Dáil debates

Thursday, 28 January 2010

Other Questions

Computerisation Programme.

2:00 pm

Photo of Charles FlanaganCharles Flanagan (Laois-Offaly, Fine Gael)
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Question 6: To ask the Minister for Education and Science if discretion can be given to schools to use the recent ICT funds dispensed by his Department for the purposes of enhancing ICT, particularly when advanced systems, such as whiteboards and so on, are already in place; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [4032/10]

Photo of Conor LenihanConor Lenihan (Minister of State, Department of Education and Science; Minister of State, Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources; Minister of State, Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment; Dublin South West, Fianna Fail)
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The Deputy will be aware that in November last year I published the Smart Schools = Smart Economy report, which is the new action plan for integrating ICT in schools. The report, which was produced by the joint advisory group, which the Minister established earlier last year, builds on the earlier strategy group report, Investing Effectively in ICT in Schools. It makes recommendations to support the integration of information and communications technology in teaching and learning in schools and contains recommendations across a number of areas, such as ICT infrastructure, enhanced broadband connectivity, initial teacher training and continuing professional development, provision of digital content, etc.

I am in the process of setting up a steering group to advise and oversee the implementation of the recommendations of the report. It will comprise key interest groups including teachers, parents, industry, relevant Departments and students, and will commence its work shortly. As a first step in implementing the recommendations of the report, €22 million in ICT grants was issued to primary schools in November 2009. Funding for post-primary schools will be made available this year.

While the opportunities for student participation offered by the use of interactive whiteboards in the classroom are recognised, effective investment in this technology is dependent on an existing positive ICT culture in schools, and on an existing desirable level of ICT access throughout the school. For these reasons, the priority use of the ICT grants issued in November is directed to ensuring that there is a teaching computer and digital projector in every classroom. The teaching computer will be connected to the schools' local area network and to the digital projector in order to access and show curriculum-based digital content. The reports I mentioned, Investing Effectively in ICT in Schools and Smart Schools = Smart Economy, advise that this combination is an extremely useful and effective teaching tool that facilitates a range of learning opportunities in whole-class teaching scenarios.

Photo of Brian HayesBrian Hayes (Dublin South West, Fine Gael)
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Schools welcomed both the announcement by the Minister before Christmas of €22 million in funding and the decision to lodge the funding in school accounts before the Christmas break. I have been approached by individuals from a number of schools who argue that digital projectors are old hat. Many schools which have advanced far beyond this technology want to use the money provided by the Department in a creative manner, either by paying back loans for whiteboards or acquiring other technology. I do not want to discover later in the year that a large chunk of the €22 million has not been or could not be spent by virtue of the rigid conditions the Minister is setting. I ask him to reconsider the matter and allow schools greater flexibility. Many schools, thanks to having good ICT co-ordinators and principals, are miles ahead of what the Minister is establishing as a basic requirement.

Photo of Conor LenihanConor Lenihan (Minister of State, Department of Education and Science; Minister of State, Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources; Minister of State, Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment; Dublin South West, Fianna Fail)
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All the reports received by the Department indicate that a digital projector is needed in every classroom. Digital projectors are not old hat if they are not available in classrooms at present. This is required technology which is regarded as a valuable teaching resource. The Department is flexible to the extent that it will allow schools which have achieved the basic level of provision, as set out by the Department, to offset the money they spent on doing so against the grants. That is the key point.

The Department is setting minimum thresholds in terms of the technology available in classrooms for teachers to do their work. It is not open to schools to indicate they are doing something else. They must provide a baseline minimum standard in terms of access to technology. If they have done so and projectors are in place, they can use the money for other purchases, provided these are within the criteria set out by the Department.

Photo of Ruairi QuinnRuairi Quinn (Dublin South East, Labour)
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Have schools been officially informed to that effect?

Photo of Conor LenihanConor Lenihan (Minister of State, Department of Education and Science; Minister of State, Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources; Minister of State, Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment; Dublin South West, Fianna Fail)
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Yes, they have been officially circulated that information, which also forms the basis of the reply to the question.

Photo of Brian HayesBrian Hayes (Dublin South West, Fine Gael)
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For the purposes of clarity, will the Minister of State consider issuing another circular to schools because there is some confusion on the matter? I am not sure if the Minister of State is as familiar with the position as I am given that I visit schools on a daily or weekly basis. Whiteboard technology is being used in many schools as an interactive tool, in other words, it allows children to get involved in work using a whiteboard. They cannot do this with a digital camera. This is what school principals are telling me.

Photo of Ruairi QuinnRuairi Quinn (Dublin South East, Labour)
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It is akin to the difference between VHS and DVD.

Photo of Brian HayesBrian Hayes (Dublin South West, Fine Gael)
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That is correct. The other important issue principals are raising is that while it is great to have a digital camera and projector or whiteboard, if one does not have broadband or if one's broadband connectivity is poor, the type of equipment available in a school is irrelevant. Schools must be given a little more flexibility and clarity.

Photo of Conor LenihanConor Lenihan (Minister of State, Department of Education and Science; Minister of State, Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources; Minister of State, Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment; Dublin South West, Fianna Fail)
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Broadband is available in 97% of schools.

Photo of Brian HayesBrian Hayes (Dublin South West, Fine Gael)
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It is not available at the speeds required.

Photo of Conor LenihanConor Lenihan (Minister of State, Department of Education and Science; Minister of State, Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources; Minister of State, Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment; Dublin South West, Fianna Fail)
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The Deputy is not the only Member of the House who regularly visits schools in his constituency. I remind him that the whiteboard is not the answer to everyone's problems in the classroom setting. Those who are a little older sometimes believe that whiteboards are the answer to all the technological and educational needs of teachers and pupils. It is only of use to the extent that teachers are familiar with it and trained in how to use it appropriately in the classroom. I do not accept the argument implicit in what the Deputy inferred from his question.

Photo of Brian HayesBrian Hayes (Dublin South West, Fine Gael)
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I did not infer anything.

Photo of Conor LenihanConor Lenihan (Minister of State, Department of Education and Science; Minister of State, Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources; Minister of State, Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment; Dublin South West, Fianna Fail)
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The purpose of this funding is to improve broadband access by 2012 and ensure teachers are trained to deliver the technology in an appropriate manner. I suspect the school my children attend is far ahead of other schools in terms of its adoption and use of technology. Some schools have been proactive and have pressed ahead, which is good. If schools have established a minimum standard, they can recoup money for the investment they have made.

Photo of Ruairi QuinnRuairi Quinn (Dublin South East, Labour)
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Have schools been informed of that in writing?

Photo of Conor LenihanConor Lenihan (Minister of State, Department of Education and Science; Minister of State, Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources; Minister of State, Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment; Dublin South West, Fianna Fail)
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Yes, and if they examine this exchange, it will become clear that the intention of the Department is that schools which have met the criteria and standards in terms of what technology is available will be able to recoup investment. I do not know which teacher referred to digital projectors as being old hat but that is not the experience of most teachers. Some of the Deputy's correspondents are not up to date.

Photo of Brian HayesBrian Hayes (Dublin South West, Fine Gael)
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I suspect the Minister of State does not know what he is talking about.