Dáil debates

Thursday, 22 March 2007

4:00 pm

Photo of Caoimhghín Ó CaoláinCaoimhghín Ó Caoláin (Cavan-Monaghan, Sinn Fein)
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Question 8: To ask the Minister for Education and Science the amount it would cost to set up a national primary school pupil database. [10807/07]

Photo of Mary HanafinMary Hanafin (Minister, Department of Education and Science; Dún Laoghaire, Fianna Fail)
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I am committed to the development of an individualised records system for primary level as soon as practical since it will give us vital information on pupils in our primary schools as well as enable us to better track children's progress from primary to post-primary level. The development of such a database is a complex and resource demanding task involving a number of agencies external to my Department, as well as a range of data needs which are changing over time in light of administrative and policy developments.

The database project is linked to the development of an online claims system for schools for the processing of salary claims which is nearing full completion. In light of the desirability of linking data at primary, post-primary and further education, it has been decided to proceed with a short feasibility study on the implementation of a learner database to link these levels either through separate databases for each level or in one single database serving all levels.

The study will assess the costs and benefits of developing a learner database that would encompass both the primary and post-primary system and scope out the availability of data in various agencies as well as sections in my Department, the priority needs as determined by policy and administrative priorities and the options for best matching needs with availability of data through a comprehensive data system.

At this point it is impossible to place a value on the likely cost of the different options likely to emerge from this study. However, consideration will be given to the human, financial and organisational implications of implementing a new database as well as the best approach to linking data in a way that underpins policy needs.

Photo of Seán CroweSeán Crowe (Dublin South West, Sinn Fein)
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When this question was raised during a discussion on the Estimates the Minister referred to a figure of approximately €250,000, which appears to be very low. Does it refer only to the cost of the feasibility study? Is it planned to use PPS numbers in the tracking system? Every year, 1,000 children fail to make the transition from primary to secondary school. When does the Minister anticipate that the database will be up and running?

Photo of Mary HanafinMary Hanafin (Minister, Department of Education and Science; Dún Laoghaire, Fianna Fail)
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Deputy Crowe referred to a figure of 1,000 pupils who do not transfer to secondary level. This figure appeared in an NESF report in 2002 which cited an estimate contained in a 1997 report that as many as 1,000 primary school pupils did not make the transition to secondary level. At some point someone estimated that the figure might be 1,000 and in the absence of any other study this figure was used in a report in 1997 and repeated in a 2002 report. There is no empirical evidence or data available to substantiate the estimate.

More recently, a census of schools at the end of the 2005 school year requested that they estimate the number of pupils who did not progress to secondary schools in the State. The cumulative figure arrived at in September 2005 was 263 children. A further category, "destination unknown", may have included children who had left the country or moved elsewhere in the State. The absence of accurate data provides further reason for having the type of database under discussion.

The online claims system, the precursor to a database in so far as it is an elaborate computer system, is being rolled out to all schools. It is important that this rollout is completed before we introduce new systems. The likely focus of the feasibility study will be on mapping existing data holdings, assessing the need for policy relevant indicators and data, identifying gaps in the data infrastructure and determining what type of database would be needed. We want to ensure the database provides information required by the Department or bodies such as the National Educational Welfare Board and National Educational Psychological Service on issues such as transfer or for the purposes of disadvantaged status schemes. The feasibility study will examine these issues.

Photo of Seán CroweSeán Crowe (Dublin South West, Sinn Fein)
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The Minister did not provide a timeframe for the establishment of the database. She hit the nail on the head when she stated we do not know how many children fail to transfer from primary to secondary education. From speaking to school principals in some disadvantaged areas, it is clear that a substantial number of young people drop out of school or do not attend classes on a regular basis. This is a matter of concern. Leaving aside the feasibility study, when will the database be established?

Photo of Mary HanafinMary Hanafin (Minister, Department of Education and Science; Dún Laoghaire, Fianna Fail)
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The feasibility study will start shortly. The Department wants to see how the online claims system operates before rolling out a new computer system. The National Educational Welfare Board, which has a staff of 94 and is due to increase its staff numbers this year, should be able to make a reasonably quick determination of how many primary pupils transfer to second level. In addition, the role of the school completion co-ordinators is to ensure there is a link between primary and second level schools. The familiarisation visits they organise to local second level schools for primary school children helps young people make the transfer seamlessly.

Photo of Olwyn EnrightOlwyn Enright (Laois-Offaly, Fine Gael)
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Does the Minister not agree it is a failure that despite the existence of the school completion system and the National Educational Welfare Board, we are still speculating about the numbers of children who may have left the country? We are talking about 12 year olds and it is extremely worrying that we do not know the status of children of that age.

Was it initially envisaged at the establishment of the NEWB that the function of drawing up the database would rest with it? I recall some discussion of this at a meeting of the Joint Committee on Education and Science, but I may be mistaken in this. What role will the NEWB have in this regard?

Photo of Mary HanafinMary Hanafin (Minister, Department of Education and Science; Dún Laoghaire, Fianna Fail)
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It would be far too narrow to allow any one agency to have control over setting up the database. The information that could be gleaned from it is of wide application. Nor should it be available to all the other relevant bodies. It is important that this information should be kept within the Department of Education and Science. I do not know it if was ever intended that the NEWB should have a role in establishing the database, but that is certainly no longer the intention.

Deputy Enright has tabled questions on the disadvantaged status of various schools. If all that empirical data were included in a database, we would not have to ask the schools for it. By undertaking an effective feasibility study, we will ensure we have the type of database we need. We are talking about an enormous investment in a computer system. We must ensure the on-line claims system is operational in all 4,000 schools and we can then build on that experience.

Photo of Jan O'SullivanJan O'Sullivan (Limerick East, Labour)
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It is my understanding that, according to legislation, children must stay on the roll book of their primary school until they go onto the roll book of a post-primary school. Will the Minister confirm this is the case? This means children should be automatically tracked as they move from primary to second level. In effect, primary schools should retain children on their roll books until they have enrolled in a post-primary school. In this way, we should be able to identify the children who have not transferred.

Photo of Mary HanafinMary Hanafin (Minister, Department of Education and Science; Dún Laoghaire, Fianna Fail)
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The NEWB has a specific responsibility to ensure that a child of compulsory school-going age is in school. It must ensure this information is gleaned and that all children make the transfer from primary to second level. Children are obliged to be in school from the ages of six to 16 years.

Photo of Olwyn EnrightOlwyn Enright (Laois-Offaly, Fine Gael)
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Is the Minister satisfied that the NEWB is doing that?

Photo of Mary HanafinMary Hanafin (Minister, Department of Education and Science; Dún Laoghaire, Fianna Fail)
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It is part of its statutory remit.

Photo of Olwyn EnrightOlwyn Enright (Laois-Offaly, Fine Gael)
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Does the Minister check whether it is happening?

Photo of Mary HanafinMary Hanafin (Minister, Department of Education and Science; Dún Laoghaire, Fianna Fail)
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The NEWB, school completion co-ordinators and home-school-community liaison officers play a valuable role in this regard.