Dáil debates

Wednesday, 20 May 2020

Covid-19 (Education and Skills): Statements


9:30 pm

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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Táimid réidh chun tosú leis an bpíosa gnó deireanach don lá inniu, is é sin díospóireacht leis an Aire Oideachais agus Scileanna. Tá deich nóiméad ag an Aire.

Photo of Joe McHughJoe McHugh (Donegal, Fine Gael)
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Gabhaim buíochas leis an gCeann Comhairle agus leis na Teachtaí uilig atá i láthair linn arís inniu chun an t-ábhar oideachais a phlé agus an díospóireacht iontach tábhachtach seo a bheith againn anois. I am happy to be in the House again to provide a further update on our work programme. I want to focus on three particular areas, namely, the leaving certificate and preparations for the calculated grades system, the planning under way for reopening the education and training sector, particularly schools, and the delivery of educational provision to students with special educational needs during the summer period.

I announced on 8 May that all students are to be offered the option of receiving calculated grades for the subjects they are studying and the alternative of sitting the 2020 leaving certificate examinations at a date in the future when it is considered safe to hold them. I updated the House last week on developments in that regard. There has been significant work undertaken within my Department, working in close collaboration with education partners, and the executive office approved by the Government to operate the calculated grades system has been established. A number of staff from the State Examinations Commission with relevant expertise have already been seconded to my Department and further secondments are expected as the calculated grades system becomes operational.

I am delighted to announce in the Chamber that Dr. Áine Lawlor, former director of the Teaching Council, has agreed to chair the independent steering committee on calculated grades. The committee will oversee the process of implementation of calculated grades from the perspective of quality assurance and integrity. We are continuing to work with stakeholders on the key issues, including through the advisory group on State examinations. That group met last week and will meet again this Friday, and its members have continued to engage with my Department between meetings. This collaboration and intense work, including by my officials, has meant that the detailed guidance material will issue to schools tomorrow. I am very conscious of the importance of this guide for schools, teachers, principals, parents and students to provide certainty and clarity. Over the past number of days, through engagement and discussions with all involved, we have made significant progress on finalising this guidance material and issuing it as a priority.

I again acknowledge the contribution the members of the advisory group and all the educational stakeholders have made to the process so far. The group remains in place and will continue to meet as we bring forward the school component of the calculated grades model. I have today answered a range of written parliamentary questions about how different aspects of the calculated grades system will operate. The detailed guidance to teachers and principals addresses many of the detailed aspects of how a teacher will determine an estimated mark in a particular subject.

There is one issue, which has come up in a lot of the questions, on which it is important to be clear. The guidance makes it clear that the estimated mark is not based on a student's performance in any mock examination undertaken in his or her school or on his or her junior cycle results. The estimated mark is informed by a teacher's professional judgment and available evidence can be used to support the estimation of a mark. Once a teacher has completed the stage of establishing an estimated mark for each student, those marks will then be considered as part of a school alignment process. It is vitally important that teachers' professional judgment, the in-school process and the application of a national standard all work together to provide each student with a result that is fair and equitable.

Since I last addressed the House, we have moved into phase 1 of the Roadmap for Reopening Society and Business. In the education sector, this means that schools and other educational buildings can open for access by teachers for the organisation and distribution of remote learning. These are welcome developments and reflect the progress we have been making as a society in suppressing the virus. The Roadmap for Reopening Society and Business envisages commencement of a reopening of schools and educational institutions from the beginning of the next academic year in September. Planning in this regard is now under way in consultation with stakeholders and having regard to the experience of other countries.

Managing the reopening of our education system is a massive logistical operation that needs to be carefully planned and managed. Given the diversity in school and education settings, one size fits all will not apply.

We are talking about a system with more than 1 million learners and facilities ranging from small schools to multi-campus higher education institutions. Schools and other education institutions are also workplaces for more than 110,000 people, and the national return to work safely protocol has to be a factor in our future planning. The key to a safe and continued return to work requires strong communication and a shared collaborative approach between employers and workers. Schools will require clear guidance and early clarity on key issues so they can start planning at a local level.

In planning for the reopening of schools, the Department's approach to managing the public health aspects of the reopening and operation of schools will be based on ongoing health advice, and we will continue to engage with expert groups to strive to ensure our plans for the reopening of schools reflect the most up-to-date advice available. There may be different scenarios for reopening schools depending on the prevailing health advice, ranging from the attendance of a small number of students at any given time to a full return. There may be a need for phasing of different approaches. All issues need to be considered in looking at these scenarios, including implications for the curriculum, for teaching and learning and for those at risk of educational disadvantage and those with special educational needs. Our most vulnerable students must and will be a focus for our priorities as we plan for the future.

The Department is engaging with all stakeholders to develop a plan to reopen schools. All primary and post-primary stakeholders have been invited to make submissions to the Department on the issues to be considered from their perspectives. In addition, a meeting of the primary education forum took place last week and a meeting with post-primary stakeholders took place today. Ongoing meetings with stakeholders will be arranged as the Roadmap for Reopening Schools is developed. In addition to the education stakeholders, wider consultation is needed with other parties, including Bus Éireann, the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport, the National Transport Authority, NTA, the HSE and the Department of Children and Youth Affairs. Similar processes are happening in the tertiary sector, and my Department is engaging with stakeholders in that regard.

We have also been looking closely at the experience of other countries. I attended a virtual meeting of EU ministers of education on Monday to hear the experience of my colleagues on the steps they are taking. Yesterday, I also spoke with my counterpart in London, Gavin Williamson, on the common challenges we face. Schools continue to be best placed to make decisions on how to support and educate all their learners during this period. Consideration of the types of experiences that schools will be able to offer in the new school year and how remote or online learning can support and complement the teaching and learning that takes place in the classroom will be required. In addition, continued support will be required where students cannot attend school.

I am particularly concerned about the impact of school closures on students with special educational needs and disadvantaged students. I want to see some summer provision for these students. Public health advice will be key to achieving this, and I am looking at what potential there might be for the running of existing programmes supporting children at the greatest risk of educational disadvantage. My Department is working closely with the Department of Children and Youth Affairs and Tusla on this issue, and I will be meeting the Minister for Health in the coming days.

I am very aware that this closure of schools has impacted hardest on families who have children with complex needs and whose well-being and engagement with learning depend very much on the routine of school and relationships with other students, teachers and special needs assistants, SNAs. They have also lost out on specialist support during this closure period. I am conscious of the real risk of regression in learning among these children. I know their families place a high value on the traditional July provision programme. Unfortunately, due to the Covid-19 health crisis, it is not possible to deliver the normal July provision programme in the same way and at the same time as in other years.

We are, however, exploring all options for a programme to run over the summer for children with the most complex needs. First, I need to be satisfied that the public health advice will support the running of such a provision. It must be safe to do it. Second, we need teachers, SNAs and schools to be in a position to do this. We have to be sure that teachers and SNAs are going to be able to provide a summer programme and that the necessary precautions to safeguard them properly can be put in place. Finally, while many parents will welcome the possibility of a summer programme, they too will have a real and genuine concern for the welfare of their children. We will need to engage closely with parents to ensure they will want to avail of such a programme.

The primary aim of any programme will be to limit potential regression and learning, thereby ensuring, in so far as possible, that these children can reintegrate and transition into their planned education setting for next year with their peers.

It is hoped to deliver this programme in July or August, public health advice permitting. The participation of schools, teachers and SNAs is critically necessary and it is for them to decide whether they wish to participate. I have already commenced consultations with stakeholders on the nature and scope of the proposed programme and these will continue for the next few weeks. Earlier today, I met AsIAm, Down Syndrome Ireland and the National Association of Boards of Management in Special Education. We had a very fruitful conversation and the importance of trying to do something while recognising the challenges involved made a big impression on me. Due to a communication difficulty, Inclusion Ireland did not participate but I will speak directly to it tomorrow.

Conversations such as that and our debate this evening are very beneficial in informing thinking in this area. It is important that stakeholders contribute such that any programme developed is relevant and meets the needs of children. As I stated at the outset, a significant amount of work is continuing in the education sector, with my Department leading and facilitating stakeholder engagement in the planning of our responses in various areas. We will continue to listen to proposals and concerns from stakeholders and to work collaboratively for all students.

9:50 pm

Photo of Thomas ByrneThomas Byrne (Meath East, Fianna Fail)
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Tá mé ag roinnt mo chuid ama leis na Teachtaí Christopher O'Sullivan, Cathal Crowe agus Flaherty.

The Minister's speech seems to mark a sea change in activity and attitude by the Department. I am not happy with everything that is happening but I detect in his speech a much greater openness from the Department in how it is dealing with educational issues. We are still seeking clarity and certainty on many issues, but I have always accepted that certainty is not always possible in this pandemic and that things will change. What I wanted the Department to do at all times was to consult and engage as widely as possible. It was not evident whether that was happening but it is evident from what the Minister has said tonight that significant engagement is taking place.

Schools in particular will look forward to getting the system of calculated grades and how that will work. I very much welcome that an independent person, Dr. Áine Lawlor, has been asked to chair the independent steering committee on this issue. That is an absolutely critical step. I also welcome that members of the State Examinations Commission are to be seconded to the Department. That is a very sensible thing to do, given that we cannot currently change the legislation. In regard to the reopening of schools, it is welcome that the Minister is, of course, consulting and engaging with the education partners. The Minister has outlined to us a list of other partners directly outside of education which he and the Department are also consulting. That needs to continue.

There are changing opinions on the public health side and they must be considered at all times. They swing all the time from one side to the other- from hope to despair - in terms of what would be possible. It is important that the Minister keeps up to date with everything that is happening in that regard, as I am sure he is doing. It is to the benefit of the Department and the students that the widest possible engagement is ongoing.

There are many issues relating to the leaving certificate which I am sure the Minister will continue to address as they arise, particularly students outside school and the certainty they need, if possible. In addition, there is my call to provide greater numbers of college places for the class of 2020. I sincerely hope the Minister will work on this issue. It is critical for that to happen to recognise the difficulties experienced by the leaving certificate class this year. We hope there will be extra places. There may not be a large number of them, but there will be some. I refer to the pressure young people have been under in recent months.

I welcome the detail provided by the Minister on the reopening of schools. I accept that he cannot give a reopening date tonight in the House and I am not asking him to provide one. It is critical that once robust public health advice allows the reopening of schools, there be no other blockages in the system to prevent or delay it. The way to unblock such blockages is to consult as widely as possible. That will involve a significant number of students. There are certain classes which have significant concerns. Some fifth year students have raised issues that affect them. I very much welcome fifth year and sixth year students having their voice in the political sphere.

