Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees

Thursday, 12 November 2020

Select Committee on Education and Skills

Estimates for Public Services 2020
Vote 26 - Education and Skills (Further Revised)

Photo of Paul KehoePaul Kehoe (Wexford, Fine Gael)
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The Minister and Minister of State as ex officiomembers of the select committee shall, for the purposes of dealing with the Estimates, be counted for the quorum. The meeting has been convened to consider the Further Revised Estimates for Vote 26 - education and skills and Vote 45 - further and higher education, which have been referred to this committee by Dáil Éireann.

I welcome the Minister for Education, Deputy Norma Foley, the Minister of State at the Department of Education, Deputy Josepha Madigan, and their officials. I congratulate both Ministers. The Minister of State has bee at the committee before but I know this is the first time the Minister has been before us. It takes a little getting used to but we will get through it - the Minister can be reassured of that. There may be issues on which the Minister wishes to get back to members. Perhaps the officials will take note of those and the Minister can revert to the members individually.

Since the Minister and Minister of State are present, the officials should not speak during public session. I call on the Minister to make her opening statement. Members can ask general questions on Vote 26. They will have four minutes each as we are under time constraints. The Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, Deputy Simon Harris, will attend at 12.30 p.m. I appeal to members to stick to the Estimates when asking questions.

Photo of Alan FarrellAlan Farrell (Dublin Fingal, Fine Gael)
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I wish to make a point of order, not to correct the Chairman but to ask if responses to individual queries could be issued to the secretariat as it is committee business.

Photo of Paul KehoePaul Kehoe (Wexford, Fine Gael)
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That is perfect.

Norma Foley (Kerry, Fianna Fail)
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I thank the committee for the opportunity to speak this morning. As the Chairman outlined, I am accompanied by the Minister of State, Deputy Josepha Madigan, who has responsibility for special education and inclusion, and officials from my Department. I am conscious that I have only five minutes to deliver my opening statement. I will, therefore, give a very brief overview of the Further Revised Estimates for my Department for 2020.

The Further Revised Estimates for 2020 reflect three matters in particular. They provide for the restructuring of Vote 26 to move subheads and related funding to the new Vote for the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science. They also include substantial additional funding to meet costs associated with the reopening of schools and sustaining teaching and learning as part of the Covid-19 response. They also include a provision to meet other expenditure pressures on the Vote.

The Revised Estimates for the entirety of Vote 26 were approved by Dáil Éireann on 16 July last. Since then, the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science has been established and a range of statutory functions transferred to it from what was the Department of Education and Skills. As part of the Revised Estimates process, a new Vote is being created for the new Department - Vote 45. In simple terms, two of the three programmes which comprised Vote 26, namely, programme B, skills Development, and programme C, higher education, are being transferred out of Vote 26 with a total of €2.332 billion in funds being transferred to the Vote of the new Department. Some functions remain to be transferred to the new Department and, therefore, some funding is being retained in Vote 26 for 2020 pending finalisation of that transfer. These will be reflected in the 2021 allocations.

The Further Revised Estimate for Vote 26 before the committee comprises several elements. The original allocation of €8.237 billion was to meet the various requirements of the Department in the areas of first level, second level and early years education, including a significant capital allocation of €745 million to support the school building programme. An additional allocation of €331 million, including an additional capital allocation of €180 million, is to support and sustain the reopening of our schools in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic. A net additional allocation of €142 million is to meet additional costs in areas such as payroll, pensions and temporary school accommodation. This additional allocation requirement has been offset somewhat by savings arising from the cancellation of the State examinations in 2020.

A high level of uncertainty remains over the level of funding required for the remainder of 2020 due to unpredictability, as Deputies will appreciate, of the ongoing health crisis and the impacts it has on the running of our schools. Therefore, a prudent approach has been taken in estimating the 2020 additional allocations to ensure sufficient financial supports are available for schools, if required. It is important to note in this context that any unspent contingency funding will be surrendered back to the Exchequer after the year end in the normal manner as part of the annual Estimates process.

