Dáil debates

Wednesday, 15 June 2016

Estimates for Public Services 2016


7:45 pm

Photo of Richard BrutonRichard Bruton (Dublin Bay North, Fine Gael)
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I move the following Revised Estimate:

Vote 26 — Education and Skills (Revised)

That a sum not exceeding €8,204,653,000 be granted to defray the charge which will come in course of payment during the year ending on the 31st day of December, 2016, for the salaries and expenses of the Office of the Minister for Education and Skills, for certain services administered by that Office, and for the payments of certain grants.

It is an honour to present this Revised Estimate to the House. In normal times there would be a much more detailed debate at the education committee, allowing us to go through it line by line. Hopefully, we will be able to do that in the future. We are embarking on a period when budget formation will be much more of a collective endeavour with not just the Government deciding alone on it but with the participation of committees in defining priorities and the issues which need to be addressed. In that context, I am keen the Department of Education and Skills will work with the education committee. I welcome the appointment of Deputy Fiona O'Loughlin as chairman of the committee and look forward to working with it to ensure we have a good report of impacts, outcomes and the way moneys are spent. We will endeavour to improve the information made available to Deputies in order that they can better inform debates.

I am convinced education is crucial to our national ambition, whether it is in enterprise, a sector in which I was involved previously, in public service, community, cultural or sporting affairs. It all makes its way back to the nurturing that people get through their education years. It is a great opportunity for us to be seeking to shape and guide policy over the coming years. I have determined we will produce an education strategy statement for the next three years by 1 September. This will set out the direction and goals. I want to work in the same way that I did when I was the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, namely working with Deputies, colleagues and other wider stakeholders to look at progress we make each year and how we can better improve the impact of measures we are taking.

I have identified three core areas, reflecting the Government's theme which is to use our economic success to make life better for people. My challenge is to use our economic success to make it easier for learners and for their parents and guardians who support them. There are over 1 million full-time and 250,000 part-time learners. This is a significant number of people whose lives we can improve if we can make changes in the way the education system works. That is an ambition. On top of that, there are areas of disadvantage and we are reviewing the scheme for schools in areas of disadvantage. We are also examining special educational needs provision to ensure we support the full participation of children with special needs. I was pleased that I was able to gain Cabinet approval this week for the appointment of 860 special needs assistants, SNAs, to take up their posts in September. They will complement the 600 extra resource teachers who will also be taking up their places in September. It is good to see children with special educational needs having a much more tailored response to their needs as a result of the additional personnel we are putting into the field.

The second big theme is how we support schools to improve continually what they do. There are some fantastically well led schools doing really interesting work. In these schools, leadership is clear, the quality of teaching methodologies is good and they have the capacity to anticipate change and be innovative. These have to be valued. In this year's Estimates, there is an investment in improving school leadership. We need to build on that. One of the themes in the programme for Government is the concept of an excellence fund which would allow schools to be more innovative and to look at initiatives to improve their environment. It brings in a whole range of issues because those schools have to be able to bring their parents with them, helping them understand their plans and how they will be executed. That is a really good development upon which I want to build.

The third theme I have identified is how we build a stronger bridge between education and the workplace, be it a workplace in the public service, the community sector or in the enterprise sector. Significant benefits are to be gained if we can strengthen that bridge. Traditionally, Irish enterprise has not had the tradition of apprenticeships or traineeships which one would find in some other European countries which are exemplars of strong practice. Correspondingly, our education system has not had the privilege of enough placements of their students in a real working environment or being able to share curriculum development with the workplace. There is a win-win if we build a stronger bridge in this regard. This is one area which we will be hoping to develop through regional networks. I know Deputy Cullinane is interested in the regional aspect of this. We have the regional education structure through the education and training boards, which will be significant players in making this happen.

I thank my officials for providing the House with a rundown of the budget. It is a different type of debate than what we would usually have. There is €8.1 billion on the current side and €600 million on the capital side, with an additional €362 million coming in from the training fund. In gross terms, it represents 17% of total Government spending on the current side and 15% on the capital side. First and second level education gets the lion's share, with 77% of our current spend. Skills is relatively small at 4% of spend, a signal of the need for improvement in this sphere. Higher education gets 19% of current spend. The other large number in the budget is the 80% of our current spend on the pay side. This goes to employ close to 101,000 people in our schools and colleges who provide the underpinning of the education system.

I am glad to pay tribute to Deputy Jan O'Sullivan, my predecessor, who initiated much good work in the Department’s budget. Specifically in this year's budget, she included several improvements in the pupil-teacher ratio both at primary and secondary level. She also made provision for leadership in the school system with 250 posts freed up to allow people to devote themselves to school leadership, which is an important element as we try to implement education plans. In total, 2,250 additional teachers are being employed this September compared to last year. This is along with the SNAs coming into place.

There is a growing importance of special education in our system. We are now spending €1 billion on special education and I am keen to get the best impact from that. There are improvements proposed in this area in the way we utilise it in the schools to get the best impact for children with special educational needs.

The other area which we obviously have to pay heed to is the further and higher education sphere. I will be coming to the House soon with a report drawn up by Peter Cassells, highlighting the challenges presented to the higher education funding model we have. It is certainly different from the primary or secondary levels in that it does not have the same connection through pupil-teacher ratios, capitation payments or allocation of school investment which has prevailed in the primary and secondary area.

It is a tribute to our higher education system how it has, over the very difficult last few years, significantly enhanced the number of participants involved, even though it did so against a declining resource. Much like the health service, it has had to work in an area where it was necessary to do more with less. As we look to the future, I believe that, collectively, as a Dáil, we have to look to how we create a sustainable funding model for the higher education sector into the next decade and beyond.

The other area close to my heart is that of the further education sector. For many years, this has been a sector where perhaps we did not focus enough on quality apprenticeships linked to sustainable sectors. Apprenticeships were dominated by the construction sector which, as we all know, overheated, leading to the collapse of apprenticeships. It is good to see they are coming back but it is much more important that we also see the growth of new apprenticeships. The Department has set the objective of doubling the number of apprenticeships but also seeing 100 new areas of apprenticeship come on stream over a number of years. The first 25 have been identified and work is being put in place to develop those programmes. We need to develop a much stronger skills base. Over time, we need to see this channel gain the same sort of prestige and reputation it has in other European countries, where many people opt for an apprenticeship for the quality of the technical skills it gives them and also the avenues it leads them into, for example, into degree courses, if they so choose, or other fields of endeavour such as setting up a business. We have not had that quality channel in the past. With the revival that we now see of Irish manufacturing and with its great regional spread, there is a real opportunity for us to capitalise on that.

I was very pleased today to announce 5,700 places on Springboard, which is a very good programme that, again, was born out of the necessity of the recession. It is targeted at people who have been unemployed and need to make a career. It was inspiring today to see two stories, the first of a mother who had dropped out of the workforce and decided that her previous skills as she re-entered were not sufficient. She chose to study data analytics, a very different environment, and she has thrived and gone on to work in the Revenue Commissioners. The second story was that of a chef who had gone to Australia and then come back. He was unemployed and wanted to get away from work as a chef. He moved into the IT sector and now has an excellent job with General Motors.

Those are the sorts of stories that tell the impact of programmes like Springboard but they are also very interesting in the way they incentivise our education system to build links with enterprise. Under Springboard, the vast majority of participants have had work placements. Employers have shared in the shaping of the curriculum and, as a result, the placement rate has been extremely high at 75%. It is a model of what can be done and shows we need to build further upon it.

The other big theme is obviously the capital projects, which have a budget of €600 million. To judge from discussions with Deputies around Leinster House, it is probably the biggest element of interest with them. At present, there are 116 major projects either under construction or progressing to commence construction in 2016, which is a very important element. I know it will be of interest to Deputy Cullinane that there is an allocation of €21.5 million to the higher education sector, most of which will be spent on existing commitments such as the Glucksman Library at the University of Limerick and the Carriganore campus at Waterford Institute of Technology, as well as on expenditure in respect of Grangegorman.

I would like to thank Deputies for participating. I look forward to an engagement, not just today, but during as many years as are given to us - who knows how long at this stage? This Dáil has offered us an exciting opportunity to shape collectively the future of our education system for the next three years but also beyond that in terms of funding models that can sustain us into the longer-term future. I look forward to working with the committee, Opposition spokespersons and the wider range of Deputies, who have keen experience and can bring a lot to this debate, whether as former teachers or users of the education system. One of the things that has struck me about education is how many more stakeholders have become actively involved in seeking to shape education policy. It is a very policy-rich environment and, together, we need to make the best of the resources that, thankfully, we are seeing more of. As I said at the outset, the ambition is to use our economic success to help shape a future for young people in particular. Nowhere more than in education can we build the link between a strong economy and a fair society. I believe we can bridge those two very successfully through the models of education we develop and I look forward to doing that.

7:55 pm

Photo of Thomas ByrneThomas Byrne (Meath East, Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Minister for his presentation of the Revised Estimate. It is more than just an engagement between Government and Opposition. It is an important constitutional function of the Minister and the Government to present the Revised Estimate to the Dáil and for the Dáil to consider it, as we are doing. It is very important that we take this role seriously, particularly in a case where a Government does not have a majority.