They are very effectively represented by the Irish Second-level Students' Union, ISSU, but they have also had their individual voices heard by politicians in this Chamber and throughout the country. I really welcome the fact that they have engaged on this issue, whatever their particular viewpoint. Indeed, there has been a range of different viewpoints. The issue of sixth class students has been discussed previously.

There are lessons to be learned and the Department seems to be adopting a different approach now. Too much of the discourse around the leaving certificate focused on maintaining the integrity of the process, which is obviously important, with not enough focus on the welfare of the child. It is true that second level students are well represented by their representative organisation, but it is also crucially important that primary school students have their voice represented. The Ombudsman for Children would be well placed to engage with the Minister, and I am sure the Minister will engage with him. The Ombudsman for Children should be involved every step of the way. I note that the ombudsman for children in England is commenting publicly with regularity on this issue.

The issue of the secrecy and confidentiality that surrounded the leaving certificate engagement was detrimental to the process because things leaked out anyway. It is better to have a fully open and transparent process because that will give the greatest level of confidence to people. It is important that sufficient time is allowed to implement any guidance that is provided. That is critical so that schools and teachers know what is going to happen.

Some of my party colleagues will be speaking about children with special needs. I am glad that the Minister has expanded on what he said previously about July provision. The statement he made last week engendered hope, and while I accept that people know that miracles are not possible, the Minister has set out what is there at the moment. We need to keep engaging with all of the partners on this because the situation is very difficult for these children. They do not have their regular school which is really important to them. I want to pay tribute to teachers, SNAs, the management bodies of schools, parents who are teaching at home, and the kids themselves. Everybody is doing tremendous work in the best way that they can.

10:00 pm

Photo of Christopher O'SullivanChristopher O'Sullivan (Cork South West, Fianna Fail)
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I echo Deputy Byrne's comments on children in special classes and ASD units. These children have had to go without speech and occupational therapy, movement breaks and psychological supports since 12 March. I know of a child who gets up every morning, puts on her coat and schoolbag and goes to the front door to wait for a taxi that will never arrive. That is heartbreaking. I cannot even begin to imagine the distress that girl and her family go through every day. These children, their parents, guardians and families deserve better than this. I appreciate the Minister's comments on July provision and trying to facilitate that. I also appreciate that the Minister believes that there are possible solutions here, provided that social distancing is adhered to, but given that the Minister can see that chink of light or that possibility, I ask him to go a step further. Given that there are no more than six children in any classroom at any time, subject to all public health guidelines, can the Minister see a way to allow children who are enrolled in ASD units and special classes to return to school as soon as possible, if not immediately?

The other issue that I would like to raise has been aired frequently in this Chamber in the past, namely, school transport. Last year in my own constituency of Cork South-West in the areas of Ballineen and Enniskeane, 18 students were left without a place on school buses. That is an entire classroom's worth of students who were left without seats because of the rigid and ridiculous rules governing the current school transport scheme. I have heard from constituents who are considering moving their entrance so that they can avail of the scheme. I have heard of children being left at the side of the road, crying, while their classmates are driven away on the bus. This is absolutely infuriating for the students and their parents. Neither the Department of Education and Skills nor Bus Éireann should be dictating where a child goes to school. We need a proper, functioning school transport scheme that resolves the problems I have just talked about.

We also need a scheme that improves sustainability and traffic flow. I know of a scenario in west Cork where a child is availing of the school bus while their neighbour is driven to school in their parent's car and follows directly behind the bus. This type of scenario has led to significant congestion and traffic problems in towns like Bandon in my own constituency. We really need to move away from this system as soon as possible. I ask the Minister to begin a complete overhaul of the current school transport scheme.

Will he do away with the rigid rules of the transport scheme and allow for some type of discretion, which is what families are looking for? Will he also begin planning for social distancing? For example, if a 52-seat bus is serving a route, we do not know if it will be allowed to have full occupancy, with 52 students, or if it will be cut to 50%. Will there be enough buses to provide school transport for each and every one of the children who deserve it?

10:10 pm

Photo of Joe FlahertyJoe Flaherty (Longford-Westmeath, Fianna Fail)
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I am conscious and thankful that the Minister has given a commitment to try to have the July provision in place for special needs children. However, I want to emphasise it will be essential for these children as, otherwise, they will have been six months outside the school system and when they get back into a classroom environment, they will flounder.

Notwithstanding the challenges it has presented, Covid-19 has given many organisations an opportunity to reflect on how they operate and, more importantly, on how they could do better. One would certainly hope that, at present, there is a team within the Department of Education and Skills reviewing special education, identifying the issues and earmarking what additional supports need to be in place when our children return to education. The House is aware of the challenges in special needs education but I fear these challenges are much more pronounced in my county of Longford after nearly a decade of neglect. In many instances, the problems in Longford are, unfortunately, masked by the fact its figures are included with County Westmeath, which has much better performing metrics. On the one hand, schools in County Longford simply do not have the most basic of resources even though exceptional staff and management are providing an outstanding service. On the other hand, parents are frustrated and fearful of speaking out as they fear they will lose out on the most minuscule of supports.

Unfortunately, there has been a dismantling of services for children in Longford, specifically in the area of health and education. For example, all eye and ear services in the county have been withdrawn and, at present, children have to go to Athlone for testing. Invariably, this means they miss out on a day in school, assuming their families can afford to get there in the first place. Several principals in the county to whom I have spoken in recent months, as well as teachers appointed from other counties, have highlighted that special needs services are significantly better in adjoining counties. For example, the autism unit in Ballymahon national school will have pupils travel from County Roscommon and staff and management of the school will regularly see services and support brought over from Roscommon to work with these pupils. While a number of local schools have dedicated autism units, there is, unfortunately, huge pressure on the adjoining smaller schools, which have to take the overflow of students who are unable to access the units.

Our party leader, Deputy Micheál Martin, has been on record throughout and since the election campaign regarding his commitment to special needs education. How it ultimately features in this programme for Government and, specifically, how the incoming Minister for Education and Skills addresses the deficits in special needs education in counties like Longford and elsewhere might well be the acid test for his or her tenure.

Photo of Cathal CroweCathal Crowe (Clare, Fianna Fail)
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As my speaking time is limited, I would be grateful if my questions could be responded to in writing. A few short weeks ago, before I was elected to this House, I was a primary school teacher teaching a class of 33 fourth class pupils in Parteen national school, County Clare - I am still in the habit of using the old red pen. When these pupils return to school in September, social distancing as we know it - that is, two metres apart - will be very difficult or virtually impossible to implement. Two metres of separation does not work in an environment where pupils sit elbow to elbow, pencil case to pencil case. I would like to know what measures the Department is taking to ensure that best health and safety practices will be in place in primary school classrooms and school playgrounds in time for a September re-opening. Will additional accommodation be required in some instances? As is the case in other EU countries, will the Department give consideration to laying down some stone or hard-core to extend play areas so children can stay a little apart while getting back closer together as friends and classmates?

My second question relates to the much anticipated re-opening of schools in September. Principals and boards of management throughout my county, including at Realt na Mara in Kilkee, have been asking me when the Department will furnish them with guideline documents outlining how pupils and staff can safely return. I believe this guidance documentation would have to make it very clear how many children could be in a classroom at the same time and how this would work in classrooms of varying square meterage.

In Ireland we have a pupil-teacher ratio of 26:1. Maybe now is the time to consider reducing this ratio and making it more favourable and more in line with the EU average of 20:1. An analysis of data recently published by the Department indicated that just under 20% of Irish primary school children are in classrooms that could be considered to be overcrowded. In my home county of Clare, 32 schools have more than 30 children in a class at any given time. I implore the Minister on an emergency basis to hire additional temporary staff to allow schools to do this so we can reduce the pupil-teacher ratio.

The Minister mentioned July provision. I will not dwell on it but I ask the Minister to extend it to August. The children for whom July provision caters have been without mainstay education for a number of months and it would make sense to extend the programme. We can call it July-August provision and give it a longer run in the summer so the children are supported.

The next issue I wish to raise is third level accommodation. Third level campuses such as the University of Limerick have yet to refund families, who are very financially pressed at this time. I ask the Minister to intervene in this. A scheme needs to be devised to enable people to retrieve their property from university campus accommodation.

I pay tribute to some of those teachers who have been outstanding in reaching out through social media to their pupils. Siobhán Barry runs a Twitter page for Parteen national school, Darryl Eade and his colleagues at the Holy Family school in Ennis have set up a little TV station and Cratloe national school has taken to Zoom to do dancing and sing songs for those in the local nursing homes. Their work is fabulous and it needs to be commended by the House and the Minister.

10:20 pm

Photo of Donnchadh Ó LaoghaireDonnchadh Ó Laoghaire (Cork South Central, Sinn Fein)
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I will begin with the issue that has featured most in the public domain in recent days, namely, the return of building based schooling. I say it in this way because schools are still working. I know teachers have gone to extraordinary lengths and I give Deputy Cathal Crowe an A plus for managing to get in as many constituency schools into his contribution as he did.

Photo of Cathal CroweCathal Crowe (Clare, Fianna Fail)
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I have more.

Photo of Donnchadh Ó LaoghaireDonnchadh Ó Laoghaire (Cork South Central, Sinn Fein)
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I am sure he does but he is not getting my time for them.

Teachers have gone to extraordinary lengths and it is fair to recognise that others have also made a contribution, such as "Cúla4 ar Scoil" on TG4 and "Home School Hub" on RTÉ. While they are not as good as the ordinary school experience, they have helped put shape on the day for parents and children, including my family. Where else would we learn to put together a pyramid with spaghetti and jelly babies?

It is undoubtedly the case, and this is disputed by no one, that children have lost out. This is particularly the case for children living in emergency accommodation, children with special educational needs and children living in chaotic home environments. There is no doubt but that educational disadvantage has been exacerbated. All concerned want to see a return to school as soon as is possible because no one wants the current situation to last a minute longer than necessary.

Reopening school buildings for education is not like turning on a tap. There are many ways to do this with many elements but fundamentally there are two ways. There is a proper way that involves schools opening up with the confidence and consent of parents, students and teachers and there is the way that involves making a hames of it through a lack of consultation or through haste. The first will allow schools to reopen and stay open and gradually get education back to something resembling normal but the latter will entirely undermine that objective. I have spoken to a number of schools and they have yet to be consulted or hear a single thing from the Department on reopening. This is not good enough. If there is to be a road map back to some shape of normality for the economy, the least schools deserve is a road map for education.

