage of how many students, particularly at second level, have got caught by this divide?
Mr. Paul Rolston:
We did a survey in the middle of the leaving certificate which indicated that there were a significant number of people who were having problems like that. As for an exact percentage, I could not give one to the Deputy, but it is significant and if recollection serves it is over 30% of people who had little or no access. The problems were twofold. First, there was broadband and, second, there was access to devices, or an insufficient broadband facility where a number of devices were using one hotspot or broadband facility. It was quite high, in excess of 30%.
I thank the speakers for their presentations.
What consultation, if any, did the witnesses have with the Department? Did they have meetings with the Department when school closures kicked off on 12 March? Did it keep them informed of various developments and changes? Have they had meetings on the reopening of schools?
We often hear about a lack of consultation with many other sectors so that is good to hear.
What are the witnesses' opinions in general on the reopening of schools? I ask this mainly as a parent. Children have been out of school now since 12 March. Notwithstanding the academic issues and the fact that certain people are more nervous about the risks of Covid-19, it has been a long time since kids experienced the school rush, the basic routine of getting up and going out to school in the morning. They have been totally isolated from friends, although we are seeing a little bit of a return to normality in that regard. Many children who might have been at home all the time, particularly children in rural areas, will have struggled with learning from home. I will return to the issue of learning from home. What are the witnesses' opinions on the practicalities of getting kids back to school? I do not believe schools will be able to open in September for five days a week. As much as we all want that for our children and their development and to allow parents to get back to work, that is not a realistic approach. What are the witnesses' opinions on that? Should we consider having a two-day or three-day week for a certain amount of time to ease children back into school given that it will be a serious shock to the system?
Ms Áine Lynch:
The difficulty with talking about children as a collective is that all children are different. Some children will adapt to going back to school easier than others. What we need to do is ensure we support parents and schools because we do not know how this will go. We have never had a situation where children have been out of school with their families for such a prolonged period. Some children may experience separation anxiety. Some children will have heard more about Covid-19 than others while they have been out of school and will already be coming back to school with some anxiety. That came through in our survey and what parents were saying about their anxiety around returning to school.
When children return to school it is important that schools are seen as a supportive environment. As I said, the curriculum should perhaps be put on the back burner for a while. Reconnecting with the school and teachers and being able to socialise should be prioritised at the beginning. Different children will find the return to school difficult and it is important that schools approach the issue on an individual basis.
Partnership between the home and school is key to all of this. While this has always been important, communication between home and school is more important than ever. Planning the reopening needs to be done in partnership between the home and school. It is important that parents are consulted on how schools are reopened and that their input is sought and included in the plans for reopening. Those kinds of anxieties can then be alleviated where possible.
I like the idea of putting the academic aspects on the back burner, even until Christmas, to give children a chance to ease themselves in again. This crisis has been difficult for children but they have handled it really well. It will be even more difficult in September when we suddenly tell them everything is back to normal even though, to a certain extent, nothing will ever be normal again.
I do not believe enough was done for children with additional needs in recent months. The committee discussed this issue last week. A lot of changes could be made to the summer provision programme. What are the witnesses' opinions on the position of children with additional needs? Have they been contacted by many parents of children with additional needs? Do they believe enough has been done for these children? What needs to be done for them in September?
Ms Áine Lynch:
We had much contact from parents of children with special educational needs. It was a really difficult time as parents were struggling, children were really struggling and we had many examples from parents of how much of a struggle it was. There were other cohorts of children who also struggled, including children in homes where there were difficulties arising from disadvantage, home violence or other issues in overcrowded homes. There were many children in this category about whom we had particular concerns.
There is the question of whether enough was done. We lobbied for some time in trying to get schools reopened in June. It was very difficult as we were also competing with public health advice, and that discussion was ongoing. We really welcome the extension of the programmes for children with special educational needs and children from areas of disadvantage. We are concerned about children who do not fit into those categories, including children in mainstream schools who have special educational needs and who do not come under that remit. There are also children who may have a very difficult home scenario but who do not live in DEIS areas. We have concerns about those children.
There must be a planned approach to how to support those children and families when the children return to school. There is a risk some children may be disengaged from education over the past couple of months; they may already have been at risk of disengaging and there has been a long period out of school. For some children, March was the last time they engaged with their education and they have not experienced home learning. There is much there so we must ensure we plan well in advance of the return to school to ensure children with special educational needs and those with other levels of disadvantage are supported in their return to school, along with their families.
I thank the witness and I appreciate much of what she is saying. I agree with a large part of it. To be very honest, as a parent I found home schooling very difficult when trying to juggle it with work. My experience is that children react totally differently to a parent trying to teach them than a teacher doing so. I hope we will never be back in this position again but if something like it occurred again, what recommendations should be given to the Department with respect to home schooling? Parents who contacted me have told me the process was ad hoc in places, with some schools being great and really understanding issues with broadband etc. However, the setting of homework was never-ending with others. As the witnesses said, each child is different and it is difficult to speak about children as a collective. What specific changes should be recommended to the Department with respect to home schooling if we ever saw anything like this again?
To be honest, I do not believe it works. Perhaps it might work very well for some students but it caused unbelievable stress and anxiety in houses around the country as well. What are the views of the witnesses?
Ms Mai Fanning:
I look at this from a secondary school perspective as home schooling that the students had to do for themselves, as parents were not always involved. We had all the problems that came with the digital troubles, as some families had problematic broadband etc. One of the major problems communicated by many parents and students was the lack of motivation and the difficulty in trying to find a space within an already full household where a student could calmly apply himself or herself to a project or lesson, for example. It is difficult to be put into a position like that when the person has never done any form of remote learning. All of sudden, in March, our students were thrown into this. There was added stress for students in the junior cycle or leaving certificate classes. It is a stress that is continuing into 2021.
Schools may reopen with full-time school attendance, blended learning or a mixture.
The fact remains that our 2021 examination year students will have missed a substantial amount of their classroom time. The curriculum needs to be adjusted to deal with that because they will be going back into school and will be expected to hit the ground running as far as their academic studies are concerned.
The other problem we will have within that is the subjects that are not academic subjects but are more practical and project-based and how they will be catered for. All we can say is that if there is planning into the future we have to look at 2021 and 2022 because this virus will not disappear overnight. As we do not know what the health guidelines will be in two, three, four or five months' time, we need to have preparation made in advance that will set out a timeline and a structure for the way our education will look over the next couple of years. It will alleviate all of the mistrust and the stress, both on students and on parents, going into the future if we have a plan in place and if we can communicate that plan effectively to parents and to students.