Many items in this Revised Estimate are welcome. We support and want to see a reduction in class sizes, which, as the Minister said, is a huge priority of everybody, including the Fianna Fáil Party. Indeed, it is one of the items in the education sector which is referenced in the supply and confidence arrangement that we have with the Government party, Fine Gael. It is very important that, while progress is being made on that, further progress needs to be made. Reducing class sizes has to happen at a serious rate in the coming years and it must be possible to reach an average class size of 23 pupils at primary level in the next five years, within our budgetary parameters.

There is also the issue of the staffing ratio in small schools. While the recent changes, which were a row-back on what was done in 2011-12, are welcome, we must put small schools on a firm footing. A simple commitment of the programme for Government to say they will not go without the parents' say-so is not enough. There must be a financial commitment from Government to the small schools and the rural communities of this country.

We welcome the increase in the special education budget, in particular for SNAs. However, there is a huge amount of catch-up to be done. The real test will come if the Minister is proven right on this. He is saying there is now a sufficient number of SNAs to meet the assessed need but that will obviously be in the eyes of the beholder. We will be interested to hear from schools and parents, in particular, as to how their assessments went and whether their children will have the benefit of an SNA, as required. We will have to withhold judgment on whether there are enough SNAs until we get feedback but I can say with certainly that some are already saying they are not satisfied with the allocations.

The Estimate allocates funding to new policy developments in regard to junior certificate reform, which is very important. It is a fact, however, that the Minister has not yet met the ASTI - in fact, I understand he has not met any of the teaching unions at this stage. I do not know why that would be the case, except that there are holdouts in the ASTI on a number of issues, one of which is junior certificate reform. This is something that does not just require funding; it urgently requires the Department and the Minister to make sure there are no children left at a disadvantage because of the impasse in regard to the reforms in certain schools. That has to happen and it is no use telling the Dáil there is extra money for this when, in fact, in some schools, teachers will refuse to implement it because of an industrial relations dispute.

It requires a degree of urgency and I am disappointed, whoever is at fault. While I will not attribute the entire blame to the Minister, it is a fact that he and the ASTI have not met. I urge both sides to agree to meet without conditions to deal with that issue and to get this sword of Damocles, which will be hanging over certain students for the next few years, withdrawn.

The Minister and the ASTI have a responsibility in this regard. This must be dealt with and it can be dealt with through talking, most importantly, or at least trying to talk which at the moment does not even seem to have occurred.

There is extra funding for ICT which is welcome. We need to continue the roll-out of broadband to all schools. We will always have problems with this, and I will alert the Department to those of which I am aware. Maintenance funding needs to be put on a more predictable basis by the Department because it is a key issue for schools with regard to how they maintain and update.

An issue which has been brought to my attention by senior trade unionists is that in the Revised Estimates €2 million has been put forward to assist the development of technological universities. In tandem with this, the Higher Education Authority, HEA, has announced, certainly in the case of the Munster technological university, an allocation of €1.2 million in funding to support the project announced-----

8:05 pm

Photo of David CullinaneDavid Cullinane (Waterford, Sinn Fein)
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It is €1.5 million.

Photo of Thomas ByrneThomas Byrne (Meath East, Fianna Fail)
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It is €1.2 million in the email the president of a particular university sent. He may have got it wrong, but I am reading directly from a letter. The last time I checked no legislation had been passed by the House on technological universities, but the Minister is spending money on this and the HEA is announcing funding for the project. We have not passed the legislation and the Dáil has not decided to proceed in that direction. I would have thought this was premature and there needs to be more reflection on the Technological Universities Bill. In fact, it needs to be passed if it is to proceed and it has not yet done so. The Minister has announced he wants it to proceed, but as of yet he has not brought it before the House. It has been reinstated on the Order Paper but I have not been informed of any date on which the remaining Stages of the legislation have been scheduled.

Why is this money being spent when the Dáil has not established it? To me, this is something the Minister would have railed about in the past in his successful role as Opposition finance spokesperson with regard to spending money. I would not have thought money could be spent on items which have not been passed by the House. This is something that has been brought to my attention recently. I will certainly look into it a bit more and I would like the Minister's explanation. It is certainly not within his remit to anticipate any decision the Dáil might or might not take on the Technological Universities Bill. Our priority with regard to technological universities, if they are to exist, and with regard to the third level sector, is that access is as convenient as possible for students and to ensure in all of this that nobody will end up being disadvantaged with regard to access not only to institutions but also to subjects within institutions. The whole point of the regional college structure as it was established and then turned into institutions of technology was to make further education accessible to provincial communities and the outlying parts of the greater Dublin area. We do not want to see any reduction in this but we question money being spent on something that is not law and has not been agreed as of yet.

The schools capital plan is always launched with huge fanfare. I suppose every Government is guilty of this, but the previous Government became specialists in pre-announcing projects which were many years away. Capital expenditure will only return to pre-2011 levels by 2019. In recent years, the Government may well have been getting better value for money as prices decreased, but construction inflation is probably increasing. We need more investment in this as there are problems with schools. There are many schools on the list but, in reality, under current financial levels they have no prospect of getting the go-ahead for their projects. In some cases it is in the realm of fantasy this will happen unless the budget is increased substantially. The Minister's officials warned him about this in very stark terms in the briefing note they gave him on his assumption to office.

The Minister highlighted a number of projects that will be supported by the third level capital budget, but the reality is they are pretty much the only third level projects that will be supported. Deputy Cullinane will certainly be happy with the work taking place at Waterford Institute of Technology. Mention was also made of works at University of Limerick and Grangegorman, but there is very little else. This is of concern because we need capacity. Numbers in the third level sector are increasing and it needs capacity. There is virtually no State investment in buildings or research facilities and this has been the case since 2008. Approximately 40% of the higher education system's infrastructure is below standard and this will have to be seriously addressed in the near future or we will not be able to compete. The standard of our educational facilities is a key driver of the outcomes of our third level education system. They are attractive places to do research, study or gain qualifications and they are attractive for students coming from abroad, and we will lose out if funding is not available for them.

We will not oppose the Estimate or quibble about it too much. We need the money that is being spent. However, the Minister will have to fight very hard to ensure schools stay open and the threat outlined by his officials in the briefing note does not come to fruition. He must ensure the capitation rate is increased and there is sufficient money for capital spending. He will have to announce his proposals shortly with regard to reinstating the guidance counselling service, as discussed and as referred to in the supply and confidence agreement, and with regard to postgraduate grants.

I look forward to hearing the Minister's proposals on these items and, possibly, Revised Estimates and Estimates for next year. We want to see some action on them because they are very important as I have outlined. We must systematically prioritise investment in our education system. I know the Minister agrees with this, but we need to see action on it. We have a sustained record in education of delivering for society. It is not just about the economy, important though that is. We have a well-rounded society, by and large, through opening people's minds through teaching them and then developing our economy through the research done here with the availability of highly educated graduates. It must be a top priority for the Government and for the Minister to ensure the necessary funding is delivered.

Photo of Bernard DurkanBernard Durkan (Kildare North, Fine Gael)
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Deputy Carol Nolan will share time with Deputy David Cullinane.

Photo of Carol NolanCarol Nolan (Offaly, Sinn Fein)
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Go raibh maith agat, a Chathaoirleach, as ucht deis a thabhairt dom labhairt ar cheist an oideachais. Our education system has been absolutely ravaged by the austerity measures introduced by Fianna Fáil and pursued by the previous Government. The reality is our children are being taught in overcrowded classrooms. Crowd control has become a dominant feature in too many classrooms throughout the State. Principals are finding it increasingly difficult to meet the costs of running schools and the capitation grant must be increased. Basic costs such as providing heat and lighting are proving difficult and many schools rely on voluntary contributions from hard-pressed families, which is not good enough. We need change in this regard. Children from disadvantaged backgrounds have been impacted directly and indirectly through a combination of cutbacks and policy decisions, which have shifted the burden of the costs of education onto students and their families.

Despite all the spin, there is no new money here. These are the Estimates that were published six months ago and it is important that we clarify this at the outset. I will outline my concerns about a number of specific measures as outlined in the Revised Estimates. The issue of school transport is very topical at present as parents and children are making preparations for another school year. It states in the Revised Estimates that the target for this year is to provide school transport for 111,000 students. However, this is a decrease of 2,000 students from the 113,000 students who availed of school transport last year. I am puzzled as to how the Minister proposes to reduce this number in light of the increasing enrolments throughout the country. I notice also that no additional funding has been allocated to the school transport service despite increasing demographic pressures. I sincerely hope the Minister will hold true to his word on this issue and there will be no cuts in school transport, particularly in rural areas where there are no transport systems.

I welcome any clarification that the Minister can offer in this regard.

Class sizes in Ireland remain the second highest in Europe, with almost one in four pupils in mainstream classes being taught in classes of 30 or more, and this is totally unacceptable. That is 129,428 pupils, an increase of more than 30,000 pupils since 2010. In my constituency of Offaly and north Tipperary, 21% of our children are being taught in classrooms of 30 pupils or more. I welcome the Government's target to reduce the pupil-teacher ratio to 27:1 in 2016. However, this must become action and cannot be just rhetoric and spin. There is no mention of any plans to reduce the pupil-teacher ratio in DEIS schools, nor is there any plan to address the issue of oversized classrooms, and this is a bitter disappointment.

