Dáil debates

Wednesday, 19 December 2018

Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate

Third Level Admissions Entry Requirements

5:55 pm

Photo of Willie PenroseWillie Penrose (Longford-Westmeath, Labour)
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I thank the Ceann Comhairle for selecting this important issue for discussion. I am glad that the Minister of State, Deputy Mitchell O'Connor, is present. She is very familiar with the import of this issue and I have no doubt she is eager to resolve it in a positive way. It is a very invidious situation affecting a large cohort of young graduates and undergraduates. Concerns over this important issue have been brought to my attention and that of my colleagues, Deputies Sherlock and Brendan Ryan, over the past month or so. I have no doubt that several other Members have also been alerted to the grave unfairness and injustice perpetrated upon students who completed their leaving certificate prior to September-October 2017 when changes to the minimum entry grades in Irish, English and maths for entry to primary teacher education programmes were introduced. My colleagues have made strong representations on the issue. Like them, I have no problem with the Minister of State or her officials raising the minimum entry requirements in those core subject areas as part of a policy objective of ensuring quality teaching and learning in primary schools. I am aware that the proposals emanate from the 2011 literacy and numeracy strategy and reviews thereto and that the Teaching Council had an input into them.

The changes in the minimum entry requirements take effect from 2019 and students who entered the leaving certificate cycle in 2017 and will graduate in 2019 are aware of it. However, I am focusing on a specific cohort of students. What will happen to the many students who entered degree courses between 2013 and 2018 and wish to pursue a postgraduate masters in primary education? What about those who completed their undergraduate degree some years before deciding to apply to the masters programme? They may have completed their primary degree in 2016 or 2017. When such students sat their leaving certificate four, five or six years ago, they were assured by guidance counsellors that the minimum entry requirements were at a particular level. However, the goalposts have now been moved by officials - I am not stating that the Minister of State did so - and deprived those students of the ability to qualify for the masters in primary education at a time when teachers are badly needed. Deputies complain that teachers are going to Dubai. The Government will drive them all out of the country. The Ceann Comhairle will have to go back to Dubai and get a donkey on which to bring the teachers back. We are driving them out of the country.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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There are 2,500 of them there.

Photo of Willie PenroseWillie Penrose (Longford-Westmeath, Labour)
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Those students attained the necessary minimum requirement for the masters in primary education when they sat their leaving certificate some years ago and had a legitimate expectation, which is a principle of European Union law, that they would qualify for the course because they met all requirements that were in place at the time.

In order to meet the new minimum requirements, this cohort of students with a primary degree will have to resit the leaving certificate. Talk about Hobbe's law. A person could have a first or second class honours degree and be told that is no good because he or she does not meet the new minimum entry requirement in Irish. The Ceann Comhairle is fluent in Irish, tá sé líofa, and fair play to him. Those students have primary degrees. I only have a few words of Irish, unlike the Ceann Comhairle, but I know there is damn-all difference between a C3 and a C2. It is a semantic difference. We must ensure the Irish language is propagated and promoted but by changing the minimum requirement from a C3 to C2 we are depriving a significant cohort of students of the opportunity to become a teacher. This injustice must stop. It is likely that legal action will be taken. The officials must change this policy. I have made them fully aware of the difficulties it is causing. The officials are decent and reasonable and are wondering about opening Pandora's box. One should not do so. A defined cohort of students has been affected.

We must address this immediately. The Minister of State knows more about primary education than I will ever know, and she knows exactly how to resolve this.

6:05 pm

Photo of Mary Mitchell O'ConnorMary Mitchell O'Connor (Dún Laoghaire, Fine Gael)
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I thank Deputy Penrose. I have received the same queries that were raised with him and his colleagues.