Mr. Paul Rolston:
Can I add briefly to that? Regarding home schooling, particularly for post-primary students, one of the big problems we had was that we landed into this without any warning. We went from a situation where everything happened in school to, all of a sudden, one where nothing happened in school. Training is critical from that point of view. We must learn from the problems we have had. I refer to training for the students as to how they may do some study at home and how that might link with the schools, training for parents to help them understand, because they were simply thrown into the home schooling scenario without any assistance or understanding, as well as training for teachers from the point of view of how they can co-ordinate teaching within the classroom with assistants and perhaps assisted study or study at home. We are in a position where we have learned a lot about what is lacking. We have identified, through this crisis, the importance of the link between school and home and how those two must mingle and support each other. The problem is that everybody was thrown into this with no training whatsoever, at nobody's fault because this virus hit us like a tonne of bricks from nowhere. We now see the problems and we need to go about addressing them. People are talking about Covid-19 possibly being around for a couple of years, as Ms Fanning said. We have got to have ideas and develop structures and training around how we might manage these matters. The face of education, post-primary and tertiary, is changing hugely anyway so we do need to address those matters, I believe through training.
I thank the witnesses for their answers to date. It is very difficult when we are in two different rooms in that we have a clock in the Chamber but the witnesses also have a clock in the committee room. We are asking people to try to stay within the ten minutes or five minutes allocated. Otherwise, some people will not be able to get in at the end, and everybody here should have an equal opportunity to ask a question. The next speaker is Deputy Carroll MacNeill of Fine Gael, who is taking ten minutes.
I thank the witnesses for the work they have done over the past number of months and their engagement with the Department. The voice of parents is very important at this time and I thank them for everything that they have done.
I want to raise one overarching issues and then a few practical issues, if I may. The overarching issue is mental health supports for young people of all ages getting back to school. It is one thing to have disruption of four or even six weeks in terms of not getting quite as far ahead in the curriculum, long division or whatever else but the mental health side of this could have much longer impacts. We have seen that children of different ages will react to this period of disruption and loneliness in different ways. What conversations have the witnesses had with the Department in regard to supporting children, as well as supporting parents to be able to support their children as they move back into this difficult transition?
Ms Áine Lynch:
We have had very recent discussions with the Department on this issue, and particularly with the survey we did recently.
Some parents felt their children would need therapeutic supports to manage their anxiety around returning to school. Even if those children do not all need therapeutic supports, it is clear that supports from external agencies will be vital. It is very easy to say that schools need to support children's mental health, well-being and emotional needs when they return, but we must ensure schools are supported in doing that. They do not normally play that role with abnormal anxieties. It is really important that the National Educational Psychological Service offers additional therapeutic supports to schools that are having particular difficulties with children re-engaging and reconnecting with school.
That is absolutely right. When Ms Lynch uses the phrase "therapeutic supports", which is featured in the survey, it sounds like it must be something external, expensive and perhaps a bit frightening for those who have not accessed it before. However there is a halfway house, namely, training in child psychotherapy and play therapy provided through the colleges of education or otherwise. These supports can help children to settle in and address lower-level issues. The idea of external professional therapeutic supports sounds scarier than it needs to. A lot can be done through the colleges of education and the other support mechanisms Ms Lynch has referenced. This will be the most important element of the reintroduction to school, particularly for the first term. I would be glad to continue that conversation with Ms Lynch.
The return to school and the transition from August to September is a difficult time for lots of children. This does not just concern mental health or children with additional needs. I refer also to children with medical needs. Managers of the neurological unit at Our Lady's Children's Hospital, Crumlin tell me that every year they make sure they are fully staffed in September because children with neurological issues often experience significant stress. They tend to present a great deal more in September than at any other time.
I would like the National Parents Council to continue to engage with the Department on a couple of practical issues. Blended attendances and the dropping off of children must be managed from the practical perspective of parents. Can the National Parents Council urge schools to organise this on the basis of surnames? It would be crazy for a working mum or dad to drop off their children at two different times and organise the rest of their day around that. Jimmy in first class and Jack in second class should be dropped off at the same time whenever they are attending on the same day. This must be thought about from the perspective of families. Other care supports will be needed to accommodate periods when kids cannot be in school every day. Has that come up in the survey or as a concern of parents? It has certainly been raised with me.
Ms Áine Lynch:
Parents have certainly raised that with us. It is one of the reasons we want schools to reopen fully. Any form of blended learning will have mental health implications and will raise issues around reconnecting. I refer also to the family dynamics of trying to sort out multiple drop-offs. There is a limit to how much a school can manage because sometimes a family's children are not all in the same school. This is another reason why children need to return to school fully. All of those pressures and anxieties around getting to school, different class teachers etc. add to children's stress levels when they return and will have an impact on them. This is not just a technical planning scenario for parents. Those anxieties and pressures on the family will impact on how children reintegrate at school.
I anticipate a scenario where parents are asked to drop children to school a long time before classes begin. What conversations is the National Parents Council having about how and where children can be cared for between being dropped off and the beginning of lessons?
Ms Áine Lynch:
We have health advice on the reopening of schools. That will now inform planning carried out by the Department of Education and Skills and stakeholders like ourselves. It is really important that plans for local schools are made using a partnership approach. Parents must have an input when schools plan the drop-off and collection of children in order that whatever is rolled out makes sense to both parents and schools.
I hope that a partnership approach and planning will mean that the right scenarios are put in place.
A partnership approach is also going to be necessary in explaining the new arrangements to children in an appropriate way, using language that recognises their stage of development. That must be done in a consistent way by schools and parents. What conversations have our guests had about that sort of co-ordination and how new arrangements can be communicated to children in appropriate language?
One issue that has been raised with me relates to the opportunity for cross-curricular learning in different environments. More could be done by taking some of the curriculum outside by conducting physical education through Irish or other things. Children might have to come appropriately dressed for such activities, in tracksuits and not pinafores, as it were. Has there been any discussion about adapting the curriculum in order to deliver learning in a cross-curricular way that respects that we are now in a changed environment?
Ms Áine Lynch:
Those discussions were happening before the Covid-19 pandemic but will speed up in the same way that discussions about digital technology and learning have speeded up because children are learning at home. Discussions are taking place between the Department and the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment about how the curriculum will work when children go back to school. That kind of blending of the curriculum is important anyway because learning happens across many different areas. It makes more sense to children when lessons are integrated. This time lends itself to doing exactly what the Deputy suggests.
Ms Áine Lynch:
I am happy to reply, although I want to give my colleagues an opportunity to come in if they want to. The situation outlined by the Deputy is where we come to the individual needs of children. Schools will obviously need to be guided by the medical advice such children are getting. Schools are very caring environments. Long before Covid-19, school representatives have been doing their level best to connect with these kinds of children who, even before the current crisis, had difficulty with school attendance.