At secondary level those from disadvantaged backgrounds are at a huge disadvantage due to the ill-thought-out and misguided cut to guidance counsellors, which has proved to be detrimental. A recent ESRI report stated clearly that those from poorer backgrounds were affected most by this cut. It was short-sighted, unfair and totally unnecessary. Sinn Féin has shown how, through progressive and fair taxation measures, it is possible to have a fairer and more equal society, and in our manifesto we allowed for the full restoration of guidance counsellors, that is, the provision of a guidance counsellor for every 500 pupils ex quota. There is no justification for the Minister not to reverse this cut immediately.

A number of issues regarding third-level and higher education are of great concern to me and my party. The €2 million provided for the establishment of the technological universities is woefully inadequate and does not take into account the complex nature of the merger process and the many other issues. It is important that the Minister understand that, if this project is to be successful, sufficient funding must be allocated to it. It is an issue of huge concern to all stakeholders. I have heard that figures of up to €45 million are required to ensure that the implementation of technological universities is in place, and I am disappointed that the Minister has not allocated sufficient resources to this.

I am also concerned about the €2 million decrease in funding for the provision of school support and related expenses compared with 2015. This contradicts the Minister's assertions that additional funding will be provided for students from disadvantaged backgrounds under the student assistance fund. I welcome the increase in funding to SOLAS in order to provide further education and training activities. However, given the ambitious targets to ensure the increase in the number of apprenticeship places to 50,000, it would appear that this funding will fall far short of what is required.

I heartily welcome the announcement of the provision of additional special needs assistants. However, the Minister needs to be clear here. This is not new money, despite the spin that we have heard during the week. As a teacher with over 12 years' experience in the classroom and somebody who has worked with special needs pupils, I am passionate about this issue, and it is of great concern to many teachers and parents. One of the cruellest cuts made by the last Government was the 15% cut in resource hours for children with special educational needs. This Government has not made any commitment to reverse this cut, and I find this unacceptable and disappointing.

In our manifesto Sinn Féin prioritised the provision of supports for children with special educational needs and we clearly showed how it was possible to reverse these cuts and to provide additional resources to vulnerable children. Education is a fundamental human right and should be available to all of our children, irrespective of their class or individual circumstances. Yet 12 years after it was enacted, the EPSEN Act 2004 still has not been implemented, including parts of it which would be very simple to implement, such as the planning for individual education plans, IEPs, for children with special needs. When I have asked why this Act is not being implemented on a statutory basis I have been told that it would cost too much.

Why is the Minister happy to turn around to the parents of a child with a disability and tell them that the Government of one of the richest countries in the world cannot afford the resources their child needs to access education on an equal footing to his or her peers? Why is he happy to introduce tax cuts to the benefit of the very top earners in this country while our children are being taught in overcrowded classrooms? Why is he happy to take €4 billion out of the State coffers while our schools are struggling to keep the lighting and heating on?

Our education system badly needs investment and resources. It needs vision and new thinking but that is not what has been delivered. This Government is simply continuing where the last one left off, prioritising tax cuts for the wealthy at the expense of our public services. This is not new politics, it is just more of the same, and it is not good enough for our children.

8:15 pm

Photo of David CullinaneDavid Cullinane (Waterford, Sinn Fein)
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I wish the Minister well in his new post. It is the first time I have addressed him in this Chamber, and I have worked very well with him in his previous incarnation as Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation.

I find myself agreeing with much of what he said in his speech. The problem is that the rhetoric in the speech does not match the output in terms of the outgoing Government's performance in respect of education. He said at the start that education is crucial to our ambition, and I agree with that, but the height of my ambition is obviously a bit different to this Government's ambition when it comes to education. Ambition must be matched with intent and resources and we must invest in education, nurture it and make sure that we value not just the education system but also the people who work in it. When one considers how teachers have been treated, particularly newly qualified teachers, and pay cuts and so on, that does not stack up. Many students are in poverty or living on the poverty line; many more cannot afford to go to third or fourth level. Many parents cannot afford to send their children to college and struggle to pay for their children's primary and secondary education because of rising costs. That is the reality for many families so, unfortunately, the ambition that the Government has and its rhetoric has not been matched with resources.

Regarding the Minister's three priorities, again I find myself agreeing with what he says. The first one, if I understood the Minister correctly, was the use of success to make life better. How does that sit with the treatment of teachers who came into the system in 2011, where we have a two-tier, unequal pay structure? I believe in the principle of equal pay for equal work, and I ask the Minister to give a commitment that this Government will deal with this issue once and for all. I have tabled umpteen parliamentary questions on this and have met with officials from the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform to try to cost going back to a single-tier pay structure, to deal with that inequality. They tell me that they cannot cost it because they do not have the data, and it seems to be excuse after excuse. This is a red line issue for me. It is a red line issue for any pay negotiations and for how we treat people, on the basis of equality, and it should be a red line issue for the Minister if he is committed to using our economic success to make life better.

The second priority is how we support schools and the education system. We do not support it by cutting funding. Capital expenditure in education is down 11% year-on-year. The Government has cut expenditure and capital services in education by more than €71 million. Capital investment in education is down by €22.6 million alone. Overall we have the third lowest level of capital investment to GDP in the European Union. It is less than 2% of GDP. It should be at least double that if we are to bring ourselves to the EU average. The European Commission has criticised the Government for prioritising tax cuts over investment and we can see these in the estimates. We can see them in the Minister's stability programme update report, which shows that the percentage of revenue and of expenditure year-on-year for the next number of years as a percentage of GDP goes down every year, not because we do not have increased fiscal space, but because it builds in the tax cuts that the Minister's Government will impose, as opposed to spending the money that is there to invest in children, public services like education and capital investment.

The Minister's third priority was a question. He asked how we can build a bridge between enterprise and the workplace in an educational context.

I hope the Minister does not take what some might describe as a neoliberal approach to education whereby education is just about meeting the needs of enterprise and the economy. There is a society out there, not just an economy. An economy exists to serve citizens. People go to school and college for a job but also for lifelong learning and to improve their well-being. I am not against fostering innovation and creativity; I believe in it and passionately support it. However, we should not view this through the prism of a neoliberal mindset, which some Government Ministers do.

The Minister's question about the link between enterprise and the workplace is interesting in the context of the technological universities. In this area, I agree with the Minister and the Government. Technological universities should not, in the first instance, ape the existing universities. Their applied orientation, whereby they are more oriented towards the economic needs of a region is good. Given the very high levels of unemployment in the south east, technological universities are a good fit for the region. However, they must be about more than meeting the needs of enterprise. The technological universities must be about creativity and innovation. It is also about linkages with primary and secondary schools and it is a much broader view than just meeting the needs of the economy.

I welcome the €1.5 million which has been allocated to help the process in the south east. I welcome the fact that the two presidents and boards of both institutes have welcomed the €1.5 million. Why is there only €2 million? Perhaps, the Minister might respond to it if he gets the chance. Is more money being provided for the other institutes of technology which are also part of merger processes?

I thank the Minister for his speech. I am afraid it was high on rhetoric. We must, and will, give the Minister fair wind. I have set out my priorities. If the Minister wants to make a mark in education, while there is much he must do about education itself, I appeal to him to examine pay equalisation. It is causing tensions in classrooms and must be dealt with. It is mentioned in the programme for Government and the Minister has an opportunity to deal with it. I very much hope he does.

8:25 pm

Photo of Joan BurtonJoan Burton (Dublin West, Labour)
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I wish the Minister well in his appointment to the education portfolio. He has expressed an interest in becoming Minister for Education and Skills from time to time and I hope that, now that he is Minister, he will enjoy it. It is 100 years since the Easter Rising, and many of the signatories of the Proclamation who were executed after the Rising, from James Connolly to Pádraig Pearse and Thomas MacDonagh, as well as being artists and poets, were teachers. They expressed the most profound interest in education as a way of transforming people's lives in a positive way. Education would be productive from the point of view of Ireland flourishing economically. More important, it would help the whole person, whether boy or girl, to develop in accordance with their ambitions.

In Ireland, including my constituency, Dublin West, where there has been an extraordinary population growth, we have been privileged to have patrons, boards of management, teachers, parents and parents associations who, regardless of creed, religion or no religion, have exercised the most incredible spirit of co-operation and dynamism to build and develop a huge number of new schools over the past 20 years. During my participation in politics it has been a tremendous privilege to be part of it.

I have a question about the capital programme. We are all aware that the process of forming a Government has been extremely long and, presumably, very detailed. However, I am very concerned that it has meant, in many Government Departments, that the foot has been taken of the pedal regarding driving the capital programme. There are a number of indications that the capital programme has slowed down very significantly this year. I would like the Minister to explain why that is so. Unless there is something he is not telling us, he has additional resources, which were agreed between Fine Gael and the Labour Party at the time of the budget last year. I do not understand what has happened to the capital programme, given the demands of an increasing population, particularly in the growing parts of cities, towns and counties around the country.

For example, I had anticipated that around this time, as schools close for the holidays, in Dublin West two schools would be completely rebuilt. One of them is the old parish school of St. Mochta's, which is 150 years old. Some time ago, at the request of the Department of Education and Skills, it increased from two streams to four streams and took, as a consequence, in the public interest, a huge number of prefabs. Now, work that was expected to commence this summer, with the project at stage 2B, has been stalled for the whole period during which the discussions on the formation of a Government were taking place. I do not understand it.

When I was Tánaiste, I was very involved in pushing with the then Minister, very successfully, to get the junior and senior primary schools rebuilt in Corduff on the north side of the Navan Road, an area with a very large population. We had an agreement and all of it has been going very well. Again, I expected to the construction start. The school is in an area where many of the parents are not particularly well off. Again, it seems to be stuck in the slow-down of public service development on the capital side during the hiatus of forming a Government. I would like the Minister to tell us about the capital programme and what exactly has happened.

