Dáil debates

Thursday, 30 July 2020

Opening of Schools and Calculated Grades: Statements

 

10:05 pm

Norma Foley (Kerry, Fianna Fail) | Oireachtas source

I am happy to be in the House again tonight having taken Oral Parliamentary Questions this morning. This week has been a very significant one for the schools sector. Following an intense period of weeks involving engagement with the education partners, I secured approval for the comprehensive plan that is "Reopening Our Schools: the roadmap for the full return to school" and, most important, the funding to implement it. The funding secured is significant. As Deputies know, it is over €375 million. What is most significant, however, is that the plan and the funding addresses all of the areas that need attention, including everything that needs to be addressed to get our schools open again, and to keep them open.

As the challenges before us from Covid 19 have been worked through, the paramount consideration throughout has been to do the right thing by students, their families and school communities across the country. This is my first occasion to address a Statements on Education session in the Dåil as Minister for Education and Skills. In April, May and June I was a regular contributor to earlier sessions putting views and perspectives to my predecessor. Therefore, I am aware of the interest in education but also the concerns and at times the anxieties of students, their families, and their school communities. As I have said consistently since I was appointed Minister the number one priority for me, for the Government, my Department and the wider schools sector has been to reopen our schools fully and safely at the start of the new school year. In seeking to reopen our schools we said we would be guided by the available public health advice and comprehensive engagement with stakeholders, including the school management bodies and staff representatives as well as students and parents. There has never been any doubt that I as Minister, together with my Department, school leaders and staff all want to see schools reopening as normal for the new school year.

In earlier debates some Deputies suggested that teachers, principals and other school staff had not been involved in the planning process which led to the roadmap being published. I assure the House that the staff unions of teachers, SNAs, school caretakers and secretaries, representatives of principals and deputy principals, school management bodies, and representatives of parents and post-primary students were all directly involved and worked intensively with my officials to work through the detail.

I appreciate that some hold the view that the roadmap could have been published sooner. The roadmap is built on the available public health advice, it is the foundation of the roadmap. That public health advice was published on 1 July. We then needed to engage with the school staff and other partners to redesign elements of how we operate and resource our schools. Deputies were aware that it was my intention to publish such a roadmap by the end of this month and that has been the intention for the last number of weeks. The roadmap was published as soon as it could have been. Rather than publish a set of aspirations, it was right to work through identifying the supports needed, to build consensus among the education partners, to get Government agreement and then launch the roadmap. The roadmap gives the clarity, confidence and hope that students, their families and schools wanted and deserved.

The roadmap and the funding package recognise the challenges faced by schools in ensuring the safe return of more than 1 million students and approximately 100,000 staff in 4,000 schools in the context of Covid-19. It sets out clear plans and practical guidance on the measures schools will need to take to operate safely and minimise the risk of the introduction and spread of infection in schools. There is guidance on training, checklists for schools on preparing for reopening and guidance for operating the school safely in a Covid-19 context.

It advises on areas across logistics, curriculum, teaching, managing school activities, supporting pupils with additional needs, administration and well-being. In other words, in every sense, it is a comprehensive plan backed up with the necessary financial package. It represents achievable ambition.

The published template Covid-19 response plans for schools provide clear and practical guidance and support to our schools on the range of measures that needs to be put in place to bring everyone back to school safely. The funding supports are comprehensive across a wide range of areas including funding for replacement staff who cannot come to school because they are regarded as very high risk of Covid-19, including teaching staff, SNAs and administrative staff. There is also funding for additional supply panels at primary level delivering more certainty around the availability of substitutes, funding for more than 1,000 additional teachers at post-primary level to help with physical distancing and class sizes, which includes 120 additional guidance posts, and funding to provide release days for teaching principals at primary level to meet the administrative burden arising from the changes and the impacts of Covid-19.

