Dáil debates

Thursday, 4 June 2020

Covid-19 (Education and Skills): Statements

 

2:35 pm

Photo of Aengus Ó SnodaighAengus Ó Snodaigh (Dublin South Central, Sinn Fein)
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Iarraim ar an Aire a ráiteas oscailte a thabhairt dúinn ar dtús. Tá deich nóiméad aige.

Photo of Joe McHughJoe McHugh (Donegal, Fine Gael)
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Déanaim comhghairdeas leis an Chathaoirleach Gníomhach as a cheapachán úr.

Photo of Aengus Ó SnodaighAengus Ó Snodaigh (Dublin South Central, Sinn Fein)
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Níl mé sa phost ach ar feadh tamaillín beag.

Photo of Joe McHughJoe McHugh (Donegal, Fine Gael)
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Níl an gown air go fóill.

Photo of David CullinaneDavid Cullinane (Waterford, Sinn Fein)
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Deputy Ó Snodaigh is getting ready for the big job.

Photo of Joe McHughJoe McHugh (Donegal, Fine Gael)
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Gabhaim buíochas le Baill an Tí as ucht a dtiomantais maidir leis na rudaí a bhí ar chroílár na díospóireachta ó thaobh an oideachais thar na míonna agus na laethanta a chuaigh thart. Tá na rudaí sin iontach tábhachtach. Bhí stádas a dtodhchaí neamhchinnte ach ba é sin an bealach a bhí romhainn. Táim fíorbhuíoch do na páirtithe leasmhara san earnáil oideachais as an chuidiú a bhfuair mé uathu. Bhí siad ag obair go dian. Táim ag tagairt ach go háirithe d'fhoirne uilig na mbunscoileanna, na meánscoileanna agus na n-ollscoileanna. Tá tionchar mór ag cúrsaí ar na mic léinn agus na daoine óga. Is é sin an fáth go raibh an Rialtas tiomanta d'oscailt na scoileanna agus ag obair go dian dícheallach ar son daoine óga le riachtanais speisialta. Táim buíoch as a bheith ann do dhíospóireacht arís. Is é an ról agus an dualgas atá ormsa ná obair le moltaí na daoine uilig sa Dáil. Beimid in áit dhearfach an tseachtain seo chugainn de bharr na díospóireachta.

I am happy to be here in the House again to provide Members with the latest updates on the significant issues in the education system, including reopening our schools, leaving certificate 2020, and the provision of the summer programme. I am conscious that the Business Committee has also scheduled a full session on the issue of the summer programme in the House next week.

A lot has happened across the education and skills sector in the last 12 weeks since schools, colleges, universities and other settings closed on 12 March, which is 12 weeks ago today. In the 12 weeks between now and the end of August a lot more will be done. The pace at which issues have been identified and addressed over the past 12 weeks is a credit to those who work in the sector, the students and the parents. It exemplifies the spirit of being in this together and I want in particular to acknowledge the leadership of the officials in the Department of Education and Skills who have worked on all of these issues throughout. Since I was last in this House, the executive office working on the calculated grades process in my Department, which is working in close collaboration with stakeholders, has progressed a range of issues. These include the publication of the guide for schools in providing estimated percentage marks and class rank orderings on 21 May, with supplementary guidance issued on 28 May.

Over 60,000 leaving certificate and leaving certificate applied students had registered on the student portal by the 12 p.m. extended deadline for registration last Friday. This is over 98% of the total of 61,029 who had been expected to sit the leaving certificate examination in 2020. I can also confirm that my Department will continue to engage with schools in the coming weeks in an effort to establish why some students may not have registered on the portal. I want to take this opportunity to thank the students who responded to my call last week to be proactive and engage in the online process and not to leave registration to the last minute. The executive office has established a special section to deal with students who are in atypical situations and supplementary guidance will issue on these aspects. This is an area that many Deputies had raised and every effort will be made to resolve these cases.

The system through which schools will submit data to the executive office will shortly go live with accompanying guidance issuing to principals. I confirmed the appointment of Dr. Áine Lawlor as the chair of the independent monitoring committee of the calculated grades process when I was last in the House. I can now confirm the other members of the committee. They are Dr. Peter Archer, the former CEO of the Educational Research Centre; Ms Majella O'Shea, former Deputy CEO of the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment, NCCA; Mr. Joe Hamill, former Secretary General of the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht and chair of the New Schools Establishments Group; Mr. Justin Edwards, CEO of the Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment, Northern Ireland, and Professor Michael O'Leary, Professor of Assessment at DCU. These are all eminent people whose experience crosses education, governance, assessment and research. I want to thank each of them for agreeing to be members of the committtee and I wish them well as they have their first formal meeting today.

The initial feedback coming from school management bodies and teacher unions on the operation of calculated grades at school level has been positive, with teachers engaging in a professional manner with the process. I understand teachers and principals have found the guidance material prepared for them to be very helpful, including the provision of additional guidance and answers to queries, in addition to appreciating the speed at which these have been provided.

Our focus now is very much on ensuring we are ready to receive the submissions from schools and to then reopen the student portal so students can choose to opt in to receive calculated grades.

Everyone in this House appreciates the wider impacts of extended school closures on children and particularly on children already at risk of disadvantage or who have special educational needs. That is why I want to see the maximum return to school possible in late August and September that is consistent with the need to do it in a safe way. Managing the reopening of schools is a massive logistical operation and requires careful planning and management. My Department is engaging in a process of detailed planning and stakeholder engagement at primary and post-primary levels to achieve this objective in a way that is safe for students and staff.

I brought an update to Cabinet last Friday on these issues and regarding delivery of the summer programme. I will be returning to Cabinet next week with a plan to achieve these dual objectives. I then expect to publish those plans.

Among other things, we will look at a range of issues including: public health guidance on mitigation to build confidence within the school community of teachers, staff, parents and children; measures to ensure hygiene and infection prevention and control; training for staff in communication with families to promote those measures, including such measures as good hand hygiene and hand cleaning and good respiratory practices; attention to promoting children's well-being in returning to school; and engagement with stakeholders. I am paying very close attention to the experience of other countries which have reopened schools and to emerging scientific advice. I will continue to engage with my counterparts in the North, the UK and across Europe to learn from their experiences.

The potential for running summer programmes for children with complex special educational needs and children at greatest risk of educational disadvantage is being developed. In 2019, students with autism and children with severe and profound general learning disabilities participated in the traditional July provision scheme over two strands, with approximately 70% of students accessing the home-based strand and 30% attending 232 schools, predominantly at primary level.

My Department, the Department of Health and the HSE have linked up to consider a joined-up approach to the provision of a continuum of care and support during the summer period. A cross-departmental working group has been established to map this continuum. I want a summer education programme to run, recognising that students with special educational needs and those at greatest risk of educational disadvantage need to be prioritised. Regression in their learning and difficulties in transitioning to the next educational setting are real concerns for some of these students. It is generally acknowledged that disadvantaged pupils are more at risk of disengaging in a remote-learning environment relative to their peers and may fail to make a successful transition to a more senior level.

The existing summer provisions aimed at students at risk of educational disadvantage are being examined, including the school completion programme, summer literacy and numeracy programmes for DEIS primary schools and summer camps run by or outsourced by boards of management. Planning for summer education programmes is difficult under the current circumstances with some of the issues examined including: the running of any school-based programme will need to be informed by public health advice; the availability and willingness of schools, teachers, SNAs and bus escorts to support the programme; a desire that key logistical arrangements will be worked out in advance of announcing the programme; availability of transport to and from schools; and willingness of parents to allow their children to attend such a programme, particularly children with significant health conditions. My officials are engaging closely with stakeholders in developing a summer programme with a further round of meetings happening today. This work will help inform different aspects of such a programme.

School principals, teachers and SNAs have already done so much since schools closed to help support their students, particularly those with special educational needs and children from disadvantaged backgrounds. Schools have ensured regular communication, devised individual support plans with the agreement of parents, provided familiar resources, hosted live online classes and provided a new structure and routine. Schools have done this out of a desire to support their students to the best of their ability in very challenging times.

For teachers and SNAs who can do so, I urge them to think seriously about supporting a summer programme which will make a meaningful difference to their most vulnerable students. The length of school closure has been much longer than we might have hoped. Providing an opportunity for children to participate in a summer provision would provide a really important opportunity to reconnect with schooling and offer an important structure which may help towards a fuller return to school in the autumn.

I will be returning to Cabinet next week in relation to the provision of a summer programme. I know the positive impact such a programme would have and I want to see it happen but we must do it in a safe way for all concerned.

The various challenges that have emerged since the closure of the schools 12 weeks ago on 12 March have been faced and addressed in a systematic way that has taken into account what is best for students at various levels and through collaboration with all stakeholders.

I repeat that as we move forward in our planning to reopen schools and to provide a summer programme, we must do so safely and with the confidence of all concerned, whether that is the confidence of students, their parents, or the staff in the sector. I want to see children back in classrooms, with their friends, and being supported in school by their teachers, special needs assistants, SNA, and other school staff. Achieving this objective will be guided by public health advice and wider decisions concerning the roadmap for reopening our society.

Mar fhocal scoir, we are working towards those goals and will be communicating with students, teachers, school staff and management bodies in the coming weeks on how we return to school in the new academic year.

2:55 pm

Photo of Aengus Ó SnodaighAengus Ó Snodaigh (Dublin South Central, Sinn Fein)
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Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire.

Anois, casaimid ar cheisteanna agus freagraí le críoch a bheith curtha le ráiteas an Aire. We turn now to questions, answers and statements. The first party to speak is Fianna Fáil which has 15 minutes. I call Deputy Thomas Byrne. An bhfuil an Teachta ag roinnt a chuid ama?

Photo of Thomas ByrneThomas Byrne (Meath East, Fianna Fail)
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Táim ag roinnt mo chuid ama leis na Teachtaí Séamus Ó Laighléis, Seán Lahart agus Seán Mac Aonghusa. Tógfaidh mé seacht nóiméad agus beidh trí nóiméad ag mo chomhghleacaí, an Teachta Ó Laighléis, agus dhá nóiméad go leith ag an mbeirt Theachta eile.

Gabhaim comhghairdeas leis an Teachta Ó Snodaigh as a bheith tofa go sealadach sa Chathaoir. Ní fhaca mé ball ó Shinn Féin riamh sa Chathaoir roimhe seo.

Photo of Aengus Ó SnodaighAengus Ó Snodaigh (Dublin South Central, Sinn Fein)
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Níl mé ann ach mar Chathaoirleach.

Photo of Thomas ByrneThomas Byrne (Meath East, Fianna Fail)
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Tá sé ina Chathaoirleach don lá, ar aon nós.

I welcome much of what the Minister said today and acknowledge that some of the suggestions made by Fianna Fáil and other parties in Dáil Éireann over the last number of weeks have, in fact, been implemented.

I particularly welcome the role played by Dr. Fernando Cartwright in the process surrounding the calculated grades system, and the Minister's announcement of an independent monitoring committee for the process. That is crucial, and the Minister is correct. Generally speaking, the process has gone off without a hitch so far. I am aware from talking with teachers and students that we are not in an ideal scenario, but this will significantly help public confidence in the process and address some of the issues that I and others have raised in this House. They are genuine issues, and nobody wants anything but the best possible outcomes for the class of 2020 and, indeed, their colleagues coming up the line whose progression depends on a successful outcome of this entire process.