Schools have had to grapple with remote technology. That means they will have more ways at their disposal to connect with children who are not well enough to come into school, or are so immunosuppressed that it is not recommended that they do so. I know that happens anyway and some children who are in hospital have done video links to classrooms. There will be much more of an opportunity to expand those kinds of things. Schools have experience of using technology such as Zoom a lot over the past number of months. I am hopeful that will be a means of supporting those children.
I thank our guests for their participation, submissions and research. Our guests represent parents groups and not students and I wonder what consideration was taken of input from children in forming views. I am aware that my view of what my child thinks might be very different from what my child actually thinks.
The committee could consider inviting representatives of student groups before it because that might be beneficial. I do not know if there is such a plan but I make that suggestion.
If the medical advice and transmission rate supports such a proposal, would our guests be comfortable if little or no social distancing requirements are in place for primary and secondary schools at the beginning of the school year? What are the views of parents on that issue?
My next question is to Ms Fanning or the representatives of secondary schools. There is a cohort of forgotten fifth years of whom we are going to have to take consideration. Those students have lost out on a chunk of the leaving certificate curriculum and there must be a concentration on that group as they go into sixth year.
Do the witnesses have a view on that or has it been considered by parents of those fifth years?
Ms Mai Fanning:
I am just going to address the fifth year and third year students. It is something that we at the Department of Education and Skills advisory group have discussed at length and will continue to discuss. Also in attendance at that meeting is the students' union, so we do have input from students. The fifth years and third years have missed an enormous amount of classroom and study time at an extremely important time in the curriculum as it stands. This will, of course, have to be addressed by the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment, NCCA, and the State Examinations Commission for 2021 examinations. Being able to cover the curriculum completely would be a feat for any student or teacher. The 2021 leaving certificate and junior cycle will have to be addressed and it will have to be adjusted. There will have to be provision made given that the entire curriculum cannot possibly be covered in the time that is going to be available to them. By the time they get back to school and settle in, they will have effectively lost three to four months of study time for that curriculum. Adjustments will have to be made.
Ms Áine Lynch:
On the consideration we are giving to the children's voice in what we are doing, the snap survey was over a 24-hour period and we had to turn it around very quickly. We are also doing a piece of research with NUI Galway aimed at parents and children. A survey is out at the moment and I think we have received nearly 2,000 responses to date from parents and children. We are hoping to get the results during the summer for that piece of research. It is around the impact that home learning has had on children and also their views about going back to school. We will be able to provide the committee with any information from that when it is available.
I thank the Deputy for that suggestion. Obviously we would like to bring in student representatives for a future meeting, as we would like to bring in representatives of special needs assistants, SNAs. I thank the Deputy. I would just like to make a point before we go to the next speaker, Deputy Gannon, about how people are selected. We have a secretariat which is guided by a working group comprised of representatives of everybody here, including representatives of Deputy Gannon. Ultimately, decisions are made by the entire committee in our sessions. I appreciate that there is disappointment that representatives of SNAs were not able to come in today. I very much appreciate Deputy Matthews's suggestion about bringing in representatives of students. That will be considered and hopefully we will be able to do so at a later date.
I would just make the point to Deputy Gannon that if he has any suggestions, unlike people on Twitter, he is elected to this House, sitting in this Chamber and on this committee. I have engaged with every member of this committee and every Member of the Dáil who wishes to make a proposal to the best of my ability. If the Deputy wishes to make a proposal that Fórsa come in on behalf of SNAs, that anybody else come in on the behalf of SNAs, or that Fórsa come in on behalf of anybody else, I would greatly welcome that suggestion. The Deputy does not have to go on Twitter to make the point. He could make it to me personally and could have made it to me personally. He did not, for whatever reason. As a member of this committee, the Deputy will also appreciate how limited we are in terms of the number of sessions we can have. We have gone from two sessions to six. I have expressed the view that we would like to have more sessions. The Deputy has a representative on the Business Committee to make that point for us. The Deputy is also very aware of how limited we are in terms of the number of people we can get in. It is not like normal times. There are limitations and we are very confined in the number of groups we can bring in on a given day. We cannot have a session that goes on all day. I do not wish to take up any more time but I would just make the point that my door is always open to the Deputy, as it is to any member of this committee, for any suggestions. We do have a procedure. There is a meeting on Friday morning, there is a working group, and ultimately the work programme is agreed by all members of the committee.
It was my intention to suggest having SNAs appear. The Chairman said that my party has a representative on the committee. I have five minutes to speak whereas members of other parties may speak for twice as long. If my party's contributions to the procedural committee were as valid as those of others, we would probably not have less time than others.
I thank the witnesses for their valid and worthwhile contributions. Both submissions stated that mental health supports will be needed when schools reopen to deal with the wave of trauma we will experience. They also noted the trauma experienced by secondary school students. That issue must be taken into consideration. Many schools did not have sufficient supports to deal with the level of mental health need before this crisis and that problem will be exacerbated in September. What do the witnesses suggest in that regard?
Mr. Paul Rolston:
Our submission covers quite a lot of what the Deputy mentioned. We have said there must be adequate pastoral care and counselling support with professional back-up and resources. Having been away from school, getting back to school will be a massive change for all students and pupils, particularly those with special needs and those who are disadvantaged in some ways. We must look after these students very carefully in our schools. Each school in the Irish system is autonomous. Schools have to work with parents.
The previous speaker asked whether we will be happy for our children to return to school if the medical advice is that everything is okay. We are in a period where, as always in life and in education, there are going to be calculated and considered risks attached to any moves we make. The importance of the mental wellness of our students is clear from the point of view of the social aspect of their being back in school and with their peers. They are critical and we have spoken about that, as have all our colleagues today. Schools must be adaptable should things happen quickly. If a particular student requires support, facilities and personnel must be available to provide that support. To reiterate the final point we made in our opening statement, pupils, parents and teachers must be confident that schools can manage in the event of a problem or difficulty arising. While I hope that will not happen, it may well happen. Ensuring supports are in place will give confidence.
On supports, does Mr. Rolston recommend that a representative of the National Educational Psychological Service be on the ground in schools to deal with the more extreme cases that might emerge or should that be a matter for guidelines? When I raised this point with the previous Minister he told me that if NEPS staff were needed in schools, they would be provided on the ground. Last week, a representative of NEPS told this committee that such support would take the form of guidelines. What would the NPCPP like to see in that regard?
Last week, the ESRI suggested that schools focus on course-based subjects such as maths and English and that students should not do physical education classes. I disagree and I would like to hear the thoughts of the witnesses on that.
Mr. Paul Rolston:
We would not agree with that either. The bottom line is that education is much more than just pure academics. Many people have suggested many possible methodologies for changing the curriculum and how we do things.
We are trying to teach our children to love learning in order that they can learn for themselves outside school as well as in school. Sport and physical exercise are crucial in the context of mental wellness, socialising and many other aspects of children's wellness. Neither primary nor post-primary parents would be happy if the curriculum were changed and sport and similar activities withdrawn.