Both of the previous speakers mentioned the technological universities. What is happening regarding the Dublin Institute of Technology? The Minister has been a very ambitious driver of job creation and investment into Ireland by companies, including local companies, SMEs and international companies. The stalling of the technological university project is a bad decision for the country as a whole and the areas that have institutes of technology. These are real drivers in a programme for Government that is, apparently, committed to regional development. I speak as somebody who has lectured in the technological sector over a long period of time before I became a public representative. These are real drivers of a range of different kinds of enterprise.

A political change happened in the run up to the last general election when people became less convinced about the technological university model.

This is wrong because if we want to drive technological university development, the Government needs to put its commitment to action where its rhetoric is and deliver on it. It would be an enormous dereliction to walk back from what has been achieved by the Minister's two predecessors, Deputy Jan O'Sullivan and Ruairí Quinn, in respect of developing the technological university sector. I would like to hear the Minister say this is back on the agenda in a way that we will see such development because there is no reason we should not see it. Campus developments have been stalled.

I challenge him on when he will publish the Cassells report as a matter of urgency and refer it to the Oireachtas committee on education to allow for a full debate on the current funding model and what some people describe as a "crisis" in higher education and on identifying solutions to that. The all-party committee should offer an open forum for debate on the future of higher education. We have secured one of the great achievements in Europe in respect of the numbers of people participating in third level but we have to invest. Both capital and current investment are critical to this. The Government has to get people in the system to contribute their views on the future strategy. The higher education sector cannot be allowed to drift along without addressing problems of underfunding in the system. The Minister has spoken a great deal about how important the sector is for the future of all our young people and how important is its contribution to economic and social progress. We cannot be misled by simplistic solutions or the temptation to accept without proper debate policies which have been adopted elsewhere.

For instance, student loans are often presented as the only solution to financing higher education. Is that the Minister's view? We need to hear it in the context of this Estimates discussion. When students in the US emerge from college at either graduate or postgraduate level, many of them carry a debt burden that lasts for most of the rest of their lives. We need a debate about this. There will be no solution to the plight of the higher education sector without a long-term commitment to greater public investment. Approximately 50% of students get grants, which is a significant achievement of our education system, but there has to be a funding solution that allows higher education institutions to offer the best in class, the best in Europe or the best in the world to be part of their profile and given the commitment to education in Ireland, that is not necessarily difficult to achieve but it will demand a commitment to resources.

Whatever happened to the Minister who has always been a great champion of information being available to Members in respect of economics and figures for the various portfolios he has held as spokesperson or the Departments he has led? By mid-morning today, we still did not have a copy of the Revised Estimates.

8:35 pm

Photo of Richard BrutonRichard Bruton (Dublin Bay North, Fine Gael)
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They were published.

Photo of Joan BurtonJoan Burton (Dublin West, Labour)
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This is the same document that was published at budget time.

Photo of Richard BrutonRichard Bruton (Dublin Bay North, Fine Gael)
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The Revised Estimates are unchanged.

Photo of Joan BurtonJoan Burton (Dublin West, Labour)
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I know they are unchanged but we are in the sixth month of the financial year. We should have been able to get these in the middle of March but this was not possible. However, we should then have been able to get them almost immediately following the formation of the Government and yet they were published this morning. I note in the book we were offered that there are only four Votes, which is the first time I have seen this. The Minister can say because he is in government that he is aware that there is no change to the Estimates but nobody has told anybody else that.

I refer to the legacy of the previous two Ministers for Education and Skills, Deputy Jan O'Sullivan and Ruairí Quinn. The huge increase in the recruitment of teachers was most welcome both last year and this year once the financial resources of the State had begun to recover. I listened to the contributions of Sinn Féin Members. The party's education Minister in the North said at a meeting of student teachers that they should not look to him for jobs because they were unable to recruit anybody there. It is a great achievement of the previous Government that there was significant additional recruitment in 2015 and 2016 unlike in the North where current students of education have been told by their Minister that there will not be any jobs. It is important that Members recognise the important achievements that have been secured.

What is the agreement with the Department for Public Expenditure and Reform regarding the capital budget or is it stalled? Could the Minister give us an indication as to when the rebuilding of the two schools I mentioned will commence? In the previous Government, the Labour Party prioritised the development of a new apprenticeship structure with a huge number of apprentices to be recruited. The programme for Government cut the number from the 50,000 proposed by the Labour Party to 31,000. I have never understood the reason for that reduction. How is that progressing given we are more than five months into the financial year?

I welcome the commitment to additional SNAs. Will they be recruited within existing resources or are additional resources being provided?

I was the first person to propose to the Taoiseach some weeks ago that in respect of the difficulties currently besetting the north inner city in Dublin, a task force should be established and a key element of it should be focused on education. The Minister attended last night's meeting in Sheriff Street with the Taoiseach and I would like him to outline the additional educational resources that will be devoted to that city centre and the north inner city.

Dublin West is experiencing an extraordinary coming together of different patrons, faiths and people who to not practise any particular faith in a movement where every child is welcome. I am disturbed by the Minister's comments about his approach to community national schools.

I hope I misheard or misread the Minister's intention, namely, that the idea is perhaps to segregate children in regard to different elements of religious or ethical education. That would be a really bad move.

8:45 pm

Photo of Bernard DurkanBernard Durkan (Kildare North, Fine Gael)
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Thank you, Deputy.

Photo of Joan BurtonJoan Burton (Dublin West, Labour)
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I invite the Minister to visit some of the schools in Dublin West where there are as many as 70 different nationalities, reflective of significant religious and faith diversity, and see how separating children in terms of the school day for a particular subject would be a really bad idea. It is one on which the Minister needs to reflect.

Photo of Ruth CoppingerRuth Coppinger (Dublin West, Anti-Austerity Alliance)
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I hope we will all get the extra time that Deputy Burton was given. The first line in the briefing we got on the Estimates for education, which is the topic in hand, states that the gross voted expenditure by the Department of Education and Skills for 2016 is in the order of €8.7 billion. If we compare that to the fact that €8.5 billion will be handed over by this State in interest payments on a debt that was not a debt of the making of the majority of ordinary people of this country, it puts things into perspective. Contrary to the former Tánaiste's fairytale speech about protecting education and so on, since 2011, some 11% has been cut from schools but, prior to that, the minute the bailout and the recession hit, schools were the first to pay the price. In Dublin West, which the former Tánaiste mentioned, 100 primary teachers were taken out of schools in Dublin 15 between 2009 and 2010. Some 300 special needs assistants were also taken out of schools. Parents took buses into the city centre and marched in protest at those cuts. The Minister might remember all of that. In 2014, in a memo to the former Minister, Deputy Jan O'Sullivan, in the previous Government, civil servants had to warn the Government that any more cuts would force schools to close. This was not the Socialist Party but senior Department officials who warned that any further reduction, if it were necessary for budgetary measures, may create a risk that some schools would not be able to cover critical costs such as insurance, heat and light and that it would trigger school closures. In other words, it is completely unsustainable to leave schools reliant on voluntary payments, about which we have heard much lately, and bereft of so many of the teachers and the resources that were taken out of the system. It is now time to dramatically increase investment in education through, for example, taxation of wealth in this country.

The INTO points out that €1 per day is spent per pupil in this country. We have the worst funded second level system in the OECD. While we read in the document that there will be certain improvements, I argue that will be nothing near what is needed to restore what has been taken from schools during the past eight years. There have been substantial cuts since 2008 with some of the main ones including the loss of guidance counsellor provision, the taking of thousands of teachers out of the system, the moratorium on the post of responsibility which has meant that many jobs that used to done have not been done in schools and the fact that Traveller education was gutted.

I want to focus in my contribution on teachers. Payroll accounts for 80% of the expenditure in the Estimates, most of it being spent on teachers, some of it being spent on special needs assistants and some of it being spent on other jobs within schools. An interesting article on the ASTI website, entitled "Three colleagues, three pay scales", tells the story of three teachers teaching in the same school. There is about a year or two in the age difference among them and they are getting three different levels of pay. That is outrageous. When will this end? The three teachers concerned in Presentation College, Bray, are Michael Berigan who is 31 years of age, Yvonne Rossiter who is 27 years of age and Michael Browne who is also 27 years of age. They teach alongside each other and they graduated within a couple of years of each other. Michael Berigan is on the pre-2011 salary scale, Yvonne Rossiter is on the 2011 new entrant salary scale and Michael Browne is on the 2012 new entrant salary scale. The gap in earnings among them amounts to thousands of euro every year. I ask the Minister tonight when he will end that disgraceful inequality that was forced on many workers, teachers, nurses and other workers in the public service.

I have a story to relay from a woman who sent me an e-mail today as she knew this topic would be discussed. She is a primary school teacher living in my constituency. She highlights that she will earn €220,000 less over a 40-year career than her colleagues who graduated prior to 2011. This is very problematic for a number of reasons, and I do not need to tell the Minister those reasons. How is anyone like that woman ever meant to be able to buy a house, or to rent in the current situation where rents in her area have gone up by €341 per month since 2014? She points out how demoralising it is to work side by side with other teachers knowing how much more money they are earning compared to her and her lower paid counterparts. We will see another brain drain. There is no doubt that we will see people with those qualifications leaving this country. The previous Government let that happen with the nurses who left and it will happen again with teachers who will leave. They are leaving to go to Dubai and other countries where they will get proper pay and reward for the work they do.