It is welcome that the Minister is due to meet the Ombudsman for Children in the context of reopening schools. Fianna Fáil has raised the need for strong advocacy for children and students in the discussion surrounding the opening of schools. This now seems to be taking place, and while it is important to talk to the stakeholders, the most important stakeholders are the children themselves. While the Irish Second-Level Students' Union, ISSU, does a fantastic job at secondary level, I was somewhat concerned that at primary level, in particular, the same advocacy is not necessarily there for the child. The ombudsman is certainly playing his part with the Minister in that regard.

The Taoiseach's clear commitment last Friday to reopening schools was welcome, and we while are all too aware of the long-term impact of school closures, we are aware anecdotally. I want to see some level of research done as to what exactly the gaps were in these last few months. Did we learn from it, and do we know what exactly we are catching up with in the new school year?

The National Council for Curriculum and Assessment, NCCA, review of senior cycle needs to be fully considered in the context of plans to reopen schools in September. The process for the leaving certificate has been underway since 2016. The documents published by the NCCA clearly would not have had a focus on Covid-19, but we have learned a great deal about the leaving certificate over the past few weeks, in particular, that should inform the NCCA as to what direction we need to go. I am looking for robust research on what has happened over the past few weeks, the processes that have been engaged in, and how they will benefit the class of 2021, 2022 and others in the long term.

I will turn my attention briefly to the financial situation in higher education. On top of the upcoming and current demographic bulge we are seeing moving from primary into secondary school, higher education is facing not only that bulge but a shortfall of approximately €0.5 billion over the next few years due to Covid-19. We know universities and colleges are doing their best to try to get classes online and see how they will provide college courses next year. It is also fair to say that many are struggling, first of all with the availability of technical people who do this type of work and who are in short supply globally.

We must make sure that our colleges are financially capable of doing their job. The aspiration and reality of higher education that has been available to generations in this country must not be denied to students this year or next year or denied to the students who are already in higher education. There may be a fall in international student numbers and reduced funding for research, particularly from the private sector, as a result of Covid-19. Given the likely fall in the number of students attending campus, it is not feasible for third level institutions to meet the shortfall by themselves. A targeted programme of financial support will be required and I will certainly be urging the Minister to provide same and to focus his attention on higher education.

We know that higher education and the knowledge economy will play a vital role in driving our economy and it is fantastic that the general public has been able to see that on a daily basis on the news. People sometimes think of our third level institutions as places for their children to go to college or as tourist attractions. What we have seen throughout the Covid-19 pandemic is the level of expertise that exists in this country to the fore in terms of informing the public and advising the Government. This is really good and we must get back to a societal appreciation and understanding of the academy informing society, guiding us on what we should be doing, gathering the information and doing the research in order to improve the country. So many lessons have been learned about education in the past few months. We now have a chance to open up education in a way not seen before. We have not seen this type of external advisory board in the Department of Education and Skills for quite some time. It is very welcome to have outside input to the advisory board on the leaving certificate. There will be more opportunities for similar over the next few years.

We must streamline the demands on school management in the context of initiative overloading. I am somewhat concerned about the Minister's statement regarding summer programmes. Essentially, he asked that summer programmes be run or outsourced by boards of management and spoke about the availability and willingness of schools and teachers. He asked schools, teachers and SNAs to get involved during the summer and, while I endorse this ask, I do not think it is sustainable in the longer term for the provision of education to those who are disadvantaged or who have special needs to depend on the Minister standing up in the Dáil and asking people to participate. I am sure people will rise to the challenge this year but we need to make sure we can do this properly. The way the education system is structured in this country at the moment means that boards of management have a huge burden of responsibility. Sometimes they do not have the necessary training and sometimes individual members do not have the time required to meet the responsibilities foisted on them and everything goes back to the school principal, who is often under stress and pressure dealing with other issues. We need to look at giving parent councils a real role in the coming years. Parents have been to the fore in supporting their children's education in the past few weeks too and they need to take on a much bigger role in schools. We must always heed expert advice when it is made available to us.

3:05 pm

Photo of James LawlessJames Lawless (Kildare North, Fianna Fail)
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I am glad my colleague raised the issue of higher education because in the course of the Minister's 11-page speech, universities and colleges were mentioned only once. Reference was made to the fact that they had closed and nothing further was said. I wish to return to a number of points I made six weeks ago which was the last time education was debated in the Chamber and I had the opportunity to ask questions. On that occasion I put two questions to the Minister which have not yet been answered. The first issue I raised was the plight of fixed-term researchers. I outlined that there are 14,500 individuals involved in fixed term research here. These are people who were working on grant-funded, time-limited projects and who are not eligible for the Covid payment or any other form of income support. In many cases, the project finances are about to run dry. Apart from the human capital cost, this could mean that work spanning three or more years will be lost as some projects were just about to conclude. Without an intervention, without guaranteed extensions to project funding as well as support for the individuals concerned, projects will run aground and researchers will be forced to examine other options and may not get to complete their research. This is a real, live issue for 14,500 fixed term researchers which has been raised by the Irish Federation of University Teachers, IFUT, the Research Council and many others. The last time we spoke the Minister told me that Mr. William Beausang and his group would consider this issue and I hope the Minister can give me an update on that today.

The next point I made to the Minister on that occasion was the wider picture in terms of higher education and higher education institutions being in crisis. Deputy Thomas Byrne mentioned the figure of €500 million. That is the hole that has been identified as the shortfall in university funding between lack of international students, accommodation and other supplementary income that universities had to bring in in recent years just to make ends meet. If we are being honest, they should not have been dependent on that in the first place, but there was a shortfall in the public purse and they had to do such things. Now they find themselves €500 million in hock with no sign of light on the horizon. I was dismayed to see the Department come out with a statement last week to the effect that they were on their own. Universities, which are our institutions of learning through which young and old progress, where our knowledge economy is supposedly based, and which supposedly constitute the foundation stone of so much of what we do as a society, nation and economy, were effectively cast adrift. Apart from anything, I thought it was practice that with a caretaker Government, a significant policy decision like that would not be made or announced. It was an unnecessary provocation and many within the sector wondered what the motivation was.

I read contributions such as the excellent editorial by the provost of Trinity College Dublin, Patrick Prendergast, earlier in the week. I note the 1,700 scientists, including Dr. Kevin Byrne, who signed the petition calling for supports for the sector and for research funding. The sector was already in crisis and this has been exacerbated by Covid-19. The Department cannot wash its hands of it but must get involved with regard to practical and big picture issues. I call on the Minister and Department to make that happen.

3:15 pm

Photo of John LahartJohn Lahart (Dublin South West, Fianna Fail)
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My first question concerns a local issue but it could be transposed to many schools nationally. It concerns Scoil Naomh Pádraig in Ballyroan where the principal has had to write to parents to say that the existing five junior infants classes will become four classes in September because, while having 99.3% of the pupils required, they are four pupils short of getting that extra teacher. What that means is that instead of having classes in their low to mid twenties, which is still in excess of the European average, the school will now have class sizes in excess of 30 and will lose one teacher as a consequence. This is an austere measure never mind in the context of social distancing. Will the Minister comment on that? There needs to be some flexibility and discretion. It involves the schools just being four pupils short and having 99.3% of the pupils required for an additional teacher.

My second question concerns fifth year. This is my first opportunity to talk about it. It has come up and the Minister has answered it. What is the progress with regard to his thinking on current fifth year students and their sitting of the leaving certificate in 2021?

Photo of Joe McHughJoe McHugh (Donegal, Fine Gael)
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Regarding Deputy Lahart's question about Scoil Naomh Pádraig, the system in place has not changed because of Covid-19 because it was based on attendance on 30 September of the previous year. The school has an opportunity to appeal in June with regard to progression and potential around progression in terms of numbers for next year to see whether it meets the criteria. If it meets the criteria by a particular date at the start of the school year in the first term, we will take that into consideration. It does come across as a fairly ruthless and rigid system but we need a system because there will also be schools with vacancies. It also tries to provide certainty for that teacher because the teacher in that class will also look at other schools and other vacancies and go for other jobs. This is the system we have. We have a particular cut-off point every year but I will certainly ask the inspectorate to look at Scoil Naomh Pádraig. As the Deputy is aware, it is an independent group.

Photo of John McGuinnessJohn McGuinness (Carlow-Kilkenny, Fianna Fail)
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Part of the recovery for the south east will be the approval for the technological university involving the institutes of technology in Carlow and Waterford. What action will the Minister take to ensure they conclude negotiations and resolve their issues so that they can play a central role in the recovery of our economy in that area? Will he provide the necessary finance and professional input to solve some of the HR issues that have emerged?

There is significant debt involved that will have to be dealt with in order that the new entity will be able to perform at the highest level and quickly. This has dragged on for too long. The Minister needs to get involved to ensure that it comes to fruition sooner rather than later.

Second, I ask that the HR issues relative to Cork Institute of Technology, now with Munster Technological University, MTU, be resolved. There are whistleblower and other issues still outstanding and it is high time the colleges were forced to deal with those issues so that the new entity can move on without looking over its shoulder. We must ensure that all these issues are dealt with. This will require money, input from the Department of Education and Skills and leadership in that area.

3:20 pm

Photo of Joe McHughJoe McHugh (Donegal, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Deputy for making direct contact with me on these issues as well. There is momentum now with the technological university process for the south east. There will be no question mark around the momentum in terms of the response at official level and at a financial level as well. We want to get the south east on the same plane as Technology University Dublin, Munster Technological University, the Connacht-Ulster Alliance and the Limerick-Athlone Alliance. There is funding already provided for those processes. I spoke to my officials on the issue last week and the issue will remain on the radar. I have also raised the HR issues with my officials, who will report back to the Deputy in that regard.

Photo of Aengus Ó SnodaighAengus Ó Snodaigh (Dublin South Central, Sinn Fein)
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An bhfuil an Teachta Ó Laoghaire ag roinnt ama?

Photo of Donnchadh Ó LaoghaireDonnchadh Ó Laoghaire (Cork South Central, Sinn Fein)
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Tá mé ag roinnt le Deputies Cullinane agus Funchion. I will begin my contribution on the same subject I commenced my contribution to the previous debate we had on this area a little under two weeks ago. At that stage, I told the Minister that I felt it was not good enough that schools had had no communication on reopening from 12 March until that date. Since then, while there has been much discussion on the issue, in some respects we are not much wiser. Confusion reigned last Thursday and Friday when the Minister told Sarah McInerney at 10 a.m. that blended learning would be a reality and later said on "Prime Time" that he would not accept a half return to school. The following day, the Taoiseach reverted to the previous position that not all students would return, at least at the same time. The Minister has now told us that the goal is the maximum return of students.

While it is welcome that we know it is still the plan for children to return to school on the normal date, neither parents nor teachers know exactly what that means. The reality is that we have the most overcrowded classrooms in Europe, with a ratio of 28:1. This will make return to school buildings here much harder than is the case in most states. It is an indictment of Governments of recent years that we are in this position. Parents know this, but they are frustrated and anxious and they want education to return to normality.

I take this opportunity to acknowledge the incredible work being done by teachers, principals and school staff. It is a fact that students have lost out, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds and children with special educational needs. Many of these students are struggling. Owing to the change in routine and a lack of social isolation and stimulation many of them have fallen back. A particular case that has stayed with me, which was shown on RTÉ, is that of Zoe Hynes who had progressed to being able to spoon feed herself but can no longer do so owing to the lack of contact. I note the proposed dedicated debate next week on the July education programme. I look forward to that debate but this issue needs to be a priority for the standard school year as well.