There is also funding for enhanced cleaning and hygiene measures enabling schools to have daily cleaning arrangements and to purchase supplies of hand sanitiser and any other personal protective equipment required, funding for enhanced supervision, which is a key control measure to support schools to minimise the interaction of students from different classes, in line with public health advice, and funding to support school leadership, especially principals who are getting the schools ready. All schools will be able to employ an aide to help get the school ready and, as announced in the July stimulus package, funding of €75 million will support minor capital works for all schools.

We know that most students, their families and school staff will be looking forward to going back, reconnecting with school, reconnecting with staff and friends and settling back into school work. There is a strong emphasis in the roadmap on safety, and on practical arrangements, but also on ensuring the well-being of the students and of the entire staff community.

I am particularly pleased that the package includes the filling of 120 guidance posts. Some have asked how this figure was arrived at. It represents the full restoration of the number of guidance posts to 2011 levels. Also, some have asked how the additional National Educational Psychological Service, NEPS, psychologists posts can be filled. There is an existing panel in place, which can be utilised immediately to fill some of the new 17 psychologist posts. In addition, a new recruitment competition has commenced, with interviews due to take place in the month of August, which will create new panels for all NEPS regions meaning all vacancies can be filled at that point.

Statements sessions earlier in the summer were often dominated by calls to confirm that July provision would proceed this year. The summer programmes have in fact seen the number of participating schools, participating students and the eligibility for these programmes exceed previous years, acknowledging that there were challenges. Deputies might wish to note that 245 schools are participating in the summer based programme for children with complex needs, benefiting 3,900 students; a total of 10,604 parents registered for the home-based summer programme, benefiting 11,350 students; a total of 231 schools are participating in literacy and numeracy camps in DEIS primary schools, benefiting an expected 7,600 students, and 81 schools are participating in the DEIS post-primary summer programme, benefiting an expected 2,700 students.

These programmes provide a crucial stepping stone in rebuilding the connection between students and their schools before they return more fully in the autumn as there is a particular focus on re-establishing relationships, building connections, meeting emotional needs and re-engaging in routines to support participation and learning. We know that we need to support the most vulnerable in particular in returning to school and the summer programme is a vital element in preparing these students for the return to school.

In the context of assessments in the 2020-21 school year, given the autonomy of schools in deciding how to sequence and pace learning for students in their schools, it is not proposed to prescribe adjustments of the curriculum centrally. It is considered that the most appropriate way to reflect the challenges that have occurred for students in 2019-20 and potentially into 2020-21 is to incorporate adjustments into the certificate examinations in 2021. A key consideration in making these adjustments is the need to maintain familiarity with the structure of the questions and assessment components for students and teachers. The changes will be broadly proportionate but may vary, taking into account specific context across modules, subjects and programmes. In all cases they will involve some combination of students being provided with greater choice in written examinations, which will be supported through the provision of additional questions and-or adjustments to mandatory sections on written examination papers, the dates on which course work briefs are issued being brought forward to allow for additional preparation time for students and teachers, and in some subjects, adjustments to the requirements for practical examinations being made, reflecting the need to manage access to equipment to complete the preparatory aspects.

I assure the House that full engagement with the education stakeholders will continue and that we are committed to supporting schools to prepare at local level for their reopening. There will also be comprehensive communication with students and parents so that they are fully informed over the coming weeks through the campaign already under way. I encourage Deputies to use their offices and contacts to highlight where parents and students in particular can get accurate information on the gov.iewebsite. The Department is providing dedicated and direct contact channels to schools so that where issues might arise for them they can be resolved quickly.

I have said several times in contributions to the House this week that these are changed times during which as a country we have stood up to the challenges before us, showing great resilience, demonstrating tremendous community spirit and accepting the shared responsibility to fight the Covid 19 virus. We are committed to re-opening our society in every sense and the schools sector is preparing to get our students back into classrooms in the coming weeks. The Government is fully committed to supporting this return and has shown the scale of this commitment in the support package announced this week. There is an obligation on us as public representatives to show leadership and to ensure we support our students, our schools and our communities in getting back to school as normal in the coming weeks.

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