I could spend more time speaking on this issue, but the reduced pay and the low hours are driving graduates away from teaching. The TUI president has spoken about this and it is now becoming a reality. The so-called partial restoration we saw in the legislation last year was nowhere near enough. We must have equal pay for equal work. I urge the teachers' unions to challenge this legally. Surely it cannot be right that two people doing the same work can be paid differently. The Minister is standing over this, but the effect of this on people's career earnings, their pensions and so on is incredible. When will the Minister turn his attention to that aspect? We now have a situation where teachers not only spend much of their time being part-time, but they then have the double whammy of the inferior payscale when they do get a permanent contract. The number of part-time teachers in Ireland is twice the OECD average. It is 30% in Ireland; one in three teachers are working part-time and do not have permanency. That must be addressed.

I also want to deal with the issue of class sizes. It is pointed out in the document that class sizes will improve by one point. At primary level, there will be one teacher for 27 pupils as opposed to 28 pupils. That is still atrocious. It goes nowhere near restoring what was done in the past few years. There will be 300 extra teachers at second level. There are approximately 750 second level schools in the country so each school can look forward to the addition of less than half a teacher each, as it were. Is this for real? We are meant to be in recovery but we still have the worst funded second level system. I do not think too many bottles of champagne will be cracked open in schools around the country when they hear these figures. The pupil numbers have risen at primary level by more than 10,000 in one year from 2013 to 2014, yet the number of teachers has not followed apace. When will that be remedied?

I did not mention the capital programme and I am surprised at how small a percentage it is of the overall expenditure.

If 93% is current expenditure, only €600 million is capital expenditure. This is in the context of the history and legacy we have in Ireland of prefabs and rundown schools. We heard wonderful tales from Deputy Burton about Dublin West but one of the biggest issues there is the fact that we still have massive schools with huge numbers of pupils. I mention St. Mochta's which has poor lighting, an aging building and 900 pupils, half of whom are taught in prefabs. Although it was promised before the election, when Deputies Burton and Varadkar were Ministers, and a host of schools appeared on election literature, will the money be there to build the projects on the schools building programme list last year? I cannot see it. There is no problem getting on a list. It is like getting on a hospital waiting list. However, that does not mean one actually gets the school building. It might have got the Deputies over a hump for the election but will we actually see blocks and bricks at all of the schools that were listed and in respect of which promises were made? I am very doubtful based on €600 million for capital expenditure.

8:55 pm

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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I thank the Minister for being here throughout the whole debate, which is very welcome. Unfortunately, I did not have sight of this until today. I do not know where the breakdown in communication was. Separately, I note that the print is particularly small. It may be that I need to change my glasses but it is difficult to read it. I will start on a positive note by welcoming the announcement recently on special needs assistants, which is welcome. I welcome the announcements on apprenticeships and on a total of 116 major capital projects. While I welcome all of that, it must be put in context. In the first instance, there should have been no cutbacks in relation to the most vulnerable people in society and those with special needs. That should not have happened. While it is back, I cannot deal with it without understanding its context. Similarly, Deputy Coppinger made the point on capital investment. While I welcome the projects, what is the background? One of the schools in Na Forbacha has been the subject of a campaign for 20 years. When one looks at it in that context, a slightly different picture emerges.

What I will do tonight is focus on four areas, including DEIS, school transport, literacy and the division between new entrant teachers and existing ones. DEIS has been suspended from 2009, which was an appalling decision. It is even worse that it has remained suspended right up to 2016. I have asked two parliamentary questions and been told a review is under way. I have been given no timeframe for that review. It is unjustifiable to have a review ongoing for that period of time. At the risk of being parochial, I illustrate the general point by looking at the Merlin Woods national school, which just missed out on inclusion because it applied in 2010. It is a co-educational primary school located on the east side of Galway city. It opened its doors for the first time five years ago in 2010 due to the urgent need for a new school. It is in an area which has high levels of social and economic disadvantage as identified by various research projects, including from NUIG and, indeed, the city council itself. I will not go into those but to refer to one paragraph from the research. In that particular school, which does not qualify for DEIS, as it has been suspended, more than 85% of the pupils come from non-English speaking backgrounds. Approximately one quarter of the parents are lone parents and many live in local authority housing. Of the parent body, 75% is unemployed. Some providers in the above-mentioned research indicate that there is a high level of deprivation and social exclusion experienced generally in the area. The principal states "We are a new school, challenged with providing an education to the children of our area without the resources that any other school in similar circumstances has". At present, there are 300 children in the school and that will go up to 450. A whole school evaluation conducted in 2004 gave superb feedback to the school. The staff, principal and parents are to be congratulated on the wonderful result. However, in black print and highlighted in a detailed letter given to all the candidates in the local election, the principal states "We are at breaking point". The principal appealed to us to get that school into the DEIS scheme but nothing has happened.

The Minister may keep his head down and he may be bored by the facts. I do not know. However, I ask him to tell me when DEIS is going to be reinstated. In his Revised Estimates, there is a reference to DEIS and it talks about the improvement in leaving certificate retention rates. For DEIS schools, there was a retention rate in 2013 of 80.1%, which went up to 80.4% in 2014. In 2015, it went up to 82.8%. Many reviews have been referred to and I will go back to them when I move to literacy. They show that there have been improvements as a result of the DEIS scheme. If the Minister is seriously interested in education as indicated by the wonderful words in his opening speech in relation to education and its importance, his acts must speak louder than his words.

The OECD programme for international assessment of adult competence, or PIAAC, set out in its 2012 results that one in six people in Ireland is at level 1 literacy. Translated into figures, that is 521,550 Irish adults, more than half a million, who find reading and understanding everyday texts difficult. In plain English, it is very difficult for them to read a bus timetable or medicine instructions. One in four, or 754,000, has difficulties with maths. That is real world maths from basic addition and subtraction to calculating averages. Significantly, the survey also showed that people who scored at the lowest literacy and numeracy levels often have no or low qualifications, earn less income and were unemployed and in poor health. I must say that there is an improvement in the literacy figures because prior to that, it was one in four. I welcome the improvement but we still have that phenomenal figure of 521,550 people who are at the basic level through no fault of their own. We have utterly failed that group of people which is significant and substantial.

There are only 55,000 people attending adult literacy services currently. While I welcome the fact they are in the services, they are a tiny proportion of the overall figure. The Minister's own national skills strategy that will take us up to 2025 targets the upskilling of 165,000 people, which is welcome. The target for numeracy is an upskilling of 256,000 people. However, without considerable resources going into that, those targets will not be met. Even if we meet those targets, that still leaves a substantial proportion of the population with unmet needs. That is just level 1. I do not have the time to go into levels 2 or 3 but one can imagine the implications for taking full-time employment and, more importantly, for leading a healthy, wealthy life. If one is at that basic level, there are serious restrictions on one's participation in society at every level.

In the Minister's Estimates, there is a serious reduction in the number of students to be provided with school transport services. From what I can see on page 32, it is reduced by 3,000 from 114,000 to 111,000.

This figure has been mentioned by a Sinn Féin Deputy. The number of routes will increase, but the overall number of pupils on school transport will decrease significantly. For the life of me, I cannot understand this.

I wish to raise a number of points about school transport relating to cases in which people are begging for the service. Galway city has a major traffic congestion problem, yet school transport services are being reduced. According to the bureaucratic speak being sent out in letters, if one is 3.2 km or less from a school, one is not entitled to travel on a bus. That is an arbitrary figure. I have a petition from students at Scoil Bhríde in Shantalla, Galway, who travel farther than 3.2 km but who have been told to attend a DEIS school - it is fortunate to have a DEIS designation - and that they are not entitled to school transport because they come from the Knocknacarra area, where there are other schools, albeit not DEIS ones. The children have no choice but to attend the DEIS school. This type of bureaucratic stuff is Kafkaesque. Similarly, in Claregalway and Headford, families are being split, with one child travelling on a bus in one direction and the parents going by car in another.

This situation is being compounded by a plan to reduce school transport further. From the point of view of sustainable transport and reducing traffic congestion in the interests of climate change, I appeal to the Minister on every level to review this situation and listen to the people on the ground, some of whom are willing to pay for concessionary tickets but cannot get any, and others who need that transport.

The difference in salary scales for new entrants to the teaching profession has been mentioned by many Deputies. We attended a briefing on this at 5.30 p.m. today. The difference in pay is not justified on any level. No Deputy present - we are all on the same salary, unless we are Ministers - could justify sending his or her children to a school where teachers were on different pay levels based on a decision to effect cutbacks in order to bail out bankrupt banks. In the interests of new politics, it is time to undo the damage that we have done on every level. It is time for payback.

I have asked for a review of DEIS schools, but my final point is about a review of literacy and numeracy levels. The review of numeracy was the baseline, as nothing had been done previously. There is an onus on us to monitor literacy and numeracy skills annually so that we might have a baseline from which to determine whether progress is being made.

9:05 pm

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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Go raibh míle maith agat, a Theachta Uí Mháirtín. Táimid ag dul ar aghaidh anois go dtí an Rural Alliance. Tá triúr chun cainte ón ngrúpa sin: na Teachtaí Mattie McGrath, Michael Healy Rae agus Michael Collins. Tá cúig nóiméad ag an triúr acu.