On the reopening of schools, has the Department at this stage communicated directly with all schools on the reopening of school buildings? Will the Minister speak frankly on this occasion and tell us whether the reopening will be full or phased? Parents deserve an honest answer. If the process is to be a phased one then the Minister should say so. I would like a response to those questions, following which I will come back in with more questions.

Photo of Joe McHughJoe McHugh (Donegal, Fine Gael)
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To be clear in regard to the public commentary around schools reopening, if the current health guidelines remain as they are we will be facing a partial reopening. If the Deputy had listened carefully to what I said in my public commentary, he would have noted that I said I am working with my officials and the public health officials in the Department of Health, who are learning all the time from the European and international experience, and I am looking at the different advice and monitoring it.

I will state publicly that I am confident that advice will change. We will be in a better position before I make the announcement at Cabinet on what that advice will be. What I said was very clear. The modelling we conducted around current health advice would mean a partial return, but we engaged with health officials and are constantly getting new evidence. We are learning from the likes of Denmark, which has primary school children back, and Greece and France which have 15 students in each classroom. I am learning from the likes of England, as I spoke to Gavin Williamson two weeks ago, and from Peter Weir in Northern Ireland, to whom I spoke yesterday. We are going to learn from those experiences and I reassure people that it is our intention in the Department of Education to maximise the return of students at the end of August and into September. There is no ambiguity around that. That is our intention, but obviously we are going to be guided completely by the health advice. At the same time, the health advice has been very clear and when Dr. Tony Holohan briefed us recently he said that while it is his job to give advice and guidance, it is not his job to do a risk assessment. That is a job we are doing now. The Deputy said schools have not been notified, but the reason for that is that we are waiting on this advice. I will bring a memorandum to Cabinet next week and at that time I will publish the advice. That is when the principals and the leadership in the schools will find out.

3:30 pm

Photo of Donnchadh Ó LaoghaireDonnchadh Ó Laoghaire (Cork South Central, Sinn Fein)
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That is all very well but some communication should have been possible since 12 March. Schools deserve some kind of communication or indication. They should have gotten that and they still have not, as far as I am aware. Staying with the-----

Photo of Joe McHughJoe McHugh (Donegal, Fine Gael)
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That is not true. There is ongoing communication.

Photo of Donnchadh Ó LaoghaireDonnchadh Ó Laoghaire (Cork South Central, Sinn Fein)
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No school I have spoken to has had direct contact from the Department about reopening. They may have had some in the last four or five days, but up until then they had not received any contact. That is a fact based on all the schools I have spoken to, which is around 20. Staying with the reopening-----

Photo of Joe McHughJoe McHugh (Donegal, Fine Gael)
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I would like to respond to that. If we do not have the advice, the guidelines or the instruction, I am not going to go back to principals with a half story. Next week we will have the full guidance and the publication.

Photo of Donnchadh Ó LaoghaireDonnchadh Ó Laoghaire (Cork South Central, Sinn Fein)
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It is quite reasonable for the Department to go back to schools and explain the process, where we are, what we are waiting for and the criteria involved. There are messages and preparations that could have happened-----

Photo of Joe McHughJoe McHugh (Donegal, Fine Gael)
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There are, and it is wrong to say that there is no communication with schools. The schools and school representative bodies are in constant engagement. What the Deputy said is not true because there is engagement. What I am saying here very clearly is that we will not be in a position to say what the end of August and start of September will look like until next Friday.

Photo of Aengus Ó SnodaighAengus Ó Snodaigh (Dublin South Central, Sinn Fein)
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Ba chóir don Aire ligean don Teachta ceist a chur.

Photo of Donnchadh Ó LaoghaireDonnchadh Ó Laoghaire (Cork South Central, Sinn Fein)
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I am unfortunately going to have to truncate the rest of my contribution, though I was going to come in on a few issues. First, I refer to calculated grades. Parliamentary questions that I got back today tell me two things quite clearly. If one cannot get a calculated grade, there is no other option and there is not going to be a written leaving certificate before third level admissions. Students who cannot get calculated grades deserve some kind of plan B. It is a small cohort and something should be done for them, such as an online or oral assessment. It is unfair that they could potentially miss out on a year of third level education. I have written to the Minister asking for the exact statistical model for the school profiling and I ask him to respond to that.

Around 800 schools are listed as requiring additional accommodation. Many of them are or were going through the planning process before that was slowed down by Covid. One of them, South Lee Educate Together, is a new school in my constituency which is in its second year. Those schools may not get planning permission in time to deliver the accommodation they need. Can the Minister ask local authorities to prioritise these applications?

Finally, it is reported that an additional €25 million will be needed by schools for hygiene purposes. Parents are already having to pay €10 a month or €100 a year for the cleaning of schools because schools are underfunded. I ask the Minister to please provide the funding or that cost will be passed on to parents who are already hard-pressed. Those questions must be responded to.

Photo of Kathleen FunchionKathleen Funchion (Carlow-Kilkenny, Sinn Fein)
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I have one very specific issue to raise with the Minister and hopefully he will have time to respond. It relates to the lack of secondary school places in Kilkenny city.

I have spoken to the Minister and his officials about three boys and have received a response. I have the permission of the families to raise this issue. Zach, Cathay and Abudi, all of whom attend St. Canice's primary school in Kilkenny city, cannot access secondary school places for September in the city. In two of the cases, the mothers of the children do not drive and their fathers are working away from home. In one case, both parents are working in a hospital, are on call, work difficult hours and have other children. Sending children outside the city for school is not ideal.

When I raised this issue, I received a reply to the effect that they were entitled to appeal the decision. We went through that process and they received replies from the Department of Education and Skills stating that the appeals had not been accepted because they were out of time. It should be bourne in mind that this was during the pandemic and school places for secondary schools are usually announced in February and March. The three families are under a lot of stress. I imagine that many other families are in this position because this issue arises every year in Kilkenny. A secondary school is needed.

Will the Minister give a commitment to look into the three cases I have mentioned? His Department has the information. I asked last week what happens when a parent is told that he or she cannot appeal a decision and I did not receive a reply. I do not want the parents to go through an appeals process if it will not result in anything. Can something be done to help these families? All of the children in sixth class have not had the opportunity to finish school and say goodbye to friends. They are at a stage in their lives where they should be excited about the next chapter. These boys do not even know what school they will be attending. It is now June and secondary schools will restart in some shape or form at the end of August. These children need some sort of help and intervention. One of the boys told me that he is nervous, would have no friends and would not know anybody. When the parents looked at schools outside the city they were told they were not entitled to transport because they would be seen as technically sending their children outside the catchment area, which would cause a whole bunch of problems.

I would like to explore how we can get another secondary school for Kilkenny city. There is no second level school in the eastern part of the city. We do not have an Educate Together secondary school. This could be a good opportunity for something like that and would take pressure off all secondary schools in the city. I do not want to have to talk about this year in and year out, and I am quite sure the Minister feels the same. I would like to be part of the long-term solution and see whether there is some way I could meet people in the Department to discuss how we can explore opening another secondary school in the city.

That will not help Zach, Cathay and Abudi and I would like somebody from the Department to consider their case and understand the stress, worry and anxiety the parents and children are under. It is not a nice time for them. My son started secondary school last year and I know the nervousness that children have about that, even when they know everything about their school, uniform and all of the rest that goes with that for that age group. Unfortunately, a lack of secondary school places seems to affect boys in primary schools in Kilkenny in particular. I ask the Minister to look into the matter.

3:40 pm

Photo of David CullinaneDavid Cullinane (Waterford, Sinn Fein)
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I have four minutes. I will take two minutes and give the Minister two minutes to respond. There are a lot of questions.

I want to follow on from the question Deputy McGuinness asked about technological university status for the south east. The Minister stated that the Department is working on it and that he wants to see the matter progressed. Since 2011, when I was first elected to the Seanad, I have raised this issue on a monthly, if not sometimes a weekly, basis. It is now 2020 and we are still no closer to a resolution. People in the south east see other consortiums powering ahead. The south east is the only region without a university. There is an uneven playing field and that matter needs to be resolved. Whatever impediments or roadblocks are there, the Department and the Minister has to play a part in resolving them. A meeting is taking place tomorrow at my behest between local Oireachtas Members and the presidents of the two institutes. We will do our best at that meeting, but the Department has an obvious role to play.

There is also concern about the Munster consortium and whether there was a successful panel visit. We know there was a panel report for March and April 2019, and another potential report for February of this year. Questions are being asked about whether there was a successful panel report because the first report last year was quite critical of the application and said it did not meet the criteria in a range of areas. Legitimate questions are being asked about whether the consortium met the criteria or if the criteria were bypassed, which would be an incredible situation to find ourselves in.

The south-east consortium is very important for Munster and Waterford - the Minister should know that. For a region that lags behind economically, where we have one of the highest levels of unemployment, we need this. We should not have to come in here week after week, month after month, year after year, pleading the case and still being the only region without a university. I ask the Department to play its part to ensure the remaining issues are resolved.

3:50 pm

Photo of Joe McHughJoe McHugh (Donegal, Fine Gael)
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I am glad to hear the Deputy and others are meeting collectively with both presidents. I take this opportunity to acknowledge their individual roles in bringing it to this stage. They are in the process of preparing an application this year even amid all the uncertainty, difficulties and challenges we have at the moment. As the Deputy knows, there have been roadblocks and challenges with the process in the south east. The Deputy lives in the south east and he knows about the desire for a university among the community there. We have heard that, and we know about it. I wish to reassure the Deputy, and he will find out tomorrow from the presidents if he is meeting them, that not alone are the momentum and commitment there, there is no issue over the funding that will be needed to bring that process along.

The Deputy mentioned Munster Technological University. I have formally written to that consortium. Certain issues needed to be addressed and they were addressed. It has a planned start date of 1 January 2021. We want to make progress with all the different consortiums: the Connacht-Ulster alliance; Athlone and Limerick; and in the south east between Carlow and Waterford. They are in a very strong position. They are in the middle of preparing their application and there will be progress.

Photo of David CullinaneDavid Cullinane (Waterford, Sinn Fein)
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Is the Minister in a position to publish the reports from the Munster consortium? Can they be made public so that we can see it was a transparent process? I am not saying it was not, but the questions are being asked. It would be helpful if we could see those panel reports.

Photo of Joe McHughJoe McHugh (Donegal, Fine Gael)
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I can certainly ask my officials.

Photo of Aengus Ó SnodaighAengus Ó Snodaigh (Dublin South Central, Sinn Fein)
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The Sinn Féin slot is over. Má tá ceisteanna sa bhreis curtha ag baill d'aon pháirtí, b'fhéidir go bhféachfaidh an tAire orthu agus freagra a thabhairt i scríbhinn.

Photo of Joe McHughJoe McHugh (Donegal, Fine Gael)
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Beidh mé sásta é sin a dhéanamh.

Photo of Aengus Ó SnodaighAengus Ó Snodaigh (Dublin South Central, Sinn Fein)
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I am asking if the Minister could give an answer in writing to the questions he was not able to reach, and he has agreed.

I call Deputy Dillon, who is making his maiden speech.

Alan Dillon (Mayo, Fine Gael)
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I will be sharing time with Deputy Feighan.

