Dáil debates

Friday, 18 January 2013

Education (Resource Allocation) Bill 2012: Second Stage


12:40 pm

Photo of Charlie McConalogueCharlie McConalogue (Donegal North East, Fianna Fail)
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I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

This Bill will ensure an annual education impact study is published in advance of the budget each year. It will prevent unilateral decisions being taken on school staffing without any examination of the impact of these changes on the schools concerned. The Minister for Education and Skills admitted in early 2012, following his cuts to DEIS schools, that the current procedure in place was bad and that he had not assessed the full impact of that decision. This Bill will put in place a new system that will ensure greater strategic planning in how decisions are taken and also bring greater transparency and openness to the budgetary process. It will also allow schools to appeal such decisions where they are found to have a disproportionate impact on them.

The Bill will put in place a system whereby the Minister for Education and Skills will carry out and publish an annual education impact study which will examine the effect the Minister's decision to reduce a school's annual resource allocation will have on schools. The study will have to be completed in a timely fashion within two months from 30 September of each year so as to allow schools ample time to submit an appeal against reductions which would have a disproportionate impact on them. The study must include the names of schools affected and the impact the resource allocation reduction will have on those schools. It must also specifically include details of the effects the resource reduction will have on students and remaining staff, each area of education affected and the effects on the general functioning of the school. The Bill also provides for a mechanism whereby the principal of each affected school can appeal the Minister's decision to reduce his or her resource allocation and gives the school an opportunity to set out a number of grounds upon which it can base an appeal. An appeal can be lodged up to four weeks after the Minister has

published his or her annual education impact study.

The objective of this Bill is to ensure that education resources are protected in the coming years. It is also a response to what we have seen in budgets introduced by this Government since it came into office where there have been a series of cuts in the education budget. Subsequently, there have been row backs by the Minister and as I pointed out, actual admissions that mistakes were made and the full impact of the measures undertaken was not fully appreciated at the time. As the Minister of State with responsibility for training and skills is aware, my party's pre-budget submission ring-fenced education funding, mental health services and disability services. There are many other areas we would have liked to have protected but we ensured those three areas were protected. We specifically protected education because we believe it must be the pathway on which we build the future of this country.

We all acknowledge that education has taken severe hits in its budgets in recent years but there must come a time when the Minister must look at the impact this is having and the impact of any further cuts. That is why we ring-fenced the education budget in our pre-budget submission so that the capacity of our teachers at preschool, primary, secondary and third and fourth levels to continue carrying out their job is not diminished. Our young people only get one chance to go through the education system and we must ensure that those coming through our education system at a very unfortunate time in our economic history do not suffer as a result. If one looks at the successes our country had in the past, one can see they were very much built on a good education system. That system was built on the moves towards free primary and secondary education and State-funded third level education. That helped bring many jobs to this country and ensure we had a high level of graduates and a well-educated workforce across the country.

In recent years, we have seen some slippage in respect of that. We have seen figures published recently which showed that numeracy and literacy attainment levels in the education system in Northern Ireland were higher than our levels. We have also seen how our third level institutions are dropping out of the top 100 education institutions globally, which, again, is due to funding to a large extent. We must make a decision as to how we go forward. A large part of our future success will be down to the prioritisation of our education services.

That will determine the prospect of success for our country and whether our people can achieve their potential.

If this Bill is implemented, the Minister for Education and Skills will no longer be able to make decisions on potentially damaging cuts to front-line education services without first assessing the impact of these cuts. The Bill will ensure an annual education impact study is published in advance of the budget each year. The Government has talked at length about strategic planning for policy decisions but this approach has been absent from decisions on reducing school resources. The Government also promised to bring greater transparency and openness to the budgetary process yet this has not happened. The Bill provides an opportunity to bring transparency to the education budget process. It seeks to address the total lack of strategic planning on school staffing, which resulted in a series of bad policy decisions in budget 2012 and budget 2013 and cuts to the further education and training sector. Last year, the Minister for Education and Skills made a number of decisions which resulted in the loss of the ex-quota allocation for guidance provision, cuts to small schools which put their viability at risk and the loss of a significant number of DEIS posts which were only partially reversed. Following these decisions, he admitted that the procedure was bad. He said in regard to his decision to cut 428 DEIS posts:

I made a mistake. I got it wrong. When the full impact of what we did was brought to my attention I realised that we hadn't acted on the full information that we had and we hadn't analysed the full information available to us.
Similarly, in budget 2013 the Minister announced a two point increase in the pupil-teacher ratio for post-leaving certificate schools from September 2013. Following criticism that the change would result in a significant loss of teacher posts and a reduced number of places, he responded by stating:
However, I have met with the chief executive, Jacinta Stewart, of the City of Dublin VEC and I've asked her to give me a complete impact analysis across the City of Dublin VEC...and she's going to come back and provide me with that and we'll then look to see what the impact of all this is.
We cannot continue with a situation whereby the Minister makes decisions without analysing their impact on the schools concerned or else only carrying out an analysis after the decisions have been made. This is no way to approach important budgetary or policy decisions and it is hugely unfair to the teachers and students concerned. This Bill would put in place a process of strategic planning before decisions were made which would allow schools to appeal decisions having a disproportionate impact on them. Under the current system schools report pupil numbers in October and receive notice of their allocation for the subsequent year after Easter. There is often a delay of four or five months between the agreement of the Department's Estimate and notification being sent to schools. This Bill would require the Minister to produce an impact study within two months of 30 September each year.