Prior to Covid, there was a meeting in Athlone which was attended by parents' groups, including the NPCPP and the NPCP, on special needs facilities and the maintenance and increase of supports within schools. Those discussions have been shelved or at least paused because of Covid. The matter was being addressed. The parents demanded that the level of support for special needs students in our schools be ramped up significantly.
On transport, and school buses in particular, in my constituency there are at least three schools where parents have been told in recent weeks that school buses will no longer be available. The schools to which I refer are St. Mac Dara's community college, St. Paul's secondary school and Tallaght community school. Previously, the buses went to housing estates to collect students. It was very convenient for students and their parents. Effectively, parents and students in those post-primary schools are being told they will need to use another bus service, which might involve having to change buses. It is de factoputting the onus back on parents to arrange for students to get to school. Is that an issue across the country? What is the impact of it? Is it a matter on which the National Parents Council is in discussion with the Department or individual schools? It seems to be creating a problem for parents.
Mr. Paul Rolston:
The NPCPP has met those who look after the school bus transport system. We do so most years because at the beginning of each school year some students experience problems getting to school. We have not had such a meeting so far this year. We are in the middle of dealing with the issue of whether students can get back to school and how that will be done. Obviously, health and safety measures may be required, as they are on normal public transport. That naturally suggests that we may need more buses rather than fewer. The issue must be addressed. We have not yet met those responsible for school bus transport this year. Getting to school is just as important as being at school. It is a critical aspect of school life.
On the issue of mental health, the figures referenced in Ms Lynch's opening remarks and the survey to which she referred are striking. She stated that 11% of parents believe their child will need additional support from someone outside the family to help with anxiety and that 45% of those parents believe the child will need professional therapeutic support. The parents of 5% of children in primary schools are saying - and I believe them - that their child will need a professional therapeutic service. The truth is that that level of service is not available. There is already a difficulty whereby much in-school counselling is carried out by people who have more training in career advice than in mental health or psychotherapy. Is there a need for extra mental health supports? I refer to stepping up mental health support within schools. There should be a roll-out of mental health programmes, with professionals running classes and fully trained psychotherapy and counselling services being available within schools. The area is underfunded but such services are available in universities. There is probably a general need for such services in schools, but that need is highlighted at this time.
Ms Áine Lynch:
A number of things were raised by parents in their more detailed comments around this. One issue highlighted was in terms of the support from someone outside the family and how the individual class teacher giving individual support to a child was seen as the biggest area of support. More than 60% of parents made reference to this. One complication is that when children go back, some will be going back into a different class with a different class teacher. The connection they had with the previous teacher is not available to them in the same way. We need to plan to see if we can work something in through the schools whereby children going into new classes have some connection with their old teacher as well. That may be where they think they can get the most support from.
For a long time, the National Parents Council Primary has been advocating for in-school therapeutic supports and an education therapeutic support system. We need to understand the importance of the school staff - especially the class teacher - with whom children are engaging all the time. We need to support the teacher through training to enable the teacher to offer the first line of support to children. That in itself would alleviate the anxiety of some children and some of the mental health problems that arise. In the first instance we need to ensure support for all children in the system through the class teacher having additional support. Then, we need more specialised support for smaller groups of children and individual children. We have been advocating for that to be increased for some time.
I thank our contributors today. I want to go back to Deputy Paul Murphy's discussion on school transport. I questioned the former Minister with responsibility for transport, Mr. Ross, in the Chamber some weeks ago regarding support to the bus sector and the public service obligation. Although he gave a commitment on public sector funding for public transport, he made no mention of funding for all the private bus operators. In Waterford, three large private bus operators work under the public service obligation for school transport. They have had no engagement, nor, as far as I know, have they had any update from the Department. They have written regarding their concerns about capacity issues and social distancing. The current bus fleet would have to be magnified probably by a factor of three or four to provide the same service. They do not have the drivers. There has been no engagement.
While we are talking about education and getting children back to school, one fundamental component, which also affects the intellectual disability area, is being missed in that no one is speaking for the transport operators or how they are to provide a service in future. I call on the parents council bodies to engage, as a matter of priority, with the stakeholders and the Department. I can see this as one of the legs under the stool that will not be in place when the schools return.
Reference was made to the facilities and the requirements of social distancing. We know there are many schools in the country, especially in rural parts of the country, that will not manage social distancing and do not have the capacity for it in the schools. They may get funding for personal protective equipment and sanitisers etc. but they simply will not be able to accommodate the children. One component of the curriculum, especially for post-primary education, includes the need to try to engender esteem, as well as problem solving and group-think and so on. None of these things can really be done remotely. What strategies do the witnesses have in place? I do not believe there is a hope of getting all the children back to school in September.
Mr. Paul Rolston:
The strategy has been discussed within the advisory group. From that point of view, the indications may be that we cannot have a full return to school. That is a problem. That is what brings in the possibility of some remote learning. What exactly is taught and learned remotely is part of what the discussions will be around. We highlighted on several occasions within our submission, our opening statement and previously the fact that where blended learning has to be used to facilitate teaching of the full curriculum, it should be examined properly. Training has to be given, as I mentioned before, to teachers, students and parents on how those things can be done.
We have the broadband issue too. This was mentioned a little earlier. Incidentally, while approximately 30% had little or no access, some 80% or 90% of students and parents said the broadband connections they had were insufficient and broke down on an ongoing basis.
They are aspects that had to be looked at.
With regard to the curriculum and how matters will pan out, there may well be a blended learning scenario. The subjects and aspects that have to be taught remotely will have to be appropriate, properly discussed and agreed to.
Representatives of the business community appeared before the committee earlier in the week. One statistic they highlighted was the significant correlation in 18 to 23 year olds post leaving certificate between what they have achieved in education and what they begin to earn. The unemployment factor will be very important in the context of the opportunity for kids coming out of school and we will face significant challenges in this area. The curriculum needs to be fundamentally shifted and re-examined. I think of children learning theorems and so on, which many of them may not have the opportunity to use in later life. I would like the curriculum to be broadly based, particularly in transition year and beyond, on getting children integrated with working scenarios and the SME community to give them an offering and to get them going as quickly as possible post secondary school.
Mr. Paul Rolston:
The senior cycle has been looked at in recent years. We are certainly very involved in that regard, as are all the partners. There is general agreement that the old-fashioned, leaving certificate-style senior cycle has to be changed and moves are afoot to do that. The Deputy is absolutely correct that, without a shadow of doubt, it will be a very different world in terms of work and the economy in the coming years. Money is being thrown at business, as we have highlighted, and it is being made available, not only by the Government but also by Europe. Education needs a chunk of that money; it cannot just go to everything else. There are significant problems with how we manage our education and the teaching of our children. Alongside some of the changes that will take place and that are being considered within the senior cycle, and the move from second to third level, the funding of that will be critical for all sorts of reasons, many of which have been mentioned.
