Dáil debates

Thursday, 28 January 2010

2:00 pm

Photo of Brian HayesBrian Hayes (Dublin South West, Fine Gael)
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Question 1: To ask the Minister for Education and Science the number of school days lost due to the recent bad weather; if schools must make up those days between now and the end of the 2009/2010 school year; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [4312/10]

Photo of Batt O'KeeffeBatt O'Keeffe (Minister, Department of Education and Science; Cork North West, Fianna Fail)
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In the normal course there is no requirement for schools to either notify my Department in advance of a decision to close or to subsequently report to my Department on each individual decision taken by a school to close, whether this arises from adverse weather, failure of heating or water systems, or as a result of a bereavement within the school community. Consequently my Department does not have aggregate or individual data on the number of days schools were closed, either in the recent period of adverse weather or through the earlier problems with flooding.

The position regarding school closures this month varied from school to school depending on local circumstances. As the Deputy will be aware, all primary and post-primary schools were closed for at least one day and most schools lost a number of days since the commencement of this school term. The exceptionally cold weather also resulted in some schools having to close for a longer period after the onset of a thaw due to the lack of heat or water as a result of frozen pipes, burst boilers, etc. Some schools also had to close before Christmas when they were affected by flooding and were affected again by the cold spell.

The main focus for schools now must be on ensuring that any impact of the school closures on teaching and learning is addressed in an appropriate and sensible manner. Since the amount of time lost varies from school to school the impact on teaching and learning is something that can only be assessed at individual school level by the school authorities. The critical issue is that boards of management consider what can reasonably be done to ensure that by the end of the school year courses and programmes have been completed.

In doing so boards will need to be advised by the school principal of his or her assessment, formed through discussion with the school staff, of the impact on teaching and learning caused by any disruption. In considering the position, I believe it is important that school authorities consult with parent representatives and that the school communicates to the parent body feedback on how it is planned to address any impact closure may have had on teaching and learning.

Primary schools, traditionally, have had more scope to make up days before the end of June than post–primary schools where the school year is constrained by the commencement of the certificate examinations in early June. The critical issue is not necessarily that all time lost is fully made up but that school specific measures are taken to ensure courses are completed and that at second level the position of examination classes is given priority.

Photo of Brian HayesBrian Hayes (Dublin South West, Fine Gael)
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Would the Minister accept that this, again, highlights the complete shambles of his Department, that he cannot inform Dáil Éireann as to the number of schools that were closed and the requisite number of days that were lost? There is not a centralised database within the system from which information can be given about that.

I ask the Minister to be clear about this. Is he saying to school management and to school authorities that it is a matter for them, in the first instance, to decide whether or not courses have been completed and whether or not additional learning needs to be provided and that, effectively, he is giving no direction to schools? Can I take it that such is his position?

Photo of Batt O'KeeffeBatt O'Keeffe (Minister, Department of Education and Science; Cork North West, Fianna Fail)
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Is Deputy Brian Hayes saying to me that I should be micro-managing every school, that I should be aware of what is the lesson content? I have far more regard for the professionalism, integrity and commitment of principal teachers and school teachers than the Deputy has.

My Department officials have met with the relevant management authorities. They have discussed this issue with them. The management authorities believe that in unison with the principals and with the co-operation of the teachers, they can complete the school year satisfactorily, that they can ensure that the course curriculum is covered in all of the examination classes and that it is correct that teachers will ensure that no child is at a loss in terms of the learning and the education outcome.

Photo of Brian HayesBrian Hayes (Dublin South West, Fine Gael)
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When parents sought information from the Department as to the number of schools that were closed, the only information they were given was that contained on an RTE website. Would the Minister accept that his Department in the recent inclement weather did not give specific information to parents in schools all over this country, and would he ensure that were such an event to occur again, at the very least schools would be able to give information through his Department's website centrally, if that was their choice?

I would point out to the Minister that he has 13 education centres all over the country. What effort was made by him to use those centres as a means of informing parents and school boards of management throughout the country?

When the Minister came to the decision to close schools in the manner in which he did, he issued an embargo, in other words, he did not get the information out at the time and, effectively, as I understand it, he gave it to one journalist. What was the rationale in doing that? Why would the Minister put an embargo on a decision when, effectively, schools wanted to hear from him and his Department the advice he was to give them? Why would he possibly put an embargo on that?

Photo of Batt O'KeeffeBatt O'Keeffe (Minister, Department of Education and Science; Cork North West, Fianna Fail)
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I am glad the Deputy asked me that question.

Photo of Brian HayesBrian Hayes (Dublin South West, Fine Gael)
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Good.

Photo of Batt O'KeeffeBatt O'Keeffe (Minister, Department of Education and Science; Cork North West, Fianna Fail)
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The report came back from the central committee and the indication from that committee - from a senior official in my Department whom I respect very much - was that the weather forecast for that weekend was extremely bad and would have consequences. As the Deputy will be aware, a board of management has responsibility within the school itself. I felt I had a responsibility outside of the school. I felt that if we had snow of the expected nature on the Sunday night, parents and children would be in danger. It was on the basis of health and safety that my official advised at the meeting that we would consider closing schools but that he had to liaise with me.

On the embargo, I took a decision as early as I could on the Friday so that schools and parents would be aware of what was coming down the track and they could make arrangements. I was in Cork city. I did an interview with one media organisation, which, I think took place at approximately 4.30 p.m., and which was supposedly for the 6 o'clock news. The media organisation ran the story at 5 o'clock, which caused difficulty, and we then decided we had better tell all of the other media outlets.

Unfortunately, Mr. Seán Hogan was on Matt Cooper's programme live at 5 o'clock and was not aware of the decision. He would have been aware of the forecast for the weekend and of the concerns, but we had not communicated it to him. I had telephoned the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Gormley, and left a message on his mobile telephone. I got my Secretary General to telephone the Secretary General of that Department to advise her of this decision. Therefore, all avenues were covered.

Can I, before I finish,-----

Photo of Brendan HowlinBrendan Howlin (Wexford, Labour)
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Briefly, we are over time.

Photo of Batt O'KeeffeBatt O'Keeffe (Minister, Department of Education and Science; Cork North West, Fianna Fail)
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-----pay tribute to RTE on what an outstanding service it gave to people, and to parents and schools throughout the country? I am not sure it would be in our interests to be duplicating and, indeed, triplicating that.

Photo of Brendan HowlinBrendan Howlin (Wexford, Labour)
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Ceist Uimh. a dó.

Photo of Brian HayesBrian Hayes (Dublin South West, Fine Gael)
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Can I ask-----

Photo of Brendan HowlinBrendan Howlin (Wexford, Labour)
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No, we are well over time. I am afraid we are two minutes over time.