Capacity will be an enormous issue. Most of our school buildings are not fit to hold the numbers they hold generally, not to mind with social distancing. We need guidance and consultation with schools and we need to use the time we have between now and when schools reopen to plan and give people confidence. While it is the case that people are frustrated, they are also still nervous and need reassurance. If there are to be pilots or if some schools are to open before others, it should be on the basis of the key priorities in terms of special education and disadvantage. It also needs to be on a voluntary basis on the part of students and staff.

I want to return to the issue of school profiling, which we have discussed on several occasions. The safeguards the Minister believes exist are not adequate. There is not an equal distribution of children across schools. In fact, schools magnify the disadvantage felt by communities. It is a fact that a school could have the results of its students, which are marked diligently and conscientiously by the teachers, revised downwards simply because of results in the past.

A strong cohort which bucks the trend that existed in a school before now will not get the grades it deserves. In Britain, research has found that more than one in five schools had expected to have large changes in the percentage of A* to C English GCSE results between 2014 and 2015 and this was only partially attributed to teaching quality. Every cohort is different in every school. In a single school it can be radically different. These students deserve to be treated on their own merits. The Minister has instanced junior certificate results three years prior and, in his speech, minimised the emphasis on them in the calculation generally, as a safeguard. It is unclear now whether that is factored in before adjustments or after concerns are raised by a student at school. I do not think it is justified to have it there at all. If the Minister is confident in the calculated grades approach, and I wish the best of luck to Dr. Lawlor in her approach, he should trust the system of alignment and appeals along with a randomised checking system to ensure a standard.

Some of these injustices can be if not resolved then, perhaps, minimised by opening up additional third level places. Many of the 14,000 students who come here annually from abroad are not coming now, leaving many places vacant. Universities alone are facing a shortfall of €374 million. It seems clear that Government will have to step in to solve this funding crisis. However, the investment that is needed can also focus on delivering additional places for those who have done the leaving certificate by investing in Student Universal Support Ireland, SUSI, and access programmes such as Here and There. Already SUSI is inadequate and people turn down offers made to them because they cannot afford to live in Dublin, Cork or Galway, even with the full grant. That brings me on to a query regarding SUSI on which I wrote to the Minister and am still awaiting a response. Tens of thousands of people have lost their jobs recently, many of them permanently. Many do not know if or when their workplaces will reopen, especially in retail, hospitality, bar and restaurant work. It is totally unclear whether those who are uncertain as to the future of closed businesses will be entitled to SUSI for their children. This affects countless students who may not be able to afford college without the grant. Can the Minister clarify that for me?

I also want to flag my particular concern around students outside of traditional school settings, especially those without formal tuition. Everyone in the leaving certificate of 2020 deserves the chance to get into third level and a solution needs to be found for those students.

I know Deputy Wynne, and perhaps Deputy Tully, will also raise this issue. We need clarity on July provision. I welcome the commitment the Minister has made to it but an awful lot more detail is needed.

10:30 pm

Photo of Pauline TullyPauline Tully (Cavan-Monaghan, Sinn Fein)
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Last week, the Minister addressed the House and indicated that more clarity around this year's leaving certificate and other issues would be provided after he and his Department officials examined the issues in detail. I welcome the fact that some clarification has been provided and I do not believe for one minute that any of this process is easy or straightforward. However, schools need as much guidance and clarity as possible and as soon as possible. Last week, teachers were reasonably confident that they had a good grasp of the process around calculating a grade but they were awaiting guidance. I welcome the fact that this guidance will issue tomorrow. They are hoping the situation will not have changed from what they believed it would be and that it will be reasonably straightforward. Many teachers are exhausted at the moment. They have been trying to teach online, which is not easy, and many also have their own children at home. I think everybody has suddenly appreciated how difficult teaching is when we have our children at home with us and are trying to work at the same time.

As Deputy Ó Laoghaire has just mentioned, the Minister also indicated that a mechanism would be found to assess home-schooled students or those who, for whatever reason, are taking a subject outside of school and without a recognised tutor. Has a mechanism been found yet? The students and parents with whom I have discussed this since last week felt a little bit forgotten or cast aside. Can the Minister indicate how many students are in this situation?

When I was a student doing my leaving certificate, I had an option to do the matriculation exam or "matric" should my leaving certificate results not be sufficient for entry into the course I desired. I did not need to sit this exam but I know of people who did and it allowed them entry to certain third level institutions without having to repeat a whole school year in order to re-sit the leaving certificate. I know the matric in the NUI has been abolished since 1990 but has the Department, in conjunction with third level colleges, examined the possibility of such a process being introduced, even just for this year?

What consultations have taken place between universities and colleges outside the State to ensure this year's leaving certificate will be recognised and accepted? I urge that places on the HEAR and DARE schemes should be expanded, considering recent events, to ensure the impact on students who suffer from disadvantage is minimised.

I welcome that no school will receive a lower allocation of SNA support for September and that the new allocation model for SNAs has been deferred. I have been told, however, that should a school require additional support it must go through an exceptional review of current allocation, which involves a fair amount of paperwork and bureaucracy. Is this a mechanism of discouraging schools from applying for additional SNAs? If students entering second level require SNA access it should be a straightforward process to apply for this without a threat of a review of current allocation.

10:40 pm

Photo of Violet WynneViolet Wynne (Clare, Sinn Fein)
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Families across Clare have relayed a collective sigh of relief that a formal decision was recently made on the leaving certificate examinations 2020. This decision was welcomed but many people in Clare feel that the delay in formulating the decision caused unnecessary stress and anxiety for parents and students. My colleague, Deputy Ó Laoghaire, has suggested a need for a one-stop shop helpline to be set up to avoid the issue of lobbying when parents and students are merely seeking some clarity. I reiterate that suggestion.

In his announcement, the Minister for Education and Skills stated that students will be offered calculated grades generated using "a systematic statistical model." There are areas, however, that need further consideration. I have received many concerns from students in Clare about how this system of calculated grades will affect them individually. One case that was highlighted to me was from a constituent who is a repeat leaving certificate student who had started in a new school with the hope of achieving higher grades to access the desired third level college or university. The current system outlined by the Minister will prove problematic in this instance. It will lead to disadvantages with regard to the teachers' estimated percentage grade where a student with no teacher-student relationship may be at a disadvantage. This student and other repeat leaving certificate students do not want their past grades to be used as it will defeat the purpose of having repeated the year and it may negatively affect them. These students feel hopeless about the leaving certificate 2020 and ultimately about their future. Will the Minister provide clarification for students who are in this particular situation?

I have also received queries from students in Clare who are applicants for scholarships such as the Naughton scholarship. If awarded, this significant scholarship is worth up to €20,000. Students in Clare who have worked towards this scholarship are hugely concerned. For most, receiving such a scholarship is their only means to access education and they have expressed confusion. In normal circumstances the repeat exams are done in time to be considered. The dates have not yet been disclosed for when the option to sit a leaving certificate examination will take place. Will the Minister clarify when the exams will take place or indicate when the date will be disclosed?

Parents in Clare are desperate to know where they stand on the July provision. I welcome the Minister's statement but I believe that more information is needed. Some people have managed to source tutors and teachers and have looked at the Government's road map for reopening society whereby 29 June will see an easing of restrictions to phase 3. This will involve the reopening of crèches, childminders and preschools for children of essential workers. With that knowledge they feel that the July provision should be given the go-ahead. The children who will avail of the July provision have been struggling immensely and will need this service, especially because of the Covid-19 lockdown. Will the Minister provide clarification on the July provision or will he indicate when the full clarification can be given?

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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Can the Minister address some of those questions in the two minutes available?

Photo of Joe McHughJoe McHugh (Donegal, Fine Gael)
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There is a range of them and I will not get through them all, but I will ensure that Deputies will get individual responses and answers back to them. Deputy Ó Laoghaire raised a specific individual case and I will ensure that is replied to. The Deputy also has concerns around how the calculated grade process will work.

The school-calculated grade is the primary process in determining the results of the individual students. That pressure is not singularly on the teacher. He or she will have to sit down with his or her teaching colleague within the school. If it is an art teacher and there is no colleague, that teacher will sit down with the deputy principal and the next part of the alignment process will go to the principal. There is a whole-school alignment process to ensure that the two years of the student's work will be measured and calculated in a way that is reflected in the professional judgment of the teacher.

We have set up the new executive office because we have to have a process within the Department. I am very encouraged by the intensity of work that has happened already and that has brought us to this stage. Dr. Áine Lawlor will be a key person to ensure, along with others in the new office, that there is a standard. If the State is going to allow calculated grades to be used as a certified leaving certificate, which it will be doing, the likes of UCAS will demand a State certification, which is why there has to be a national standard. Schools in Bandon have to be treated the same way as schools in Boyle.

The importance of the national standard is that all schools will be in a system and a process to ensure that the results that come from a school will be sacrosanct. Nevertheless, we have to have a standard because we cannot have some teachers marking leniently and others harshly. It is not just a case of students being downgraded. There is also a chance that they will be pulled up.

10:45 pm

Photo of Frank FeighanFrank Feighan (Sligo-Leitrim, Fine Gael)
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I am sharing time with Deputies Carroll MacNeill, Higgins, Durkan and O'Dowd. The Minister effectively answered my question. I represent the constituency of Sligo-Leitrim, which includes north Roscommon and south Donegal. I was concerned that the students in Boyle, Ballymote, Ballinamore and Ballyshannon might not be treated equally to students in Blackrock. I am glad the Minister outlined to the previous speaker that the process of national standardisation will introduce a fairness to the calculated grade system. Parents and students are very concerned about it and I am happy the Minister answered the question.

Photo of Jennifer Carroll MacNeillJennifer Carroll MacNeill (Dún Laoghaire, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Minister for providing an update on the July provision for children with special needs. It means an awful lot to parents and children to be able to plan, so we welcome the further detail on that.

I wish to refer to another category of parents and children with vulnerabilities. A particular case of which I am aware relates to a lady who has a baby with cystic fibrosis. She is a teacher expecting to return from maternity leave to school in the autumn. Clearly, she is now in a different position in light of her immunosuppressed child and how going into a classroom will impact on her. I ask the Minister to give consideration to parents of immunosuppressed children who are coming back as teachers in the course of his deliberations about how schools will be reopened.