These Estimates were drawn up in late 2019 as part of the 2020 budget process. Much has changed since then. A significant proportion of remaining Vote 26 funds are expended on gross pay and pensions, with sums of almost €6.6 billion included in the Vote for these purposes. This represented some 81% of the expenditure allocation. Some 89,000 public servants and 42,000 public servant pensioners are paid out of these funds. Other significant expenditure areas include capital infrastructure, grants to State agencies, school transport and capitation grants to schools. The additional allocation in 2020 was aimed at delivering a range of measures in the education system that I outlined as part of the approval of the original 2020 Revised Estimates in July. Given the time constraints, I do not propose to go through the specific measures. I will, however, address the issue of Covid-19.

We are all well aware of the impact that Covid has had on our schools, especially students. To say it has been a challenging time for all concerned would be an understatement. I express again my gratitude to all involved in ensuring the safe and sustained reopening of our schools. As members will be aware, the Government in late July approved a funding package of €437 million as part of the roadmap for the full reopening of schools. Funding was made available to sustain school reopening and for the replacement of teachers and non-teaching staff unable to attend work due to Covid-19, additional release days for principals and deputy principals and enhanced cleaning regimes and personal protective equipment, PPE, in the current school year.

Funding was also included for the continuation of additional educational psychological services to provide for well-being supports for students and additional Covid-19 supports for the transport of pupils in the school transport scheme.

Some €211 million of the package is included in the 2020 Estimates, with the balance being included in the 2021 Estimates, as announced on budget day. Members will recall that it was necessary to implement current public health recommendations for reduced capacity on school transport for post-primary students. These recommendations have led to further additional costs, and an allocation of €15 million is now included in 2020 for this purpose.

I am particularly pleased that a significant additional capital allocation was provided for as part of the Covid response. A €75 million allocation was provided for as part of the July stimulus package to assist with the reopening of schools. It is part of the initial financial supports included in the roadmap for the full reopening of schools. An additional €105 million of capital has now been allocated. This €105 million in additional funding consists of €80 million in capital funding announced in budget 2021 as an additional allocation for expenditure in 2020, and now a further €25 million has been allocated for 2020 to provide further financial assistance in sustaining the operation of post-primary schools.

This additional €105 million will facilitate the bringing forward of the ICT grant and minor works grant to primary schools, planned for 2021, and the delivery of projects. It will also allow for an exceptional minor works grant payment to post-primary schools.

Early payment of the ICT grant is particularly important in the context of supporting schools during the Covid-19 pandemic. The €50 million in funding can be prioritised to ensure all schools are in a position to support remote learning should it be necessary for a class or group to isolate for a limited period.

The minor works grant funding of €30 million allocated for primary schools and an exceptional minor works grant payment of €25 million for post-primary schools provides good flexibility at local level to assist schools managing in the Covid environment and to put more sustainable arrangements in place. The payment of the grants at this stage gives schools a good lead-in period to plan and undertake works that support the operation of the school in the current school year and assist in catering for requirements going into the 2021-22 school year. The minor works grant will be paid automatically to schools in the free scheme and on an application basis to fee-charging schools on a case-by-case basis.

I trust that this overview is of assistance to the committee. I am happy to discuss these issues in more detail, and I commend the further Revised Estimate to the committee.

Photo of Alan FarrellAlan Farrell (Dublin Fingal, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Minister and Minister of State for attending. I am not sure Ministers would be happy giving up part of their budgets under normal circumstances but, under the current circumstances, we probably welcome it.

I have a couple of queries on additional budgets, particularly in respect of the Minister's reference to additional release days for principals and deputy principals, among others. One concern that has been expressed to me on numerous occasions relates to the amount of support available to principals in the current circumstances, particularly with enhanced cleaning arrangements and the amount of time that must be spent in this regard as opposed to the day-to-day running of their schools. While the release days are welcome, of course, there are not enough hours in the day. I wonder about the merit of additional posts of responsibility, perhaps even on a short-term basis. Might the Minister have a comment on that? My point also applies to teaching principals, although they are limited in number. This might also be worthy of comment, however.

I have a query on the capital budget for this year. I appreciate entirely that fair portions of the capital plans being implemented around the country have been affected significantly by Covid but I wonder whether the committee could be made aware of the budgetary allocation versus that which will not be spent in the current year and the projections for the completion of projects. That is probably quite a broad discussion that we could and should have at a meeting of this committee but if the Minister had any comments on it now, they would be helpful.

