Thursday, 30 July 2020
Opening of Schools and Calculated Grades: Statements
We move on to No.a13. which is Statements by the Minister for Education and Skills on the opening of schools and calculated grades. I call on the Minister, Deputy Foley, to make her opening statement.
I am happy to be in the House again tonight having taken Oral Parliamentary Questions this morning. This week has been a very significant one for the schools sector. Following an intense period of weeks involving engagement with the education partners, I secured approval for the comprehensive plan that is "Reopening Our Schools: the roadmap for the full return to school" and, most important, the funding to implement it. The funding secured is significant. As Deputies know, it is over €375 million. What is most significant, however, is that the plan and the funding addresses all of the areas that need attention, including everything that needs to be addressed to get our schools open again, and to keep them open.
As the challenges before us from Covid 19 have been worked through, the paramount consideration throughout has been to do the right thing by students, their families and school communities across the country. This is my first occasion to address a Statements on Education session in the Dåil as Minister for Education and Skills. In April, May and June I was a regular contributor to earlier sessions putting views and perspectives to my predecessor. Therefore, I am aware of the interest in education but also the concerns and at times the anxieties of students, their families, and their school communities. As I have said consistently since I was appointed Minister the number one priority for me, for the Government, my Department and the wider schools sector has been to reopen our schools fully and safely at the start of the new school year. In seeking to reopen our schools we said we would be guided by the available public health advice and comprehensive engagement with stakeholders, including the school management bodies and staff representatives as well as students and parents. There has never been any doubt that I as Minister, together with my Department, school leaders and staff all want to see schools reopening as normal for the new school year.
In earlier debates some Deputies suggested that teachers, principals and other school staff had not been involved in the planning process which led to the roadmap being published. I assure the House that the staff unions of teachers, SNAs, school caretakers and secretaries, representatives of principals and deputy principals, school management bodies, and representatives of parents and post-primary students were all directly involved and worked intensively with my officials to work through the detail.
I appreciate that some hold the view that the roadmap could have been published sooner. The roadmap is built on the available public health advice, it is the foundation of the roadmap. That public health advice was published on 1 July. We then needed to engage with the school staff and other partners to redesign elements of how we operate and resource our schools. Deputies were aware that it was my intention to publish such a roadmap by the end of this month and that has been the intention for the last number of weeks. The roadmap was published as soon as it could have been. Rather than publish a set of aspirations, it was right to work through identifying the supports needed, to build consensus among the education partners, to get Government agreement and then launch the roadmap. The roadmap gives the clarity, confidence and hope that students, their families and schools wanted and deserved.
The roadmap and the funding package recognise the challenges faced by schools in ensuring the safe return of more than 1 million students and approximately 100,000 staff in 4,000 schools in the context of Covid-19. It sets out clear plans and practical guidance on the measures schools will need to take to operate safely and minimise the risk of the introduction and spread of infection in schools. There is guidance on training, checklists for schools on preparing for reopening and guidance for operating the school safely in a Covid-19 context.
It advises on areas across logistics, curriculum, teaching, managing school activities, supporting pupils with additional needs, administration and well-being. In other words, in every sense, it is a comprehensive plan backed up with the necessary financial package. It represents achievable ambition.
The published template Covid-19 response plans for schools provide clear and practical guidance and support to our schools on the range of measures that needs to be put in place to bring everyone back to school safely. The funding supports are comprehensive across a wide range of areas including funding for replacement staff who cannot come to school because they are regarded as very high risk of Covid-19, including teaching staff, SNAs and administrative staff. There is also funding for additional supply panels at primary level delivering more certainty around the availability of substitutes, funding for more than 1,000 additional teachers at post-primary level to help with physical distancing and class sizes, which includes 120 additional guidance posts, and funding to provide release days for teaching principals at primary level to meet the administrative burden arising from the changes and the impacts of Covid-19.
There is also funding for enhanced cleaning and hygiene measures enabling schools to have daily cleaning arrangements and to purchase supplies of hand sanitiser and any other personal protective equipment required, funding for enhanced supervision, which is a key control measure to support schools to minimise the interaction of students from different classes, in line with public health advice, and funding to support school leadership, especially principals who are getting the schools ready. All schools will be able to employ an aide to help get the school ready and, as announced in the July stimulus package, funding of €75 million will support minor capital works for all schools.
We know that most students, their families and school staff will be looking forward to going back, reconnecting with school, reconnecting with staff and friends and settling back into school work. There is a strong emphasis in the roadmap on safety, and on practical arrangements, but also on ensuring the well-being of the students and of the entire staff community.
I am particularly pleased that the package includes the filling of 120 guidance posts. Some have asked how this figure was arrived at. It represents the full restoration of the number of guidance posts to 2011 levels. Also, some have asked how the additional National Educational Psychological Service, NEPS, psychologists posts can be filled. There is an existing panel in place, which can be utilised immediately to fill some of the new 17 psychologist posts. In addition, a new recruitment competition has commenced, with interviews due to take place in the month of August, which will create new panels for all NEPS regions meaning all vacancies can be filled at that point.
Statements sessions earlier in the summer were often dominated by calls to confirm that July provision would proceed this year. The summer programmes have in fact seen the number of participating schools, participating students and the eligibility for these programmes exceed previous years, acknowledging that there were challenges. Deputies might wish to note that 245 schools are participating in the summer based programme for children with complex needs, benefiting 3,900 students; a total of 10,604 parents registered for the home-based summer programme, benefiting 11,350 students; a total of 231 schools are participating in literacy and numeracy camps in DEIS primary schools, benefiting an expected 7,600 students, and 81 schools are participating in the DEIS post-primary summer programme, benefiting an expected 2,700 students.
These programmes provide a crucial stepping stone in rebuilding the connection between students and their schools before they return more fully in the autumn as there is a particular focus on re-establishing relationships, building connections, meeting emotional needs and re-engaging in routines to support participation and learning. We know that we need to support the most vulnerable in particular in returning to school and the summer programme is a vital element in preparing these students for the return to school.