The Minister mentioned that he was speaking with Gavin Williamson. I raise the issue of leaving certificate students who have UCAS offers for universities in the United Kingdom and how that matter will be handled. In the context of higher education, the universities in general and the impact of the closure of hospitals on clinical research trials, we are losing some of our best postdoctoral research students to universities and hospitals elsewhere. That to which I refer is a consequence of what is happening. I flag this because it will be an ongoing issue for universities.

Photo of Emer HigginsEmer Higgins (Dublin Mid West, Fine Gael)
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There is no denying that the education of our children will be severely impacted upon by this crisis. When students return to school, notwithstanding the mammoth efforts of teachers and parents to home-school them, their education will have to be accelerated in order to catch up on the many months of missed schooling. Not all students will be able for this. Children with special needs may struggle with a faster pace. I am pleased to hear that the Minister engaged today with organisations including Down Syndrome Ireland, which has also been in contact with me. I have received many queries from the parents of children with special needs, particularly those who live in Lucan.

Some of them are considering whether repeating the year is the best thing for their children but this raises new challenges. Will there be sufficient space in next year's class for them to repeat? Will there be enough special needs assistants in the class to cope with additional students? Could the Minister outline what plans are in place for children with special needs who wish to repeat the year?

10:50 pm

Photo of Fergus O'DowdFergus O'Dowd (Louth, Fine Gael)
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The bread and butter of our local communities is that the national schools continue to provide the excellent education they have provided. I refer to the school in Lordship, County Louth, Rampark National School, role number 18101F. The difficulty is that last September it had 170 students and that effectively means it will lose two teachers. That will have a very significant and adverse impact on the school. It would have needed to have 171 pupils last September to hold onto one of those teachers and it would have needed to have 176 pupils to hold onto both of them. The good news for the school is that it will be guaranteed to have somewhere around 173 pupils in September but because the school has to wait a year to get the additional teacher as a result of that, every single class apart from junior and senior infants will be split. First and second class are together, as are second and third class, fourth and fifth class and fifth and sixth class. That means there will be an average of 33 students in each class and the good news is there will also be an empty classroom because of the rules. That does not make sense to the parents or the teachers. The other problem is they are losing their administrative principal. I ask the Minister to consider this case. The school's appeal was turned down. Could it be looked at again, particularly in the light of the vibrant community there? They can show that this is not a dying rural community. It is a growing community just north of Dundalk. The demographics and the increase in planning applications in the area show this. I appeal to the Minister and his officials to look at this again so that people can go to school and get the full curriculum they need at that age, particularly those in fifth and sixth class, now that they are losing so much school time with the Covid-19 situation.

Photo of Bernard DurkanBernard Durkan (Kildare North, Fine Gael)
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The most important thing is to try to ensure that students who are due to sit their leaving certificates this year are not permanently impacted on by the circumstances of the situation that surrounds them and over which neither they, the Minister or anybody else have any control.

We must accommodate new people who to come to live in an area, which is the situation in most parts of County Kildare. Kildare has a moving and an increasing population and there is pressure on space. When children return to school, adequate provision must be made to ensure they can access a school place and that children with special needs, such as autism, can access a school place as well, within reason.

Photo of Joe McHughJoe McHugh (Donegal, Fine Gael)
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I thank Deputy Feighan for raising the question and he is happy with the answer he received but I want to reassure him that the alignment process and all the detail around calculated grades is very technical. A lot of technical work went into it over the last week. Right up until today we have been working hard on it. Clarification around that will be published tomorrow.

Deputy Carroll MacNeill asked about the issue of safety. That is at the heart of all of our deliberations. She is correct in pointing out that there will be individual cases with complex needs, including complex medical needs. One of the matters I encountered today when meeting the different stakeholders representing those with Down's syndrome and autism as well as the boards of management of special schools is that there is a big challenge to get this right. However, safety will be at the heart of all of our deliberations and anything we will try to bring forward in terms of a summer programme will also be directed by the public health advice.

Deputy Carroll MacNeill also raised the issue of students with UCAS offers from UK universities. We are working towards a date for the results to come out that would be aligned to the traditional date of the leaving certificate.

We cannot commit to a date yet because we have to start the process associated with the calculated grades. Once tomorrow's publication becomes available to all teachers, the process can start and then we can start working towards a specific date.

I know from my conversations with the UK Secretary of State for Education, Mr. Gavin Williamson, as recently as yesterday, that there is a lot of collaboration. There will be flexibility within the whole third level sector, not just at home. Mr. Williamson was very clear he wants to work with us. There will be flexibility at an all-Europe level for our students who go to other EU countries.

Deputy Higgins talked about the months of lost schooling, specifically regarding special educational needs. One of the main pieces of work I have been doing over recent weeks has been identifying these gaps. There is anecdotal evidence from parents that they are seeing a regression in their sons or daughters in some instances. Therefore, we will continue to try to have a summer programme that could help in combating those challenges.

I will not get into the question of repeating examinations. What we want to do is ensure a transition, a steppingstone. A very clear message from the stakeholders today was that they want a transition. The summer program could help in that regard. September will see a new approach. It may be different. Depending on the public health criteria, we do not want the vacuum from 12 March until September to be negative in any way for children with special needs.

I will be happy to take details of the school mentioned by Deputy O'Dowd. The teacher-allocation process is independent but I will certainly get one of the inspectors to look specifically at the case.

Deputy Durkan mentioned the 2020 class. I agree with him wholeheartedly in that the class should not be labelled in any way differently. That is why the leaving certificate the students will receive will be a State-recognised certificate, the same as last year and the year before. I note the Deputy’s point on planning for special educational needs. We have a planning department. It tries to take in as much information as it can, including from local authorities, in terms of houses being built and where it is projected there will be increases in population. The department has an almighty task but it tries to work with the best information possible.

10:55 pm

Photo of Marc Ó CathasaighMarc Ó Cathasaigh (Waterford, Green Party)
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Like Deputy Cathal Crowe, I am not long out of the classroom myself. As such, the topic of education is of special interest to me. I welcome the chance to address the challenges posed in the sector by the current health crisis. In the first instance, I commend the efforts being made by teachers and other educators throughout the country to help parents structure the work they can do at home with their own children. In my home, the padlets sent out by Ms Power and Ms Walsh from Glór na Mara are a great resource. My household faces the same challenges as those faced by the households of every other parent in the country in getting our boys to sit down and do some work.

I acknowledge the ongoing work of our special educational needs teachers and special needs assistants, who are keeping in contact with some of the most vulnerable cohorts in the education system. Their role in maintaining a link with the school will be so important come September, when we hope to reopen the school gates safely and have a return to the classroom. I very much welcome the announcements on the summer provision in that regard. It is intensely important, particularly for the cohort affected.

In many cases, school principals have been busier than ever before in the past few months, even if they have been walking up and down empty corridors. Front-line workers have been praised consistently during this crisis and rightly so, but it is right too to acknowledge the many people in our public sector who are working quietly behind the scenes to make sure that when the country does recover from this Covid crisis, the State schools and structures will stand ready to resume their important work.

I would like to begin my questions at third level and then work backwards. Our third level system already looks quite different from what it looked like even in January of this year. We are all acutely aware of the funding challenges to be faced at third level in the short term as well as the long term. The sector has shown its flexibility in how it has adapted to the challenges and to the possibilities of remote working, in particular, and there may well be work practices that will never revert to those that existed before the pandemic.

While significant changes such as we are seeing can be difficult, I am hopeful the system will be open to making permanent some of the positive changes it has made in response to the health emergency.

This question pertains to students who may find themselves in financial difficulty in the year ahead. As Teachta Ó Laoghaire said, we know that many households have experienced a sharp drop in income due to Covid-19, but I wish to refer specifically to students' own income. As we know well, many of the summer jobs students traditionally have had and worked at over the summer in order to save for the academic year ahead will not be available this year. These jobs are traditionally in hospitality and tourism, which are the obvious examples. Has the Minister made any provision to alter SUSI grants or the supports available to third level students that might be available to take account of this loss of summer income?

Returning to the issue of the leaving certificate, I know that the Minister has answered a number of specific queries from the Green Party on this before. Like Deputy Ó Laoghaire, we in the Green Party have ongoing concerns in particular about school profiling and the lobbying of teachers regarding calculated grades. These issues are already on the Department's radar but I ask that they are again given every due consideration. I would like the Minister to address the suggestion I have seen in the media that this year's leaving certificate cohort may be in some way treated kindly when it comes to grades awarded. I absolutely understand that on a human level, and the leaving certificate class of 2020 has had a year like no other and marked by uncertainty and unexpected anxiety. I am also, however, acutely aware of others who may have taken a year out from their education after their leaving certificate, for example, people who did the health professions admission test, HPAT. They might find that grade inflation has eroded the value of their results from previous years. Can the Minister give those students assurances that this will not be the case and that they will not find themselves excluded from courses for which they would have qualified under normal circumstances?

On a different note, I wish to ask the Minister the situation pertaining to students studying a subject outside of school, often another language, or students being homeschooled. I understand that these present a particular difficulty when using calculated grades. Has the Department worked out yet how these students are to be awarded their leaving certificate grades? Could the Minister provide some details on this?

B'fhéidir nach luíonn sé seo faoi chúram na Roinne, ach maidir le coláistí samhraidh sa Ghaeltacht, is léir go mbeidh droch-thionchar orthu an samhradh atá romhainn de réir Covid-19. Chun sampla a thabhairt ó mo dháilcheantar féin, meánscoil San Nioclás, Gaeltacht na Rinne, tá a fhios agam go mbreathann siad go mór ar an ioncam a dhéanann na coláistí samhraidh dóibh. Is amhlaidh go mbeidh tacaíocht de dhíth ar gheilleagar na Gaeltachta go ginearálta, ach an mbeidh aon tacaíocht speisialta ar fáil do na coláistí samhraidh sin?

The primary school classrooms, the space I know best in the education sector having spent 15 happy years there, is the space in which I find it most difficult to imagine social distancing working in a real sense. I do not know how I would correct a homework copy, tie a shoelace or put a plaster on somebody's skinned knee from a distance of 2 m. The Minister is well aware that we have some of the most crowded classrooms in Europe and the built fabric of our schools is often dated. I accept that he has laid out some of the steps to be taken to reopen our schools, but I know that school principals are crying out for more details so they can begin to formulate their plans ahead of time. In particular, I wonder whether staggered class times have been taken in as part of that consideration and the work ongoing.