It is a true honour to speak in Dáil Éireann for the first time. From the outset I sincerely thank the people of Mayo for placing their trust in me as we navigate these unprecedented times in circumstances I could never have imagined. I hope to serve my constituents with honour, integrity and humility. I assure the Mayo electorate I will continue the work of my predecessor, Enda Kenny, with the same ethos as he showed when he entered this Chamber on his first day as a Teachta Dála by serving the greatest number with the greatest good. I have always said that what matters to Mayo matters to me. As a new Teachta Dála, I extend my thanks to the staff of the Houses of the Oireachtas for the courtesy and professionalism they have shown me to date.

I acknowledge the efforts that individuals and families in every community are making to combat Covid-19. Some have suffered privately following the loss of family members or friends and I express my heartfelt sympathies to those people.

I commend the Minister, Deputy McHugh, the departmental officials and in particular the teachers and students around the country. They have all adapted incredibly quickly to their virtual working and educational environment. I regularly speak to local teachers and the topic of most importance is the leaving certificate on which we have received greater clarity in the past few weeks. However, the concern relates to the next steps facing today's leaving certificate students, particularly those who wish to pursue higher education and what awaits them in September. This time of year usually represents a right of passage for young people finishing their second level education. I am hoping some level of normality can be brought to the next chapter for those choosing to enter higher education.

As the Minister, Deputy McHugh, may be aware on Tuesday the Connacht-Ulster alliance announced the appointment of a new executive project lead with the aim of progressing the technological university in the west and north west. This is a progressive step forward for the region's higher education institutes, including the Mayo campus of the Galway Mayo Institute of Technology at Castlebar as well as Letterkenny Institute of Technology in the Minister's constituency.

In addition, as a science, technology, engineering and mathematics, STEM, ambassador, a qualified teacher and someone who has worked in the pharmaceutical and biopharma sector, I worked closely with many students to encourage them to consider careers in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics sector. It would not be unreasonable to assume a spike in applications to the CAO in these areas of study, which have played a key role in the fight against Covid-19. I am hoping, therefore, that the Minister might provide some clarity on what leaving certificate students can expect and when detailed information will become available as part of their third level entry process.

4:00 pm

Photo of Frank FeighanFrank Feighan (Sligo-Leitrim, Fine Gael)
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I congratulate Deputy Dillon on his maiden speech and I wish him every success. It is nice to see a man from the west. Following up on the issue raised by the Deputy, does the Minister have an update on the application for technological university, TU, status for Sligo, the north and the north west, and does he think it will be submitted before the end of the year? I welcome Niall O'Donnellan to the board of IT Sligo. He is an excellent appointment and I wish him well in the work he is doing.

I have two matters to raise. There are some issues regarding national schools. One concerns hygiene standards in national schools, especially in the context of Covid-19. Are we taking into consideration that some national schools just have sinks and do not have the proper hygiene standards to match those brought in to address Covid-19 some months ago? What is the Department doing in that area?

I also refer to Carns national school in Grange in County Sligo. It is on the N15, between Grange and Cliffoney, and I am sure the Minister passes by it nearly every day. The school has been granted an 80 sq. m additional classroom and the tender process is complete. The school, however, is awaiting written confirmation to begin construction so that the contract can be signed during the summer. I know it has been confirmed, but I would like to know if there are any issues.

In the context of Covid-19 and Brexit, we talk about an all-island basis, east-west relations and there being much work to be done. What discussions has the Minister had with the Minister of Education in the North to consider mitigating the impact of Brexit especially, but also of Covid-19? I ask that because we are talking about addressing these issues on an all-island basis and I am interested to know exactly what the Minister is doing. Finally, regarding another constituency I was in, I am delighted that Dangan national school in Kilmore, with which the Minister is also familiar, also got the go-ahead to start construction of its much-awaited new extension.

Photo of Joe McHughJoe McHugh (Donegal, Fine Gael)
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Congratulations to Deputy Dillon on his election and on his maiden speech today. In his last point, he referenced clarity concerning the leaving certificate. The school alignment process has started and we have set up the portal, which will be going live between the executive office and the Department and the schools. We are looking to trigger that on Monday so the schools can start feeding back information. There has been, therefore, a great degree of momentum at the school alignment level, although there is still much work to be done. My ambition has always been, and it still is, that we will have results coming out as close to the traditional date as possible. I refer to the normal date for the issuing of leaving certificate results. That is the ambition and I will work intensely with my officials to make sure that happens. It is important on several fronts, including the transition to third level. I am also conscious, however, of the transition involving those applying to the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service, UCAS, whether that concerns Northern Ireland, England, Scotland or Wales. I refer also to those applying to go to Europe, where the majority of students last year went to the Netherlands, and we have ongoing engagement with our European counterparts.

I turn now to part of Deputy Feighan's question regarding my engagement with the Minister of Education in Northern Ireland, Mr. Peter Weir. I spoke to him just yesterday and raised the issue of UCAS to ensure we have those deadlines.

One of the things I have picked up from engaging with my officials, officials from the UK Department for Education and the Secretary of State for Education, Mr. Gavin Williamson, is that there is a flexibility there. We will continue to work with them on that.

The Deputy referred to the Mayo campus and its importance. He has raised that issue several times with me, as well as the integral connection between Galway, Mayo, Sligo and Donegal in the context of the new Connacht-Ulster alliance. He requested an update on that alliance. He is correct that Dr. Seán Duffy has been appointed and has been working closely with the three colleges to ensure the preparatory work needed for an application to be submitted is on track. The plan is that an application will be submitted for a Connacht-Ulster alliance in quarter 4 of this year. There has been quite a degree of momentum there. I referred earlier to the south east. There is also quite a degree of momentum with regard to the proposed Limerick-Athlone alliance. Those three applications are in a very positive place.

The Deputy referred to hygiene standards in schools. He is correct that the reopening guidelines, plans and roadmap that the Cabinet will sign off on and publish tomorrow week will include instruction, guidelines and advice for schools.

Going back to Deputy Ó Laoghaire's point on the additional cost involved, I am conscious that it will cost a great deal of extra money and that schools are already under pressure as a result of the reduction in capitation moneys from 2011. We have restored 7.5% of that but we need to go further for the schools. I will discuss the construction project raised by the Deputy with the officials.

4:05 pm

Photo of Frank FeighanFrank Feighan (Sligo-Leitrim, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Minister for his reply. I am delighted that he has met Mr. Peter Weir. I think we knew him through the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly. It is great to see that cross-Border and cross-department co-operation which is vital across the island of Ireland.

Brian Leddin (Limerick City, Green Party)
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Is deas dom an deis seo an tAire a cheistiú don chéad uair sa Dáil seo. These are certainly testing times for the Minister and I wish him well in his responsibility to oversee the leaving certificate in 2020. Today, students should be sitting English paper 2, which would include their comparative studies, but that is not the case. I wish the State Examinations Commission, which is working in unison with Dr. Harold Hislop in the Department, and the various teams of teachers that are collaborating with their colleagues in schools across the country this week to finalise the initial sets of predicted grades for their leaving certificate students well in their work. This is a novel departure for our post-primary sector and, like many issues currently, it is one that has been brought about directly as a result of Covid-19. I am sure the NCCA will maintain a watching brief on how this progresses. Of course, it has been charged with the task of reforming leaving certificate assessments and accreditations such that students at the end of the senior cycle are primed for further study in the 21st century.

The Minister recently referred to the potential emergence of blended learning in our schools in the 2020-2021 academic year. That will require a digital upgrade in classrooms. Although it is true to say that the clár dubh is giving way to smart boards in many places, it is not true to say we are close to finishing that transition nationwide. We should extend this digital upgrade to the summer colleges sna Gaeltachtaí timpeall na tíre. Sadly, those custodians of the language will not be in a position to accept students in person this year. Some of the colleges are making efforts to move their courses online. It is fantastic to see this ingenuity operate in real time. Summers in the Gaeltacht offer many their first independent stint away from home and it is unfortunate that this rite of passage has been put on pause as part of the new normal, ach tiocfaidh an céilí mór arís, gan dabht.

The necessity of digitally upgrading our schools speaks directly to the European Commission's plans to help repair and prepare member states' economies for the future. Next Generation EU is the recovery instrument that will be employed at this juncture. The stimulus will be of the order of €750 billion, the details of which were outlined in Brussels this week by the Commission President, Ms Ursula von der Leyen.

There is a dual aspect to this instrument, namely, the fact that, along with the digital upgrade, the Commission wants to see this recovery being one that is rooted in green initiatives. The EU wants member states to set out in detail their plans in this regard. Our students are already discussing the welfare of the planet in CSPE and geography classes, and An Taisce, through the green schools award, has brought to the fore the importance of environmental management in the minds of teenagers. Schools are developing sustainable systems that respect the importance of protecting water resources and the role of proper waste management.

As we know, when the order came for schools to close, in keeping with the NPHET advice, schools and colleges had to move their teaching overnight onto the cloud, and this was a considerable undertaking which our teachers met with distinction. New systems were put in place to allow teachers to interact with students remotely. As the Minister alluded to previously, social distancing may require a level of remote teaching to continue into the coming academic year. The winds of change are bringing students and teachers to new places. The European Commission recognises that these new worlds will be more digital and will also need to be greener. This could involve retrofitting school buildings, where appropriate, and the roll-out of digital exams in the future, where equity of access can be achieved. If we are prepared for this change, we can benefit in our schools from the fact gur olc an ghaoth nach séideann maith do dhuine éigin.

Accepting that it is very early in the process, what preparation is the Department of Education and Skills currently making to help Ireland in its application to the next generation fund?

4:10 pm

Photo of Joe McHughJoe McHugh (Donegal, Fine Gael)
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Gabhaim buíochas leis an Teachta as ucht a cheiste. Déanaim comhghairdeas leis as a bheith tofa. Guím ádh mór air sa ról úr atá aige. Is dualgas agus onóir mhór é a bheith tofa mar Theachta Dála.

I want to take the Deputy back to his first point around the €750 billion fund. We are now working in that world of billions. One of the things I believe is central to any deliberation around funding and that collective response from Europe is to ensure that, at its heart, is how we tackle educational disadvantage and how we ensure that the most vulnerable are protected. When I think back to the last recession, I think of all the young Donegal people who had to leave and go to Australia, Canada and the United States. In that recession, I could see on my own doorstep that they were the hardest hit. We only had to look at the rest of the country, as well as at countries like Italy and Spain, to see that massive negative impact on the younger generation. I believe any conversation around funding streams has to look at what we can do to empower young people, while obviously focusing on the skill level and how we ensure that education continues and that there are jobs at the end of that education.

As to my contribution, at a recent round of ministerial meetings at European Commission level, I discussed with all of my counterparts the issues of Covid, school reopening, third level and all the challenges that go with that. My point was to ensure that, whatever funding and support Europe can give, we put education at the heart of it.

That brings me to the last question on funding. My proposition and that of my Department is to continue those conversations with my European counterparts. We are due to meet again towards the end of June, in some two weeks time.

The Deputy also talked about the digital agenda being to the forefront. The German minister very clearly outlined that the upcoming German Presidency is going to have a very sharp focus on the digital agenda, not just in terms of education but also the world of work. One thing has been quite clear in the last three months. At the tertiary level, universities were very quick to adapt, to continue with online lecturing and to do their exams online. Post-primary was quite well-equipped in terms of having the experience of Google Classroom and had already started using the investment available, given we invest a considerable amount of money every year - more than €60 million at this stage - in digital support for schools.