In the context of assessments in the 2020-21 school year, given the autonomy of schools in deciding how to sequence and pace learning for students in their schools, it is not proposed to prescribe adjustments of the curriculum centrally. It is considered that the most appropriate way to reflect the challenges that have occurred for students in 2019-20 and potentially into 2020-21 is to incorporate adjustments into the certificate examinations in 2021. A key consideration in making these adjustments is the need to maintain familiarity with the structure of the questions and assessment components for students and teachers. The changes will be broadly proportionate but may vary, taking into account specific context across modules, subjects and programmes. In all cases they will involve some combination of students being provided with greater choice in written examinations, which will be supported through the provision of additional questions and-or adjustments to mandatory sections on written examination papers, the dates on which course work briefs are issued being brought forward to allow for additional preparation time for students and teachers, and in some subjects, adjustments to the requirements for practical examinations being made, reflecting the need to manage access to equipment to complete the preparatory aspects.
I assure the House that full engagement with the education stakeholders will continue and that we are committed to supporting schools to prepare at local level for their reopening. There will also be comprehensive communication with students and parents so that they are fully informed over the coming weeks through the campaign already under way. I encourage Deputies to use their offices and contacts to highlight where parents and students in particular can get accurate information on the gov.iewebsite. The Department is providing dedicated and direct contact channels to schools so that where issues might arise for them they can be resolved quickly.
I have said several times in contributions to the House this week that these are changed times during which as a country we have stood up to the challenges before us, showing great resilience, demonstrating tremendous community spirit and accepting the shared responsibility to fight the Covid 19 virus. We are committed to re-opening our society in every sense and the schools sector is preparing to get our students back into classrooms in the coming weeks. The Government is fully committed to supporting this return and has shown the scale of this commitment in the support package announced this week. There is an obligation on us as public representatives to show leadership and to ensure we support our students, our schools and our communities in getting back to school as normal in the coming weeks.
We had a good debate on Tuesday evening during which we addressed some of the issues that related to the return to school and I will not go into some of them on this occasion. It was a good debate on an important issue related to the funding of education, the pupil-teacher ratio and overcrowded classrooms. I appreciate that Deputies felt the need to protest tonight over speaking time arrangements but I regret that a vote on that motion was the casualty of the protest and that the protest was felt to be more important than the vote.
In any event, I have a number of questions and I will allow the Minister time to respond before the four minutes have elapsed. The first question is on special education. There is a lot of concern among people involved in special education at this moment in time. This includes families but it also includes teachers and special needs assistants. The concern is that there is an inadequate focus in the roadmap on the fact this is a category of students who have lost out the most in many respects from the lack of school-based education. They feel they have fallen behind and that they deserve additional attention but there are no additional resources. What is more, and the Minister has not quite responded to this as yet, it appears that door has been opened to using special educational teachers as substitutes. It is in black and white in the circular that for teachers in mainstream classes schools may use other non-mainstream teachers to cover absences. In addition to this, the role they are expected to play in remote learning and the fact there are no additional resources for them lead people to be concerned that special educational teachers will be pulled from pillar to post and that the children in need of their attention will lose out. This is quite serious and it needs a response from the Minister. More than just respond to it, the Minister needs to address it. There is a need for additional resources and special education teachers should not be used as substitutes in any circumstance and they should not be used as a stopgap. That was a practice in the past and it was being rooted out. It cannot be allowed to be reintroduced.
There is also an issue with regard to special needs assistants. The Minister has spoken about the additional SNAs who will be available to cover absences and this is welcome but there is no SNA substitute panel so it will be difficult for schools to identify SNAs. This also needs to be addressed.
I will touch briefly on the next issue. I am not sure whether anywhere near enough substitutes have been identified. I made a point during the debate on Tuesday with regard to 500 unfilled absences last year and that 200 substitutes would not be enough to cover what was required last year and I do not see how it will be enough for this year. Tonight there was a report on Virgin Media in which a young man who has cystic fibrosis, Benat Broderick, was interviewed. He was very concerned about his education. I have to say I am very concerned about children who are high risk and immunocompromised and, where the children themselves are not but their family members are, I am concerned about them.
There is no mention of that in the roadmap. My concern is that, unintentionally, a form of educational apartheid could take place over time. That cannot be allowed to happen. We cannot allow them to be isolated and unconnected with education. There must be dedicated resources for remote learning, but we also need a strategy beyond that because socialisation is important as well. We must give that further consideration. While there must be, first, dedicated resources to remote learning, we must go beyond that.
Finally, the Minister disputes that this could have been published earlier. I disagree. Many of the resources were always going to be necessary in terms of staff, space and so forth. The Minister said it had to be up to date with the public health advice. The fact is that the public health advice is from June and there are some concerns that with regard to matters such as masks and the like it is not up to date at this point. Will that be re-evaluated on a continuous basis?
I thank the Deputy for his questions. With regard to the commitment to special education, I am obliged to point out that 20% or one fifth of the annual budget for education is going to special education and children with special additional needs. That is very important and is a recognition of the importance of that sector in the education system. The Deputy referred to special education teachers with regard to substitution. A specific and clear measure has been introduced this year regarding substitution for schools. Obviously, it is important to have substitution available in the schools. The Deputy will be aware from his own experience that, at times, it can be difficult to find substitutes so what has been put in place is the national roll-out of a plan that was piloted over six different schools-----
Through no fault of the Minister's I probably did not leave enough time for her to reply. She is eating into my colleague's time so perhaps she could respond to me in writing. I will let my colleague put his questions.
Gabhaim buíochas leis an Teachta Ó Laoghaire. I thank the Minister for being here so late or so early on Friday morning. She will appreciate that issues with returning to school are prevalent in the concerns that have been raised with us. Many people who are at the coalface do not yet have confidence that the Minister's plan will be sufficient to address their particular needs. I have two specific questions for the Minister and I hope she will be able to give me specific responses. The first relates to school transport. I acknowledge the financial allocation, but can the Minister give an assurance that every child who had an expectation of securing a seat on the school bus, including those with concessionary passes, will still be able to get on a bus in September and that the provisions will be in place?