On a specific issue of staffing levels and teacher retention in school, I have been contacted by a number of principals who are concerned about the number of children who may not return in September, owing either to underlying health conditions, perhaps of a fourth or fifth class child, or parents who might decide to defer their child's entry to junior infants for an additional year. As the Minister well knows, primary online database, POD, returns on 30 September each year determine staffing levels for the following year. There are up to 400 schools in the country that may be on the borderline for recruitment and retention of staff and may find themselves adversely affected if even a small number of parents make legitimate health-based decisions to keep their children at home for the course of September or into October. Is this issue on the Department's radar at all? Are there any plans either to have a moratorium or to adjust the student-teacher ratio, as suggested by Deputy Crowe, to take account of this concern and allow schools to keep the number of staff that their pupil numbers deserve?

Finally, I wish to comment on the subject of the junior infant intake in September 2020. It is important to acknowledge the positive effect that early childhood education and the early childhood care and education scheme in particular have had over recent years on children's school-readiness when they arrive in the junior infant classroom. Next September will look markedly different with many of the children having spent nearly all their time at home since March. I believe there is a good case to be made for extra supports to be made available to the junior infant classroom, even if it is only for the first term of the next school year. They would help us to answer the concerns of social distancing, which is particularly difficult in an infant classroom, and help with what would be a turbulent settling after a long period of unusual circumstances at home. Has the Minister or his Department made any such plans in this regard?

11:15 pm

Photo of Joe McHughJoe McHugh (Donegal, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Deputy and join him in acknowledging the great innovative and creative work that is going on through distance learning. Obviously, it is not sustainable in the long run.

The Deputy referred to how third level institutions have responded to this crisis. It has been incredible to watch the processes to continue learning remotely and to do examinations remotely as well. Within that there are gaps relating to technological inequity as well.

The Deputy is correct that many students rely on hospitality and summer jobs. Those jobs will not be available this summer. Interestingly, however, there has been much debate in the House in recent years about how the money students generated was used against them when they were trying to apply for grants. I acknowledge the Deputy is referring to the entire cohort. There is a fear around the SUSI grant in that it was determined on 2019 income by parents. The circumstances have changed and that will have to be taken into consideration.

I take the Deputy's concerns about the grading calculation system on board as well. From tomorrow the guidelines will be available and teachers will have a roadmap for the processes. Hopefully, that will help. I will ensure that, at the heart of all of the deliberations of the new executive office that has been set up, the principles of fairness and equity will remain central to all deliberations.

The Deputy asked questions regarding another language and leaving certificate grades outside of school and tutors. We are going to look at those on a case-by-case basis and this will be determined by the information provided by the student in terms of learning support.

Maidir leis na coláistí samhraidh, tá an ceart ag an Teachta maidir leis an Aire atá freagrach as an gcinneadh sin, mo chomhghleacaí an tAire Stáit, Teachta Kyne. Bhí mé i dteagmháil leis agus tá a fhios agam go mbeidh drochthionchar agus aontaím agus táim cinnte de fosta, i mo cheantar Gaeltachta féin i nDún na nGall, go mbeidh an áit fholamh agus an bhearna maidir leis an airgead nach mbeidh ann. Maidir leis an gceist dheireanach, b'fhéidir go mbeidh freagra ar fáil uirthi ó mo chuid oifigeach.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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Mo mhíle buíochas, a Aire. Glaoim ar Deputy Ó Ríordáin anois.

Photo of Aodhán Ó RíordáinAodhán Ó Ríordáin (Dublin Bay North, Labour)
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I welcome the Minister back to the House. He will be aware of the Labour Party position on the issue of assessed grading and school profiling. We are very much against school profiling. I have written to the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission, IHREC, to seek its viewpoint. The equivalent body in the United Kingdom has issued guidelines to the UK education department relating to assessed grading. The position of the UK body is that it potentially negatively affects minority children, children with additional needs, children from disadvantaged backgrounds and, specifically, high-achieving children in disadvantaged settings. I expect or hope that IHREC will issue the Department with some recommendations. I hope the school profiling element, which is so controversial and unnecessary, can be deleted from the Minister's assessment criteria, which he will publish tomorrow.

I refer to the issue of schools that may lose teachers. In September, schools get notification of appeals. I am going to mention a school but I will not name it. The Minister knows of the school because I sent the details to him yesterday. The school is going to lose a teacher because it has 200 students on the roll but it needs 201.

It is in a particular location that has suffered a huge incidence of violence in the past 18 months. The Government admitted a necessity to have a Mulvey-style task force for this area to identify reasons for the violence and to provide supports for the community, one of which would be educational supports. There was even a shooting there today, which was the second in a week in that postcode. This DEIS band 1 school is acutely disadvantaged and on the basis of one student, it is being told it will lose a teacher.

We would love the Minister to get to his feet today and tell us there will be pause or moratorium, and no school in the country will lose a teacher in September given the circumstances we are in. I appreciate that he cannot make that commitment, as it would be expensive and not every situation is the same. I ask him to look at it nonetheless or at least to have a sympathetic appeals process that would take into account schools like this going through such a position, meaning they will lose a teacher unnecessarily in September. I have sent him the details and I hope he or the Department will look on the case sympathetically. I know he has said the process is independent but he can start a new process so a school like this would not lose a teacher in September.

The Minister mentioned July provision and I appreciate a large element of his statement was about it. It will give much comfort to people who have asked me to raise the matter with him. I congratulate him and thank him but we need to know when dates will be known along with further details. Please get those to us as soon as possible.

On the matter of schools returning, there is much disquiet because the Government's messaging is so tight when it comes to matters of commerce, business or retail but with education, the messaging is sloppy. The Minister for Health can say in an interview in the Sunday Independentthat schools might go back in June, for example. In this very Chamber last Wednesday we had a questions and answers session but the Taoiseach was wondering whether schools or childcare facilities could come back more quickly because these might not be as high a risk as other areas. The Minister might have a different position. It is as if education is not important so people can talk off the top of their heads. We all know the difference between hardware and homeware stores, however, because the messaging is so tight.

Why is the messaging around education so loose? This is so damaging and causes much upset. We are getting representations from teachers and parents who are wondering what on Earth is going on. Are schools going back in June? Will they be held over until September? There are different views on that and nobody in the Chamber will demand that the Minister should bring schools back in June. Nobody would want to stand over a demand that may be regretted in a number of months. Will the Minister nonetheless give some certainty to the process, how the decision will be made, who will make it and what advice will be sought or taken on board if and when the decision is made? If a decision is made, will schools return on a phased basis?

I refer to the Teaching Council. I understand trainee teachers are having difficulty with the council, as are those who are currently registering. Those who have made approaches to the council as of 7 April have yet to get responses and those going through Hibernia College have been told they must plough on with their online teacher training course, including going to the Gaeltacht. Students feel that is completely unrealistic in current circumstances. The Teaching Council oversees the process so will the Minister speak to that?

Others have spoken about third level students. This pandemic has ripped open many issues that are live in society but now we have the opportunity to talk about them and perhaps do something. Students might partake in low-paid work over the course of the summer to survive their years in third level education.

A more robust and sympathetic SUSI system for one year would recognise those students who are trying to break out of disadvantage and, in many cases, become the first person from their households to attend third level or further education and prevent it from becoming a case of them telling themselves that they cannot do it now because they cannot get the jobs they would have got otherwise to be able to afford it and that they must drop out and think about doing something else.

If the Minister could speak to these issues, I would appreciate it.

11:25 pm

Photo of Joe McHughJoe McHugh (Donegal, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Deputy and take his points regarding his concerns about the new model of calculated grades.

The Deputy raised the specific issue of school teacher allocation. We got the relevant information in the office today and I have asked for an inspector to make contact with the school. As the Deputy correctly pointed out, though, it is an independent process. One of the rigid features of the teacher allocation model is that it is based on numbers. There has to be a threshold. The Deputy's wider proposal of departing from that system and retaining everyone who is in place currently raises financial considerations.

A number of Deputies including Deputy Ó Ríordáin have raised the issue of SUSI and the difficulties that families will have. These are indicative of the broader, wider and deeper questions that we as legislators in this House will be asked in the time to come. Everything will be different and parents are under pressure. The summer jobs that students used to have access to will not all be there. That is a major difficulty.

Deputy Ó Ríordáin referenced July provision. We are not able to implement it in the traditional way that parents are used to, but we are focused on trying to widen it if possible in a way that they are satisfied with and that stays within public health guidance.

Regarding schools returning, people are seeing what is happening in Britain and elsewhere in Europe. Speaking as a parent, never mind as the Minister for Education and Skills, no one wants schools back more quickly than me. People want it to happen and their children to be in class, but at the heart of everything we do must be the question of whether it is safe. Advice changes as we move along, but the NPHET advice that we have currently is that schools should return in September. We want to put a proposal to NPHET in respect of special education and disadvantage, though. If possible, we would like to see some schools opening to provide the relevant school programmes. We are accepting and working towards the current advice that schools should not return until September, but the Taoiseach is anxious to have a full school programme for these students because he knows from the advice he is getting that there is a regression.

Deputy Ó Ríordáin also referenced the Teaching Council.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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The Minister might correspond with the Deputy.

Photo of Joe McHughJoe McHugh (Donegal, Fine Gael)
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I will correspond with him concerning teaching courses.

Photo of Gary GannonGary Gannon (Dublin Central, Social Democrats)
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If possible, I will ask for a question and answer approach and for the Minister to be brief. Obviously, some questions will require more substantial answers than others.

It was not my intention to return to the issue of calculated grades, but it is difficult to remove ourselves from it. I was struck by the Minister's opening remarks when he stated:

The estimated mark [that a student will receive] is informed by a teacher's professional judgment and available evidence can be used to support the estimation of a mark. Once a teacher has completed the stage of establishing an estimated mark for each student, those marks will then be considered as part of a school alignment process.

I trust teachers completely. I have spent a great deal of time in DEIS schools. Anyone who enters that profession deserves far more than we could ever pay or assign value to. However, there are major issues with the school alignment process. Let me cite some of the evidence that may be used. I apologise for being parochial, but I will use schools from my constituency in this discussion. Last week, the Minister referenced Larkin community college, which is a wonderful school.

Its progression rates to university in the last couple of years were as follows: in 2019, it was 59%; in 2018, it was 35% and in 2017, it was 25%. There is a very significant upper trajectory, which is reflected across many DEIS schools. The Minister will be aware of the various innovations over the last couple of years that progress upwards. Looking at the private school in my area, since 2010 there have been only two years when progression rates were not 100% and in those two years the rates were 96% and 89%. I ask the Minister to comment on the school alignment process with those factors being considered.