As was seen early last year with the DEIS cuts, national decisions are being taken without a proper examination of the impact of cuts on individual schools. The decision in budget 2012 to remove the ex-quota allocation for guidance provision without an assessment of the impact on the provision of counselling services was irresponsible and wrong. A damning new survey from the Institute of Guidance Counsellors showed that services have been decimated since this measure was introduced and that the most disadvantaged schools and students have been hit hardest. There has been a 51% reduction in one-to-one counselling since September 2012, with disadvantaged schools experiencing a much greater reduction in guidance hours compared to fee paying schools. Last year the Minister stated that schools would be empowered to decide for themselves how best to allocate resources following the removal of guidance provision but the truth is that schools are struggling to provide a proper counselling service.

In a similar vein, the Minister now argues that PLC schools and VECs will have time to plan how best to manage their resources in advance of the cut to teacher numbers from September 2013. In our Private Members' motion this week, we outlined the impact of these cuts on the further education and training sector. The impact of these cuts should have been assessed prior to budget 2013. While the two point increase in the pupil-teacher ratio for PLC schools will result in the loss of 200 whole-time equivalent posts, up to 500 non-permanent part-time teachers may be lost from the sector as a result. This is in effect a 10% cut to the teaching force in PLC schools. It is ironic that at the same time as these cuts were being discussed in the House yesterday, the Cabinet met to discuss how Ministers could assist job creation. How did the Minister, Deputy Quinn, explain his decision to reduce the capacity of the further education training sector to provide the type of courses necessary to cater for emerging niches in the jobs market? If he had carried out an impact analysis in advance of his decision instead of wondering about it afterwards, he would have realised that the capacity of further education and training colleges will be diminished, with the result that many courses will have to be cancelled. Specialist and cutting edge courses depend on part-time teachers from the business and professional world who can impart their expertise to students. These are the hours which will be most affected by the cuts because they are not permanent.

Unfortunately, it appears the only impact assessment carried out on any of the measures introduced in the budget was on the political impact they would have on the Government. Having been scarred by the experience of DEIS and, more recently, the lack of thought put into SUSI, the first question asked about the budget was how it could minimise the number of people chasing the tails of Ministers afterwards. The Minister introduced measures to ensure parents would not object by targeting the further education and training sector instead. The students affected by these cuts are adults who come from relatively disadvantaged backgrounds or have not been well served by the secondary education system.

The two point increase in the pupil-teacher ratio is unprecedented in its harshness. It is like lobbing a hand grenade into the further education and training sector. If this Bill had been adopted previously, the requirement to carry out impact assessments would have persuaded him to discard many of the measures he introduced since he entered office. He would share our policy position of protecting the education budget as a key platform for the future. I do not doubt he will find fault with particular aspects of the Bill but we need a system in which the impact of policy is assessed in advance rather than after the fact.

1:00 pm

Photo of Jonathan O'BrienJonathan O'Brien (Cork North Central, Sinn Fein)
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I congratulate Deputy McConalogue on producing this legislation and on bringing forward this worthwhile Bill. I am not sure whether the Government proposes to accept the Bill, but I presume it will not accept it as that seems to the general policy. Since I have entered the Houses, I can only remember one Opposition Bill being accepted - one introduced by Deputy Michael McGrath. The general consensus seems to be that no matter how much merit a Bill has, if it is proposed by the Opposition, it will be rejected. Hopefully, that will not happen with this Bill and it will be accepted and go forward to Committee Stage.

As Deputy McConalogue has pointed out, the Bill proposes to instruct the Minister for Education and Skills to carry out an annual education impact study in order to quality proof any decisions he proposes to take in upcoming budgets. This is a very worthwhile proposal, because of the consequences of some of the decisions that have been taken over the past number of years. Deputy McConalogue spoke about the impact of some of those decisions. Take, for example, the DEIS schools and the proposed teacher allocations for them. There is no doubt the decision on that was taken without full awareness of the impact, as the Minister acknowledged subsequently. We are all aware of the value provided by DEIS schools to disadvantaged and marginalised communities and of the issues and problems with which these schools must deal.