My final query is on special education. I obviously welcome the new model for the allocation of special needs assistants, SNAs, in particular, and resource hours. Has any formal study been completed in the Department on the number of hours lost to students with additional needs? Are there plans within the Department to address this in some form, be it in the current academic year or as part of a rolling plan for additional supports for the affected students?

Norma Foley (Kerry, Fianna Fail)
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On the capital projects, almost €800 million is available. We envisage the delivery of more than 200 schools building projects of various sizes before the end of 2021. Some 145 projects are to begin mid-year, around July. That involves a substantial investment in the programme.

Regarding the allocation of the additional days to principals and teaching principals, the news has been received very positively within the schools. It is very much welcomed and a very necessary support. Regarding other supports, we will obviously keep everything under review as we proceed.

The Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, will refer to special education.

Photo of Josepha MadiganJosepha Madigan (Dublin Rathdown, Fine Gael)
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Regarding SNAs, the Deputy will be aware that on the reopening of the schools, we put in place €14.7 million. This was to facilitate the reappointment of an SNA where there was an absence. We are aware that the role of an SNA is critical in every school if children with special needs are to function in the school environment. It was vital that we ensured immediate replacement of SNAs. The funding also applies to cleaners, secretaries and caretakers but SNAs do play a pivotal role. We have been very conscious in the Department that we have increased the number of SNAs incrementally over the years. Since 2011, there has been a 78% increase, which goes to show our recognition of SNAs. We have also provided a new SNA training programme, which has just been launched in UCD.

With regard to a formal study, the Department continually looks at its data. One of the difficulties regarding SNAs is that the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform has told us consistently that it will not be possible in the future just to use the SNA model-----

Photo of Paul KehoePaul Kehoe (Wexford, Fine Gael)
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I must cut the Minister of State off. Perhaps she will reply directly to the committee in writing.

Photo of Donnchadh Ó LaoghaireDonnchadh Ó Laoghaire (Cork South Central, Sinn Fein)
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I thank the Minister and Minister of State. I acknowledge that there were good points in the budget, particularly on special education. However, as I have only four minutes, I will focus on some of the areas about which I have concerns, two in particular.

The first area concerns capitation. I am aware that there was an increase but it primarily related to the allocation at the start of the year to get schools open. I am speaking to representatives of many schools who are very worried about their financial position, for several reasons. First, the refuse costs of some schools have increased by a four-figure sum. Second, given the desire to have some sort of ventilation, the schools' heating costs are going through the roof. Third, schools are very reliant financially on the voluntary organisations, community organisations, music teachers and so who hire rooms in their buildings. This income has collapsed. Many schools are very worried about what their financial position will be at the end of the year. If there has not been a need for further capitation increases in this school year, there will be. I want the Minister to respond to that.

On a related matter, I saw the tweet of the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, yesterday. I welcome it but it is not acceptable that, according to Fórsa, one in five SNAs is not being provided with medical-grade face masks. If there is an issue with funding or any other such matter, will it be resolved? Can we ensure that all SNAs will have access to medical-grade face masks? SNAs cannot social-distance so medical-grade face masks are essential.

The pupil-teacher ratio was reduced. It was reduced in urban senior schools in band 1 of Delivering Equality of Opportunity in Schools, DEIS.

This meant that the majority of band 1 DEIS schools did not benefit. Whether that was an oversight or a deliberate decision, it is unacceptable and must be reversed. I am aware of one DEIS school in Cork city, although not in my constituency, where, because of a combination of a suppressed post due to falling numbers and the failure to reduce the pupil-teacher ratio, the school has had to combine two classes and there are now well over 30 in that class. That is not acceptable. Some of the most disadvantaged schools and children in the State missed out on the reduction in the pupil-teacher ratio and I call on the Minister to reverse that.

Norma Foley (Kerry, Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Deputy. With regard to the provisions that have been made available to schools this year, we are talking of a package in excess of €437 million, which supports four to six hours of daily additional cleaning within the schools and the purchase of PPE and hand sanitisers. All of that is covered in the allocation and, indeed, there is a balance of €226 million which will be paid to the schools for the remainder of the academic year, from January next to June.