I thank our guests for attending. I wish Deputy Foley the very best in her new role as Minister for Education and Skills and I pay tribute to the former Minister, Deputy McHugh, who was very fair when in his position.
I am involved with the board of management at a school in Schull in west Cork. I can see at first hand the problems that schools will have with the return of students, which has left many unanswered questions to date. I will ask a number of questions and our guests might decide among themselves who will answer them. Is there any indication from the Department of Education as to whether schools will get a larger budget to cover cleaning and personal protective equipment, PPE, costs?
Many schools that applied for the emergency works funding were denied it. Is there any indication that funds for such schemes are drying up due to the Covid-19 crisis? Many schools in west Cork applied, including Dreeny national school, which is located between Skibbereen and Drimoleague, and Scoil Mhuire na nGrást in Belgooly, and need funding immediately to carry out safety procedures. Is the same funding available now that was available prior to Covid-19?
On transport, is there a plan or clarification on whether additional school buses will be provided? What will be the seating plans on the buses? Will the children have to wear face masks? In general, is any type of a plan in place or is it still being figured out? The closed school rule for transport was introduced some years ago when a number of small schools in various parts of the country were closed and amalgamated with larger schools in parishes. The pupils of the small schools were guaranteed transport to the new, larger school, which was known as the closed school rule. Unfortunately, under the Government before the last, the closed school rule for transport was discontinued, which has caused significant problems in many rural parts of the country. It caused major upset for parents prior to Covid and has now added further stress in my constituency, in places from Kilbrittain to Glengarriff. Have the unions lobbied for the closed school rule to be reintroduced?
Mr. Paul Rolston:
There was quite a lot there. The bottom line is we are a lobby and advocacy group for parents. We bring our requirements, observations and concerns to the Department of Education and Skills.
There are ongoing meetings on Covid. We advocate for parents and bring the problems into the forum but we cannot make decisions on what the Deputy is asking about. He is asking whether there is extra money for school transport and educational changes. I stated there is a chunk of money coming from Europe and the Government and it is to be available for various things. Education has got to get a chunk of that chunk. That is the position on funding, which seems to be at the core of some of the questions the Deputy is asking. We are asking for the support.
I fully realise the delegates' bodies are not the funding bodies as such and that the funding body is the Department. One of the first questions I asked was whether there are any indications from the Department on whether schools will be getting a bigger budget for cleaning and personal protective equipment. Surely there is some indication. If the delegates are lobbying, they are surely getting some answers back. Are they getting any?
Ms Áine Lynch:
There have been discussions on cleaning budgets, hand sanitisers and such matters. That is part of the planning. We were waiting for the health guidance. It has clearly indicated to us what is needed in schools. Until we knew what was needed, it was very difficult to plan. The guidance came out only yesterday. What is important now is that the Department, with us and other stakeholders, starts to consider how the guidance needs to be implemented across schools.
What is coming back from the Department to the delegates on transport? Is there any talk about the seating plans? Will children have to wear masks? Is there any plan in place overall? Has anything been figured out yet? Will extra school buses have to be provided? What is the indication from the Department?
Ms Áine Lynch:
The discussions on transport are at a very early stage but there are indications that the Department is having discussions with the transport companies and that there will be provisions to make school transport safe. Children, as with members of the wider community, will be encouraged not to use public transport where possible and instead cycle or walk. There is an ongoing discussion with the transport companies on where cycling and walking are not possible.
Absolutely. A lady down in Innishannon wrote that book. Emergency works funding has been denied to schools. Many could be closed if they do not get the money to address their urgent issues. They are being refused. Has the money dried up? Have the delegates been lobbying in this regard? Is there any indication from the Department?
I thank the witnesses. I join my colleagues in wishing the incoming Minister for Education and Skills the very best of luck in a very challenging role. She will have the support of her colleagues and the officials in a very challenging time. I thank the outgoing Minister, Deputy McHugh.
Will fifth-year students who are proceeding to sixth year sit the leaving certificate examinations in 2021?
Ms Mai Fanning:
I will take that question. Judging from the discussions that are taking place, the aim of the Department is that the leaving certificate examinations will be run in 2021. Our issue, however, is that the curriculum needs to be adjusted and that consideration needs to be given because the fifth-year students who are to go into sixth year in September have not had adequate time to cover the syllabus as it stands. Therefore, adjustments need to be made in the final year of their leaving certificate cycle. This also applies to students who are to proceed from second year to third year and who will be doing their junior cycle examinations in June 2021.
Those groups would have to have their curriculum examined. All would hope that Covid-19 would behave itself and the exams would be able to proceed as normal, to a degree, in 2021 with adjustments being made to the curriculum to address the lack of school time that has been experienced. It is like everything else; we need plans to be put in place and clear, considered and precise directions given to schools so that parents, schools and teachers alike all know where they are going with exam students.
Whether there is a mixture of blended learning or classroom time, they need to know that the curriculum can be covered effectively and confidently by parents, students and teachers who need to have confidence in the curriculum that will go forward for examination. This leads to a discussion on how we need to continue to examine and re-evaluate our education system, how we progress and whether we need to step up and move faster to the point where we remove the necessity for a terminal examination at the end of one's school life. That discussion is going on and will continue to go on, irrespective of whether Covid-19 has an impact on our education system in 2021 and 2022.
To summarise, it is the ambition of the Minister, speaking in July 2020, that the leaving certificate will be held in the traditional format in 2021 if, as Ms Fanning says, Covid-19 behaves itself and it is also the ambition of the Minister that the junior certificate will likewise be held.
I am not trying to trap Ms Fanning. I have a supplementary question. All going well, it is the ambition that those two sets of State exams would continue if, as Ms Fanning said, the virus behaves itself. Having come through what we came through with this year's leaving certificate, if the virus does not behave itself is there a date on or beyond which the NPCPP will decide it cannot trust that things will work out the way we want them to work out? One of the significant lessons from this year's leaving certificate was the lack of decisiveness when it came to making a decision. I appreciate the vast array of influencing factors that had to be considered in making that decision, but I suspect that by the autumn or the return of the school year, which is two months away, a definitive decision should be made on that.
Ms Mai Fanning:
I would agree with Deputy Lahart. We are looking for decisions to be made. Having said that, we have to take into account the fact that we do not know precisely what the health advice will be in September or October. Decisions need to be made and we need contingency plans to be in place. I would be confident that could come about because the departmental advisory group that we as a parents' representative body are involved in is very progressive and open, and all topics and ways to progress through the pandemic are discussed and openly considered. Nothing is left off the table. The logistics of implementing any one avenue is looked at. We are still in the middle of that discussion.