There is ample evidence down through the years to suggest that the programmes being implemented and targeted at these particular schools are working and providing value for money and increased opportunities for students attending them. That is the reason that particular decision was met with such shock, anger and consternation by staff, teachers and parents. They understood the value of the specialised programmes in DEIS band one and two schools. I firmly believe that if it was not for the public outcry at the time, that decision would not have been reversed and we would be picking up the pieces ten or 15 years down the line when the impact manifested itself. If an impact analysis had been done prior to the decision, the Minister would never have put forward the proposal, which demonstrates the value of conducting an impact analysis. We need to know what the impact of such decisions will be on our education system.

This week, we discussed the Fianna Fáil Private Members' motion on further education and the change in the pupil-teacher ratio, PTR, in that sector from 17:1 to 19:1. During that debate, I said that when we say it fast, this increase does not seem much as we are only increasing it by two and bringing it into line with the post-primary PTR rate. However, when we scratch the surface, we see the impact it will have, with 200 wholetime equivalent posts being lost and from 350 to 400 job losses in the sector. Yet, we will ask the further education sector to try to continue to provide the same level and quality of education. We hope the CEOs and principals of the further education colleges will get around the table and maintain the same number of courses and protect course provision. At the same time, the same number of pupils, if not more, will try to access the sector although we expect the service to be provided with approximately 10% less resources in terms of front-line teaching staff. This is not possible.

Deputy McConalogue, myself and others have received briefings from the likes of the TUI, which have shown in stark terms the consequences of this proposed cut. If it goes ahead, we will see students who use further education as a stepping stone to higher education unable to access this service. In communities like those I represent, such as Knocknaheeny, colleges like Terence Mac Swiney community college, a post-primary school, provides further education. Knocknaheeny is one of the most disadvantaged areas in the north side of Cork city, with one of the highest unemployment rates. It is a very proud community with many good people working hard every day to try and improve it. We have a very successful further education college there which provides worthwhile courses and a service for people who left school early or who do not have the academic qualifications to go on to higher education. The service being provided helps these people get employment, move on to higher education and restores their sense of self-worth. The proposed cut will impact on this. We know the impact the DEIS cuts would have had and there was only a partial reversal of those.

Last year also, we saw a cut made in the area of the allocation for career guidance. This was almost justified by putting the onus on individual schools to deal with how the cut would be implemented, but there was little acknowledgement that some schools do not have the ability to deal with it. There appears to be no acknowledgement by the Department or the Minister of the value of career guidance and of the value of what these teachers do for students. It is not all about career advice. Career guidance teachers are almost like personal counsellors for some students and provide an outlet for students who might have personal issues at home. We know from speaking to career guidance counsellors that they deal with sensitive personal issues students bring to them. Therefore, they provide a valuable outlet to students under pressure, some of whom may even be suicidal. The Government made a decision last year which forced some schools to abandon that service or to try and make do with the resources they had.

None us denies that we face tough economic times or that there are pressures on the education budget and I would be first to acknowledge that. However, other EU member states always ringfence their education budgets in times of recession, because they know the value of education. This State is one of the few EU member states which, in times of recession, has continually chipped away at the education funding allocation. This will have a detrimental effect. This is already happening. One only needs to talk to teachers, parents and students to hear about the pressures on them due to the continual chipping away at resources which is damaging the quality of education. There is no getting away from that.

Even in times of recession, it is possible, not only to protect and ringfence education budgets, but to support them further. In the North, for example, despite all the complexities of a block grant, the allocation to the education budget was increased in May 2011 because of their understanding of the value of education. In the North also, very few decisions, if any, are taken without an impact analysis being conducted.

I have no doubt that there will be issues with it and that the Minister will find reasons not to accept it. However, I think it merits progression to Committee Stage. If there are particular issues with it, we can tease them out at that point. Even if the Bill is rejected here today, it will have been worthwhile because it has generated a debate which I hope will continue.

In recent years, a number of cuts in the education sector have been discussed in this House in the context of Private Members' business and Priority Questions. We debated and asked questions about issues such as SUSI, career guidance and DEIS in a vacuum, however, because we did not have the impact analyses that had been done. We can calculate what the effect of various cuts will be, but it is all hypothetical. We presume there will be 400 job losses in the further education sector. There is some evidence to suggest that will be the case. We should not be doing our business in the absence of an impact analysis or study, however.

We will support the proposal before the House. As I have said, there is much merit in it. I accept that issues may arise with regard to how it is actually implemented. This proposal will require an impact study to be produced before the budget, but if that does not happen until the very end of November - perhaps six or seven days before budget day - will schools have time to appeal decisions which may be taken in the budget? When Deputy McConalogue is wrapping up, perhaps he can explain how that sort of thing will happen. While I am not too sure about this aspect of the proposal, I believe the spirit and the intention behind it are worthwhile and agree that the Bill should be allowed to progress to Committee Stage for further discussion.