The Deputy raised the issue of urban band 1 DEIS schools. With regard to the general pupil-teacher ratio, it has been universally welcomed that there has been a reduction of one point from 26:1 to 25:1 and, equally, there has been a reduction of three points in the enrolment requirement for the retention of a teacher. A very benign attitude was taken this year in particular, given the situation with Covid, in terms of those schools that are in a position to hold onto a teacher this year where they might have fallen short of the number of pupils, and the greatest flexibility possible was applied. The Deputy is correct that for urban band 1 DEIS schools, the reduction was from 24:1 to 23:1. There is, of course, the other provision in the junior aspect, where there is a ratio of 20:1 and it is 22:1 ratio in the vertical schools.

There is a package of DEIS supports. I am currently reviewing this and consideration is being given to a wide variety of supports and aspects of that package that can be introduced.

Photo of Donnchadh Ó LaoghaireDonnchadh Ó Laoghaire (Cork South Central, Sinn Fein)
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I welcome that and I hope it extends to the pupil-teacher ratio.

Photo of Josepha MadiganJosepha Madigan (Dublin Rathdown, Fine Gael)
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I am aware of the Fórsa campaign in regard to the wearing of PPE. With the reopening of schools, we have provided €30 million for PPE. The Health Protection Surveillance Centre, HSPC, advice is very clear in regard to the wearing of face masks for SNAs. What it says is that, in the general course of events, a normal face mask will suffice, unless they are performing a task relating to intimate needs, for example, washing a child. In that case, they should be provided with medical grade face masks. In every other circumstance, we follow the public health advice. It is very clear in the guidelines that were sent to all schools on 9 October that, other than for performing intimate needs, a normal face mask is sufficient. That is what the public health advice says very clearly. I would add that all schools have access to centrally procured PPE suppliers.

Photo of Paul KehoePaul Kehoe (Wexford, Fine Gael)
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I call Deputy Ó Cathasaigh.

Marc Ó Cathasaigh (Waterford, Green Party)
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I have quarrelled with Deputy Ó Laoghaire before as he always goes before me in committees and asks all the questions I was about to ask. I particularly want to go back to the issue of the DEIS schools. The pupil-teacher ratio needs to be followed through and those schools should see the benefit as well.

The point is very well made about the fact there will be no parents association fundraisers this year and those are very often the events that buy the sports equipment. Therefore, provision will have to be made for that shortfall. With regard to the provision of SNA equipment, it is profoundly difficult for SNAs to socially distance, as I know well from my experience in the classroom.

Deputy Farrell referred to capital spend. We have to assume that less of that is going to be spent this year under level 5 restrictions. Do we have a figure for that? Do we know if the Department is going to surrender some of that very welcome capital allocation?

While I welcome the increase in the school transport spend, is it sufficient? I understand the restrictions that had to be imposed on school transport in order to reduce transmission. Are we confident that, with the increased funding allocation, we are getting to the point where we can provide school transport to those students who need it?

I assume the expanded staffing arrangements that were announced under budget 2021 are not included in these Estimates but will be going ahead.

My final point concerns ASD provision. In the current Covid crisis, we are very fixed on the money that needs to be spent in the very short term but we need to see significant investment in the provision of places for students with ASD. Is there any plan to expand that allocation?

Norma Foley (Kerry, Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Deputy. In terms of the allocation for school transport, and acknowledging the capacity requirement that now exists, there was an agreement following a memo that was brought to Cabinet. I want to acknowledge the generosity in recognising the need to meet that public health demand and, all along the way, where there have been changes, we have been very flexible in a desire to implement everything we are asked to do. There is an excess of €100 million being made available to ensure we can meet the capacity that is required from the school transport point of view.

With regard to the capital spend, I reiterate that we are very confident we are on target for the 200 builds to be completed by the end of 2021 and also, significantly, the 145 projects that will begin midstream. That is just short of €800 million and we are very confident we have the desire and the capacity to deliver on that because it is very important.