Photo of Mattie McGrathMattie McGrath (Tipperary, Independent)
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I welcome the Minister and congratulate him on his appointment. I look forward to working with him constructively for the betterment of all sectors of education.

My questions will be on the renting of prefabs. Between 2011 and 2015, the Department spent €83 million on prefab rental. Although there is a prefab replacement period, only 217 schools qualified: 209 primaries and eight post-primaries. Given the overall number of schools that applied, this is a low qualification level. Learning or teaching in a prefabricated building is difficult, be it in winter or in the hot weather of last week. It is unsatisfactory. Above all, the rent is a major waste of money. It is dead money. Some companies are doing well out of it, but there is no benefit to the educational sector, as prefabs do not last.

Scoil Aonghusa in Cashel, Tiobraid Árann, is a wonderful institution. The Minister is familiar with Tipperary for different reasons. He came down there fadó fadó chun bean chéile as Cluain Meala a fháil. I wish them both well. It is good to see them happy. The odd time when the Minister visits Clonmel, maybe he will stop in Cashel at my invitation to visit that wonderful institution. For 12 months, Scoil Aonghusa sought a meeting with the previous Minister concerning severe cuts to necessary services. The school needs a bit of help, understanding and appreciation. Its board and staff would appreciate a visit if the Minister could fit one into his schedule.

Gaelscoil Chluain Meala used to be located in an old council building that was closed in 1988. Tá siad ag fanacht ar scoil nua ar feadh deich mbliana nó dhá bhliain déag. There has been a great deal of lobbying. While a site has been acquired, the procurement of which I was involved in with the late Minister, Brian Lenihan, progress on the school building has been very slow. It is a wonderful school with a large enrolment. Ours is one of the only towns in the country that also has a gael meanscoil. This issue must be addressed.

To be parochial again, an amalgamation is under way idir scoil na mbuachaillí agus scoil na gcailíní i gCathair Dhún Iascaigh, but it has taken nearly half a century to progress. It has definitely taken a quarter of a century. I hope that, with the Minister's interest in and connections with Tipperary, he might be able to give us a small bit of cabhair leis na rudaí mar sin.

On education generally, we have the Estimates and the Minister can prove that a great deal of money has been allocated. I welcome the announcement of extra special needs assistants, SNAs. They are badly needed. I would like to see the roll-out, the figures and the cuts. According to the briefing document, the number of SNAs increased by a few hundred in recent years. I know of nowhere that received extra SNAs, but I know many schools that lost them. As the Minister knows, they are a vital link.

I was involved in setting up a naíonra and, while in the VEC, I was involved in adult education. Education is important from the cradle to the grave. We need to invest. Will the Minister consider a loan scheme for third level students? I have people in third level. We hope that they will progress on to work and pay back some of the money. Students' parents are hard pressed, especially those who are ordinary working people who do not avail of grants and are caught in that trap.

A cruel issue is the closed school rule. It makes no sense whatsoever. I have seen situations in schools where dhá dhalta have a suíochán ar an mbus - they have two seats on the bus - but two other daltaí are starting school this year or next year and cannot get seats on that bus. They are told to go to another school because of a distance that is the same as from here to the front gate of this building. The measurement in kilometres is so tight that it is causing an anomaly. In such cases, common sense should prevail and people should be allowed to go with the rest of their family to the same schools. When a family starts at a school, it should be accommodated by allowing all of its children to attend that school.

The Minister has heaps of work to do. The difference in pay scales is crazy. The unions must take some blame for that as well. They pulled up the ladder after getting in. That is typical. I look forward to working with the Minister.

Photo of Michael Healy-RaeMichael Healy-Rae (Kerry, Independent)
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I wish to take this opportunity to wish the Minister good luck on his appointment. I hope that he will carry his traditional work ethic into this ministerial portfolio.

I wish to discuss small schools.

Unfortunately, the works programmes for those schools and, indeed, secondary schools were held up because of the delay in the formation of the Government. It definitely put out our school works programme for a certain period but I hope we will catch up. When schools apply for small amounts of money to carry out necessary works, whether to repair a roof, replace windows or fix a floor, for example, it is important that it be made available. These works are terribly important to a school and make a significant difference to the teachers and students. Unfortunately, over recent years many schools have had to engage in fund-raising to ensure they can operate properly. The principals, teachers and boards of management have enough to be doing in trying to educate our young people and keep the education process going without having to engage in that type of work. I hope adequate resources will always be put towards our education, irrespective of the type of school.

I welcome what is stated in the programme for Government on small schools not closing. We do not want to lose any of the schools in our parishes and communities. We want to hold on to what we have. Schools are terribly important. A local school is the lifeblood of the community. Sometimes numbers can go down but, naturally, they can rise again. If a school is gone, it is gone. All we want to do is keep the door open.

Along with Deputy Mattie McGrath, I welcome the increase in the number of SNAs that has been announced. It is very important and I thank every SNA in the country. They are providing a vital service in taking on board and assisting young students in every way they can. They do so in a very special way. I compliment our teachers, principals and boards of management on all the excellent work they do.

Let me refer to the people who transport students to school. I wish to use this opportunity to refer to a totally ridiculous set of circumstances. Bearing in mind the talk of ageism - a word that is often used - is it not ridiculous that a man can no longer drive children to school if he is over 70? However, if he wants to pick them up at the school gate and drive them from Ballinskelligs to Donegal, he can do so in the evening. He could take them to a football match with no problem but he could not take them to school. If a man or lady aged 70 is good enough to drive a bus full of children from Malin to Mizen, surely he or she is good enough to drive them to school. Regardless of where the rule originated, could the Minister please get rid of it? The most insulting thing one can say to any person of 70 years of age is that he or she is no longer good enough to drive the young lads to school. It is ridiculous.

I am not blaming the Minister but I am asking him to address this. He is a practical man. He should listen to what I am saying and talk to somebody about it. The rule should be reversed. It is totally ageist. It is insulting to people aged 70 to tell them they can no longer drive children to school when they could drive a bus of five-year-olds the length and breadth of the country perfectly legally after school. There is nothing wrong with driving them after school. They could go abroad with the children without any problem, but they could not drive the children to school. Ultimately, Deputy Richard Bruton is the Minister. I ask him to talk to whatever genius in the Department came up with that stupid idea. Will he talk to the officials and put it to them that the rule should be reversed? If we achieve nothing else tonight, this will have been an important thing to achieve.

9:15 pm

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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I thank the Deputy. He should finish on a high point.

Photo of Michael Healy-RaeMichael Healy-Rae (Kerry, Independent)
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I will.

Photo of Michael CollinsMichael Collins (Cork South West, Independent)
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I wish the Minister, Deputy Richard Bruton, good luck in his new position as Minister for Education and Skills.

I welcome the review of special needs provision in schools that will be carried out by the National Council for Special Education. I congratulate the Minister on his pledge to place another 860 special needs assistants in schools in the coming academic year.

I welcome the decision in the programme for Government to reduce to pupil–teacher ratio for junior and senior infant classes. This is a positive step forward for primary education. I urge the Government to reduce the pupil-teacher ratio throughout the primary school classes, from junior infants through to sixth class.

I call on the Government to reinstate the closed-school rule in terms of school transport and to reverse the changes proposed by the outgoing Government. These changes have the potential to have a detrimental effect on rural schools.

I would like to bring to the Minister's attention the moratorium on recruitment to posts of responsibility in primary schools. Since 2009, middle management in primary schools been decimated due to a moratorium on filling middle-management posts. An example of this is a school that should have a principal, deputy principal, assistant principal and four special duty posts but which only has a principal, deputy principal and one part-time special-duty post-holder. This has resulted in an unsustainable workload being placed on senior management. Not only does senior management have an increased workload owing to the reduction in middle management, but there also has been a great increase in initiatives and changes at primary school level that management has had to deal with. I urge the Minister to reverse the moratorium.

On the SUSI grant system, it is believed that the number of applications to SUSI for the upcoming academic year will surpass 110,000. I welcome the improvements that have been introduced by SUSI for 2016-17, including the earlier opening date for applications, but I urge the Minister to ensure that grant applications are processed and payments are made on time. SUSI has been running since 2012. It was disappointing to see that at the end of last November, some 20,000 students were still waiting for their student grant applications to be processed. This led to huge financial pressure on families and, undoubtedly, it forced students to drop out of their college courses. I urge the Minister to ensure this delay will not recur and to consider putting in place a provision for emergency funding should delays occur.

As with other Deputies, I welcome the fact that small schools will not be closed, according to the programme for Government. Small schools play a huge role in their communities in west Cork and throughout the rest of the country. We need to protect, enhance and encourage the small schools and provide extra funding for them.

Photo of Róisín ShortallRóisín Shortall (Dublin North West, Social Democrats)
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Overall, these Estimates are in many ways a case of running to stand still, with a very little increase in the allocation. It makes one wonder how on earth the last Government announced tax cuts in its last budget. One wonders how they could have been justified other than as an attempt to buy the election. It was evident on all the doorsteps during the election campaign that the public was not fooled by this at all. For the first time ever, people were saying on the doorsteps they did not want tax cuts. They were asking that the Government invest in good, quality public services. Education is certainly in the top three for most people.