1:10 pm

Photo of Finian McGrathFinian McGrath (Dublin North Central, Independent)
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I am pleased to have an opportunity to speak on the Education (Resource Allocation) Bill 2012. I welcome the Bill and the debate on the broader issues of the importance of education and the allocation of educational resources. We all accept that we have a huge problem in the State at this time. The allocation and distribution of resources needs to be well managed and accounted for in the interests of the citizens of this State. That is the current situation. That is where we are all at. We are all on the same page. That is where we need to begin our consideration of this legislation. Priority has to be given to the most needy. We need to assess the impact and the results of our expenditure in order to inform our future spending plans. There can be no beating around the bush. That is why I think this legislation is progressive. I commend Deputy McConalogue on bringing it before the Dáil this afternoon.

I would like to express my sadness and disappointment at the lack of major participation in the debate on the part of the Minister for Education and Skills and other Deputies who profess to be very interested in education. I appreciate that the Minister of State, Deputy Cannon, is in attendance. My constituency colleague, Deputy Ó Ríordáin, used to rant and rave about education before he was elected. Now that he has a chance to contribute to an important education debate, he is not even in the House. I would like to know where he is hiding out this Friday lunchtime.

I appreciate that the Acting Chairman would like me to stay within the Standing Orders of the House, so I will return to the Bill before us today. One of my priorities is to tackle educational disadvantage. I am also keen to help children with disabilities. That is what I stood for and that is the mandate I was given by the electorate. I will continue to fight for that. We need reform in education. It is absolute madness to cut and dismantle educational services that have a proven track record of working. I could give many examples of good practice in this area. We need to build on what is working in the best interests of children and students, rather than destroying the system, and do so before it is too late.

I will give a practical example. I used to work as the principal of a disadvantaged primary school in the north inner city. We participated in the Breaking the Cycle project, which was developed at the start of the move towards the DEIS initiative. I will mention two features of the project. We had to account for every cent of the extra funding we received for disadvantage. We had to spend the money wisely. It was checked, verified and accounted for on a regular basis. I was absolutely amazed by the radical reforms that were achieved as a result of the project, under the leadership and guidance of Ms Maura Grant in the then Department of Education. She played a tremendous role in this regard. She gave a great lift to funding, reform, management and accountability in the 30 poorest schools in the country.

When the banking crisis emerged in this State at a later stage on foot of the mistakes of the regulators and such people, it struck me that the 33 most disadvantaged schools in the country had been able to account for every euro they received from the State. They had been able to prove that the scheme was working. It was regularly assessed. It was proven to have had a major impact on the school. I remember the lift it gave to my staff and to the parents of children living in flats in the north inner city. This is the kind of project we should look at. When one invests money in this way, one should look for accountability and make sure there are results at the end of the year. Attendance levels at the school went through the roof. We focused on literacy because it was a major issue in the school at the time. We also made progress in maths and other subjects. The bottom line is that the scheme worked. The key thing in that context was accountability.

It is important for people who work at the front line to know what is going on. As my colleague Deputy Donnelly said recently, when one speaks to nurses, doctors, porters and others at the front line of the health service, they are immediately able to point to where reforms are needed and efficiencies can be made. Many people are interested in being true public servants. I am using that term in the most positive sense. A public servant is a servant of the public. The vast majority of public servants try to do their best in the interests of the State. We have to be able to deal with public servants who do not want to be in the public service, or who are inefficient. That must be part of the reform agenda. These points are important and relevant to the Bill before the House.

I would like to mention another issue that has arisen in my constituency recently. As I have said, I have a strong interest in disability issues. The ChildVision school on Grace Park Road in Drumcondra, Dublin 9, received a very nasty letter in the last few days to the effect that its funding will have to decrease by €250,000 as a result of the 5% cut that is required under the budget guidelines. The ChildVision organisation looks after blind and very disabled children. I often wonder where people are going when they seek substantial cuts - €250,000, in this case - from great services that are protecting vulnerable children. This cut will be on top of an €863,000 cut that has been imposed on ChildVision in recent years. It is a total disgrace. We are talking about accountability. I can guarantee that those who work for ChildVision can account for every cent they spend. I urge the Minister of State, Deputy Cannon, to examine the matter. I have already contacted the Minister, Deputy Quinn, about the issue. We need to have examples of that.

I received a letter this morning from a parent in the Donnycarney area of my constituency. It was sent by a "disappointed and concerned mother" whose seven year old son attends an outreach class for children with autism spectrum disorder at Scoil Chiaráin CBS on Collins Avenue. The woman in question has been informed that her son will not receive any in-school speech and language support during the current school term. It is not acceptable for that kind of stuff to be going on. At a time when the Government is talking about reform and change, it cannot go around hammering the weakest of the weak. I do not want to hear Ministers saying they do not have the resources to do what is needed. Resources have to be focused on those who need them most. If extra revenue needs to be raised, the Government should not be afraid to go after certain people.

I would like to pick up on a point that Deputy O'Brien made about this legislation. When we talk about the progressive things that are happening in education and the sly and nasty things that are happening in education, it is important to remember that the funding for counselling services for children in second level schools has been reduced by 51%. That is an appalling situation, especially as the rate of suicide among that age group is very high. There has also been a 21% reduction in the amount of time available for guidance and counselling services in second level schools. We are talking about people who provide an important listening ear and offer professional advice and support before matters escalate seriously.