The second question relates to an issue Deputy Doherty raised on Leaders' Questions earlier. There is nothing more frustrating for an elected representative than dealing with the parents of a child who is waiting for an assessment of needs. The child cannot get any supports until that assessment has taken place. I have dealt with a number of parents whose children have been waiting in some cases for several years for the assessment to take place. That is unacceptable. Can the Minister give an assurance that she will provide the necessary resources and staff to ensure that by the end of this year the assessments of needs will be carried out for all those children?
With regard to school transport, a substantial package for school transport has been put in place. Some €11.3 million is being made available to ensure that school transport will be able to operate as it has operated. The operation of school transport is on the basis of the public health advice-----
I can confirm that substantial funding is being made available for school transport for all children who are eligible and who have paid on time. Obviously, the practice will not operate as it has in previous times. Where there is extra provision the concessionary tickets will be made available, as they have been in the past. There is no change to the procedure.
Schools will be seeking to remediate classrooms and to construct different extensions to classrooms and buildings to ensure that they open again and that the children can return. Can the provision of autism classes be included in those remediation works so children with autism can get back to school as well? There is only one autism class in the postal codes of Dublin 2, Dublin 4, Dublin 6 and Dublin 6W. It is important for the parents that children have classes to which they can return. If schools were able to include the development of classes for children with autism in the remediation works it would be greatly beneficial for the parents of those children.
The €75 million works programme is being made available to schools so they can identify whatever remedial works are required within the schools. There is freedom for each school to identify what those needs are and to meet them through the €75 million package that is being made available.
The package is being given to schools. I should also confirm that the moneys in that regard and for the aids that can be applied by schools will be available in the schools next week. Every school is asked to take the appropriate measures that are required so the school can reopen safely.
I appreciate the Minister being here. It feels as if we are in the worst nightclub ever, spending this time together.
Perhaps there should be some type of mechanism for us to interact over the month of August. I appreciate that we cannot recall the Dáil but we should find an imaginative way for Opposition Deputies and the Minister or her officials to engage in the weeks before the reopening because this issue is so important. I strongly hope that this plan works. We all need it to work and we need the Minister to be successful. I strongly believe we could work with the Minister in whatever way we can over the next number of weeks to ensure it is successful.
I have a question about masks. Many schools are concerned about what type of protocols will be issued from the Department regarding the wearing of masks, particularly at second level and in respect of students who are vulnerable and have special educational needs. I have in mind children with cochlear implants who have concerns about how they might wear a mask. We need some guidelines on that.
The issue of special education teachers being used as substitutes is crucial. I was a resource teacher for a period of time. It was difficult if my work was interrupted by going into a class to substitute for that class. Not only was my work disrupted but obviously the child who needed the attention was disadvantaged as well. That is something that needs to change. We have spoken about the lack of time. We cannot blame the Minister for that as she has only been in the office for less than a month, but obviously this package would have been required a number of months ago. However, we are where we are, as they say.
On school transport, we probably need a few more days to allow parents to engage with the system. The Minister has delayed it to 4 August, but it probably needs to be delayed for a few more days. Can she speak on that?
Regarding the issue of calculated grades, in fairness to the Minister, as part of the discussion this evening, she did arrange for a briefing with Opposition spokespeople on this yesterday and it was very informative. If calculated grades are going to be used as a mechanism for the leaving certificate in 2021 - I know the Minister will not want to make an announcement on this now or admit defeat on it at all - junior certificate and leaving certificate students of 2021 will need an early decision on that. If that decision is going to be made, it needs to be flagged well in advance because, as the Minister knows, students will have been out of the system for a number of months. Their potential for maximising whatever grades they could have got in the junior certificate or leaving certificate will be greatly impacted by that loss, so there will have to be some way the Department can look into that. If it means there will be some level of assessed grades, can an early decision on that be made?
The Minister has plenty of time to respond to my last point. It has come to my notice that there are third level institutions that have internal documents circulating within them suggesting that only one day's attendance per week will be necessary for students when they come back in September. As the Department with responsibility for higher education is not legally constituted, I still must deal with the Minister for Education and Skills on this issue. If third level institutions are circulating such documents, is she aware of such conversations taking place within third level institutions? If this is the case, how can we stand over the maintenance of the student contribution at its current level if students will get only one day per week of in-class tuition? Further, why should we expect students to seek accommodation for themselves in the middle of a housing crisis if the in-class tuition they are expected to receive in September will be one day per week?
To summarise my points, I seek greater clarification on masks and mask wearing; on special educational teachers being used as substitutes; and on school transport and how long parents have to apply for it. Obviously, a lot of school transport providers are still unsure as to what they can do. I want a straight answer because, unfortunately, I asked the Minister a straight question a number of weeks ago in this Chamber and did not get a straight answer, and then there was a press release a couple of hours later. I am asking her about this situation in third level institutions. Is she aware of third level colleges that within their internal conversations are suggesting there will be only one day per week in class or physical teaching, if I might put it that way? If that is the case, and if she is aware of this, does the Minister think it is appropriate that the student contribution should remain at the same level? Does she think it is appropriate that students would be under such pressure to try to obtain student accommodation for themselves, given that they will be in class only once a week?
I welcome the Deputy's positive engagement and absolutely appreciate that there should be opportunities for him and other Opposition spokespersons to engage with both me and the Department on an ongoing basis over the coming weeks. I would value that positive engagement. There absolutely should be a national effort in which all of us come together to reopen the schools. I appreciate the wisdom and experience within this Chamber and in other places. I am very happy to work with the Deputy going forward, as are my officials, so he should feel free to engage with me in that respect.
Regarding masks in schools, if I am picking up on the Deputy's point correctly, schools are operating on the basis of the public health advice. There is no requirement for masks within the school environment, unless a child has a particular need to wear a mask or if it is something that has been agreed because of an individual need within a school or whatever. However, it is not envisaged that masks would be worn.