I recognise the circumstances in which schools find themselves. Every step along the way, there has been no difficulty in terms of funding going into the schools, which is universally acknowledged. Some €437 million is being provided, one of the biggest single allocations to schools, so funding is not an issue currently in regard to the provision for the needs within the school.

Photo of Josepha MadiganJosepha Madigan (Dublin Rathdown, Fine Gael)
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The Deputy is correct that ASD units are extremely important. Within the school building programme, there is obviously scope to provide special educational needs, SEN, classes, which we do. It is worth noting that, in 2011, there were only 548 special classes whereas, for the year 2019-20, there are a total of 1,618 special classes.

I am aware of the fact autism in particular is growing in prevalence, not just in Ireland but internationally. It is something we are looking at. I know the National Council for Special Education, NCSE, has a forecasting model and a five-year plan so we can ensure every child who has special needs will obtain access to a class. As the Minister indicated, there are approximately 200 school building projects which will deliver some 116 new SEN rooms across the country. It is an issue we are extremely aware of. There are many different reasons for the increase in autism, which we can talk about at another time. Suffice to say, the building unit has confirmed to me that every new school built in the future will automatically provide those SEN units, which will alleviate the need to look for places in the future. We will try to work in a collaborative way to ensure existing schools can open up classes and, if not, we will look to opening up new schools or to expanding the existing schools.

Photo of Pádraig O'SullivanPádraig O'Sullivan (Cork North Central, Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the Minister and the Minister of State. I acknowledge the unprecedented situation in which they have found themselves in the early months of their tenure and I acknowledge the great work that has been done. I was the deputy chairman of the education and training board, ETB, in Cork for five years and still keep in touch with a number of principals. To be fair, it is universally acknowledged that great efforts have been made to keep our schools open. I was just reading the international news this morning and the number of countries across the world that have been forced to close schools in the past couple of weeks is massive.

I commend the Minister and Minister of State on the job they and the Department have done up to now. I welcome again the comments on the capital funding budget where there has been a massive increase of almost 12%. There are a number of schools in my locality, which is a growing suburban area, where there is a lot of house building. The fact that increased budget is there is extremely welcome for areas such as Carrignavar to the north of Cork, which will hopefully benefit from that in the future. I think the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, was on a call yesterday with a number of principals in Cork on the provision for special needs education. I want to flag that Cork is lagging behind. I welcome her comments about the building of ASD units being mandatory. That is a welcome position to take because Cork has one of the greatest deficits in terms of provision for that sector.

Previous speakers touched on school transport. I plagued Ministers over the summer months on this issue. While I welcome that additional funding, which is due primarily to Covid, going forward a review must take place. Previous Ministers have given that commitment but, unfortunately, they were not in a position to follow that through as they are no longer here but I hope and urge that the review take place. School transport is not fit for purpose and many rural areas in particular suffer because of that. I urge that this be taken into consideration. I wanted to make those two points and welcome any comments.

Norma Foley (Kerry, Fianna Fail)
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I know school transport is a particularly significant issue in the Deputy's area and he has raised it on a number of occasions. I know that an additional €15 million is being provided just for the increasing number of children within the system anyway . As I said previously, almost €100 million has been made available in respect of the additional 50% capacity.

The Deputy is correct that there is a need for a review and work is ongoing presently to finalise its terms of reference.

Photo of Josepha MadiganJosepha Madigan (Dublin Rathdown, Fine Gael)
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A number of meetings between the Department, the National Council for Special Education, NCSE, Cork management and the Cope Foundation, which is the patron of Scoil Aislinn, a special school located on Boreenmanna Road, Ballintemple, Cork, have taken place to explore the expansion of Scoil Aislinn. The Deputy may be aware of that. That goes back to my point about working with existing schools and other options to facilitate the enrolment of children who are currently without a school placement. A number of building projects are being re-examined in Cork to see if they have any potential capacity. The process, ultimately, is ongoing and includes an engagement with local patrons and the ETB. The board of the Cope Foundation has committed to also engage on longer-term options as well, as required. It is supportive of taking on the position of patron for the development of a new special school if that is required. I am aware of the issues in Cork and I am looking at them closely.