11:30 pm

Photo of Joe McHughJoe McHugh (Donegal, Fine Gael)
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I am glad the Deputy raised that school again. I raised it last week as well. I have great memories of my visits there. It was involved in the P-TECH project. It was during an aside conversation with one of the teachers that I was told about that progression. The teacher spoke about the progression not just to university but to further education and training and apprenticeships. They are doing this year-on-year. I have made clear to my officials that all of the investment we are putting into disadvantage schools and DEIS schools is to work on that progression. If there is a year-to-year progression in terms of those schools moving to stronger classes than they had the previous year, this goes back to the school alignment. A school, be that a geography teacher in Larkin community college or a maths teacher in my old school in Milford, will sit down with colleagues to work through the guidelines and procedures that they have to follow through as from tomorrow. There will then be an alignment with the principal and there will be an engagement looking at the progression of those individual students.

The Deputy raised the good point, which I am glad he raised publicly tonight, that if schools are making year-to-year progress they should not be disadvantaged in any way. There are other examples in other schools. For example, a school that has introduced honours maths this year for the first time will have no comparable evidence. It is the year that is relevant in the school alignment process and it is the school results that are key here.

Photo of Gary GannonGary Gannon (Dublin Central, Social Democrats)
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I am still a little bit confused as to how that would be taken in with the alignment process. One of the big inequalities in education is overcrowding in classrooms. On average, there are 26 students per classroom, which is one of the higher averages in the EU. One in five students are in classrooms of 30 students or more. The Minister's constituency has some of the highest pupil-teacher-ratios in the country. At any time, this is unfair. At a time of public health crisis, it is dangerous. How can we confront overcrowded classrooms where the pupil-teacher ratio is 30:1 plus a SNA? This is dangerous and it cannot be allowed to happen. What does the Department propose to do about this in regard to this September?

Photo of Joe McHughJoe McHugh (Donegal, Fine Gael)
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That is the piece of work in which we are currently engaged. The post-primary stakeholders have been asked to make submissions. The majority of them have already done so. Those submissions raise queries in regard to what schools will look like in September under current health guidelines. The current NPHET distance requirement of 2 m. does not allow for 30 students per classroom. We are also looking at how we make the classroom work for the students, how we make it work from a learning point of view, how we make it work for students with special educational needs, how we make it work for the SNAs in classrooms and how we address the issue of hand sanitisation and ensuring that schools are cleaned in advance and potentially on a daily basis. All of this means extra cost and potentially extra resources. We are working through all of this and we hope to have a road map at the earliest opportunity.

Photo of Gary GannonGary Gannon (Dublin Central, Social Democrats)
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We have talked about this year's sixth year cohort having had an experience unlike any other. Arguably, the class of 2021 will have an even more unfair experience than any other. This year's fifth year cohort has lost a substantial amount of its fifth year schooling and they will be entering sixth year in an entirely new world. We do not yet know what that will look like. What is the plan for the fifth year cohort moving into sixth year and can it be implemented quickly to ensure that the anxiety and stress experienced by this year's sixth year cohort is not passed on to this year's fifth year cohort?

What is the plan for fifth years and when will we see it in detail?

11:35 pm

Photo of Joe McHughJoe McHugh (Donegal, Fine Gael)
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I thank all the Deputies who have raised the situation of fifth years. We have had individual contact from some of those students. We need to ensure we give whatever support we can to the class of 2021 because of their lost class time and their return in September with all the challenges ahead of us. We will prioritise them and put support systems in place to ensure that whatever time or parts of the curriculum they have lost, we work with them to make up what was lost. The detail of that is not a finished piece because we have to decide what schools will look like collectively. We are not yet in a position to do that, but I know from my contact and communication with the stakeholders that it is a piece of work we will continue to focus on.

Photo of Gary GannonGary Gannon (Dublin Central, Social Democrats)
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I would argue that it is a vital piece of work which we really need to see, probably before the break for the summer.

Career guidance counselling, which really works as emotional support in most schools, is an absolutely vital function. For the longest period of time, it has been completely underfunded and, I would argue, underappreciated. When there was talk of proceeding with the leaving certificate examinations and bringing students back for two weeks beforehand, anybody who has been in an education setting recognised that the majority of those two weeks would be spent providing emotional support to students. Is there a plan to increase guidance counselling hours next year? Under the free education scheme, there are only 48 hours per week for schools with more than 1,000 students and a mere eight hours for schools with 200 or fewer students. Not to be hyperbolic about it, but that works out at approximately 2.24 minutes of career guidance per student each week. As I said, this guidance is mostly emotional support. I cannot place too much emphasis on the importance of that support for students next year.

Photo of Joe McHughJoe McHugh (Donegal, Fine Gael)
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I had a briefing on this issue prepared for me by the National Educational Psychological Service, so it is something we are going to be prepared for when schools go back in September and we will look at whatever resources are required. A lot of the suggestions made here tonight, be they in relation to pupil teacher ratios, extra support for guidance counsellors or similar, are budgetary considerations. If there are changes to be made in regard to budgetary decisions for any individual Department, those decisions will have to be made by a Government with the proper governmental powers, including in terms of financial decisions, to make that happen. One of the things on which the Department has been very clear with me is in terms of the financial projections going forward. There is going to be a lot of extra money needed in a variety of areas to ensure we have a sustainable educational model into the future.

Photo of Gary GannonGary Gannon (Dublin Central, Social Democrats)
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One of those extra allocations of money will have to be for a school book scheme. A lot of conversation is happening around the digital divide and the quest to get iPads and laptops into students' hands. What has happened over the past couple of months is that schools have given out books to students and a lot of those books will not be coming back. We need to look at how we can get some of those books back into schools, which will require investment.

My final point is one I mentioned last week. I want to be constructive in my engagement with the Department. There is a real opportunity for everyone in this Chamber to work towards a common goal in terms of education. A Government probably will not be formed, if it is formed, until closer to July. A lot is happening quickly and I suggest that we should have some form of an education committee where we can get people around a table, probably on a weekly basis, to discuss these issues and help each other out. There is a space for that and a rare opportunity to work on a shared goal across the divide. It is something on which we can do a little bit better, although the Minister and his staff have been very accommodating when we ring them up and ask questions.

Photo of Gino KennyGino Kenny (Dublin Mid West, People Before Profit Alliance)
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The Minister referenced the July provision a number of times in the past hour and a half. This is obviously a vital service for students with an intellectual disability. Can he give us a bit more meat on the bones in relation to that provision? Could it be extended into August, if possible, because a lot of students have been out of school for a considerable amount of time and the service is vital for them at this time? I ask the Minister to respond before I move on to my second question.

Photo of Joe McHughJoe McHugh (Donegal, Fine Gael)
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The meat on the bones will very much be determined by public health advice. We are going to come up with a summer programme and present it to health officials in terms of how it will look.

One of the determining features of this process is to have the voices around the table. It was important to have Down's syndrome and autism represented today, as well as the National Association of Boards of Management in Special Education, NABMSE, the management body for special schools. Those organisations came back with many concerns regarding public health. We have many students with complex medical needs and we have to get this right from a health and safety perspective as well. Until we determine what it is going to look like, we will be presenting this proposal to public health officials and asking if we can do it. At the moment, however, we are looking at July or August, or it could be something that might involve some remote learning. We are also going to focus on trying to have some of the programme in centres or schools, but we are still working on that so that it will have not only the confidence of the teaching community but also of the parents.

11:45 pm

Photo of Gino KennyGino Kenny (Dublin Mid West, People Before Profit Alliance)
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My second question concerns early school leavers in DEIS schools. This age group includes those aged between 13 and 16 and, like their peers, they have been out of school since March. That has taken a heavy toll on that age group and these students are at disproportionate risk of leaving school early. Has the Department made provision regarding class sizes and extra resources for those students in DEIS schools?

My educational background was in DEIS schools in Neilstown, although I do not think it was the DEIS scheme back then. It was a completely different experience. I am probably showing my age, but it has been about 30 years since I did my leaving certificate and that was a completely different educational experience from what it is in Clondalkin now. When I was doing my leaving certificate, only a small number of people went on to third level education. Now, I think it is more than 35% of people in Collinstown. That is brilliant because education can set us free from the disadvantage of economics. However, are resources available for school leavers? I refer to these students in particular because they are at the age where they can fall through the cracks for all sorts of reasons. Can the Department provide extra resources for that age group in particular?

Photo of Joe McHughJoe McHugh (Donegal, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Deputy for raising this topic. He should not be hard on himself about it being 30 years since he did his leaving certificate. I am much older than he is; my leaving certificate was 31 years ago.

This is an important issue. I know the school completion programme is something many young people would have availed of during the summer. When I say, therefore, that we are going to look at July provision and special educational needs, we are also going to look at the whole area of disadvantage. We are going to build support during the summer for vulnerable groups that could potentially leave school as a result of this gap. We are going to continue to work on disadvantage as well as special education needs.

Photo of Mick BarryMick Barry (Cork North Central, Solidarity)
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I will talk this evening about the FFY, forgotten fifth years. This is a group of approximately 60,000 young people whose leaving certificate studies have been seriously disrupted by the pandemic and who feel that neither the Minister nor the Government are paying real attention to their concerns. Precisely because these young people feel they are being ignored, not listened to and are unheard, I am going to start by reading some of their words into the record. I am going to start with the words of a young woman named Caoimhe who messaged me. Among other things, she states:

Teaching myself at home has been so hard trying not to get distracted and to stay motivated. It is easier when she was in school as you have separate environments for learning and then home life. Trying to do both in a home environment is very hard, while also trying to stay positive and not get bogged down in the global pandemic affecting everything around us.

My second quote is from Rachel. As well as being a fifth year student, she is working on the front line in this pandemic. She states:

I have and still do work five days a week in a nursing home, a nursing home that battling this pandemic. Wearing full PPE and completing my job in work is draining enough without having to come home at 4 o'clock to try and complete online courses ... Online courses, classes or exercises can't begin to compare with the real thing.

She states that she wants a response from the Department about the situation in which fifth year students find themselves.

As the Minister might expect, there is a wide variety of views among the students as to what should happen next. However, having carefully read their correspondence, it seems to me that they are united in the view that, at the very minimum, changes need to be made to make allowances and concessions for the students to fully take account of the fact that they have been seriously disadvantaged. They are seeking significantly more than catch-up time next year.