Second level students must be suicidal or self-harming before they are prioritised for access to psychological or psychiatric services and, even at that, they sometimes have to wait. Apart from the human cost and the potential destruction of young people's lives, this costs the State more from a strictly economic point of view.

The purpose of the Bill is to put in place a system whereby the Department of Education and Skills will carry out and publish an annual education impact study which will examine the effects of the Minister's decision to reduce the annual resource allocation. That is the purpose of the legislation. The study will have to be completed in a timely fashion to allow affected schools ample time to submit appeals against such reductions. The study will have to include details of the names of schools affected and the impact the reduction will have on those schools. It must specifically include details on the effect the resource reduction will have on students and remaining staff, as well as on the general functioning of the school. The Bill also provides for a mechanism whereby the principal of each affected school can appeal the decision to reduce his or her resource allocation. The principal will be given an opportunity to set out a number of grounds on which he or she can base an appeal.

I have just outlined the bones of the legislation, which is, in my view, very progressive. It addresses issues of planning and accountability while providing school principals with the opportunity to react to resource reductions. As I have already mentioned, I was one such principal at one time and had this legislation been in place then, it would have provided me with a great opportunity. This legislation would pertain to all schools in the State but I am particularly interested in schools in disadvantaged areas, as that is my area of expertise. Many people are not aware of the good work going on in such schools where many at-risk children are prevented from getting into trouble and ending up in Mountjoy Prison. That work must be commended. Those working in disadvantaged schools are doing a fantastic job and this legislation would strengthen their hand.

Section 2 of the Bill amends the Education Act 1998 and makes provision for the principal of the affected school to submit an appeal against the decision to reduce his or her school's annual resource allocation to the inspectorate, which is very important. It allows principals to make the case for their individual schools. The section also makes provision for a review of the operation of the section within two years of the enactment of the Bill. This is all about change and reform. Members of this House, including the Government, were elected on a commitment to change and reform Irish politics following the economic downturn and the major mistakes made by the previous Administration and those involved in banking, regulation and construction. We have the mandate to do this and we should just get on with the job. This Bill is one aspect of this reform of the system.

Section 3 amends the Education Act 1998 to provide that the Minister must carry out an annual education impact study on the effects a reduction in resource allocation will have on any school. This fits in with the debate on change, reform and accountability.

This legislation gives Deputies from all sides of the House a chance to back something that is sensible and beneficial to the Irish education system. There is no need for people to veto or put down this Bill just because it comes from the Opposition, which is a difficulty I have with many of the so-called debates in this House. Many Deputies, on looking at the details of this legislation, would see that it is a common-sense Bill which addresses the issues of reform, resource allocation and accountability. It is a sensible proposal. I welcome the publication of this Bill and I will be supporting it because it strengthens education and improves accountability in the use of educational resources.

1:20 pm

Photo of Ciarán CannonCiarán Cannon (Galway East, Fine Gael)
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Today's debate has been initiated by Fianna Fáil to discuss its proposals for putting the teacher allocation appeals process for schools on a statutory basis. To be frank, I am not sure what Fianna Fáil's motives are in proposing this Bill. A sceptic could see this as a populist stunt designed to help schools avoid losing any resources. This parish-pump-type politics is not what a self-styled responsible Opposition party should be about. It seems strange that during almost 14 years in power, Fianna Fáil never saw the need to make such changes to the staffing appeals process.

I applaud Deputy McConalogue on the passion and gusto he has shown for his portfolio. He has made some excellent speeches in this House over the last number of months on educational issues. He has achieved a certain amount of credibility in the area but if he is to retain that credibility he should prevent himself from further rewriting history. He speaks of impact analyses, but I wonder what impact analyses were carried out before Fianna Fáil ran the Irish economy off the edge of a cliff. He might like to refer back to Fianna Fáil's four-year economic recovery plan which commits or obliges this State to find €330 million of savings in the education budget between 2011 and 2014. That is the legacy this Government is dealing with, and to suggest now, in hindsight, that it is somehow possible to completely protect the education budget from such cuts is dishonest and does not allow rational debate on the issue to occur.

Since coming into office, the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Quinn, has been consistently clear to everyone in this House and elsewhere that funding for all public services, including education, has to reflect the fact that Ireland is operating in a budgetary programme that is designed to put our public finances on a sustainable footing. This is a long and difficult road to travel but we have a lot of the journey done. We are beginning to see the benefit of this, with more and more of our key economic indicators starting to move into positive territory.