I absolutely appreciate the point the Deputy makes about special educational teachers. It was made by others but I did not have time to reply. In the first instance, we have the newly inaugurated national roll-out of the substitute panel, which is an opportunity for schools to take from that panel. There is also the school's panel. I suppose that every school has its own resource or pool of substitutes. Then there is the national text system, whereby schools also can draw down on substitutes. It is my intention that they will be the three streams that are utilised to source substitute teachers. I say that with absolute sincerity because I recognise and value the importance and the role of special educational teachers.
Regarding school transport and the requirement for pay, as the Deputy has acknowledged, that has been extended until Tuesday. I will look into the matter but it has been extended from Friday to Tuesday.
It is the absolute determination and intention at this point that the calculated grades system be a once-off and that we look to a return to the traditional leaving certificate for the new leaving certificate class of 2021. That is only right and proper and fair. I appreciate that we were in extraordinary times and required an extraordinary measure in the calculated grades system but it is absolutely the intention that we move towards a return to leaving certificate as we would know it in 2021.
I will engage with the Minister, Deputy Harris, on the third level institutions. That is his brief and portfolio. I appreciate the issues the Deputy has raised. I am very conscious of them. I know of many young people and parents in particular who are hugely concerned about the issue of accommodation and how they will cater for children if they are to move to a reduced timetable. I can give the Deputy no further information on that at this point other than to say I will engage with the Minister, Deputy Harris, on it and ask him to revert to Deputy Ó Ríordáin.
Brilliant. I thank the Minister for taking the time to speak to us this evening. I want to ask her about recommendation 5 of the framework to reopen schools. I will read it out just so she knows what I am referring to. It states "For those larger classes which remain difficult to accommodate consider a live streaming of that class to another room or area in the school." I have contacted a number of schools both in my own constituency and around Dublin to ask them about these overflow classrooms and I have been met with some surprise that this was even a consideration. Has the Minister's Department done an analysis as to how many schools have capacity for overflow classrooms? Could she speak to the requirements for supervision to take place in these overflow classrooms? Does she think schools will have enough teachers on standby to go into a class of four or five students? Is the technology available to achieve same? I ask because at a meeting today of the Joint Managerial Body of more than 600 school principals, this was the number one issue raised. When principals raised the issue that they do not have overflow classrooms, they were told perhaps they could get Portakabins. Is it the Department's understanding that where these overflow classrooms do not exist, schools must get Portakabins into which they can then stream live? In addition, is the Minister aware there is currently a shortage of school tables from suppliers? I refer to the single tables that are to be put in according to the roadmap.
As for larger classes and the reconfiguration of school space, the Deputy will be aware of the €75 million I have previously mentioned that is being dispensed into schools to arrive next week to deal with how they can be reconfigured. That is the first option for schools, namely, to reconfigure classroom space or other spaces where there are general purpose areas, assembly areas or whatever and to provide the necessary space that is required.
As for the issue of live-streaming, the Deputy will appreciate that a number of options are being made available. The various proposals are outlined as a consequence of engagement with the education partners as options for different schools to work through. Live-streaming is one of the proposals that has been put on the table.
For schools who feel it is suitable to them or that it meets their needs, it is an option that is there. Not every school will take it up or require it but it is an option. There is the autonomy for each school to decide on their own what meets their needs best.
On supervision and whether I am confident that supervision will be available for any measures of that nature, the Deputy will be aware that there is a substantial investment in supervision for second level schools. Additional hours are being made available to the schools to use as necessary at different times, whether at morning when they arrive, break times, or in a situation of this nature. It depends but the school has discretion in terms of supervision.
That is okay because I do not have that much time. The 1,000 new teachers that were allocated for secondary schools are very welcome. We have 723 secondary schools in this country. Does the Minister believe that will be enough if there is a second wave?
I will also touch on the recruitment process for those 1,000 teachers. There is currently no advertisement related to the recruitment of these new teachers. When will the advertisement happen for the recruitment of these teachers? The Minister will be aware there is a two-week window in which these advertisements have to take place. There is also an interview process. When does the Minister believe these teachers will be ready to start teaching in class and what should happen in the meantime? I do not believe they will be ready in four weeks, given the short timeframe. As part of that new recruitment, there is also the very welcome reallocation of 123 career guidance counsellors for 723 schools. How will the allocation of career guidance counsellors be given to those schools? How can a school be fortunate enough to get one of those counsellors?
The 1,000 teachers is actually 1,080. I will take this opportunity to explain to the Deputy how that will work. Each school will look at their own need. The hours available in each of those teaching posts will be 22 hours. Management will decide what is needed within the school, for example, an additional eight hours being needed for French and ten hours for physics or whatever the case may be. It will not necessarily mean that a single person will be in the school. The hours will be divided to meet the needs of the school at any given time. I have confidence that every principal will make the best judgment as regards the best use of those 22 hours. In some instances, it may be a single person but I expect from my own experience it will be a number of people who will cover the needs required within the school.
Regarding the sourcing of the teachers, I have every confidence. Many of them, in my experience, are already in the school system. We have 1,300 job sharers, and for the first time we are raising the bar on the number of hours job sharers can work. They can extend their time. Equally, we have a number of part-timers already working in schools and their hours can be increased. We have more than 2,000 currently registered with the Teaching Council who are not currently working. Many of the schools already know who their substitutes are. They will have identified them. I have every confidence they can do it and this is a great boon and a great addition to the second level schools to have posts of that nature coming on stream.
On guidance counsellors, the 120 figure restores the numbers to pre-2011 numbers and is a full restoration of guidance counselling hours. That is hugely positive because it is all tied up with the very strong resources we are putting into well-being within schools for our young people. Very substantial resources are also being put in place for the entire school community. That is also a very positive move and I know it is something the Deputy is particularly interested in.