Rose Conway-Walsh (Mayo, Sinn Fein)
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Most of my questions have been asked. The Minister may recall that prior to 29 September, I raised the question of the outcome of the arbitration process that had recommended a cumulative pay increase of 10% between 2016 and 2019 for staff and that a minimum hourly rate of €13 be phased in over that period. That arbitration agreement was a step forward for paid secretaries and caretakers. Given, however, that the funding to implement the terms of the arbitration agreement was available to schools during the period of the agreement, which concluded on 31 December 2019, does that mean schools have lost the funding for ongoing support for secretaries, cleaners and caretakers? They are telling me they have, although they may be gaining some funding in other areas. Could the Minister clarify that?

Photo of Paul KehoePaul Kehoe (Wexford, Fine Gael)
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Some of the Deputy's questions are outside the scope of the committee. I do not expect the Minister to know everything about this but I will ask her to comment.

Rose Conway-Walsh (Mayo, Sinn Fein)
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If the Minister could even write back to me to clarify this, that would be okay as well. I accept she may not have that information with her. I welcome that she has said on the record that funding is not an issue within schools. We look forward to working with her and seeing how that pans out, particularly with ASD, transport and many of the other issues. I will leave it at that.

Norma Foley (Kerry, Fianna Fail)
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At every step of the way we were conscious of the measures that had to be put in place and, indeed, will continue to have to be put in place in respect of Covid-19. At no stage have we been reluctant when it comes to finances. Specifically on the issue the Deputy raised, I will ask for clarification on that and will ask the officials to directly reply to her on it.

Photo of Paul KehoePaul Kehoe (Wexford, Fine Gael)
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Deputy Ó Ríordáin is up next.

Photo of Aodhán Ó RíordáinAodhán Ó Ríordáin (Dublin Bay North, Labour)
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I thank the Chairman. I would like to have been put closer to teacher's desk for behaviour.

Photo of Josepha MadiganJosepha Madigan (Dublin Rathdown, Fine Gael)
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She is the principal, I am just the assistant.

Photo of Aodhán Ó RíordáinAodhán Ó Ríordáin (Dublin Bay North, Labour)
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I thank the Minister and Minister of State for their attendance. I will go through a few issues and get their comments on them.

The issue of two-tier pay and pay equality is coming up regularly within schools and the Minister may wish to make reference to that.

The Minister of State referred to medical-grade face coverings for SNAs but while schools are trying to power their way through this pandemic, any sort of tension within the system needs to be resolved, and I am wondering whether a further comment could be made on that.

On the pupil-teacher ratio, PTR, decrease being immediately transferable to DEIS schools, I appreciate the Minister said this was debatable, that she was alive to the issue and wants to resolve it but is it not the case that any PTR decrease should automatically be transferred to these schools? Is that not desirable for the future? It should not depend on a fund or how well-meaning the Minister is.

If we were to go back into a crisis lockdown, which none of us wants but which none of us can predict, what is the capacity of the system to respond to that in terms of remote learning and the digital divide? Some principals I have been talking to said that 60% of their students are working off smartphones. Does the Minister feel we are in a position if we were to go back into lockdown to respond to that?

I am happy with the Minister of State's comments on school places for children with autism because there has been an issue in my constituency of parents applying to between 14 and 17 different schools to get a place for their child. She may wish to elaborate on that issue as well because it is quite a big one in the area I represent. She briefly mentioned the potential for further debate on the issue of autism and how we can deal with it into the future and, therefore, I would appreciate further comment on that.

Norma Foley (Kerry, Fianna Fail)
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On the issue of pay equality, I want to reaffirm the Government's commitment to the body of work that needs to be done to address these outstanding matters. There is a commitment on that and it will be part of the next round of pay talks.

On DEIS, this is an area of particular interest to the Deputy, which I acknowledge. As he has correctly acknowledged, there has been a reduction from 24:1 to 23:1 in urban DEIS band 1. Across all the DEIS bands, there is a reduced pupil-teacher ratio as it stands. I hear what he is saying in terms of, say, the junior cycle, where the pupil-teacher ratio is between 20:1 and 22:1 in the vertical schools. I reiterate that there is a package there. I want it to be the best package that will direct measures to where they should go. That is part of my consideration of a further reduction in the pupil-teacher ratio, the details of which will be announced imminently.