A key part of our overall budgetary strategy is a requirement to reduce the public sector payroll. Reductions in the public service pay bill and staffing numbers will continue to play a part in expenditure consolidation. That means improving our health system with fewer nurses and doctors, maintaining our infrastructure with fewer engineers and architects and also, for now at least, educating our children with fewer teachers. The Government has protected education as much as it can. Far greater reductions in expenditure and in numbers of public servants are being made in other sectors relative to those in our school system. However, there are limits to the level of expenditure on education and the number of teaching posts we can afford.

The teacher allocation process commences around January of each year to determine staffing in schools for the following September. The key factor for determining the level of staffing resources provided at individual school level is the number of pupils in each school. Basing the staffing of schools on the number of pupils in each school is objective, logical and transparent. In simple terms, it means that a school with 100 pupils is allocated more resources than a school with 80 pupils. If one takes primary schools as an example, the relevant appointment and retention figures for mainstream staffing are published annually in what is commonly referred to as the staffing schedule. The staffing schedule operates on the basis of enrolment bands and treats all similar schools the same. This means that a standard school with an enrolment of 100 pupils is a four-classroom school, irrespective of whether it is located in Dublin, Cork or Donegal.

Changes in the number of classroom teachers in a primary school can be affected by changes in the enrolment in the school or by budget measures to the pupil thresholds in the staffing schedule.

Irrespective of how they occur, the key issue is that schools are treated equally in the published staffing schedule. Politics is not allowed to influence these decisions and there is a level of transparency for which we should strive in the allocation of all resources provided from the public purse. At post-primary level, the standard staffing allocation for schools is based on the following staffing ratios: 18.25:1 in DEIS post-primary schools; 19:1 in schools in the free scheme; 21:1 in fee charging schools, which figure will rise to 23:1 from September. The teacher allocation process also includes provision for additional resources to be allocated to those schools that have significant increases in their enrolments for the following September. Significant additional resources are also provided for schools to cater for pupils with special needs. We recently published guidance for schools to assist them in evaluating their own performance in key areas such as literacy and numeracy. The challenge for all schools is to ensure they utilise their allocated resources to best effect to maximise teaching and learning outcomes. School self-evaluations will support schools to do exactly that.

The existing staffing appeals process also operates in a very clear, simple and transparent manner. It operates through an independent staffing appeals board, using published and transparent criteria. The fact that it operates on an administrative basis means that it can deal with the staffing appeals from schools in a flexible and streamlined way. The existing appeals process is also a fully integrated part of the teacher allocation process. At primary level, the appeals board typically meets about three times a year, in the spring, summer and autumn. The process for submitting appeals is simple and straightforward. It involves the relevant schools that meet the eligibility criteria setting out their reasons for submitting an appeal and this information is considered by the independent staffing appeals board. A similar type of flexible approach applies to the appeals process at post-primary level. This simple and streamlined approach contrasts with the much more elaborate and cumbersome process envisaged in the Bill. It is worth noting that the experience of schools of appeals processes that operate on a statutory basis such as section 29 appeals regarding enrolments is not very good. Many schools regard the section 29 appeals process as time-consuming, overly elaborate and burdensome. It is far preferable to retain the flexibility of the existing staffing appeals process that operates on an administrative basis.

None of the stakeholders in the school system has informed my Department of the need to make the type of changes to the existing appeals system that are envisaged in the Bill. The simple reality is that the existing appeals system works and does not need to be made complicated and cumbersome. An example of how the primary staffing appeals board operated in 2012 can be gauged from how it dealt with small schools that were due to lose a classroom post as a result of the budget 2012 measure. At the time the Minister and I said we would put in place an appeals process for these schools and it is useful to note how this worked out. A total of 73 small schools were affected by the budget measure, 63 of which submitted appeals to the staffing appeals board. Some 43 small schools had their appeals provisionally upheld by the appeals board, subject to confirmation in September 2012 that the required level of enrolments was achieved. The required level of enrolments was achieved in 29 of these schools. All of these schools were dealt with in a fair, transparent and objective manner. The appeals process for these schools could only operate after they became aware of their projected enrolments for September 2012. This would not be possible within the timeframes envisaged in Fianna Fáil's Bill.

Some of the key problems in the appeals system proposed in the Bill are that it would require a cumbersome and bureaucratic process to be put in place that would not be realistic to operate within tight timeframes. The Bill does not differentiate between reductions in resources arising in the normal manner from changes in pupil enrolments, or the profile of pupils in terms of special needs or reductions that arise owing to budget measures. Is Fianna Fáil suggesting a school that has seen a reduction of 20 pupils should see no reduction in its resources? It does not make it clear whether the appeals process would apply to teacher staff or whether it would also apply to non-teacher staff and the various grants allocated to schools.

The proposed annual educational impact study is very detailed. It would involve an assessment of the impact of a resource allocation reduction on each and every pupil in all of the affected schools. It is envisaged that this annual study would be conducted by the Minister and completed by 30 November each year. It is not realistic to expect this type of study to be completed for every affected school by 30 November. The appeals process envisaged under the Bill would be initiated in the autumn-winter period and completed before the annual teacher allocation process commences in the spring of each year, which is simply putting the cart before the horse. The timeframe also takes no account of budgetary timeframes and the fact that any budget measure that affects teacher allocations would not be known when the educational impact studies were being conducted.