I will stop Ms Fanning there, because my time is up. I have several questions, but I am grateful for Ms Fanning's response. I will take the answers that the witnesses gave to previous questions on school transport and school transport providers as given in the context of the situation in my constituency.
Are there any plans to test students or teachers for the virus? Are all schools obliged to implement the Covid-19 return to work form? What are the guidelines from the Department on that matter?
This issue may have been covered already, but those advocating on behalf of SNAs are saying that there will be difficulties regarding social distancing when it comes to PEG feeding, meeting hygiene needs and-or providing assistance in a classroom. I would also like some details in respect of PPE provision. Several schools may have this problem, but I am thinking, in particular, of Gaelscoil Chnoc Liamhna in my constituency which is located in a rundown, 20 year old, prefabricated building. According to the news reports this morning, social distancing is difficult and challenging there. I know the witnesses do not have a magic wand, and many of these issues boil down to money, but when will it possible to give a definitive outline to parents, the vast majority of whom want their children to return to school in September, of the circumstances in which children can return to school and what kind of procedures will be in place regarding social distancing? I refer to teachers or SNAs in this regard.
I turn now to children with special needs. I hear awful stories about July provision. It is like a tapestry: the front looks fine, but looking around the back it is possible to see the squiggly bits. It is not working for parents who have children with special needs at home. By 1 September, those children will have been at home for six months, with all the associated pressures and mental stress involved with that. If there is a requirement for physical distancing, what consideration is the Department of Education and Skills giving to this issue? If there is a requirement for all children not to attend school each day because of physical distancing requirements, what consideration is being given to families where both parents are working and to families where the single parent is working?
Turning to blended learning, I suppose having a decent broadband system would have created a level playing field. One of the stories I consistently hear from parents concerns the demand on broadband at home. It is fine if there is just one person with one laptop, assuming all students have laptops or tablets, which they do not. What kind of consideration is being given to situations where there are multiple demands on IT at home but only one piece of equipment? I refer to where a parent is working remotely from home and there is an impact on the bandwidth and strength of the broadband feeding into the system.
We take many things for granted, particularly living in urban areas, although two thirds of my Dublin constituency is rural and there are issues with broadband in parts of the area. We talk about blended learning, however, and there seems to be an assumption that everybody has equal access to these blended learning facilities. What have we learned in recent months regarding blended learning? Those are my questions.
Ms Áine Lynch:
There are many questions in that group, and I will try to start with the first concerning testing children for the virus. There are no plans that we are aware of whereby children will be tested for the virus in schools, other than what is happening with the normal population when people have symptoms. I am not aware of any other plans in that area.
Moving on to blended learning at primary level, the indications we are getting from parents is that it does not work. It may work better for more independent learners as they get older, but young children are not independent learners yet and the teacher is an important factor in their learning. Blended learning, therefore, is not always about access to devices or broadband. It is more about where the child is at in the context of his or her ability to learn independently. Generally, what we are hearing from parents is that the home school learning happening at the moment is not working in the majority of cases, and it is working less and less as time has gone on.
Mr. Paul Rolston:
Blended learning is probably more of a feature from a post-primary point of view, as we have mentioned. We have raised many times the matter of the disparity in the quality of the broadband signal and in the availability of access to devices. As the Deputy pointed out, this is, by and large, a funding issue. We advocate and campaign for support for schools, children and families in all those areas. The answers to the questions the Deputy is asking relate primarily to funding. We absolutely are engaged in advocating for those supports but, ultimately, it is the Department, the Minister and the Government making the decisions as to what is available. I refer again to the chunk of money that has been made available for industry and everything else. Education is critical and it has to be funded adequately.
Ms Áine Lynch:
I would add that home learning and blended learning reinforce inequality. Inequalities existed in the first place, before we ever started with home schooling and began looking at blended learning. These new measures will reinforce the inequalities that are already in the system for some children.
I welcome the witnesses and thank them for their comprehensive briefings and reports. I have a couple of questions regarding the preparedness of people, like the witnesses, who will, in many instances, find themselves on the front line. In the case of boards of management, for example, I am sure there are many people represented by the organisations presenting to the committee today who sit on school boards. As somebody who has sat on boards of management in the past, I can say that they are often almost invisible until problems arise. Are the witnesses satisfied that adequate training and guidance have been given to members of boards of management, including parent representatives, as to how to deal with each of the potential scenarios that may arise out of the return of pupils to school following the Covid-19 closures?
Ms Áine Lynch:
At the moment, without having seen the plans for the return of schools, it is hard to have the boards of management prepared. However, when there are plans in place to prepare schools for reopening and for their operation when they are open, we think it a key feature that the boards should get additional support to manage the ongoing processes in schools.
Concerns are expressed in all the submissions we received for today's meeting regarding various facilities in individual schools. We are aware that some schools have narrow corridors, smaller than average classrooms or smaller than average toilet facilities. However, I note that there is mention in two of the reports that not all schools have access to hot water, which seems bizarre in this day and age. Will the witnesses indicate, in the first instance, whether they are aware of schools to which that applies and, second, if they are aware of any particular structural deficits which the Department needs to sort out before we can expect any return to school?
Mr. Paul Rolston:
We absolutely are aware of schools that do not have hot water and we agree that it is very surprising. It is one of the points we have raised that there must be adequate access to hot water and proper handwashing facilities. It does seem strange, from a healthy and safety point of view, that some schools do not have that, even prior to Covid. It is critical that they have it now. This type of work must be undertaken and these are the kinds of things that need to be funded very quickly. The direct answer to the Deputy's question is that we are very aware of these issues.
Does Mr. Rolston have any information as to whether those schools have made contact with the Department to inform it of the deficiency in what is a fairly crucial piece of infrastructure? Can he tell us whether the Department is engaging proactively enough to ensure that this issue is resolved before schools reopen?
Mr. Paul Rolston:
We do not have any information in that regard.
Schools are autonomous, by and large, so they deal with the Department on a one-to-one basis. We campaigned for this for all schools, as I said, but in relation to any specific school I am not aware that any complaints have come through us. However, that would not be a natural channel for it to happen.
Ms Áine Lynch:
Although we are also aware of schools that do not have warm water for children to wash their hands and we want all schools to have that facility, we would not want that to prevent schools from reopening. The health guidance has addressed that specific issue in terms of making sure there is hand sanitiser available and stipulating the type of soap that is used if there is not hot water to ensure handwashing is still effective and a lather is achieved. The health advice has addressed that issue and while we think all schools should have warm water, we would not want that to prevent schools from opening.
On that health advice, can I ask our speakers whether they are satisfied, as parents’ representatives, that the advice regarding outbreaks of Covid-19 in particular schools is clear enough? Is there a clear pathway to be followed by school management? Does the advice give the witnesses the confidence to inform parents that they can be secure in the knowledge the right procedures are in place?