I will touch on the lead worker representative role, an especially interesting position being catered for in the roadmap. I imagine it is quite a difficult position. Will the Minister tell us about this role, the person in charge of all the Covid related activities and precautions in a school? How will this person be identified? My understanding is he or she can be any member of the school faculty. The person has to be elected by consensus within the school. There is no financial incentive for a person taking on this role. There is only one training session, I am told. Is that person personally liable within the role if guidelines are not followed? Given that this is a voluntary position, what happens if nobody takes up this position in a school? Does it default to the management of the school?
The lead worker representative is an important role within the school. It is a recognition of the need for co-ordination of Covid-19 measures within the school and it is a recognition that there needs to be a number of personnel who are to the fore. There is the principal, the deputy principal and senior members of staff. I know from experience that it will be a whole-school engagement and effort, but there will be reduced hours available for the individual who takes up the lead worker role. I have every confidence that position is being mooted within schools. It is like any other position taken up within schools. Where a need is identified within a school, somebody will be put in place. Obviously, it is voluntary in terms of the person taking it up, but it is hugely important role. It is an acknowledgement of the need to streamline how schools will operate. In tandem, there is a further resource going into the schools to support the roll-out of Covid-19 measures in advance of schools opening, and that is the individual who will operate as an aide in the school for the next number of weeks. There are a number of measures and the lead worker representative is compensated by means of a reduced timetable within the school.
We will agree to disagree there. I have only a short amount of time left so I will ask a very quick question. This year's leaving certificate cohort will arrive back in school on 7 September. The Minister knows from being in schools that when the leaving certificate results come out, all these students come back, some in a state of emotional distress and some seeking extra guidance and support. Will those students who get their results on 7 September be allowed back into their schools to talk to their teachers and ask questions about their grading? Will there be guidelines to support them, given the other responsibilities on schools at that stage? What is the Minister's advice to students on 7 September looking for advice from their schools on grades?
There will be the normal supports in place in terms of helplines and so on. Students will receive their results via the portal, but I know from personal experience that schools will always be open to support and to walk with, before and behind their students. I have every confidence schools will want to play a role, but in the first instance the results will go via the portal to the students themselves. I have every confidence that schools will want to be there in a supportive role.
Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire. Is é an chéad ghrúpa eile ná Solidarity-People Before Profit. An bhfuil an Teachta Barry nó an Teachta Paul Murphy anseo? I move to the Regional Group. Are Deputies Fitzpatrick and Berry sharing?
I welcome the opportunity to speak this evening. First, I wish the Minister the best of luck in her new role. She is taking on the position at probably the most difficult time imaginable and I assure her she will have my full support should she undertake measures that will make our schools safe for students, staff and parents.
The health and welfare of our students must be our number one priority. We cannot afford to take any chances with the well-being of our students and we cannot put a price on it. Whatever measures need to be taken now must be taken regardless of the costs. This pandemic crisis has showed us all how vulnerable we really are. Unfortunately, we may have to live with this dreadful virus moving forward. Taking this approach now, we must ensure we implement the right measures to safeguard students and staff in schools and colleges now and into the future.
I have spoken to a lot of teaching staff and SNAs over recent weeks and months. Speaking on their behalf, I know they are extremely worried about returning to work in a few weeks' time. They have raised many issues with me which they feel must be addressed for schools to be a safe environment for students, staff and parents.
I would like to outline some of the issues that have been raised with me and I would appreciate it if the Minister could respond to them this evening. If not, a written reply would be fine. The Department needs to confirm that the use of personal protective equipment, PPE, is recommended and not simply optional for special needs assistants, SNAs, in classrooms that have social distancing of 1 m. More guidelines are needed on infection control issues for SNAs carrying out personal and intimate care. Greater clarity is required in respect of the identification of students with symptoms of Covid and procedures for ensuring they do not attend school. Schools need to work on assembling substitute panels as a matter of urgency as staff may need to be vetted. Otherwise, replacements will not be available in time. More SNA staff will be needed if the pods and bubble approach is to be successful because many SNAs move between different classes and year groups, which could undermine the integrity of the pods. The SNAs I spoke to feel the guidance glosses over this issue and that more SNAs will be required if the objective is to minimise interaction.
I thank the Minister for making €15 million available for replacement personnel who will cover for staff with underlying conditions or Covid-related sickness. I also acknowledge that her Department has made additional funding available for special educational needs provision by way of National Educational Psychological Service, NEPS, posts and special educational needs school transport and bus escorts, all of which are very welcome. As I said, insufficient funding must not stand in the way of making our schools safe for students and staff. To be clear, we cannot put a price on the safety of our children while they attend school. If this pandemic has taught us anything, it is that life is precious and we must treasure it. In fairness to the Government, it is providing substantial funds to fight the virus. It is important that we use the money wisely and spend it on behalf of the taxpayer in the best possible way.
We are all learning something new each day in the fight against this deadly virus. I draw attention to an indigenous Irish company that is providing solutions to schools and hospitals to make them safe from Covid and other viruses. The company in question is a spin-off enterprise of Martin McVicar, who brought us the Combi-Ventilate some months ago. That device allowed a single ventilator to be split into numerous ventilators, which in turn allowed more patients be treated in intensive care units at the same time. His new company, Copper-Cover, has developed a unique process whereby pure copper can be installed on what are called high-volume touch surfaces. Such surfaces include door handles, push plates on doors and grab rails. This is an important innovation because it is scientifically proven that viruses cannot survive on copper surfaces. I understand there are more than 600,000 research and medical papers to back up the process. If a surface can be treated with pure copper, it is automatically safe from virus contamination. As we all know, one of the most common ways that the Covid virus is transmitted is through touch surfaces. If we could make all door handles, grab rails and other high-volume touch surfaces in schools and hospitals safe from Covid contamination, the impact would be very significant, not only for students and patients but also for staff and visitors. I have forwarded the company's details to the Minister and I am sure its directors would be delighted to meet her and her officials to discuss the potential this process has to make our schools, hospitals and care homes safe environments for all involved. Indigenous Irish companies like Copper-Cover can play a major part in the fight against this dreadful virus. As I said, Covid may potentially become a part of day-to-day life in Ireland and the rest of the world for some time to come. If that is the case, we will have to learn to live in a new way.