On the primary school system, the information coming back from our inspectorate indicates really creative and innovative ways to use technology but that, whether it is a generational thing or for different reasons, online teaching was not as interactive compared to a post-primary setting. There are very valid reasons for this such as gaps around broadband and other obstacles. One of the clear indicators coming from the teaching profession is that while digital communication technology filled some gaps, it is not the solution. We want and need to continue to ensure that our students are in a classroom setting but digital communication and new technology can add value to that process and can simplify some things. One of the simple learnings from teachers during this period was that they did not have to photocopy. Consider the amount of money that goes into photocopying. The expectation, however, was put onto some parents to copy, especially at primary school level, and I can attest to that. There were some massive learnings and one of the great insights into it, from parents and teachers, is that a house with home schooling is a very tense environment at times. Parents are trying to mix work and home schooling at the same time and it is a very stressed environment. We need to get our students back into the classroom and it is my ambition to continue to work closely with health officials to ensure we are provided with a roadmap so at the end of August and the beginning of September we have a maximum number of students back in primary and second level classrooms. I am interested to stay in touch with Deputy Leddin on his specific suggestions on where this fund could be used in education. I am very open to that.

4:15 pm

Photo of Aodhán Ó RíordáinAodhán Ó Ríordáin (Dublin Bay North, Labour)
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The Minister is aware that the world is saying with one voice that black lives matter. I raise this issue because it appears to me we should be cognisant of the fact that we stand in probably the whitest parliament in the world, and that our teaching profession should reflect the students they teach. We have been remiss in trying to get a teaching profession or role models in the professions such as teaching, nursing and the Garda, that reflect the general population. I am not sure of the statistics for members of the Traveller community or people from minority groups who are in the teaching profession but I am interested to know what kinds of conversations are happening in the Department of Education about promoting such a pathway so people from various different backgrounds to be role models and leaders in education. I do not know the statistics but I can only imagine that the teaching profession is probably similar to the political profession in this regard. There is a lot we can change in Irish society. Many people will know Members, who sit currently in this House, who have said things they should regret about Travellers, migrants and asylum seekers. We have to find mechanisms in every Department on how we can change attitudes. Many students now sit in classrooms with people from all sorts of backgrounds, which is to be welcomed, but in most cases the teachers are quite similar. I ask that the Minister would reflect on that and see what the Department of Education and teacher training colleges are doing to reach out to have an education and teaching profession, including a special needs assistant profession, that is reflective of the student body.

I shall now turn to the issue of returning to school. When listening to the mixed messaging, as referred to earlier, sometimes I get frustrated with how differently education is treated to how the economy is treated. We speak about education in very different ways. When we speak about the retail sector or the economy there is nothing that cannot be addressed. Rent can be addressed, rates can be addressed and paying staff can be addressed. When we talk of schools losing teachers, however, the Minister said the system has not changed because of Covid-19.

Why can the system not change because of Covid? The last time we spoke I mentioned to the Minister a school in an acutely disadvantaged area that is one student short of keeping a teacher for September. Every school will greatly struggle in September to keep the show on the road and to get students back into the classroom. Secondary school principals tell me we will lose a generation because students they have been clinging to for years to keep them in the education system, who legally do not have to be there after the age of 16, are now making a decision not to go back. The discontinuation of education has been so profound in their lives they are unlikely to go back in September. Unless we frontload this area with huge resources and realise how important it is we will not get them back and we will lose a generation.

What frustrates me about the language used is that I do not really get the sense this is a priority or of how enormous it will be for schools to reopen in September for young people and children to have the chance to change the direction in their lives. It will cost money. People speak about other examples in various European countries. They are putting money into it. They are putting staff into it.

Sanitation has been mentioned, as has the figure of €25 million that it will cost. I want the Minister to be aware of a project undertaken by four students in St. Seachnall's national school in Dunshaughlin. I will send the Minister the details so he will be aware of it. They did a project on sanitising their school and they want it to go nationwide. Laura Kilbane, Emily Lynch, Julia Olelale and Adelina Stewart are anxious that the project be taken on by the Department and rolled out.

I want to ask about safe passes. It appears that imagination which could be used by the Department is not being used. For a construction worker or someone who wants to get an apprenticeship the safe pass is everything but the system does not seem to be able to bend to the new reality. I am told, from speaking to the Connect Trade Union, that the trade union movement is willing to step up to the mark and fill in the gaps that need to be filled. There is potential for these courses to be delivered online. SOLAS oversees it but, unfortunately, it is unbending. This is under the Department and I ask the Minister please to speak about the safe pass so that people moving from one jurisdiction back to Ireland or from one profession to another will not have this pause button on their potential to start work or start their apprenticeship. It appears that the Government is all over finding a solution for some sectors of the economy but when it comes to issues such as education and safe passes it is unbending.

Something else that is unbending is the Teaching Council. Under the Droichead framework for teachers' probation, primary teachers must have 60 days in a school and secondary school teachers need 200 hours in a school. Nothing after 13 March will count. Primary school teachers could have done 59 days since 13 March, doing the best they can online trying to educate children, but it will not count for their probation. This is another unbending arm of the Department.

For some reason the Department will not change its ways. It is causing a huge amount of frustration for young teachers trying to get into the profession and young people trying to get their safe pass. Principals are worried about getting students back in September or being one student short to keep a teacher. Everything in the Department is unbending. It just will not bend. When it comes to the economy, retail and all the other lobbyists on the radio every day of the week, the world can change for them because people need to buy flights and snack boxes in Supermac's.

The Minister mentioned the July provision and I appreciate the fact he has given it an awful lot of airtime in this contribution and in his previous contribution. I congratulate him for that. There is a rolling ongoing scandal in the country regarding children who have a diagnosis of autism who do not have a school place in September. It will be compounded this year because of Covid-19. The issue is between the Departments of Education and Skills and Health and it is the classic problem in Irish education when something falls between two Departments; both Departments have the perfect answer that it is the other's problem. Parents struggling with a diagnosis and challenge in their families are handed a list of schools and told "off you go".

I know parents who have been to 15 or 19 schools which have all found mechanisms for saying "No". The Minister now has power under the Education (Admission to Schools) Act 2018 to force a school to open a unit, or demand that it do so, and I want him to speak to that.

These are extraordinary times. Everybody appreciates that and everybody sitting here, asking these questions appreciates the fact that it is a difficult time but the Department of Education and Skills needs to unbend. The Department knows how to deal with schools and teachers but it does not know how to, or feels that it cannot, deal with anyone outside that and it has no empathy for the situation. If the Minister does not have time to respond to all my questions I would appreciate a written response.

4:30 pm

Photo of Joe McHughJoe McHugh (Donegal, Fine Gael)
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I will work my way backwards. The good news is that over the past few weeks with what has happened between Department of Education and Skills officials and the Department of Health there has been a sea change on a summer programme. We are looking at the school inclusion model which we all want to work towards for children who need physiotherapy, occupational therapy or speech and language therapy. The Deputy is right there are two different Departments working separately. There has, however, been a sea change. We are working together to get a summer programme for the 600 children with complex medical needs, along with disadvantaged kids and special educational needs kids. I acknowledge the work of the officials on that.

The Department is not unbending in respect of the safe pass. Rules to meet different needs have to change. I am actively considering the safe pass issue. The Teaching Council is also actively considering the probation issue too. I hope we will have news on those two fronts in the not too distant future.

The Deputy's first point was really interesting. I would be interested in the St. Seachnall's project if the Deputy would send me the information. On the rules for the end of September, as the Deputy said, the pupil-teacher ratio is a budgetary consideration. There is a budget coming up in three months' time, at the end of September. There, I have announced it even before the Minister for Finance gets to do it, whoever will be in charge then. I take the Deputy's point and have asked the inspectorate to look into the issue in Darndale which the Deputy has raised previously. I am waiting for it to get back to me on that.

The Deputy is 100% right about creating pathways to reflect our society. That is why I ensured funding for a migrant project in Marino which is considering an induction into the Irish education system for mature students from different countries who live here now, Irish citizens. Some might be former French or mathematics teachers in Spain or wherever. It was formerly funded by the Department of Justice and Equality. I took over the funding of it, only €50,000, because it identified exactly what we need to do. The Deputy might like to familiarise himself with that project. It has been showing great leadership in Marino on this.

Photo of Mary ButlerMary Butler (Waterford, Fianna Fail)
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Deputy Gannon has ten minutes. I remind all Deputies that if they want to allow the Minister time to respond they will have to make it within their own timeframe because our time is limited due to the Covid-19 restrictions.

Photo of Gary GannonGary Gannon (Dublin Central, Social Democrats)
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I am very conscious that as we sit here today and discuss education, students who would otherwise be doing their junior or leaving certificates or who would be going on school tours are sitting at home. In addition to the pandemic, which is affecting them in a multitude of ways, now when they turn on their television or social media they are faced with pictures of racial injustice and state-sponsored violence in the US. It is important to acknowledge and understand that and to position ourselves in respect of those images and what we can do. I join my colleagues in expressing my solidarity with everyone protesting against police brutality and racism. The killing of George Floyd and countless other black men and women by police must be protested. The inexcusable structural racism that allows innocent black men and women be killed by police forces without consequence, and the unique brand of politics that excuses these killings and breeds fear and sows division, must end.

People power, protest and worldwide expressions of solidarity are the only way to do this and we in the Social Democrats stand in full solidarity with protestors on the Black Lives Matter demonstrations both here and abroad.

This is an important moment in which to reflect on racism and on the discrimination that exists in our country. I have made the point on several occasions in this Chamber that diversity matters. In a representative democracy, it is important that a person can witness some semblance of his or her likeness as he or she engages with the structures of the State. This thought was foremost in my mind as I prepared for this session on education today. As we pursue a pathway to return to normality, I am conscious of what normality has been for students from minority backgrounds in Ireland up to this point. Marian Wright Edelman famously said: "It's hard to be what you can't see." If that is true, students from low income backgrounds, students of colour, students with disabilities and students from Traveller backgrounds and ethnic minority groups cannot see themselves in the teaching community in Ireland.

It is a point that has been made by a previous speaker but I will elaborate on it. The Department of Educations and Skill's data shows that in the period between 2013 and 2014, one in nine primary school children was from a non-Irish background. In our second level schools, one in eight students was born overseas. Le Chéile Secondary School in Tyrrellstown reports 67 nationalities making up its student cohort but this diversity is not reflected in our teaching professions. A diversity in initial teacher education in Ireland study found that of new primary school teachers in 2014, 99% of respondents identified as white, Irish and settled and 100% specified either English or Irish as their first language. For our secondary school teachers, the picture is much the same. Over 98% of 2013 entrants and 99% of 2014 entrants expressed their origins as being of Irish nationality only or as of Irish nationality with an additional nationality.