I support the points raised by them, but I would go a step further. I have long believed that the leaving certificate is an out-of-date system, which places too much strain on the mental health of young people. I have long favoured increased State investment in third level to open it up for all who want it and to remove the pressures associated with accessing it. Given the cancellation or postponement of the leaving certificate this year, the crisis facing the leaving certificate next year and the increased number of voices within the education system questioning the exam itself on the grounds of fairness and stress pressures, I ask the Minister to set up a review of the leaving certificate exam system to deliberate and make recommendations on whether it should be maintained or replaced with something better.

When I questioned him on this issue last week, he stated it was a subject to which he intended to return. I invite him to do so this evening. If he is not in a position to give a detailed response, I invite him to answer three questions. First, does he accept that the leaving certificate course has been seriously disrupted for fifth years and that significant action must be taken to counter the disadvantage under which they now labour? Second, when he will have a detailed response for fifth years? Surely it is unfair that they be asked to wait for an entire summer before receiving clarity on this issue. Finally, I ask him to comment on my proposal that there be a review of the leaving certificate that will consider options, including its abolition and replacement with something better.

11:55 pm

Photo of Joe McHughJoe McHugh (Donegal, Fine Gael)
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I wish to say to Caoimhe and Rachel, through the Deputy, that fifth years are not being ignored. It is the subject of focus within the Department because many fifth years have lost out on curriculum time. No fifth year student had completed the curriculum for any subject in year one of what is a two-year programme. We are very conscious of that. I agree with the Deputy that it has been a massive disruption for them and the entire school cohort.

On the issue of a review of the leaving certificate, as the Deputy will be aware, such a review is ongoing. What I would suggest to the likes of Caoimhe, Rachel and the Deputy is to join the many others who have made their commentary heard through the ongoing review of the leaving certificate. There is a process there and I encourage all those interested to use it.

Photo of Cathal BerryCathal Berry (Kildare South, Independent)
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I thank the Minister for his encouraging and informative statement. This is the first time I have engaged with him in this forum or spoken on this important topic. I wish to put on the record the respect and high regard I have for education. Were it not for the education that Deputies have all been so fortunate and privileged to receive, none of us would have a seat in this Chamber. If any teachers are watching these proceedings from afar, I hope they feel justifiable pride in the professional and personal development they have provided through the years.

I had ten questions lined up to fire at the Minister.

Thankfully, approximately eight of them have already been answered. There are only two remaining but they are of such importance that it would be best to deal with them individually. The first question relates to the post-primary schools building programme. Most of the Deputies in the Chamber will appreciate and recognise that the recession that is currently under way is unlike any of its predecessors. It is neither financial nor economic in origin; rather it is biological. Second, the escape valve that we have used in the past, that of emigration, is no longer available because international travel restrictions are still in play and will probably remain so for the foreseeable future. Furthermore, almost every country is experiencing this simultaneous and synchronised recession. The schools building programme is almost as important from an employment perspective as it is from and education perspective.

I very rarely discuss constituency issues in this forum but it is useful to do so now because they illustrate a wider national issue. There are three schools of particular importance in my constituency, the first of which is Coláiste Íosagáin in Portarlington. It is an excellent school which is literally creaking at the seams, with twice as many students enrolled as there should be. The situation is exactly the same in St. Paul's in Monasterevin and there is a requirement for a third school, a brand new build in the Newbridge, Curragh, Athgarvan areas. Can the Minister provide reassurance that the schools building projects that have already been approved are likely to continue over the coming years? Will the commitments that have been given in this regard be honoured in full?

Photo of Joe McHughJoe McHugh (Donegal, Fine Gael)
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I thank Deputy Berry for his question. A few schools that both the Ceann Comhairle and I would be familiar with were referenced in that last contribution, including Coláiste Íosagáin and the schools in Monasterevin and in Newbridge and the Curragh. Deputy Berry will enjoy great levels of co-operation from the Ceann Comhairle and Deputy Heydon, both of whom have been very strong on this. I want to reassure all three Deputies, who have been working very closely on this matter, that the building programme in place for this year will continue. In fact, the building unit in Tullamore put in an enormous effort to ensure that builders were back on site on Monday. They are in a number of the Western Building Systems schools as well. There is an opportunity over this period to deal with a lot of outstanding works that are required too. Any school projects that are in the pre-tender, tendering or tender award stage and any commitments that were made prior to the Covid-19 crisis are still in place. I also agree with the Deputy's point about trying to work our way out of this pandemic. It will be through work that we do so and we need to make sure that capital investment remains a firm priority.

Photo of Cathal BerryCathal Berry (Kildare South, Independent)
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My second question is probably more important than the first, and I am very happy that the Minister referenced the area of special education in his initial comments. This is a hugely important issue. Most of the Deputies in the Chamber would have been battled hardened by their experiences in January and February on the canvas trail. We heard tales of woe and suffering from the full spectrum of society. It is very difficult for us to determine the most deserving sectors for our finite resources, perhaps with the notable exception of special education.

I had the great pleasure of visiting St. Anne's special school on the Curragh plains during the general election campaign. While it is a wonderful school, it has significant issues. Many of those issues are repeated in schools nationwide. There are five big issues about which I am constantly told. The first relates to injuries sustained by staff at the hands of students while the second relates to the lack of clinical support for the school. The third issue is the fact that the school has to fund-raise for basic costs like utilities and insurance. The fourth major issue is the pressure the school is under to accept significantly more students than it is capable of accommodating. This arises from the section 29 appeals system. Many extra students are being forced into the school and it must accept them. The fifth issue is the most important and relates to the student-staff ratio. It is constantly being raised with me.

In 1993, some 27 years ago, the special education review committee, SERC, was established and it set the staff-student ratio for special education. There have been big improvements in the past 27 years in mainstream education, including improvements in the student-staff ratio but it has stayed pretty much static in special education and has not improved. In light of the Covid-19 crisis, does the Minister think it is now timely and appropriate that we should reconvene or re-establish SERC with a view to re-examining what is the appropriate student-staff ratio for special education in line with international best practice? I would be grateful to hear the Minister's thoughts.

12:05 am

Photo of Joe McHughJoe McHugh (Donegal, Fine Gael)
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These are the wider questions we are all going to be grappling with in terms of how we adapt to this phenomenal disruption, not just within the economy but within society, and education is going to be part of that. Certainly, from the conversations I had on Monday with my European counterparts, I know every single country in the European Union is grappling with the same issues.

With regard to special education, we are very lucky to have 125 special schools and an extra one - Danu Community Special School - came on stream last year. I accept there are challenges within those schools and we have to ensure that whatever support we bring in is line with the demands of the sector. The leaders within special education are very keen to have a holistic approach. One of the pilots I have set up operates in 75 schools and is something that special schools are very interested in monitoring. We cannot just have education working in a silo with regard to health because there are many medical complexities within these special schools. Many are fighting for nurses to be on campus but it has to be wider than that, and it has to include nurses, physiotherapists, occupational therapists and speech and language therapists. There has to be a holistic approach to education that ensures we are compliant with the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in that, irrespective of a person's intellectual or physical challenge or disability, each and every student should have the same opportunity as any other student in mainstream education. That is something we are working towards, although it is a complex piece of work.

I know there was a debate during the election and reference was made to Canada, where a particular state closed all special schools. I do not believe in that philosophy and I think our 126 special schools play a pivotal role. In order for them to grow and get stronger, all the issues around staff-student ratios will be on the table in the future.

Photo of Michael Healy-RaeMichael Healy-Rae (Kerry, Independent)
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I welcome the chance to again ask the Minister a number of questions. He might do his best to answer in the time allowed or, alternatively, to give me the replies in writing.

Can the Minister offer further clarity around the delivery of the July provision for this year? Can he let us know when it is intended for third level colleges to return? As he can imagine, there is a lot of stress attached to third level, along with the financial pressures. Can he offer clarity on this very important issue? Will funding be provided to primary, secondary and third level institutions to help them adapt the physical layout of their buildings to comply with whatever measures will be in place for their reopening, in particular as it is envisaged that primary and secondary schools will reopen in September?

I asked in the past about leaving certificate students who take subjects outside of school. I am getting feedback from parents about an unwillingness from some schools regarding seeking feedback from outside teachers, such as, for example, outside music instructors, or where, for example, a student may originally be from Spain and is taking Spanish for the leaving certificate, but not taking it within the school. What happens in these types of cases and what onus will be put on schools to give accurate grades to these students?

Photo of Joe McHughJoe McHugh (Donegal, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Deputy for his questions and for his contribution last week.

We have been deliberating on a number of areas that he raised then and he has returned to the issue of students doing leaving certificate subjects outside of school. It will be guided by the direction in the guidelines that will be published tomorrow. Schools and teachers will be given these guidelines and instructions. This is after a process of engagement where high-level discussions were going on since the end of last week and all weekend, right up to last night, with regard to the education stakeholders being happy with the guidelines for calculated grades.

With regard to the Deputy's example of a subject being done outside of school, whether by a Spanish tutor, a music school or a music teacher where a student decides to take music outside of school, the detail on this to be published tomorrow will be that assessment can be made by tutors outside of the school but we will have specific cases that will be difficult, where students have been working and studying for the leaving certificate with no tuition and doing it from home. What we will do in this instance is look at every individual case and see whether there is any evidence to determine what the assessed result will be. The Deputy is correct to identify it again because it is a difficult area and it will be difficult to assess where there has been a complete absence of tutors or teachers.

With regard to the physical buildings, if we are looking at a September reopening under the current medical and public health guidelines, potentially we are looking at a staggered return initially. We are looking at a lot of added costs in terms of hygiene and cleaning schools on a daily basis and ensuring provision of personal protective equipment or other resources. This is an area that we are working through. The submissions coming from the post-primary and primary stakeholders will form part of how we develop this. From the point of view of parents and students, we have to ensure this information is available at as early an opportunity as possible. I will ensure the communication channels are kept open through this House. If people want to contact me directly I am always open to this.

The Deputy also asked about July provision. I want to look at a programme of events this summer that will cover disadvantage and special educational needs. The engagement and consultation has started with the stakeholders. I am very keen to ensure parents of children with special educational needs have confidence in a summer programme. It will be optional, obviously. We will not put out a summer programme that is compulsory or that requires all students to be part of it. It will be optional and parents will have to have confidence.