I acknowledge the additional €350 million in funding announced in the roadmap for reopening schools. We must get the whole process of reopening right and I emphasise again that a lack of funding must not stand in the way. I wish the Minister the very best of luck in her new role at this most difficult time. She has an enormous job on her hands but I believe that if we all work together, we will get through this. This is not the time for political point-scoring. It is a time for us to work together for the greater good. Our front-line staff and our citizens have all been heroic since this pandemic hit. The reducing numbers of daily cases of infections and deaths are testament to this. We in this Chamber must follow their example and work together as a team. I assure the Minister of my support for her efforts to get students and staff back to schools safely. I also assure her that should any decisions be taken which I feel are wrong, I will be the first to raise them with her. I believe in a healthy democracy where we can have open and frank debates on the issues of the day. I look forward to working with the Minister over the coming years.
I thank the Deputy for his support for me as Minister and for the entire education community. We must make every possible effort to work collaboratively to ensure we can safely and fully reopen schools in late August or September, depending on the individual schools. The Deputy highlighted the importance of SNAs in schools. I absolutely acknowledge that and I have first-hand experience of the invaluable role they play in supporting children with special educational needs. They are a hugely important part of the supports available to children with significant additional needs. SNA numbers have grown substantially, as the Deputy knows, and are now more than 60% higher than they were even ten years ago. We currently have more than 17,000 SNAs in schools supporting more than 35,000 students. Their role and its importance in the school system cannot be emphasised enough. In regard to the use of PPE, for SNAs who are dealing with intimate care or whatever the needs of the student might be, PPE will of course be a necessity.
I appreciate the Deputy's point about the importance of everybody within the school community, including pupils, parents, teachers and staff, being aware of the symptoms of Covid-19, and the obligation on everybody within the school sector to stay at home if they are experiencing those symptoms. Once we open the schools, the most important thing is that we are able to keep them open. For that to happen, there is an obligation on all who engage with and interact in the school environment to know when it is best to stay at home. I take the Deputy's point that questions of funding, in any shape or form, must not stand in the way of schools reopening or the best care and services being provided for the children and young people we serve. To be fair, the package of more than €375 million is a very strong endorsement from Government of the importance of the education sector and, even more so, the importance of the children who are at the centre of it. The resources and supports are there and I have every confidence that the goodwill is also there to ensure schools can safely reopen and students and staff can safely return to classrooms.
The Minister spoke about positive engagement. I thank her for the very positive engagement she has afforded me on behalf of schools in Cork South-West in the short time since she was appointed Minister. She is a credit to the difficult position she holds. I have discussed a good number of issues with her in the past week and tonight I have a different area to travel. My question concerns fee-charging schools such as Bandon Grammar School, which will not receive any assistance under the minor works grant scheme for necessary changes to classrooms, toilets and so on to enable social distancing and enhance hygiene and will not receive any staffing alleviation to enable classes to be spread out. It is not fully clear to these schools whether they may avail of assistance under the Covid-19 capitation grant scheme for the provision of additional cleaning support and the purchase of hand sanitisers and PPE or access additional supervision supports to ensure the safety of pupils and staff. Will these essential supports be forthcoming to Bandon Grammar School and other fee-paying schools? The Bandon school caters for a very scattered community across south and west Cork and County Kerry. The school has had to make very substantial changes to its boarding facilities and reduce capacity to comply with the best advice. The fees for the school are kept at a minimum as it mainly serves rural areas. The cost of the works that are required cannot be passed on to the parents of the schoolgoing children.
Given this very serious situation, Bandon Grammar School is in need of assistance and direction. Will it be given assistance under the minor works grant for the necessary changes and can it avail of assistance under the Covid-19 capitation grant? I might have a few more questions after the Minister replies.
I reiterate that I appreciate the Deputy's positive engagement on all these issues up to this point. The matter of fee-paying schools is an important one as questions have been raised around it. I confirm that all fee-charging schools have been contacted by my Department to advise them that while schools outside of the free schemes are not automatically covered by the minor works grant, the Department absolutely recognises that there may well be circumstances in which fee-charging schools require some support to implement necessary reconfiguration works, as envisaged under the Roadmap for the Full Return to School, to facilitate reopening. These schools have also been advised that in exceptional circumstances, they can seek assistance from the Department for staffing or financial supports where they can demonstrate particular challenges brought about by the impact of Covid-19. They can also seek support to implement any measures that might be required to limit the risk of spreading infection. In addition, the additional allocation of guidance counsellor hours absolutely includes the fee-charging schools. Of course, schools will be required to demonstrate clearly their difficulties in implementing necessary control measures and how the provision of additional supports would help them to overcome those particular difficulties. Additional supports will be considered in the context of education provision in the mainstream schools. I appreciate the Deputy raising this matter and I confirm that all these schools are eligible to apply for aid, should they have a specific need and requirement.
I appreciate that because it is a serious concern for that school and must be for other fee-paying schools as well. These schools are struggling the same as ordinary schools and they need the capitation grant and the minor works grant at this time. It is essential for this school and others. I have been talking to schools in Castletownbere, Kilcrohane, Ballydehob, Belgooly, Baltimore, throughout west Cork and in different places, and parents and teachers are worried. The school in Castletownbere will not open unless it gets an extra teacher. We have been in contact with the Department and the matter can hopefully be resolved.
I am also worried about St. Brogan's College in Bandon. This is a very serious issue because it has been massively over capacity for the last number of years. Many beautiful plans are being discussed but there are no deadlines for when a sod will be turned. What is going to happen in September? We cannot even contemplate years down the road. Only a few months ago, many of the parents in Bandon were told to educate their children in Cork city, which was unacceptable. I am running out of time.
I just have a few questions for the Minister. As regards school transport, I am getting worried about what actions have been taken or what interaction has been had with school bus operators. I must record my interest as I own some school buses. I do not believe enough is being done to ensure social distancing, where, for example, secondary school students or national school children are to be taken from Kilgarvan into Kenmare. An awful lot of work must be done if the numbers on the buses are to be reduced because if Bus Éireann has to provide more buses, I believe it will have to tender for them. That will take time and the days are passing very quickly. I ask the Minister to address that matter.