Generally, we do formal education pretty well, be it at primary, secondary or third level. In many ways, it is in respect of the non-standard education settings that we fare less well. They need greater attention. In this regard, I am thinking about apprenticeships, adult literacy services, in-career skills development and other areas that really need investment. This area of our education system has the most potential for improvement, in terms of both worker productivity and social mobility. There is no doubt that there is a real need to focus on future provision to meet demographic pressures. IBEC gave a briefing on that today and produced figures that are certainly a matter of concern in terms of the scale of the demographic demands that will be placed on all our public services in the coming years.

A couple of provisions in this year's Estimates are particularly welcome. The first is the increase this year of 2,250 in the number of teachers. It should be noted, however, that this will only reduce the primary school pupil teacher ratio to 27:1. We still have some ground to make up if we are to achieve parity with most of our European partners.

There is considerable concern about the absence of any measure in the Estimates to address the issue of pay and equality. Many Deputies attended today's briefing by the Irish National Teachers Organisation, INTO, at which the impact of the two-tier pay system for primary school teachers was spelt out in stark detail. INTO noted that a new entrant in 2011 will be more than €100,000 worse off over his or her career and a teacher who started in 2012 will be more than €250,000 worse off over his or her career than teachers who preceded them. This is having a significant impact on retention rates for primary school teachers. One teacher at the briefing pointed out that ten teachers in their school have taken career breaks, most of them to work in Dubai, Abu Dhabi and so forth because these places offer an opportunity to earn substantial sums and allow them to return home and do the normal things one would expect a teacher to be able to do on a teaching salary, for example, buy a house, get married and have a family. The reduction in pay for new entrants is having a significant impact on life choices for many young teachers and forcing them to leave the country to compensate for the loss of income. We will undoubtedly pay a price for this development. The issue of the degree allowance and the need to standardise payscales must be addressed because they will have implications for the quality of teaching, retention and so forth.

Expenditure on capitation has improved by only 4%, or €17 million. This additional funding must be shared among all schools, leaving a shortfall in many schools, especially those in disadvantaged areas which struggle to generate contributions from parents or to raise money through fund-raising efforts.

One of the issues that has been drawn to my attention regarding schools in disadvantaged areas is the serious difficulties they face in obtaining insurance. In some cases, schools will have experienced flooding but it is more likely that break-ins are the problem. The substantial cost of insurance is not recognised by the Department. When schools have no choice but to pay greatly increased insurance premiums, other aspects of their operations suffer as a result. This problem should be recognised.

I am concerned about the 11% reduction in expenditure on capital services. Why has this been done at a time of such serious demographic pressures? According to the Department's figures, the number of children at primary level is set to rise by several thousand, peaking at 600,000 by 2020, while the number of children at second level is set to rise to 400,000 by 2026. Capital expenditure should be increased to provide accommodation but we are doing the opposite.

The target for the number of primary schools with high-speed broadband has been set at 800, which is much too low. There is a two-tier system in place in respect of children having access to information technology. It is not acceptable to set such a low target for the provision of high-speed broadband access.

The allocation of just €4 million for skills development is also a concern. There are serious problems with the lack of apprenticeships, adequate funding for SOLAS and so forth. For example, I draw the Minister's attention to the significant shift away from upskilling and trying to get people who left school early ready to take jobs, towards efforts to have them take up low-paid jobs. The decision to transfer many staff from the education and training boards who engaged in upskilling to JobPath and the Department of Social Protection has resulted in a significant and regressive shift towards forcing adults with low levels of education into low-skilled jobs, rather than investing in increasing their skills and improving their job prospects. I will return to this issue at a later date because it is a problem. The provision of only €4 million for skills development is completely inadequate.

9:25 pm

Photo of Catherine MartinCatherine Martin (Dublin Rathdown, Green Party)
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I wish the Minister well in his new role. He has assumed a responsibility which carries the hopes of many of the various and numerous stakeholders in education. Guím gach beannacht ar an Aire Oideachais agus Scileanna ar bhonn proifisiúnta agus go pearsanta sa Dáil seo.

I echo the words of other elected Members and express my frustration that Deputies were not afforded the requisite time to consider thoroughly and interrogate properly these Estimates and their impact on our education system which is one of the most important influencers on the success of the country, the economy and, more important, society. Not only is the receipt of such figures at the 11th hour disrespectful to us, as parliamentarians, but laying them before the House in this way without a proper briefing is disrespectful to all the educators working in the sector and the young people who will ultimately be impacted by the quality of our engagement in education strategy.

While I have had only a few hours to review the Estimates, I have a few comments to make. I recognise and welcome the Government’s commitment to the delivery of a strategy for education in its first 100 days and look forward to contributing positively and constructively to this strategy. However, I am not heartened by what I have read in the Estimates. While there are a few moves, small though they may be, towards trying to put right some of the deeper and more painful cuts implemented in recent years, for example, the reduction in pupil-teacher ratios and the increase of 7% in the number of special needs assistants, what I have not heard is any indication from the Minister that he intends to address the serious inequality in the teaching profession. We do not have a two-tier system but a three-tier system in which newly-qualified teachers earn in excess of 20% less than their colleagues, despite doing exactly the same job with exactly the same responsibilities as colleagues.

A recent OECD report, Education at a Glance, found a direct correlation between teachers’ pay and quality of education. The teaching profession in this country has been devalued and demoralised and this will have a detrimental effect on the future quality of education. Put simply, how can the Minister justify a position that is contrary to the principle of equal pay for equal work?

The programme for Government refers to principles of access, excellence, transparency and innovation and to tackling disadvantage in the education system, yet I do not see anything in the Estimates on restoring the ex quotaguidance allocation to second level schools. Cuts to these services reduced the opportunity for young people to have crucial easy access to professionally trained counsellors. The removal of a dedicated guidance counselling service has widened the gap between those who have and those who have not. In some schools parents have the financial resources to ensure their children's school has access to guidance counsellors, while in other schools access to the educational, vocational and support service provided by counsellors has been radically reduced. Surely all children should have equal access to this service, irrespective of which school they attend. To ensure equal access, a financial commitment must be made to ensure the full restoration of the ex quotaguidance allocation in schools and ring-fenced guidance counsellors hours to the position that obtained prior to budget 2012. This will ensure we have a dedicated fit-for-purpose guidance counsellor services in all our schools for all our children.

Where in these Estimates is the statement of intent, the appetite to deliver something truly radical and innovative? The extra special needs assistants provision is of course welcome news for children and parents of children who have special educational needs. Extra psychologists for the under-resourced National Educational Psychological Service, as indicated in the programme for Government, should help to ease the waiting time for education assessments and should be welcomed too. All of this is good news, but we have nothing new here. There is no innovation. A stopgap approach to education is disappointing, to say the least. We need more than filling in the holes or easing the pressure points within the system. The programme for Government states: "We now have an opportunity to change our approach in some aspects of education". These Estimates do not indicate that such an opportunity is being taken. The opportunity to place our children's well-being centre stage is being overlooked. The Department should look at establishing a task force to design and deliver evidence-based strategies to promote resilience within our schools, utilising the top experts in the field. We need to be evidence-based and standardised in our approach. Funding should be provided for initiating research into what strategies and interventions can be harnessed within school communities to reduce children's vulnerability to depression and anxiety.

In many countries all schools, primary and secondary, have a full-time school-based counsellor. In Britain, schools are piloting mindfulness-based programmes where leader schools provide other schools with education and resources. I am not suggesting for one minute that we increase the pressure on our under-resourced, overstretched and demoralised teachers. However, there is an opportunity to try something new and initiate a pilot project on building resilience and teaching mindfulness to our children. There needs to be a formal link, a new conversation, between the Departments of Health and Education and Skills to promote mental wellness among our children, provide them with pathways to inner happiness, allow them to discover and develop their inner strengths and provide them with the tools for coping with challenges. Too often, our children can attain wonderful results in the leaving certificate but crumble to pieces when confronted with their first crisis in college or the workplace.

If this new politics is to present an opportunity to shape collectively the future of education in our country, as the Minister said tonight, then I respectfully request that members of the education committee hear from the Minister next month on his specific spending proposals for 2017. Members of the committee should be informed of what the Department has been negotiating with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform in respect of same.

9:35 pm

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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Go raibh maith agat, a Theachta Uí Mháirtín. Táimid ag dul ar aghaidh anois go dtí an chéad urlabhraí eile ar son an Rialtais, an Teachta Fitzpatrick. Tá cúig nóiméad agat.

Photo of Peter FitzpatrickPeter Fitzpatrick (Louth, Fine Gael)
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I welcome the opportunity to speak on the 2016 Revised Estimates for the Department of Education and Skills. Expenditure on education is vital if we are to continue to thrive as a nation. Education gives everyone an opportunity to further their career prospects. For 2016 the education budget is over €8.7 billion. Of this, approximately 93% or almost €8.2 billion will be spent on current expenditure while approximately €600 million will be spent on capital expenditure. A further €362 million is being allocated to the national training fund. To put these figures in context a total of 17% of all Government current expenditure will be spent on education with almost 15% of all Government capital expenditure spent on school capital projects.

Let us consider the figures in more detail. The breakdown of €8.67 billion in current expenditure is as follows. Second and early years education accounts for almost €6.3 billion. Skills development accounts for almost €340 million. Higher education will account for over €1.5 billion. Capital services will account for almost €600 million. Almost 80% of the total current expenditure will be on pay and pensions. It is interesting to note that, of this figure, some €5.3 billion is allocated to pay almost 101,000 whole-time education posts and a further €1.16 billion is allocated to cover the ongoing pensions and retirement lump sum payments to over 46,000 pensioners.