There are some positives which the Minister has mentioned and I want to touch on the programme the Minister mentioned as well because it is a worthwhile programme. I applaud the Department of Education and Skills and the Department of Justice and Equality for funding the Marino Institute of Education migrant teacher bridging programme that allows migrants with educational qualifications onto a one-year course to become qualified teachers in Ireland but 40 teachers progressed from that course last year and that is simply not enough. Dr. Emer Nowlan, who the Minister will know, is a course co-ordinator there. She has said they have been taken aback by the huge interest in the programme. She said they have 600 teachers on their mailing list and 140 applied to enrol in their current bridging programme but that, unfortunately, they could only accommodate 40 and so they had to apply selection criteria, which took a number of factors into account, including teacher qualifications and their progress through the Teaching Council registration process. I appeal to the Minister that this is an incredibly worthwhile initiative which he clearly values. We might need to widen the scope of this initiative and to bring more teachers through that same process.

When I think about racism, that replicates itself and becomes ingrained in our society and I cannot help but think about the plight of our Traveller community. That goes much deeper than simple representation. We need to reflect on the terrible history of racism in this country and on the treatment of Travellers by the State. Every day, Travellers in Ireland experience a denial of their identity with direct and indirect racism. At an individual level, Travellers are denied access to public businesses, Traveller children have reported being bullied in school and Travellers have been denied calls to interviews based on their addresses. On a structural level, we see an appalling lack of political will to deliver upon Traveller accommodation, with city councils returning Traveller accommodation budgets unspent each year. We see that inequality and racism further compounded when we look at the deep educational inequality experienced by Travellers in Ireland every day. That manifests itself in a multitude of different ways but I have even seen the denial of Traveller culture being placed on the syllabus. One can even look at the inability of so many Travellers to access third level education, with only 167 Travellers of any age reporting having a third level qualification. That is simply unacceptable.

When I think about the schools I have been in when I worked with the Trinity College Dublin access programme going into DEIS schools, one of the saddest things I saw, which is a shameful indictment of this country, was children who were born in Ireland who still felt the shameful consequences of that 2004 referendum which denies them citizenship. Anyone in this Thirty-third Dáil who is committed to confronting racism in this country, needs to commit him or herself to removing that horrendous consequence of that referendum.

We do not need another referendum to do it. We should not go around asking people whether they are good enough to live in this country. This Parliament can remove that consequence, and we should. We should commit ourselves to that in the Thirty-third Dáil.

The Taoiseach mentioned today in his contributions that the Covid payment will now be decreased for people who were not previously working full time when the pandemic started in February. This will have a profound impact on students who may not have been working full time in February but certainly would be working full time now so they could cover the potential cost of their registration fees. The Minister might say SUSI will do that, but it certainly does not do it for everybody. Such students would be working full time to cover the cost of their rent, the access requirements further than the point of entry, and books and stationery. If we remove the full Covid payment from that cohort, who would be working full time now, it will have a terrible consequence for them. I therefore appeal to the Minister to stand up for students at the meeting he will have tomorrow with the Taoiseach and say that those who would be working full time now, students or any other cohort, will be impacted by this measure. It is simply not acceptable.

I wish to talk a little about the 993 students who did not register for predictive grading. The Minister mentioned them in his opening address, and I respect that. We cannot let this cohort go. We need to find out who they are, find out the reasons they may not have registered for calculated grades and ensure we offer them every single opportunity to be treated the same as any other student.

The Minister has mentioned his and his Department's engagement with schools. We talk to schools all the time; they contact us. To give him an indication, the last contact I had from a school was just this morning. A school rang me up asking about school bus places for when students go back to school, if they are to go back in September. The school asked simply about getting their students onto buses. Are these matters being considered? In an urban environment, that, for me, is a Dublin bus being crammed at 8.30 a.m. I am sure it is different in a rural context, but under social distancing that will simply not be possible, so I hope the Minister is considering that also.

4:45 pm

Photo of Joe McHughJoe McHugh (Donegal, Fine Gael)
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I reassure the Deputy that bus transportation is a key factor in our deliberations as to what the end of August and September will look like. We are looking at the practicalities of that for the summer programme as well. The feedback from the teachers and the teacher representative bodies is that they are looking at everything. They are looking at the set-up in the morning and what will be needed in terms of hygiene and sanitisers, and all sorts of criteria and instructions for training and guidance for teachers. I accept there is a sense of urgency and that teachers, principals and boards of management need to know what August and September will look like as soon as possible. That is why I committed at last Friday's Cabinet meeting to set out a timeframe. The timeframe is very specific. Towards the end of next week we will have guidelines published for schools for a roadmap as to what the end of August and September will look like. It is really important that schools plan because there will be a lot of planning.

The issue the Deputy raised with the Covid payment is a good and valid point. Many students, even leaving certificate students now, including from my county and my parish, rely on tourism. They are getting no payment. However, not all students got the Covid payment, so there was an inequality there. It was only the students who were in part-time jobs who got it. There is therefore an annoyance among other students who may have been in part-time employment, perhaps a couple of months previously or whatever. There is an inequity there among all students.

Photo of Gino KennyGino Kenny (Dublin Mid West, People Before Profit Alliance)
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The Minister and I have spoken about the issue of July provision and special needs education weekly. I do not know whether the Minister saw the report on the RTÉ news on Tuesday. It was heartbreaking to see those two families in that situation. It was terrible to see the stress and anxiety parents with children with complicated needs are going through. They have no outlet or routine.

It is very difficult. Not having that routine is extremely difficult not only for the children but for the family as well. The sooner there is structure, the better. Can the Minister give structure and a definitive answer in respect of the July programme to those families? Will there be a July programme come July? Families in that situation simply cannot take any more.

4:50 pm

Photo of Joe McHughJoe McHugh (Donegal, Fine Gael)
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The answer to the question is "Yes". There most definitely will be. It will be different to previous July provisions because it will not only be exclusive to autism. We are widening it out. We have upwards of 8,000 students in our autism spectrum disorder classes. We have 8,000 students in special schools. That is 16,000 straight away. We want to add to that number. We want to look at disadvantage and school completion programmes. We talked about that two weeks ago when we engaged on this issue. The answer is clearly "Yes" but I want to have it right. That is why we are going to continue to engage with public health officials because we need to comply with the guidelines. I want to give certainty to parents too. I want parents to be confident that this is the right thing for their children.

For some children it may be in the home. That option has to be there for parents. Last year, believe it or not, of the 10,000 students who participated in July provision a total of 70% were in the home. That requires buy-in from special needs assistants, tutors and teachers. My plea today is to the school leadership. At the outset the feedback has been incredibly positive. School leaders are really keen to make this happen. Out of 4,000 schools in our country only 232 opened up for July provision last year. It is not all about opening up schools en masse. It is about seeing what has worked in previous years and seeing what we can build on as well.

I want to make one point about special needs assistants. SNAs never gave up contact when the schools closed on 12 March. Deputies will know that from evidence of the schools. They have stayed in touch with students. I asked my officials for examples of good practice. I have a list as long as my arm of what some schools are doing. They are ringing parents. Some are ringing parents every day. They are in touch with the son or daughter every day. They are keeping that connectivity going.

SNAs have participated in the redeployment scheme. There is a percentage of SNAs working under programmes of the HSE. There has been extraordinary and incredible interlocking between the Department of Health and the Department of Education and Skills. That bodes well for the future. I am sorry for going on. Deputy Kenny's question required a simply "Yes" or "No" response. The answer is "Yes".

Photo of Gino KennyGino Kenny (Dublin Mid West, People Before Profit Alliance)
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Will it begin at the end of June or the start or July?

Photo of Joe McHughJoe McHugh (Donegal, Fine Gael)
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We will be looking next week at contacting the schools and we are looking to start at the beginning of July.

Photo of Gino KennyGino Kenny (Dublin Mid West, People Before Profit Alliance)
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I have another question about children in disadvantaged areas. Will there be provision for that cohort of students, especially over the summer period? As we said last week, many students have not been in school since 13 March. It is especially acute around disadvantage. Some students will simply drop out. Significant resources will have to be put towards those students. What are the Department plans in this area?

I have read about online supports for July provision. What will that contain? Sometimes the outlet is the routine of going outside the family home. That is essential and it gives parents a break. What online provision is included in the July provision?

Photo of Joe McHughJoe McHugh (Donegal, Fine Gael)
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I am reluctant to give a picture of what this is going to look like because we are not announcing it formally until next week. I am going to bring a memorandum to Cabinet and we are going to publish the guidelines. I will offer two examples in terms of disadvantage. We are looking at school completion. This will involve targeted disadvantage to try to get some form of school completion continued. We are also looking at literacy and numeracy in DEIS schools. At the moment only 70 schools do the summer programme in literacy and numeracy. I am looking to build upon that and extend it. They are two examples. Next week we will have more clarification.

Photo of Mick BarryMick Barry (Cork North Central, Solidarity)
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The Irish Timeslast Saturday reported the following: "It is also understood the department is exploring the idea of a “tapered curriculum” when schools return."

It also reported: "Some elements of the junior cycle are also being curtailed, with incoming third-year students now required to complete a single classroom-based assessment in most subjects, rather than two." Will the Minister clarify whether this is the case? Is he considering a tapered curriculum for leaving certificate students of the class of 2021?

The Minister knows my position that the leaving certificate is unnecessarily stressful, biased against students from low-income families and an outlier in European second level education, that there should be a significant increase in State spending on third level to open it up and that the review of the leaving certificate should consider the exam's abolition and alternatives to it in time for the class of 2021. If he plans to taper the course for fifth years, though, might I suggest to him that it would need to be a significant tapering, giving that those students have lost one third of their classroom time in the 2019-20 year?

The world watched with horror the police murder of George Floyd, and many, myself included, watched with admiration the multiracial uprising of young people in the US against its President, police forces and an entire system that was riddled with inequality and racism. Demonstrators across the world have not only expressed solidarity but have pointed towards the racism that exists within their own societies. In Ireland, many young people of colour and Travellers who have joined the protests have highlighted the issue of racism in our society and education system. It exists and it needs to be tackled.

We know that migrant children are over-represented in larger schools, schools in urban areas and schools in socio-economically disadvantaged areas. We also know that school outcomes are far from equal. For example, 20% of migrant children drop out of school, which is double the rate for non-migrant children. A mere 1% of students from a Traveller background go on to third level education.

We must look at the experience of the education system through the eyes of students from minority backgrounds. I would be interested to hear from students from minority backgrounds about their experience of the education system. While schools officially have an anti-racism ethos, to what extent is this really followed through on to become a thoroughgoing ethos that pervades all aspects of school life? For example, how much black history would be learned by a black student in an Irish school? How much Traveller history would be learned by a Traveller student as well as non-black and non-Traveller students to raise their level of understanding of these issues?

Will the Minister comment on his plans to improve the anti-racism ethos in the education system and anti-racism outcomes?

5:00 pm

Photo of Mary ButlerMary Butler (Waterford, Fianna Fail)
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The Minster has just one minute.

Photo of Joe McHughJoe McHugh (Donegal, Fine Gael)
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Less than one minute. Let me be clear - we have an inclusive educational model. It is not just an urban issue or a rural issue. In my town of Letterkenny, I believe that one of the primary schools has 38 nationalities. It has all ethnicities from around the world. It is a global school. When I attended an event, one of the students summarised the school by saying that it was an international school steeped in the history of Letterkenny. We have something really good going on in this country in terms of inclusiveness and ensuring that we embrace all ethnicities, the new Irish and new citizens. The students I have met over the past 19 months in this job know that they are safe in that environment. It is important to point out the positives in what is going on in this country in terms of education. Yes, we can do more and improve, but there are many good aspects and the inclusive nature has been transformative.