On remote learning, I note that almost €210 million has been set aside for ICT in schools from 2015 to 2020. More than €110 million of that has already been paid and the budget has allocated €50 million for the provision of additional resources between now and the end of December. I acknowledge the Deputy's point that it is not acceptable for children to be working off smartphones. However, that provision is to enable schools to purchase devices to give or lend to their students. I am committed to ensuring this will be delivered to enable equality of access to all children.

Photo of Josepha MadiganJosepha Madigan (Dublin Rathdown, Fine Gael)
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I thank Deputy Ó Ríordáin. To reiterate what I said to Deputy Ó Laoghaire, the advice of the Health Protection Surveillance Centre on the wearing of masks by special needs assistants was issued to schools on 9 October. It states that if an SNA is within 2 m of a child and meeting intimate needs such as washing the child, the face covering used should be a surgical mask. If a surgical mask is not practical, the SNA should use a visor suitable to a healthcare setting. The advice is very clear. As I said earlier, our advice to SNAs on face coverings follows the public health advice. Medical grade surgical face masks are only required where an SNA is meeting intimate needs, although Fórsa may be of a different view.

Newly built schools will include autism spectrum disorder units where they are needed. I am not 100% sure of the situation in the Deputy's constituency, but he may be aware of the process we have triggered under section 37A of the Education Act 1998, as amended by the Education (Admission to Schools) Act 2018. I will avail of that legislation where schools are not forthcoming in providing special classes. I want to eradicate this problem.

Photo of Jim O'CallaghanJim O'Callaghan (Dublin Bay South, Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Minister and the Minister of State for coming in. I commend them on ensuring that schools were reopened at the end of August and were kept open despite the country moving to a higher level of restrictions. As the case numbers come down, we are getting further proof that keeping schools open is not dangerous and is consistent with a safe public health policy.

My first question is directed to the Minister. Is she concerned about the damage done to children by losing three to four months of schooling earlier in the year? Is that part of the motivation for wanting to keep schools open?

Norma Foley (Kerry, Fianna Fail)
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Absolutely. There is incontrovertible evidence that students have been disadvantaged, obviously from an academic point of view but even more so from a socialisation point of view. All of the Irish and international studies are telling us that students are best served within the education environment. I agree with the Deputy's remark. The Government has recognised this by putting financial resources in place. There has been a huge body of work on the part of schools to ensure they can remain safely open. I acknowledge that effort and the support that has come from parents and wider society. It is very important that we have reasserted that commitment and kept schools open under level 5 restrictions. Again, this is largely possible due to the terrific work that is being done on the ground.

Photo of Jim O'CallaghanJim O'Callaghan (Dublin Bay South, Fianna Fail)
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When the level 5 restrictions are lifted at the end of this month if the case numbers have declined, as we all hope they will, the Minister should make a statement emphasising that this shows we can keep schools open and operate safely while the disease is with us.

I would also like to ask the Minister of State about ASD classrooms. I thank her for the work she has done in the area along with the Minister of State at the Department of Health, Deputy Anne Rabbitte. Part of the constituency I represent has a very low incidence of ASD classrooms. This is unusual by comparison with the rest of the city. In light of recent announcements, is the Minister of State confident that there will be more ASD classrooms in the Dublin 2 and Dublin 4 areas?

Photo of Josepha MadiganJosepha Madigan (Dublin Rathdown, Fine Gael)
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Yes. Last June, the previous Minister for Education and Skills wrote to 39 different schools under section 37A of the Education Act 1998. We sent a second notice on 5 November. Not all of the schools are forthcoming. There are genuine spatial reasons that some cannot facilitate extra classes. The majority, between 20 and 25 of them, can facilitate special classes. We want to collaborate with these schools rather than forcing them, but that process exists in case we have to mandate them to act. If I can add to the Minister's comments on the regression of students, that was a particular concern for me where children with special needs are concerned. The July provision was so important because it helped students to acclimatise to their school environment. All of those report cards were brought back in September. We want to ensure our children receive a continuity of education. A designated teacher will help where remote learning is necessary.