The Bill also proposes that the final decision on staffing appeals rest with the Minister. This is not an appropriate role for a politician. The operation of an objective, transparent appeals board is a much more appropriate model.

Instead of seeking to micro-manage schools, it would be more appropriate to have a debate in the House about the Government's plans for expenditure in advance of budgetary decisions. In this regard, we need to consider reforming our traditional system of budgeting. The Government is committed to doing this and the process of reform is being led by my colleague, the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Brendan Howlin. Some of the main features of that new budgetary architecture will be that the Government's spending plans, with its tax plans, will be anchored in a clear vision for how the public finances will be managed in the coming years; the introduction of a modern, multi-annual expenditure framework to give greater transparency to the allocations available to each Department to facilitate better planning and Dáil oversight; a greater focus on building performance information into the annual Estimates in order that performance information can be scrutinised by Oireachtas committees at the same time as that money is being requested; and an enhanced role for the Oireachtas to allow Oireachtas committees to engage earlier and more fully on Estimate allocations before they are settled for the year. These reforms will not all happen overnight, but they show that the Government is committed to doing its budgetary business in a better and more transparent manner than in the traditional opaque systems of the past.

1:30 pm

Photo of Charlie McConalogueCharlie McConalogue (Donegal North East, Fianna Fail)
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I thank all speakers for their contributions to the debate on the Bill, including Deputies O’Brien and McGrath and the Minister of State at the Department of Education and Skills, Deputy Cannon. Deputies O’Brien and McGrath supported it, for which I am grateful to them. Deputy O’Brien mentioned how the PLC system might work. We could consider that issue-----

Photo of Jonathan O'BrienJonathan O'Brien (Cork North Central, Sinn Fein)
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On Committee Stage.

Photo of Charlie McConalogueCharlie McConalogue (Donegal North East, Fianna Fail)
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It is important that any appeals system is workable, an issue which merits lengthy discussion. When we took Committee Stage of the Education and Training Boards Bill 2012, we discussed 89 amendments, almost half of which were submitted by the Minister for Education and Skills. I would be willing to sit down and tease out the issue with the Minister of State should he wish to accept that offer today. I also thank Deputy McGrath who has a broad background at the coalface in the education sector for his support.

The broad thrust of the Bill is to ensure impact assessments will be carried out. The Bill refers to an appeals system. The Government should carry out an impact assessment of the measures and cuts it plans to introduce. However, this is absent from the measures the Minister of State has introduced during his time in government. It was absent in the past, too, and I join the Minister of State in saying that was a failing. I was disappointed to hear him refer to the Bill as parish pump politics because it is not. It aims to protect education at all levels. As such, it would affect every school and family in the country.

The Minister of State referred to the definite failures of the last Government which he described as a Fianna Fáil Government because it did not see what would happen as a result of the economic crash.

He neglected to mention the role played by other parties which participated in that Administration. In that context, I find it amusing that he is so willing to wipe from history the contribution of the Progressive Democrats to the Government in question.

There is no doubt that there was a massive failure on the part of the previous Government to carry out impact assessments in respect of policy decisions it made. Even though there were budget surpluses from 2000 to 2007, when the crash occurred, there was a failure to assess the impact of increases in expenditure in the context of what might happen in the future and also with regard to the overheating in the economy to which they were giving rise. I have no difficulty highlighting that failure on the part of the previous Government. However, there was also a failure on the part of the entire Oireachtas at that time. The failure to which I refer resulted from an unfortunate consensus among all parties as to what was the actual position and this led to everyone failing to foresee the advent of the tragic economic circumstances in which we have found ourselves in recent years.

I acknowledge that some very difficult cuts, which had an impact on the education sector, were introduced prior to the current Government entering office. We must, however, assess where matters stand at present and identify what should be prioritised as we move forward. My party is committed to placing education at the centre of the country's recovery and its future development. I urge the Government, the Minister for Education and Skills and the Minister of State to adopt this approach. As stated earlier, and in the context of the approach taken by the Government to date - whether it be in respect of guidance counsellors, pupil-teacher ratios, DEIS schools or student maintenance grants - there have been too many instances where impact assessments were obviously not carried out. I will not even mention the fact that, in the instances in question, no appeals mechanisms were provided.

The Government only reversed one of its decisions in respect of the matters to which I refer, namely, that which related to the DEIS schools. That reversal only occurred in the aftermath of the application of extensive pressure by school authorities and parents throughout the country and Members of the House, including those on the Government backbenches. It was only following this pressure that the Minister, Deputy Quinn, admitted that he was wrong, that he did not fully understand the impact of what he had done and that an assessment had not been carried out in advance. I have no doubt that the latter is the case in the context of so many of the other decisions made by the Department of Education and Skills. In those instances, however, the same level of political pressure was not exerted and, consequently, the Department did not admit that certain of the cuts it has made to educational services were wrong.