The Deputy referred to speculation in a weekend newspaper about the curriculum being tapered. What I will confirm now is that there are discussions ongoing between the NCCA and my officials regarding the curriculum. I am conscious of the fifth years, who have been mentioned by a number of Deputies.

Deputy Barry has been consistent in raising the same issue over and over again. Fair play to him for raising it because by doing so, it keeps it on my radar and that of my officials and keeps it on the agenda. In terms of the fifth years, we are looking at the benefits of "Home School Hub" for primary schools and are having discussions with RTÉ to see if there is a space there for fifth years in terms of what they have lost out on this year. There are discussions going on between the NCCA and my officials on this issue.

5:05 pm

Photo of Peadar TóibínPeadar Tóibín (Meath West, Aontú)
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First, I welcome the indemnification of teachers by the State in the context of this year's leaving certificate. Aontú has been calling for such indemnification for weeks and welcomes the good news in that regard. I would like the Minister to tell the Dáil what money has been set aside for the indemnification and whether it will come from the Department of Education and Skills.

My next question relates to concerns that still exist within the teaching community about the new leaving certificate system and its potential to be corrupted in the future. I must emphasise that I believe wholeheartedly that the vast majority of the stakeholders within the education system are going to see this new process through to the best of their ability and try to ensure that everybody gets fair marks. However, in every system human nature obviously plays a part and a minority of situations may lead to difficulties. I can foresee whistleblowers coming forward with information on such difficulties in the future. It has already been reported to me that some principals and boards of management have sought to elevate grades. Further, it has also been reported to me that some parents and students have sought to elevate grades. The latter will be very difficult to deal with in small towns and villages across the country. I am also conscious that a negative relationship between a teacher and student may result in lower grades for that student. It has been reported to me that a teacher who was giving paid grinds to the students of another teacher's leaving certificate class openly attended an alignment meeting and commented on the students' grades. What can we do to make sure that this does not happen in the future? I have been told of schools insisting that teachers attend meetings with colleagues in person even though departmental documentation states that such work can be done remotely. Younger teachers and those in need of contracts of indefinite duration hours for next year may be put under pressure to be compliant.

I reiterate that these allegations refer to a minority of cases and I acknowledge that most of the stakeholders in the system are going to do their job to the best of their ability and to the highest level possible. However, the Minister has embarked upon this marking system and has ignored the requests of the unions to rely on more concrete aspects of the education system, including summer and Christmas exam results and the results of mock exams. What is in place in the process to prevent these problems from arising or to address them as they arise? Given the fact that we are likely to be living with this virus not just for this year but also next year, is the Government working on a system other than the ad hocone we have currently, that will give more reliability and stability to teachers, parents and students?

The second issue I wish to raise with the Minister is the fact that teachers and parents are none the wiser with regard to the reopening of schools in late August or early September. The media is awash with speculation but there is precious little detail and this is causing massive stress for parents. We are hearing about pods of four, tapered classes and courses and partial openings, with some children remaining at home while others attend school. If the brand new schools in my constituency use the 2 m social distancing rule then at most, this will allow for about ten students per classroom but most of the classrooms in my constituency would not come near to that level of space.

Indeed, there are heaps of schools right across all constituencies that have been waiting for years for additions to their school premises so that they can properly facilitate the students who are already there under the old regime. Will the Minister provide proper clarity with regard to this? The uncertainty from the Department is really strange given that the WHO has actually said that Ireland already meets the criteria for schools to go back now. The Taoiseach is on record as saying that the schools are among the lowest-risk categories in society for Covid-19. In an effort to stop this constant speculation, will the Minister provide concrete clarity and clear up the confusion?

I have a question about children with special needs and the July provision. I know the Minister has answered some of the questions so I will not go over them. Obviously, children with special needs and their parents have been particularly badly hit by the lockdown and the cancellation of education. Children with special needs do far better with structure and when they have regular engagement with a highly trained professional educator. We have seen in news reports and elsewhere how parents are really struggling with the pressure of minding and educating their children 24-7. We have seen children with complex needs suffer greatly from the lack of education so they are radically disadvantaged, more so probably than any other category of schoolchild. Will the Minister see to it that education starts now for children with complex special needs and will he guarantee the return of the July provision? I know he said that he is looking at it. I have been here for ten years and words like "endeavouring to do" and "looking at" often hide the fact that there are no concrete plans and decisions have not been made so what I am looking for is a guarantee to be sent out now to the parents of these 10,000 children that some educational structure will come into the lives of these children.

It is really important that Departments and Ministers make decisions with all of the facts that have been given to them. What research has been done by his Department on the cost in educational terms to students of what has happened? Could he refer specifically to at-risk students because we know that the school system is a great space for at-risk students to have some level of monitoring to make sure they are safe? What are the financial costs to the State?

A university for the north west is obviously of massive interest to the Minister. People in Derry are looking for it as well. We know that Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael mentioned it in their manifestos. Negotiations are ongoing. Will it appear in the programme for Government?

5:10 pm

Photo of Joe McHughJoe McHugh (Donegal, Fine Gael)
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The Deputy is correct in saying that the alignment process has started in terms of estimating grades. There is daily interaction between teachers, teaching colleagues, deputy principals and principals so that work will continue. The executive office that has been set up in the Department is up and running. We have an independent monitoring group chaired by Dr. Áine Lawlor. There are a lot of checks and balances in there. I know we will hear different examples and anecdotes but the general feedback I am getting is one where teachers are working collaboratively with the whole school community. Words like "conscientious", "committed" and "dedicated" are used. They want to get it right. It is a difficult space to be in. Think if someone was to walk down the main street in Navan 12 weeks ago and say the leaving certificate was not going ahead this year and that we were going to introduce a whole new calculated grades model in 12 weeks. I take this opportunity to acknowledge the dedication of departmental staff and officials for all their work and their ability to adapt. I assure the Deputy that there are checks and balances. I agree with the Deputy that it is not the perfect system. It is not the one I wanted - I wanted the written exam - but it is the fairest system in the circumstances.

Next Friday, I will bring a memorandum to Cabinet around the criteria and guidelines about schools reopening. We will provide parents and school communities with that certainty.

On special educational needs, what will be provided will not be the normal July provision. I propose to widen it such that it will not be exclusive to autism but will include educational disadvantage and other students as well. The Department of Health will have a role in regard to 600 children with complex medical needs. The memorandum, which I will bring to Cabinet next Friday, will include information in this regard as well.

I will be in this House next Wednesday, but as it will be the end of next week before I bring the memorandum to Government, I will be reiterating the point next week that a memorandum will be produced in two days' time. I encourage the Deputy to take the opportunity of the debate next Wednesday to put his proposals in regard to what he believes should be incorporated in the provision.

5:15 pm

Photo of Mary ButlerMary Butler (Waterford, Fianna Fail)
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We must move on.

Photo of Peadar TóibínPeadar Tóibín (Meath West, Aontú)
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I would like a response to my question on the cost of the indemnification.

Photo of Joe McHughJoe McHugh (Donegal, Fine Gael)
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The cost of the State indemnification will be dealt with by the Office of the Attorney General. Teachers are indemnified. That has been guaranteed. A Cabinet decision provides for indemnification to protect teachers in this process. Whatever costs arise will be borne by the State.

Photo of Mary ButlerMary Butler (Waterford, Fianna Fail)
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The next speaker is Deputy Michael Collins who is sharing with Deputy Danny Healy-Rae. The Deputies have five minutes each.

Photo of Michael CollinsMichael Collins (Cork South West, Independent)
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Island living has not been easy throughout the Covid crisis. With eight great islands in west Cork, every effort must be made to keep young families living there. Sherkin Island national school closed its doors in June 2016. For four years it has been trying to secure adequate access to education for the island's children. Its successes over these four years have been hard won. It has secured additional ferries for primary school children, the departure and arrival times of which line up with school times. It is hard to believe it has taken four years to achieve this. However, there is still a way to go to have mainland equality when it comes to access to education for island children.

Deputy McHugh is the Minister for Education and Skills. There are many emotional and physical aspects to this situation, which I will attempt to lay out for the House. The main barrier is the cost of sending a child to school from the island, in this case Sherkin Island. The maximum a family on the mainland pays for access to primary education for a family, irrespective of the number of children, is €220 per term. Island families are paying this sum in a two-week period, increasing with the number of children. There is a clear discrimination between access to education from an island and from the mainland. The primary school in Sherkin Island closed, yet there are four children from the island in the local mainland school, with a further six children to do likewise in the coming years. This type of financial burden on island families in the current climate may ultimately result in them moving off the island. The islands are in real danger of losing their families. If they are to survive, this needs to be rectified with immediate effect. Will the Minister rectify this clear anomaly in regard to access to education for an island child in comparison with a child from the mainland?

In west Cork, some leaving certificate students appear to have fallen through a crack in the predicted grades system, namely, students who want to study medicine next year and require a third language to get a placement in a course but did not study a language at leaving certificate level but chose to learn French through home tuition. Many of these students had studied French up to fourth year, with some having achieved a B grade at higher level in the junior certificate, and so they were confident in their ability to achieve a pass in ordinary level at leaving certificate level. However, as they are self-taught and they have no teacher to award them a predicted grade, all of their work may have been for nothing if they are to sit a written examination, whenever that becomes a possibility, and they will miss out on a year of university due to a fault in the system. Can anything be done for these young people who have had the initiative to teach themselves?

The parents of secondary school-going children in Bandon are sick to the teeth of promises, many of which have been badly broken down through the years. Only a few months ago, they were told to educate their children in Cork city as there were no placements in Bandon in September. Another announcement has been made in regard to the construction of 19 general classrooms, three science laboratories, five special education teaching, SET, rooms, two prep areas, an art room, a textile room, a home economics room and two mainstream classrooms in an already overcrowded area in St. Brogan's. When will the shovel turn on this project and when will the new school open? What are the plans of the Department of Education of Skills for Bandon schoolgoing children this year and next year?

I welcome the Minister's announcement that the July provision will go ahead next year. It is welcome news.

Photo of Joe McHughJoe McHugh (Donegal, Fine Gael)
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I acknowledge the Sherkin Island community. I have visited the island twice. I commend the community on its creative and innovative approach to issues, including its involvement with DCU on an art project.

A great example is Glenroe national school in Limerick which is looking to open up in September. There is nothing to say a school cannot open again in the future. I have confidence from looking around my own county at places like Arranmore where there are two primary schools and a secondary school and nearly 50 students come from the mainland daily to go to the island school. They have set up a new digital hub which will attract people back to the island.

While it is only a prediction, my prediction for the future of islands is a positive one because of broadband being available on the islands, whether those in Kerry, Donegal or west Cork. I think we will be looking at positive changes in the movement of people because Facebook and Google in Dublin have announced that people can work from home and there is no reason they cannot work from the southern or northern parts of the country. The Sherkin Island community is already seeing a progression from four students to six over a few years. There is a school in Donegal that had 11 students in 1999 and now has 85. Momentum happens once it gets started. I would never discount the idea of a primary school on Sherkin Island, and if we can give help or advice on that process, I would be happy to get my officials-----

5:25 pm

Photo of Mary ButlerMary Butler (Waterford, Fianna Fail)
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I am going to let Deputy Danny Healy-Rae in now.

Photo of Joe McHughJoe McHugh (Donegal, Fine Gael)
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I am sorry. I thought I had the whole time for myself.

Photo of Mary ButlerMary Butler (Waterford, Fianna Fail)
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We might get the rest of the answers on Bandon in writing.