Photo of Jim O'CallaghanJim O'Callaghan (Dublin Bay South, Fianna Fail)
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If some of the schools do not have resources to bring ASD classrooms up to scratch and make them available, will the Department assist them?

Photo of Josepha MadiganJosepha Madigan (Dublin Rathdown, Fine Gael)
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A considerable amount of funding has been allocated to ensuring that we have enough ASD units. To me, resourcing is not the biggest concern. We will always be able to find the resources for this. The predictive model will be crucial in preventing a perennial dearth of places in special classes. Most of the Deputies here are parents. We know how difficult it is to look after children in the normal course of events. It is a really difficult journey for the families of children with special needs. Looking after children with special needs is very tough on relationships. The socialisation process the Minister alluded to is even more of a concern with children with special needs.

Photo of Jim O'CallaghanJim O'Callaghan (Dublin Bay South, Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Minister.

Photo of Paul KehoePaul Kehoe (Wexford, Fine Gael)
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When the Minister and the Minister of State took up their new roles in the new Government they did not know what they were getting into. They faced many challenges. I acknowledge the officials in the Department of Education and, more importantly, the teaching staff, cleaners, secretaries and so on. In recent months, they have done a fantastic job of reopening schools and keeping them open.

I will pick up on Deputy Ó Laoghaire's point about school fund-raising. As we all know, this has been a very important part of school funding for many years. Parents are absolutely fantastic at taking part through cake sales and other means. Schools very much depend on these fund-raising efforts. Life will change in schools, as it will for everybody, and they will face more expense. We can expect to see hand gel and other precautions in school for evermore. They stop the spread of Covid-19 and have been proven to help prevent colds, flu and other illnesses. I would like to see hand gel continue to be available in schools going forward. Additional funding will be needed. We have spent a lot of money on Covid-19 measures in recent months. Does the Minister have plans to increase capitation funding for the next several years?

I would also like to pick up on the issue of school transport, which Deputy Pádraig O'Sullivan raised. Urban Deputies might not understand this but it is a real bone of contention in rural Ireland. To reiterate Deputy O'Sullivan's point, a full review of school transport should be carried out. It is timely that we are spending more money on it now than in the past.

Perhaps the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, could comment on another issue. A huge amount of work has been done on special units in recent months. I know money is not an issue, but we should be very aware of the further expenses those units will face in the future.

Norma Foley (Kerry, Fianna Fail)
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It should be noted that there has been a 2.5% increase in capitation. While not wanting to be repetitive, it must be acknowledged that substantial additional funding has gone into schools this year in terms of things that would normally gone on in schools such as cleaning and so forth but also additional items such as hand sanitiser and so on. Significant resources have been provided and a further €226 million will go into the schools to complete the school year from January to June.

On school transport, I appreciate where the Deputy is coming from and accept that leaving aside Covid, there are issues with school transport. I reiterate the point I made to Deputy Pádraig O'Sullivan that work is ongoing to finalise the terms of reference for the review of school transport. It must be acknowledged that significant funding of approximately €100 million has been made available by the Government to bring the system to the capacity level required but apart from that, work is ongoing in putting the review together.

Photo of Josepha MadiganJosepha Madigan (Dublin Rathdown, Fine Gael)
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Obviously schools can apply to the Department for additional capital funding if they want to expand the space within the school to provide special classes or to construct additional accommodation. There are exceptional circumstances where schools cannot facilitate special classes but funding is available. There is a working assumption within the Department that one child in five has a special need. Many such children have low-impact, high-incidence special needs like dyslexia and dyspraxia. Special needs are a lot more prevalent than people realise. This is particularly true with autism and ASD units are central to the action priorities that I will be setting out.

Photo of Paul KehoePaul Kehoe (Wexford, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Minister and Minister of State for their attendance today. Both will be appearing before the committee again next Tuesday to discuss their priorities and a number of other issues. It just so happens that they will be in the dock again next week and I hope they do not mind. I thank them for coming in today. We will suspend briefly to allow the next set of witnesses to take their seats.

Sitting suspended at 12.23 p.m. and resumed at 12.27 p.m.