The Minister of State, Deputy Cannon, has particular responsibility for school transport. I wish to point out to him the impact of last year's cut in respect of such transport and the failure to recognise the nature of that impact. Students are now required to travel to their nearest school. This is an unfair objective in itself but in many instances what has been implemented in this regard is both wrong and counterproductive. Many schools which have the capacity to take on students are actually losing them to schools which lack such capacity. The latter will require capital investment in order to allow them to take on additional students. I am aware of a number of examples in this regard in my county and I have not seen any evidence of the Government trying to grasp the nettle and ensure that a sensible approach will be taken in respect of this issue. The Government must consider cases where what has been imposed is having a particular impact and amend the approach that is taken in such cases. I encourage the Minister of State to take action on this matter, to meet representatives from schools which have been affected, to carry out an assessment in respect of what is happening and to change that approach that is being taken.

Despite putting forward an image of being very reforming, the record of the Government - which has been in office for almost two years - tells a somewhat different story. All of the resources and services that are available have been cut and there has been a real failure to live up to the rhetoric of reform used by those in government both when they were in opposition and early in their term of office. Let us consider some of the assertions that were made by those opposite about what they would do if they got into government.

In the context of the third level sector, a promise was made to students to the effect that there would be no further increases in registration fees and that there would be a rowing back in respect of the increases imposed prior to the Government entering office. The opposite has been the reality in this regard. Registration fees increased by €250 in the current year and the Minister indicated that they will be increased by this amount each year until 2015. That is what he has delivered, despite promising to do the opposite and relieve the pain felt by students. Cuts have also been made in respect of maintenance grants. Last year these grants were reduced by 3%, while this year the qualifying thresholds are being lowered. Some grand plans were produced in respect of reforming the junior certificate but there has been an absence of detail with regard to how what is proposed will work. An announcement was made but there was no consultation with teachers, particularly in the context of how it is proposed to proceed or in respect of the resources that will be made available to ensure that this reform will be successful. Reform of the junior certificate will not be completed until 2020 and developments in respect of the first subject will only begin in 2014. Again, there are big plans in this regard but there is no detail on how what is envisaged will work.

The one project which the Government has taken from initiation to delivery is the student grants system administered by Student Universal Support Ireland, SUSI. When the Minister announced the latter, he indicated that it was a prime example of public service reform. However, as it began to become obvious that the system which has been established - and to which the Minister agreed - is simply not fit for purpose, there was a reluctance on the part of the Government to get involved in order to try to resolve matters. The Minister was eventually obliged to apologise in respect of what occurred and to promise that 90% of students would be paid by Christmas. At the beginning of this month, however, fewer than half of the students who are ultimately expected to be paid grants actually received them. As of today, a large proportion of the students who applied are still waiting - many of them in desperation - for their grants.

Before they came to office, those in government promised that there would not be any cuts in respect of small schools. However, the pupil-teacher ratio relating to such schools has increased since February 2011 and there have been cuts to their capitation allocations.

When he entered office, the Minister made a number of bold statements in respect of how he expected to see changes in the patronage of up to 50% of primary schools nationally. At present, a total of 43 areas throughout the country are being surveyed to see what might be the position in this regard. If the Minister were to change the patronage of one school in each of those areas, it would mean that the patronage of a little over 1% of the total of more than 3,000 primary schools throughout the country would change.

Currently, 96% of schools are subject to denominational patronage. Therefore, despite the Minister's very bold assertions about his plans, the reality is somewhat different.

Despite the Minister's unwillingness to address the Bill, I ask him to reconsider. More important, I ask him to protect education and carry out an impact assessment in advance of further actions he proposes to take. I ask him to consider very carefully any possible effect on education services. I ask him to revisit the decision to increase the pupil-teacher ratio which will mean a decrease in the number of front-line teachers from next September in the further education and training sector. I ask him to listen to what was said during the week on this issue. He is committed to carrying out an impact assessment and I ask him to do so now before it is too late. He should talk to those involved in the sector, consider the impact of his proposals and reverse his decision. He needs to consider an alternative way to make savings of €12 million. I suggest any impact assessment should assess the effect on the system, rather than, as has been the case heretofore, how the proposals will play politically and what he can get away with.

I commend the Bill to the House. I thank Deputies and the Minister of State for their contributions to the debate. I also thank the Acting Chairman and the staff of the Houses for giving of their time today. I ask that the Bill be permitted to proceed to Committee Stage.

Question put.

1:50 pm

Acting Chairman (Deputy Joanna Tuffy):

In accordance with Standing Order 117A (iv), the division is postponed until immediately following the Order of Business on Tuesday next, 22 January 2013.

The Dáil adjourned at 1.55 p.m. until 2 p.m. on Tuesday, 22 January 2013.