On the issue of children or young students on buses, the buses are operating on the basis of the public health advice that has been given. That advice suggests that children in primary school, and older children at second level, be regarded as one single cohort. That means that the same children get on the bus every day. They will be assigned specific seats and will sit with a sibling or a child in their class. When they get on the bus, there will be hand sanitiser and wipes if needed, and PPE will be provided for the bus driver. I confirm that children under the age of 13 will not be required to wear masks on the bus and that children over 13 will. As they are a single cohort, the buses will operate as normal or as has been traditional for them. An investment of €11.3 million is being made available for any works that might need to be done on the buses, including providing PPE for the bus drivers, hand sanitiser and wipes, the cleaning of the buses once the children leave them, and so on. They will be operating in that manner on the basis of the public health advice and nothing else.
Some schools, such as Gneeveguilla national school, are at maximum capacity. The community group in that parish is offering its hall or rambling house to the school, which is fully heated and is in great condition. The group owes money for its refurbishment but it has not been able to generate any funds this year as it could not fundraise. Such groups can offer halls or spaces. Obviously, they would like some remuneration for them. Would places like that be considered, given that the school is at maximum capacity at present and that social distancing may be required for the older children? There is work to be done in this area and there are other places like it as well.
I appreciate the Deputy's point. I do not mean to repeat myself, but the funding of €75 million that has been made available to the schools is intended for providing space within the schools themselves in the first instance. They should look within their own classrooms, declutter them and remove all excess furniture. They can also look at other areas outside the classroom, like the general assembly or general purpose area, which they can reconfigure. It is believed that there may well be significant options within the schools. If all of that fails, they have the option of looking outside the campus and if they cannot immediately find space in their own campuses, they can look at local halls or whatever else may be available. That is not the first option and they have to be able to show that there was a justifiable need for them to do so. In other words, all other options within the school campus must be exhausted first.
I am sharing time with Deputy McNamara. I am will limit my questions because time is limited and I have only five minutes. This issue has already been raised by several speakers, but the Minister needs to clarify the Department's view on the issue of special needs teachers. Will they be redeployed to provide cover within their schools? What will happen to those children with special needs who were being looked after by those teachers previously?
How is it envisaged that specialist rooms in schools, such as home economics and woodwork rooms, will operate? It will not be possible to increase their number. What consideration has been given to this issue and how will these specialist rooms operate? Regarding schools at, or well on the way to, the planning stages of building new premises, will those plans have to be amended to cater for greater social distancing and what will that mean for the building programme?
I thank the Deputy for his questions. I assume the Deputy is asking what will happen when substitution is not available in a school. There are several streams or options within schools regarding substitution. I repeat that there is a national roll-out of a substitute panel. Importantly, and perhaps I did not say this already, it was piloted first in six places and a number of posts are being made available so that more than 60 areas around the country will have substitute panels.
I want to be clear that if the number currently specified needs to be increased to meet the needs of schools, it will be increased. For this reason, I do not believe that special education teachers will be required to relinquish their role in the school. I value the work of special education teachers. As I said, there are other options available. There is the substitute panel, the pool the school would normally use for substitutes and the national text line. I would like to think that all those options will be exhausted. Those are the first and main options but I reiterate that if a substitute panel requires more teachers to ensure it is operating fully, then that will be done.
Regarding specialist rooms in schools, I confirm that in those rooms the number of students is reduced to the usual numbers that would be there because of the nature of the subjects. That will be very positive regarding social distancing. If there are exceptional measures, every opportunity to limit the number of students in a room or the option of looking at other rooms within a campus should be utilised. From my personal knowledge of the situation, the advantage I see is that the numbers in those classes are already reduced, which I believe will be of some help.
We are living through an extraordinary time and I appreciate that extraordinary measures had to be brought in, but work on new buildings will proceed. More than 200 buildings were to be completed this year and they will proceed as intended.
Earlier this evening, the Tánaiste and Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Varadkar, told us that he was ashamed to be a Member of this Dáil. Looking around this convention centre, I am a little ashamed to be a Member of this Dáil too, but for very different reasons. We set an appalling example by decamping from Dáil Éireann in Leinster House down to this glass palace. We are told this was done so we can be safe. I know the cost is sometimes exaggerated. Someone told me tonight that it only costs around €30,000 a day, but how much could that money do for children in our schools and for special needs students in particular?
I appreciate that the Minister is not terribly long in the job. I also appreciate that she has made a series of announcements, including that all sorts of works will be carried out in schools across the country. When will that happen? Schools will be opening in less than four weeks, and some schools have been refused money having applied to the Department in good time to carry out works. I appreciate that it was a different Minister in the post at that time. However, the role of Minister for Education and Skills continues and this Government is effectively the same as the previous Government. There are no policy changes, there is no change of direction and it is a continuum, unfortunately, as has been made very clear.
When will these works be carried out? Will it be in time for children to go back to school? In particular, what is going to be done regarding special needs assistants who have to engage intensively with children with special needs? I appreciate that the Minister has met the teaching unions and will meet with the union that represents SNAs, but what, specifically, will be done in respect of those SNAs who have to engage intimately with students? It will simply not be good enough if the students in question cannot go back to school in this Republic, which is represented by a Dáil that looks after itself very well but does little for students and the SNAs upon whom these students depend for care.
That is a matter the Deputy will have to take up elsewhere, as it is beyond my remit.
Regarding works being carried out in schools and being resourced and carried out in time, the Deputy referred to many of the schools having previously applied to the Department for necessary and perhaps emergency works, including minor works, etc., and being refused funding. I am pleased to confirm to the Deputy that the money for the works to be carried out in the next several weeks will be arriving in the schools next week. The money, not just for the works but for the additional aide or individual who will help to prepare each school in August, with the support of the management, will also be arriving in schools. There is, therefore, an absolute commitment that the funding and works that need to be done will be resourced and, as a sign of good faith, that funding will arrive before the end of next week.