Photo of Joe McHughJoe McHugh (Donegal, Fine Gael)
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We will do that.

Photo of Danny Healy-RaeDanny Healy-Rae (Kerry, Independent)
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I thank the Minister for being engaged and responding as best he can to every query. He seems to be on top of everything. For my part, I emphasise that schools need to know as soon as possible what the picture will look like at the beginning or September or in late August. There is going to be a massive difference. Are we going to reduce the rule to 1 m as opposed to the 2 m we have at present? We need to know what it is going to look like because people are worrying that if it is still 2 m distancing, all classes will not be entertained in school on the one day like they used to be. That needs to be clarified. The Minister might not be able to say next Friday whether the 1 m or 2 m rule will apply, but surely he should be able to say that it will look like this with the 2 m rule and like that with a 1 m rule. We need to know, as do teachers, schools and management because they will need more room. Room is available in community halls in places like Gneevgullia, where there is a local community group that has a lovely hall. It is called a teach fáilte and is only a step away from the school, which is already overcrowded. We need time to interact and to see how those matters can be resolved.

Regarding school buses, we need to know how many children will be allowed to sit in a 30-seat bus and what the story will be. Surely someone somewhere will be able to define how many each type and size of bus - large, medium or small - can take. We need to know those kinds of things, as does Bus Éireann. We need to get out there and let the private contractors and Bus Éireann know. That has to be known, sooner rather than later.

I thank the Minister for his work on special needs education. We asked him to include children with Down's syndrome and I hope they will be afforded the July provision as well and that it will be one to one rather than online or anything like that because that is not sufficient. Parents of special needs children have had a really tough time for the past three months.

Some have two children, which is double the effect. We need to know what is going to happen because if children have to stay at home for days their social development will be compromised. It has already been compromised by the fact that they have not met each other in schools for the past three months. I appeal to the Minister to do what he can to open up the schools and let people know what the picture is going to be like. The Minister can respond in writing if he cannot answer all my questions now. I thank him.

5:30 pm

Photo of Mary ButlerMary Butler (Waterford, Fianna Fail)
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There was a very important question about school transport.

Photo of Joe McHughJoe McHugh (Donegal, Fine Gael)
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It is like closing time. I have a short window here. The Deputy is right. Schools need to know the picture. That is why I will bring a memo to Cabinet next Friday with that picture, not just for schools reopening in late August and early September but in regard to children with special educational needs and disadvantage. I know there is a big debate about the 2 m and 1 m restrictions and all of that. We all live in the real world in terms of what a junior or senior infants class looks like. If we expect children in junior or senior infants or first or second class to look at the societal parameters we have laid down, we need to look at the science around students. We already know that those aged under 13 do not have to wear PPE gear. I do not want to see PPE gear in secondary schools, but I am not a public health official. That is my personal opinion and what I would like to see. I have seen photographs from South Korea, where there are pods in canteens and so on. I will not say what it was like, but it was a very difficult thing to process.

Photo of Mary ButlerMary Butler (Waterford, Fianna Fail)
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I will have to stop the Minister because we only have a few minutes left for our last two speakers. I am up against the clock.

Photo of Joe McHughJoe McHugh (Donegal, Fine Gael)
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On Down's syndrome, services will not be exclusive to autism. We will widen the programme out. The most important word for parents is choice. If they want education provided at home, it is possible to explore whether we can get a tutor or teacher to do that. We can also consider whether it is possible to open a school. The most important word from the point of view of a tutor, SNA and teacher is voluntary. One of the positive aspects of the July provision was that it was always voluntary and that is why it worked.

Photo of Mary ButlerMary Butler (Waterford, Fianna Fail)
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To conclude we have Deputies Harkin and Connolly. I presume they are taking five minutes each.

Marian Harkin (Sligo-Leitrim, Independent)
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I thank the Minister. I welcomed his last comment. As he said, he dealt with the reality of what it is like in schools. I am conscious of the Covid-19 restrictions and listened to the debate in my office. I heard all of the Minister's answers, including a reply on July provision. I thank him and those in his Department who worked to make this happen. It is very important. Some schools do two or four weeks and others do none. When can parents expect to get some information? Who will communicate that information to them if a school is not involved?

Photo of Joe McHughJoe McHugh (Donegal, Fine Gael)
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We will make formal contact with schools next week. The memo I will bring to Government at the end of next week will be a comprehensive guideline for schools and parents to let them know what options are available to them. I want to acknowledge the INTO, which has been very proactive on this. I have spoken to Mr. John Boyle a number of times. It is reaching out to its schools and is doing great work.

Marian Harkin (Sligo-Leitrim, Independent)
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The Minister is absolutely right. They have done great work and parents are very happy about that.

I heard the discussion on the south-east technological university and the Munster alliance, and I notice the Minister mentioned the Connacht-Ulster alliance twice. He said that the designated start date for Munster is January 2021, and good for them. As far as the Connacht-Ulster alliance is concerned, and given the current timetable and assuming everything goes to plan, there is some flexibility. Two of the three institutes can go together if they are ready but the third is not. It is important that that flexibility is used because it is in the plan. One way or another, let us assume that the current timetable holds. When does the Minister expect a start date? Will it be six months, 12 months or longer?

My second question has also been raised. It relates to the retention of teachers, especially in small primary schools. I mention one in my constituency, Termon national school, which has 15 pupils and is trying to retain its second teacher. The Minister said there is an appeals system and I accept that. I want the Minister to consider two points. In the context of Covid, the difference between having one teacher for 15 pupils or two teachers for 15 pupils is significant. It will not be necessary to put any extra supports or anything into small schools because they can do the social distancing much better with two teachers. In that context, I ask the Minister to waive that requirement for schools due to lose that extra teacher because otherwise the Department will need to provide extra supports for those schools. That is just one part of it.

The other point is that as the Minister knows, many of these small schools are rural schools and it becomes a cascade. In recent years seven rural schools in County Leitrim have closed. In the context of the Covid pandemic and more people working from home, whose children are more likely to attend national school, I ask the Minister to apply that flexibility for small rural schools.

5:40 pm

Photo of Joe McHughJoe McHugh (Donegal, Fine Gael)
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Regarding the Connacht-Ulster alliance, we now have GMIT, Sligo and Letterkenny in agreement on where they want to be, which is to have an application ready for quarter 4. I will not give a timeline after that because there is toing and froing in that process.

Marian Harkin (Sligo-Leitrim, Independent)
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Approximately how long does it take for the other universities?

Photo of Joe McHughJoe McHugh (Donegal, Fine Gael)
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If we are getting applications in towards the end of 2020, we are looking at 2021. I will not give a time, but that is not being overly ambitious because 2021 is 12 months to run then and we will keep the momentum going there.

I feel the Deputy's pain on the retention of teachers. It is such a difficult time. Principals and boards of management put in so much energy in trying to-----

Marian Harkin (Sligo-Leitrim, Independent)
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Can the Minister send it to me in writing?

Photo of Joe McHughJoe McHugh (Donegal, Fine Gael)
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I ask the Deputy to send me the detail on Termon national school and I will be happy to follow up.

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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Táim sásta go bhfuil dul chun cinn ó thaobh na scéime faoi leith i mí Iúil. Chaith mé a lán ama sa Dáil seo ag cur brú ar an Aire agus ar an Rialtas chun rud a dhéanamh. Táim ag tnúth leis an díospóireacht an tseachtain seo chugainn. I am looking forward to next week's debate on the July provision on special needs. I will not spend any more time on it, but certainly it was utterly neglected. I thank the Minister for the progress in that regard. Special schools, just like nursing homes and residential centres, should have been at the top of the agenda for any committee with a broad range of experience from day one.

I wish to zone in on universities. They have been mentioned today in many guises. I refer to two articles I read recently that set me thinking all over again. One was by Diarmaid Ferriter, the professor of history at UCD, and the other was by Deirdre Heenan, the professor of applied social policy at Ulster University. Diarmaid Ferriter wrote: " How old-fashioned it appears now to strive for a university that is a pleasant place in which to work and study, with pride in its self-made identity and producing independent thinkers who can conserve, create and transmit knowledge." I would add "to transmit a love of learning." Deirdre Heenan wrote: "Irish and British universities have to ask themselves whether they are educational institutions focused on the public good, or primarily businesses focused on revenue raising".

We are talking about learning lessons from Covid and not going back but I am very concerned about how the universities are making it normal for students to learn from home on computers. It is absolutely abnormal and unacceptable, but it is something we have to do at the moment. For example, the Galway Mayo Institute of Technology in Galway has received instructions that this will go on for the year. I am not sure why that type of teaching should go on for a year. The same also applies to the university. I would have expected it to last for a month or three months with a built-in review.

Any decision like that should also be based on analysis of student needs. I took the precaution of reading the executive summary and I glanced at the rest of the report from the Higher Education Authority, HEA, which draws our attention to the huge drop-out rates at third level. It is complex and based on complex factors, but it is a big issue. The HEA draws our attention to the fact this is a big issue, certainly in the context of gender - it is more boys than girls - where one comes from and how many points one starts with. It is mostly related to the failure to prepare those students going to third level and the failure to give help.

I am looking at this report and I am extremely concerned. The Minister will probably not have a chance to answer me, but I want to use my time to raise this because I have not heard it raised. Third level institutions should be places of learning. I have read the letter from various scientists. The number has increased to 1,500 compared with 1,000 in 2015 when they made their concerns known. I am worried, however, that the sciences are going in one trajectory while the arts and humanities subjects are going in another, when both of those should be together. If we learned anything from NPHET, we learned that the consensus mentality is not right. We also learned that from the banking crisis. We do not need a consensus mentality. We need questioning. If we had had questioning on NPHET, we would have done something regarding nursing homes from day one.

It is similar with universities. There is a cry that they are underfunded, and of course they are. I have heard the announcements and I have seen that funding is now 40% less than in 2008. This is the time to look at how we fund universities, and it should certainly not be through student loans. We fund universities because they are essential to democracy and learning. They are essential to a questioning and a healthy society, and we must make funding conditional on dealing with the huge drop-out rate and the lack of inclusiveness. I pay tribute to the National University of Ireland Galway, NUIG. It has done its best with inclusiveness, but it has a long way to go.

In addition, we have a statement from the Postgraduate Workers Alliance NUIG regarding what it sees as the misuse of PhD and other postgraduate students in Galway because they are being asked to give so many hours teaching per year, as part of their postgraduate studies, for very little pay.

We have serious issues at third level besides the absence of funding. We have a crisis regarding what a university should be and what we should value. We should never value the powerful voices who have access to Government over the other voices who do not. If we have learned anything, we have learned that we need a whole range of voices at our third level institutions and at various committees.

5:45 pm

Photo of James LawlessJames Lawless (Kildare North, Fianna Fail)
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I asked similar questions on universities, and on fixed-term research. I ask the Minister to respond to those questions when replying to Deputy Connolly, or perhaps he might answer them in writing afterwards, if he can accommodate that.

Photo of Mary ButlerMary Butler (Waterford, Fianna Fail)
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We have to conclude because we are over time for the two-hour limit. It would be much appreciated, however, if the Minister could facilitate answering those questions in writing. That concludes the statement by the Minister for Education and Skills on Covid-19 and questions and answers on Covid-19.

Sitting suspended at 4.15 p.m. and resumed at 4.35 p.m.