12:10 am

Photo of Carol NolanCarol Nolan (Laois-Offaly, Independent)
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Ba mhaith liom cúpla ábhar éagsúil a phlé leis an Aire inniu agus tá cúpla ceist agam fosta. Bheinn lán-sásta le freagraí scríofa mura bhfuil go leor ama againn. The first issue concerns the impact of Covid-19 on rural schools. I have been very concerned about this issue for some time and as a former principal of a rural school, I believe the current system is neither working nor fit for purpose in terms of staffing schedules and the bands. I know of many schools throughout the constituency of Laois-Offaly that have lost much-needed and valued teachers simply because they were a couple of pupils short of the number required to retain the teacher. This will become more of a problem with the social distancing measures that will come into our schools. I appeal to the Minister because there is huge concern among teachers and parents and it is unfair to the children themselves. I appeal to the Minister to impose a moratorium in respect of schools losing teachers in the short term. In the long term, if he is still the Minister with responsibility for education, I would appreciate any effort to carry out a review. It is long overdue.

Rural schools have been disadvantaged for too long now and I appeal to the Minister on that. Pupil-teacher ratios in Ireland are higher than the European average, which is another reason we should review the staffing schedules in rural schools.

The next issue I want to raise concerns the accommodation fees of third-level students. I have been contacted by many parents in the constituency and I believe the current situation is completely unfair. Could there be a statutory obligation put on landlords to refund the accommodation fees of these students? It could make the difference between students returning to college or not, particularly if they come from disadvantaged backgrounds. We have seen that the leaving certificate examination fees are being refunded, which is only right. I would like to see the same thing happening in respect of accommodation for our third-level students.

I want to raise an issue concerning Gaelscoil na Laochra, Birr. I received a response last week on that school. It badly needs to move to permanent accommodation because its current accommodation is hindering its progress and development. It cannot reach its full potential or enrol the number of students it would like to because of the inadequate space in the current premises. I would like a timeline to be provided as I got the answer but there is no timeline. My fear is this will be kicked further and further down the road. It is an urgent and pressing issue. Can the Minister provide some sort of timeline to give the school a sense of progress and allow it to plan for the move to a permanent premises, which is long overdue?

On the teacher training colleges, has there been engagement on the students' school placements? These placements play a vital role in assisting schools in their work and in developing a student's future career in teaching. They will be needed now more than ever in a pragmatic sense, given that we will be socially distancing and have children of different ability levels within our schools. They could play a crucial role in our schools in assisting teachers in the autumn. I have engaged with one institute of education on this issue but I would like to hear the Minister's view. It is a very pragmatic approach and would benefit both the student teacher and the school.

12:15 am

Photo of Joe McHughJoe McHugh (Donegal, Fine Gael)
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On the pupil-teacher ratio, PTR, for small schools, I had an opportunity last budget to reduce the PTR for one, two, three and four-teacher schools. Fine Gael also committed to reducing the PTR in future budgets.

Maidir le Gaelscoil na Laochra i mBiorra, chas mé leis an gceannaireacht uilig an bhliain atá imithe thart agus tá sé soiléir sa scoil agus sa cheantar seo go mbeidh an scoil seo iontach tábhachtach. Dá mbeadh aon sonraí nó rud ar bith eile de dhíth maidir le dul chun cinn na scoile sin beidh mé sásta teagmháil a dhéanamh leis an Teachta.

Photo of Marian HarkinMarian Harkin (Sligo-Leitrim, Independent)
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I am sharing time with Deputy Pringle. If the Ceann Comhairle and the Minister might indulge me for 30 seconds, I would like to mention that today is World Bee Day. The connection to education is that many primary schools have excellent projects on the importance of bees to our ecosystem. In that context, I want to mention the late Philip McCabe. He was a neighbouring county man of the Minister's and died a year and a half ago. Philip was president of Apimondia, the International Federation of Beekeepers Associations. More than that, he educated and informed many of us on the importance of bees to our entire ecosystem.

My question is on the progress of the technological university, TU, for the north west. There are three institutes of technology: Sligo IT, Letterkenny IT and Galway-Mayo IT. They are awaiting their technological university research network, TURN, funding. I know it normally comes later in the year but with Covid and so on their incomes have collapsed. Can the Minister guarantee that the funding is still coming? Is there any possibility it might come earlier to allow the necessary work to be done?

On the Government priorities, the three institutes are working together to get a submission by the end of the year. The Minister will be aware that Letterkenny Institute of Technology, LYIT, has also received funding to strengthen its cross-Border links with Ulster University Magee. I support any cross-Border co-operation and it has potential for the entire north west. The setting up of a technological university, TU, is a huge body of work and takes real commitment. I am concerned that the cross-Border project might in some way delay the setting up of the TU. We are aware that even when we are on the list in the north west we tend to come at the bottom of it. I will not go into the detail. The Minister knows that already. In that context, will the Minister guarantee that the setting up of the TU in the north west will not be negatively affected in any way by cross-Border work between LYIT and Magee? I am not asking the Minister to prioritise institutes, I am asking him to prioritise projects.

12:20 am

Photo of Joe McHughJoe McHugh (Donegal, Fine Gael)
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I assure Deputy Harkin that the momentum currently behind the Connacht-Ulster Alliance, CUA, for GMIT and for Mayo, Donegal and Killybegs, as Deputy Pringle will also be anxious to point out, is full steam ahead. It made considerable progress in the back end of last year and they will continue that work. It will be an important project.

There has always been an historical link between Letterkenny Institute of Technology and Ulster University Magee. There has also been much collaboration with the higher level institutes in the north west. There is an historical relationship there. We have a memorandum of understanding, which we lodged within the Department. There is absolutely no reason why one cannot have a dual process happening there with regard to collaboration on a cross-Border basis on one level and then building towards a technological university at another level.

If we continue with those relationships on a cross-Border basis, it will benefit Sligo, Mayo and Galway as well as Letterkenny.

Photo of Marian HarkinMarian Harkin (Sligo-Leitrim, Independent)
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I accept that but there have been rumblings around the fact that it was to be the last TU to be completed and was bottom of the list again. I do not want anything to interfere with its progress. The Minister has answered me.

As I have 30 seconds remaining I have a question on the calculated grades, to which the Minister can respond in writing. I am aware the Minister is setting the criteria. I have listened to every word the Minister has said in this debate from my office so I will not ask that question again. I have, however, been asked by individual teachers if there is any clarity around indemnifying individual teachers in their work on the calculated grades for the leaving certificate?

Photo of Joe McHughJoe McHugh (Donegal, Fine Gael)
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This is a very important question. I assure Deputy Harkin that we are working on that and there will be further clarity tomorrow.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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At the start I was speaking about the wrong "B" day.

Photo of Marian HarkinMarian Harkin (Sligo-Leitrim, Independent)
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That is why I clarified.

Photo of Thomas PringleThomas Pringle (Donegal, Independent)
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We are spoiled for choice in terms of bee days.

The Minister has responded to questions on the July provision and said that meetings are taking place. It is vitally important that the organisations are happy with what is proposed. I hope the Department will go towards meeting that. There must also be a move to expand the July provision. Children who have special needs have been out of the school setting for so long. I hope the Minister will take that on board when dealing with the issue.

Deputy Harkin referred to the north-west technological university and I will be really parochial now with regard to the Killybegs location. The Killybegs campus of LYIT appears to be getting left behind by Letterkenny. I want to make sure the Minister is aware of this and that it does not happen. The Killybegs campus is in a vital location for a north-west university and it needs to be protected. Unfortunately, I believe it needs to be protected from its own masters first. We need some outside help in that regard.

I want to address SUSI grants and the process that will happen this year for applications and so on. Applications are now open. In order to streamline the process, there will be many changes in income circumstances from last year that people will have to apply on. Rather than having to apply with all of one's income details for last year and then having this year's income considered in another process, it would make more sense to go direct and to assess people on their income this year. It would shortcircuit the process and reduce the level of administration and so forth. High numbers of people will impacted, given the change of circumstances this year, but the normal procedure does not allow this year to be taken into consideration until last year's income has been considered first. That should be looked at.

Will the Minister give consideration to basing the SUSI grant income assessment for PAYE workers on net income? PAYE workers do not have any way to manipulate their income. We know from experience that workers who are income-assessed can manipulate their income to facilitate their qualifying for the payment. I ask that that be considered for PAYE workers.

In the case of the top-up grant, I ask that an income level of €24,000 be used rather than one's social welfare entitlement. I know of people working in jobs who earn less than social welfare recipients but who cannot get a top-up because they are working. That should be addressed on an ongoing basis.

12:25 am

Photo of Joe McHughJoe McHugh (Donegal, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Deputy and reassure him that, while there has been a fairly long journey in recent years with respect to Killybegs and its place within LYIT, one of the things I was always clear on was that if we were to tap into tourism and marine potential in the way we need to, we need to have a place such as Killybegs, which has a good track record in that regard. My commitment in my time as Minister for Education and Skills has been to ensure that Killybegs will remain at the heart of the future technological university. To reassure people in Killybegs and those working there, where sometimes they might have felt on the periphery of Letterkenny, they will now be between Sligo and Letterkenny in terms of the new technology.

Photo of Thomas PringleThomas Pringle (Donegal, Independent)
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They will be at the heart of it. Is that what the Minister is saying?

Photo of Joe McHughJoe McHugh (Donegal, Fine Gael)
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I suppose. Killybegs has made a great contribution to date as part of the institution, not only given its historical track record of bringing through tourism, catering and all the other courses that have been worked on over the years, and it has a strong future. It certainly has my support.

On the issues with SUSI grants, I will take all those suggestions on board. There has been a transformative change in education in recent weeks and months. Almost on a daily basis now, we deal with a new issue. If we think that an issue presented to us in the morning is the priority issue, the one in the afternoon will eclipse it and in turn will be eclipsed by another in the evening. There is no shortage of issues.

I appreciate the interventions in the House. As I say to my officials, whether Deputies are in opposition, on another side of the House, in another party or an Independent, they have a role to play in trying to figure a way out of this. We will figure a way out of it but doing it on a collective basis is the most important thing.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire. Is dócha go mbeimid ar ais arís ag labhairt ar an ábhar céanna seo. Is é sin anois deireadh le díospóireacht na hoíche anocht mar gheall ar chúrsaí oideachais. Dá bharr sin tá gnó an lae tagtha chun deiridh agus tá an Dáil ar athló go dtí meán lae amárach. Gabhaim buíochas libh.

Written Answers are published on the Oireachtas website.

The Dáil adjourned at at 9.25 p.m. until 12 noon on Thursday, 21 May 2020.