Ms Áine Lynch:
The guidance is for the Department and for us as stakeholders. How we break that down into very specific guidelines for schools will be really important. Clarity will be of the utmost importance. As stakeholder groups and the Department, we need to look at how that will make sense to schools, parents and children in local schools.
I thank all the witnesses for the work they have done with the Department, schools and students over the last number of months, which has been a very difficult time.
I wish to raise an issue the witnesses have touched on already, which is remote learning. Do the witnesses feel there will have to be some element of remote learning and that not all schools will be able to return fully? I particularly want to know the number of schools, according to the witnesses’ information, which are lacking an adequate connection because of access to broadband. Are there primary or secondary schools where that is a difficulty, and what is the scale of it? Are the witnesses aware of plans by the Department to fast-track resolving that issue?
The second issue I wish to raise concerns students going into the final year of the two-year leaving certificate course this year. Do the witnesses believe we need to do a lot more to assist them? They will be facing into an examination system and have lost a valuable three or four months. Has there been engagement with the Department on additional supports to be put in place for these students?
Ms Mai Fanning:
I will take that question on assistance for leaving certificate students. That is an ongoing conversation. As I stated before, the leaving certificate syllabus as it stands has to be looked at and readjusted because of the amount of time that has been lost. It is not only the curriculum that needs to be looked at. There are other psychological supports that need to be put in place to alleviate the distress and worry the students will undoubtedly encounter at some point on their journey through the leaving certificate course.
Whether the curriculum will be adjusted enough for them, whether they will get extra assistance to cover the course as it is going to be laid out, or whatever psychological supports are in there, that is all still under discussion so I do not have a definitive answer to give the Deputy on that. That is still all part of the Department's advisory group's discussions and those of the other advisory groups that are in place at the moment for the State Examinations Commission, SEC, and the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment, NCCA, as well which are looking at the curriculum to see what needs to be done to facilitate it being completed by students with the least amount of stress and disruption possible. Without having any definitive decisions being made, the possibility of remote learning and blended learning cannot be discounted either. Facilities will have to be assured and put into place for each student irrespective of the social demographic in which he or she lives or exists so that everybody has an equitable and fair attack at completing their leaving certificate cycle. That is where we are at.
Ms Áine Lynch:
On digital access, one of the difficulties at this time was not whether the schools had the digital access because teachers were teaching from their own homes as the schools were closed, so that caused a lot of the difficulty. One of the questions asked was whether remote learning would be a feature of the future. It will be, particularly for children who are immunosuppressed or have underlying health conditions. It may be quite a feature of their future.
Although up until now I have said that there have been real difficulties with the home learning for younger children who are not independent learners, we have also learned of things that have worked very well and we really need to make sure that we capture that and develop those. There are lots of learning applications that children really engaged with. RTÉ's "Home School Hub" worked very well, and we got very good feedback from parents and children about that. There are certain formats that have worked well and we need to make sure that we learn from those so that in the case of children whose return to school will take longer, we are able to provide them with the best learning experience possible.
Regarding the actual connections to broadband in the schools themselves, do we still have a problem with some schools and do we know the scale of that problem? Teachers worked from their own homes because the vast majority of them had access. In some cases it was very difficult but they still put in the work and effort to ensure that they were able to communicate with their students. However, in my own constituency, as an example, I have one particular primary school which has difficulty accessing broadband, so it is going to have a challenge. Are there a number of places around the country where we have a major problem with schools not having access?
Ms Áine Lynch:
Broadband access was always something urgently sought by primary schools, but I think Covid-19 and the home schooling that we have been going through has made that even more important. However the connectivity has to be on the other side as well. Often where the schools are having difficulty with a broadband connection, the homes in that area are also having difficulty with connections because of the rural nature of where they live. It is really important that we manage both sides of that connection.
I accept that. I want to return briefly to the issue of adequate space in schools. At the moment we have 2 m distancing and some schools will have a huge problem with that. When schools go back on 1 September perhaps that will have been reduced downward.
On the issue of not all students coming to school at one time, for instance, where people are coming in the morning and then a different group arrives in the afternoon, does Ms Lynch think that is a feasible proposition that will have to be looked at?
Ms Áine Lynch:
There is potential for great difficulty in it, but where we are going to get success is where schools, parents and students work together in finding the local solutions, because schools are different in terms of how many entrances they have, how many places people can leave from, where the buses stop, the width of the corridors, the size of the classrooms and such. The only way we are going to get success in terms of planning for that, whether it is different drop-off times or whatever the response will be, is if the parents and the school work together to find solutions.
Ms Áine Lynch:
We are in the very early stages of planning this so we are waiting to see where individual schools are at. Schools are only just starting to look at these issues now with the health advice that has come out, because until yesterday they were not even sure of what needed to be put in place.
I thank the witnesses very much for coming in. I have a number of questions. Hot water is an issue that was raised. Indeed, I know that the national school I went to applied to get hot water and was not able to because it was not determined to be an emergency. The Department rightly decided that. This is not a criticism of the Department. It must do what it can with the resources available. However, emergencies are something that happen, for instance, if a tree falls on a roof or if a window breaks. That is how it defines emergencies. There are summer works programmes but none was scheduled to happen this summer. The hot water issue falls in between, and until now there has not been an administrative scheme that covers things like hot water or even adaptations to schools which are required because of the new circumstances we appear to find ourselves in. I sometimes wonder how we can find ourselves being unique in Europe whereby schools have gone back all over Europe and we have not. Covid-19 poses the same threats to the physiognomy of Irish people as it does to Austrians, Danes, Swedes or those in the United Kingdom, for that matter. However, that is a different issue. Do the witnesses think there is a need for a summer works-type programme to introduce hot water for handwashing and other adaptations that are required for schools in this instance?
Ms Áine Lynch:
From the point of view of the National Parents Council Primary the emphasis should be on getting all children back to school at the start of the school year. If that requires resources to adapt buildings or hot water to get those children back, then that needs to be done. We should not have any situation whereby children are unable to return to school because an adaptation to a building was needed to allow that to happen. That being said, we cannot rebuild schools over the summer either. That must be managed in a way that is feasible over the period and that will support the return of all children back into primary schools.
I appreciate that is a question that may be better asked of the Catholic Primary School Management Association, CPSMA, which has indicated an interest in coming here, but we are limited in the number of people we can bring in. I thank the witness for her answer.
There has been much more home schooling than anticipated, and more certainly than would have been anticipated 12 months ago. That is limited by broadband connectivity to the schools, but equally, and perhaps even more pertinently, by broadband connectivity in the home. The national broadband plan has been the subject of much discussion in this Chamber and politically generally. It is not clear what the priority will be for who will be connected first. Inevitably, some people will be connected first and some will be connected last. Is there a case to be made for the homes of children who may need to be schooled at home or who may need access to good quality Internet for an educational purpose that was not anticipated 12 months ago?