The Estimates provide that for 2016 there will be 66,025 teachers in schools throughout the country, an increase of 2,250 teachers over the levels of last year. I very much welcome this.

I very much welcome the fact that almost €1.5 billion is allocated to special educational needs. This represents an increase of 10% in the past two years. Included in these figures is an allocation of 11,800 learning support and resource teachers in primary and post-primary schools. There will be an increase of over 600 posts in the current year. It is worth noting that the total number of resource teaching posts has increased by 41% since 2011.

I was delighted that the Minister, Deputy Bruton, announced an additional 860 special needs assistant posts for this coming September. This will bring the total number of SNAs to 12,900, an increase of over 22% since 2011.

The schools capital programme is receiving an allocation of €542 million. While I welcome the amount allocated I am somewhat disappointed that this budget has already been allocated to projects. I have received a large amount of correspondence from concerned constituents on this matter and I call on the Minister to reconsider the capital programme with a view to increasing the budget. For example, Scoil Naomh Feichín outside Drogheda, County Louth has recently received correspondence stating that while its project has been approved, the funding has not been sanctioned due to the fact the budget for this year has been reached. Again, I call on the Minister to reconsider the capital programme for schools.

Many positive developments are taking place in my constituency of Louth, where we are starting to see the benefits of the continuing economic improvements. In Dundalk, the Marist College has recently opened a brand new school, a singular credit to those involved. Dundalk has recently seen approval for a new extension to Scoil Realt na Mara and Dún Dealgan National School has received the go-ahead for a much-needed extension.

I note that the third level sector allocation is a little over €1.4 billion with over €900 million funding for universities, institutes of technology and other higher education institutions. A further €407 million has been reserved for student support and almost €40 million for research activities. While I very much welcome the allocation for third level education, I fear it is not enough. In the past week I met with the president of Dundalk Institute of Technology, Anne Campbell. She outlined to me in great detail the challenges faced by DkIT as a result of reduced funding. I urge the Minister to re-examine the funding with a view to providing increased funding to third level institutes, in particular, DkIT, which is the only institute of technology in the north east of the country and provides an important service to the students of the area, especially those students based in County Louth.

I welcome the fact that funding has been increased for the education sector but I urge the Minister to consider increasing all allocations to the third level sector, in particular DkIT in Dundalk. Furthermore, I urge him to make additional funding available for the schools capital programme so that schools like Scoil Naomh Feichín can proceed with projects.

I wish the Minister, Deputy Bruton, the best of luck in future as Minister for Education and Skills.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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Thank you, Deputy. You might give a course to other Members on how to keep within time. Deputy Anne Rabbitte, you have been waiting a long time. You now have five minutes.

Photo of Anne RabbitteAnne Rabbitte (Galway East, Fianna Fail)
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I wish the Minister all the best in his role. To continue from where the Minister's colleague finished, I had three lots of speeches and I was deciding where to start. I am addressing the revised edition but I think I will start with the capitation programme for the future. I plead with the Minister to reconsider this and, for the period 2017 to 2019, to consider front-loading the programme for building schools. I am no different from my colleague across the House in that I am under pressure in east Galway on a regular basis from constituents in the likes of Bullaun, where the school is still operating out of prefabs. It is on the building programme but the building programme is almost turning into a health and safety issue at the moment. There are three schools in Athenry and one in Tuam on the building programme as well. Anyway, if the Minister would consider front-loading the programme, it would be greatly appreciated.

I welcome the reduction in class sizes and the allocation of the extra teachers and SNAs. I believe the programme based around apprenticeships is vital for this economy to progress and there is no better place to start than with the role of apprenticeships.

The ETBs are extremely well positioned to do that and have done it for some years. The 25 additional apprenticeship courses coming on stream are really appreciated. We need to look back to the traditional courses of block-laying and roofing as well as looking to the ESB and the OPW. We have a set body of State-funded employers that could give these opportunities to the young people who want to avail of apprenticeships.

Regarding ETBs and further education, I was very disheartened to discover that last year that the GRETB had to return an amount of money it could not spend on further adult education as a result of the staffing embargo. That ETB did not have the staff to deliver the courses but had the funding to do so. There does not seem to be a balance. I ask the Government to try to restore that equilibrium. It is evident that the ETB had the funding but it returning the money because it did not have the staff to deliver it was very disheartening for those working in the ETB.

When talking about the ETBs we also need to talk about the ICT services they provide. SOLAS, FÁS and the ETBs have come together successfully, particularly in the context of the GRETB in my area. They have actually pulled it all together with no staff. The one part that is really stretched is the infrastructure around ICT.

I can also talk about ICT in the national schools. The national schools have computers but do not have the support mechanisms to bring them online. That is another issue. If a national school has an ETB nearby it has that access to resources. However, many rural schools do not have that support. Geography should not come into it and all children in education should be equal. That is not the case because geography plays a huge part in all this. This is something we will have to look at and broadband of course comes into this.

Apart from broadband, the next issue that is crucifying rural areas - a number of Deputies spoke about it earlier this evening - is that which relates to how school transport is gauged. We have to move away from looking at it from the satellite. The satellite currently takes dirt tracks rather than roads into account when the position is being assessed. One Deputy referred to the distance measured in kilometres. School buses are passing people by at present. A student who lives at the wrong part of the triangle on a school bus route can lose out. A student living in Claregalway who wants to travel to the new school in Galway might be sent over to Headford and be obliged to go 5 km up the other side of the road to try to catch the bus. This does not make sense, particularly when the bus passes his or her front door in the first instance.

Having said that, I welcome what is before us. I think we are going in the right direction. We want to invest correctly in education because children represent the future. We need to give them the broadband, the school buses and the schools in which to be taught well.

9:45 pm

Photo of Richard BrutonRichard Bruton (Dublin Bay North, Fine Gael)
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I welcome the debate. Everyone will agree that there have been tough times for education as there have been for other sectors throughout the economy. The education system in Ireland has been extraordinarily resilient during those times. It has taught more children at primary, secondary and third level with reduced resources. Deputy Thomas Byrne and others rightly pointed out that we have had, one might say, a lost decade. It was not quite a decade but approaching a decade in which investment has been below level. It will continue with financial pressures. We need to be smarter in the way we do things. I hope we can repair the damage while also having ambitions to do things in new ways. That is part of what I would like to see done.

Deputy Thomas Byrne raised his concern that we are investing in the concept of technological universities before we have the legislation. To be fair, this has a long history; it is long before my time here. The DIT has developed a project with Blanchardstown and Tallaght that is at a very advanced stage. They are keen to move ahead. Everyone engaged is fully committed and sees it as a win-win. Cork and Tralee have also developed their projects. Waterford and Carlow are developing projects.

This is not a new idea. While the legislation is very important, the concept is something that has broadly been seen as important to regional development. To take up the Deputy's point, it is not about shutting off access in particular locations and consolidating all into one centre at the loss of others. It is to allow a system that may be stretched and challenged to retain its best traditions while also setting new ambition. I look forward to working with the Deputy on this. We are committed to stakeholder engagement on the issue so that when we move back into Committee Stage we can hopefully have a much better understanding of different perspectives.

Deputy Cullinane and others raised the issues of the differential in pay. I recognise that this is a problem. It is a legacy of the crash and it occurred in every part of the public service. Contrary to what Deputy Connolly said, Deputies are also paid different amounts depending on their recruitment. This is an issue. There will be a pay commission, which will give an opportunity to look at this and develop ways because we need to retain our capacity to attract the very best people into education.

Deputy Burton raised her concern that the capital programme had gone off track. At the end of May it was pretty much on the mark at 98.5% of profile. So it is slightly below. We intend to spend all the money that will be available to us. The Department's building unit - perhaps this is part of the frustration - has developed projects and is trying to ensure we spend everything we have and be in a position to have the pipeline to do so. I will look into the particular schools she mentioned.

A number of Deputies talked about the importance of DEIS and the ambition to change. I recognise the frustration that some schools have been outside it and it has not been reviewed in several years. The purpose of the review is to look at not just that issue of whether some schools are left out, but also the quality of the programmes and whether we could do better within the DEIS schools.

The benchmarking of numeracy, which was mentioned by Deputy Connolly, is an important issue.

Deputy Michael Collins raised the issue of middle management. To be fair to the former Minister, Deputy Jan O'Sullivan, the Estimate she produced contains a provision for 250 teacher posts to try to bolster the middle-management tier. There is no doubt that leadership in our schools will be very important.

A number of people spoke about guidance. I know that is a particular concern of Deputy Thomas Byrne and his party. The budget produced by the former Minister, Deputy Jan O'Sullivan, included a restoration of the pupil-teacher ratio at post-primary level, albeit not ex quota, but nonetheless with guidelines being issued to the schools to deploy this in guidance. While putting guidance ex quota impacted on the provision of guidance as is evident, it is interesting that a significant level of guidance was protected by schools. Hopefully we can meet the ambitions that those have raised.

I share Deputy Rabbitte's point of view on the need for a stronger digital strategy within the educational system and hopefully we can do that.

Deputy Fitzpatrick has gone, but I will talk to him separately.

Debate adjourned.

The Dáil adjourned at at 10 p.m. until 12 noon on Thursday, 16 June 2016.