I was in the United Arab Emirates and met a number of Irish teachers there. There are more than 3,000 of them there. The one message I received there was about the great respect for Irish teachers teaching abroad. Often this is not evident in Ireland. A really proud individual running a school in the United Arab Emirates ran over to me and told me she would employ only Irish teachers. My face dropped because I am aware of the lack of teachers in the system here but the comment indicated how good Irish teachers are. I am highly cognisant of the importance of having a teacher at the top of the classroom who is able to deliver quality teaching to the children.

With regard to the question the Deputy asked, I realise he knows all the details. The changes were identified. We came up with a literacy and numeracy strategy. This occurred under former Minister Ruairí Quinn. I pay tribute to him in this regard because our standard of literacy has gone right up. Ireland is one of the best in Europe in English reading and mathematics.

Many of the issues have been identified. The officials feel these issues are very complicated and complex. The Teaching Council provided advice. It commissioned the Economic and Social Research Institute to carry out research on its behalf to inform deliberations on the grades students should have in their leaving certificate examinations. The grade for English is now H4 and that for mathematics is H7 or an O4. This reflects the new grading system. The changes had regard to the Department's 2015 policy, Supporting a Better Transition from Second Level to Higher Education: Implementation and Next Steps. The changes were announced in October 2017 to take effect for entrants to primary initial teacher education programmes from 2019 onwards. This was to ensure account was taken of students who had already commenced the senior cycle and would be sitting the leaving certificate in 2018. However, to exempt all students with a degree from meeting the new requirements, as suggested, would take away any benefit arising from the changes. In practical terms, this would mean that, years from now, those who met the old entry requirements could apply for the professional master of education course alongside those who would have to meet the new requirements. It would also mean a difference straight away between the standard for students on the postgraduate course and those who have just done the leaving certificate examination and who are starting an undergraduate teaching degree.

On behalf of the Department, I appreciate the Deputy's concern for students who had planned to apply to pursue the professional master of education qualification for primary teaching and who no longer meet the minimum entry requirements. I have past pupils in that category. The Department has received a number of submissions in this regard, and these are currently under consideration to ascertain whether a solution can be found for the students most affected.

Photo of Willie PenroseWillie Penrose (Longford-Westmeath, Labour)
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I have no doubt that the Minister of State understands the details of the issue very well. The change, however, is not a trivial or small one. For those concerned, it represents a considerable setback, and it is causing great stress, anxiety and upset. The Minister of State will agree that upsetting students is nothing to be proud of. The Minister of State can achieve the objective by ensuring the minimum requirements will apply only prospectively. The Department announced that, from 2017, every leaving certificate student knew what requirements had to be met, in the view that there was no problem. The response circulated is the glib Department answer. It does not pass legal muster. The point is that the students were assured that a C3, for example, was adequate, and they did their undergraduate degree on that basis, with a view to moving on having obtained their C3 along with their music degree, arts degree or whatever. The Department unilaterally changed the goalposts, however. That is not right in law. Under European law, this falls. The Minister of State's officials better get off their butts and make sure what I propose is done immediately. We need the students to be notified in January or February in order they can start their master's in education course in September. The answer circulated suggests somebody who qualified in 2011 would be affected if applying to do the master's course in education in 2021. These individuals are probably out in Dubai or elsewhere and are married and settled down. The last thing they are worried about is the master's degree in education.

The reply adds insult to injury. How dare the officials say there is something on the website that can take the place of the leaving certificate grade. Does the Minister of State think we came up the River Liffey in a banana boat with a goose pulling it? That is nonsense. In other words, a student who has achieved a 1.1 or 2.1 in his or her primary degree is told to buzz off to some place to try to get a C2 or C1 in Irish or whatever is required. That is a typical gobbledygook bureaucratic reply that I resent. I want the Minister of State to solve this problem because, if she does not, we will see the students in court.

Photo of Mary Mitchell O'ConnorMary Mitchell O'Connor (Dún Laoghaire, Fine Gael)
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I said to Deputy Penrose that the Department has received the submissions and that they are currently under consideration. I expect a further update from officials in January, which I will share with Deputies.