Ms Áine Lynch:
Absolutely we would support that. Getting all children back to school is a priority, but we know that within that ambition there will be children for whom returning to school will not be possible because of their individual circumstances.
We should be ensuring we can do everything to help them connect to the school. It is not just about getting schoolwork done but ensuring that students can remotely connect with the school in a social sense as well. Broadband is really important to maintain the connection so those pupils should be prioritised.
Every school is very different because of a wide variety of factors, including the parents, parent council, board of management, teachers and location of the school. Schools are often affected by the socio-economics of the area in which they are located. Have the witnesses seen much variance in home schooling that occurred in schools across the State in the past academic year? I specifically refer to the number of classes, the follow-up, available resources and the engagement by both the school and student in the home schooling.
Mr. Paul Rolston:
Within the post-primary sector, it varied quite widely. Much of that was because of broadband facility and access, and in particular this was the case for some of the disadvantaged homes. For example, a number of people may have been trying to use one poor broadband feed into a home.
The bottom line is that post-primary education is really about preparing students for third level education or the workplace. Information technology and access to an online environment is an integral part of both of those goals. This must be a focus in supporting our students in schools and supporting the schools in their ability to teach properly. They must have full and active broadband. It was certainly a priority and one hopes it is still a priority. It is something we pushed for. Hearing stories of any school not having proper broadband access is a major concern.
The closure of schools for three months because of Covid-19 demonstrated the requirements as mentioned by Ms Lynch and others. We must learn from those and implement some of the lessons. There was mention of summer school works and those kinds of emergency provisions. Some of these are required so that education facilities can deliver an education to our children. These are emergencies. As Ms Lynch has said, it is critical that we get our children back to school and some semblance of normality. We must facilitate that and no more than paying companies to support them and keep people in work, we must see these as costs that will have to be borne, supported and paid for in order to get our education system up and running where it needs to be right now and in the short and medium term as we recover from Covid-19.
This should be no different from the supports put in place for workplaces or individuals. Education is critical in the development of any state and it must be seen as a priority for funding where the requirement exists.
Ms Áine Lynch:
At primary level we saw a variety of experience from different schools. Technology was not the only issue. One of the really important aspects of learning after the school closures was the partnership between families and schools. Where there had already been a really good culture of partnership within a school, the relationships continued and supported the child's learning. Where the culture was not as strong in a parent-school partnership before a school's closure, the partnership had to be established or developed. The partnership between home and school was also vital in how successful the home learning environment could be.
It is an interesting concept. How did it work out when a relationship was created where it had not existed, or at least not as strongly as schools may have liked? Are there lessons to be learned from that? Is there guidance that could be offered? Surely there must have been unfortunate cases where, despite the best efforts of the school or parents, it was not possible to develop the relationship.
Ms Áine Lynch:
Yes. We would have regular contact on that with the Department of Education and Skills. There are decades' worth of research which indicates that where the parents are involved in their children's learning, the children do better. When we have a crisis like this one, some of those issues become more evident because of that crisis. Clearly, that parental support of children's learning at home and the connectivity between that parent and the school can make a critical difference to children managing through this system. It has highlighted the importance of always working on those relationships within the school. They are important when schools are open, but they have been even more important during the time when school buildings have been closed.
I have a final question. I am very much minded by what Deputy Matthews said, namely, that we need to hear the voices of students, particularly in the context of the question I am about to ask now. On the leaving certificate, Mr. Rolston stated that second level education is about preparing students for third level and for entry to the workplace. I agree with him that that is very much the attitude that has prevailed in Ireland since the time I did my leaving certificate some 25 years ago to now. It is not necessarily about an education in itself and that the leaving certificate is just that moment that measures whether one gets to do the apprenticeship or the course in university or college one wants to do. Is there confidence among students and their parents in the grading system that has been developed and, in particular, how that will be adapted to a bell curve based on this combination of factors, including how a school has done historically, and of course private schools, where parents can afford to pay very large sums of money and which tend to come top of school league tables?
Mr. Paul Rolston:
The bottom line on the calculated grading system is that the vast majority of people have bought into it. Everybody has bought into the options. I should say that the vast majority of people have done so because there are those that either option does not suit or it is difficult for them. In the crisis, the solution sought was hammered out among the Department, the parents, the students and all partners in education to try to come up with a system whereby there was a reasonable and a fair reflection of a student's work so that they could make progress on to the next phase of their lives. There is reasonable confidence in it but the bottom line is that when it comes out the far side, it is still not delivered yet so we are still awaiting the calculated grades. There is reasonable accommodation in that if the students are not happy with the calculated grades they can take a seat at an examination but the knock-on effect of that is that effectively they might have to move their third level course on to the following year and lose out on a year. In a crisis, those things happen. Ultimately, when the calculated grades system comes through, as when the leaving certificate results and points come through, there is a facility for appeal. We were adamant that a robust and transparent appeal system would be in place should any student wish to appeal. That process will still have to go through.
Having said that, in the broader picture, in senior cycle review there has been a movement away from rote learning and the requirement to teach students to learn. That has identified the importance of the home and school, parent and school link and support for the student in his or her holistic learning. Covid has been-----
Will we ever see a leaving certificate based on rote learning again or have the floodgates opened? Will there now be some scope for continuous assessment as in the A-level system in the United Kingdom? There are many countries where examination systems are not based on the ability to spew out information that has been learned by rote on a given morning and which determines students' knowledge of the English language, the Irish language or chemistry.
Mr. Paul Rolston:
I do not think "the floodgates opening" is an appropriate phrase. It is far from that. People are taking a considered view of these matters. The fact of the matter is the senior cycle has changed. There is already ongoing assessment in several subjects. There are portfolios and other aspects as opposed to a terminal examination. The requirement for a calculated grade arose from a situation that had to be dealt with. It was discussed and accepted by everyone around the table as being reasonably fair to everybody and there is reasonable confidence in it. The discussions have to continue. We will learn a lot from this year. Crises often bring opportunities.
I have one last question. I am very conscious of time. Back-to-school expenses have traditionally revolved around schoolbooks, school uniforms, school shoes etc. This year the requirements are very different and include IT subscriptions and hardware. I was a Government backbencher when there was no funding and I am very aware that finances are always limited. Subject to funding, however, is a different back-to-school programme needed to take account of additional expenses around computers and access to broadband? These are expensive items.
Ms Áine Lynch:
The main thing we want is to see our children back in school. Hopefully those items will not be necessary because children will be learning in school. To support schools in managing increased expenses, we would seek an increase in the capitation grant, as we do every year. That will be more necessary this year than in any other to offset some of the additional expenses schools will incur.