Regarding the Deputy's concerns about the timeframe, the minor works grant is a process with which primary schools are familiar. The schools are well used to operating it and know what it involves. Before any announcement was made, principals, deputy principals and management in schools knew exactly where that money had to be spent. Likewise, although it is a new form of funding for second level schools, they also know what needs to be done. I have been greatly heartened by the videos I have seen and the messages that have come in from principals. They are getting down to work and making the adjustments and arrangements that need to be put in place. I am sure the Deputy has also seen many of these messages on social media. They are positive, proactive and demonstrate a worthwhile engagement from all involved in the school sector. Principals are very keen to reopen schools safely and well.
Will the schools have to tender for those works? I ask that because if they do, the works will simply not be carried out on time. I have one more brief question. Will anything be done to ensure students doing the leaving certificate who are hoping to go to university in the United Kingdom have results in time to take up places in the UK?
The leaving certificate results will be in time for UCAS offers. The leaving certificate results come out on 7 September, which will be fully in time for UCAS and there has been engagement in that regard. On the wider issue of students taking up university places in third level institutions elsewhere in Europe, I have written to my counterparts throughout Europe regarding students having the opportunity to take up places and asking that they adopt a flexible approach. We have had positive engagement on that issue and we have heard recently from the Netherlands that the educational authorities there have written to all their institutions advising them to show similar flexibility. That is very positive.
Fifth year students, the leaving certificate class of 2021, lost close to three months of face-to-face teaching time this year. I know that the Government and the Minister accept that changes must be made to take account of that lost time. I was going to say that I had an exchange with the Minister earlier today but it was yesterday at this point. In that exchange, she indicated that the change was going to take the form of giving a greater degree of choice to next year's leaving certificate students. That seems like a sensible approach to take but of course, the devil is in the detail. Do the changes go far enough and are they acceptable to the broad mass of students? Precisely when will the students find out what the changes are going to be and the greater choice that they will have? Will they find out on the first day when they go back to school, later in the month of September or the week before Christmas? When will students find out about the changes that are being made?
I thank the Deputy for raising the question. I appreciate where the Deputy is coming from when he said he did not know whether to refer to yesterday or today. I am not sure which it is, we have been here so long. I appreciate that the Deputy has raised an important issue and it is a matter of concern for the students who will comprise the leaving certificate class of 2021 and for their parents. The Deputy is correct, as I told him earlier, that the curriculum itself cannot change because there is no way of identifying what was taught at different times in different schools. The curriculum has to remain the same. Offering the option of a wider choice is that fairest system in terms of allowing the curriculum to stand but adjusting the assessment aspect of it.
The National Council for Curriculum and Assessment, NCCA, has worked on the issue, that is, on the guidelines that will relate to all subjects and how they will be adjudicated upon. It has also worked on other programmes within schools that will be important for them going forward, including transition year and other innovations of that nature. All of those options will be available on the return to school and the information will be freely available to the students as they return. They must get that information because the earlier they know, the better. That will give them confidence in terms of how they will approach their leaving certificate. My opinion at this stage is that it is the fairest way for students to have an adjustment in terms of choice on the paper and how the papers will be examined.
I want to be clear that I understand the answer. I think the Minister said that the students should know about the changes as soon as they go back to school. That implies that they will know in the first week that they go back. Is that the position? Could the Minister indicate if I have got that right with a "Yes" or "No" answer?
It is my intention that teachers will be informed of the changes to the assessment aspect of the leaving certificate prior to their return to school and, obviously, they will inform students, as they normally would.
That is helpful; I thank the Minister. Earlier, I mentioned to the Minister that in an exchange I had during the week with the Taoiseach, he said there would be consultation with all of what he described as the stakeholders on the proposed changes in next year's leaving certificate about which the Minister has just spoken about. He laid particular emphasis on the fact that he considered it important that there would be a very high degree of consultation with sixth year students to seek their consent for the changes. I asked the Minister about this yesterday and she spoke in the past tense. When I asked whether there would be consultation in an effort to gauge the level of consent among students and if consent was not there, whether further changes would be made, the Minister indicated that the students have representative organisations that had already been consulted. I am not asking her that. Approximately 60,000 students will find out about these changes from their teachers in the first days when they go back to school. If the sentiment among students is that these changes do not go far enough, need to go further and that more or different changes need to be made, what will happen then? If there is the level of consultation that the Taoiseach indicated he felt was desirable, it would suggest that the matter would not then be concluded. In other words, the current position may not be final. Is the Minister open to further discussion and consultation with students on that issue if they feel there are matters that need to be addressed?
I will repeat what I said to the Deputy earlier about the roadmap. He will appreciate that the roadmap covered quite an amount of aspects, including cleaning, panels of substitution, additional posts or whatever. As I previously outlined to the Deputy, all of those aspects, including curriculum and assessment, were discussed at great length with the partners in education and the broadest section of representative voices. As a consequence, the roadmap was put together and, as I said, it includes addressing curriculum and assessment. The consultation has taken place in that respect. The guidance on the curriculum is now being brought forward and will be available to the schools in time for their reopening.
I am concerned by that answer and I think that many fifth year students who will be going into sixth year in September will also be concerned. The Minister said that the consultation has taken place. I am not sure if many of those students to whom I referred will agree with that. I know that there is a representative organisation and I respect the good work it has done. I understand that the Minister has been in touch with that group and had a certain back and forth engagement. However, there has not yet been an opportunity for the approximately 60,000 students to say what they think about the changes because they do not know what they are. They will find out within a matter of days of going back to school. It may well be the case that they say the changes are good and support them. However, it is possible that the students may believe that the changes do not go far enough and that there needs to be something different in the mix. If one is to stick to the letter of the law of the line laid down by the Taoiseach, namely, that there has to be maximum consultation with and consent from the students, that means it is not a done deal and there needs to be further discussion. Is the Minister open to further discussion if needs be?
I note the Deputy's concern and thank him for it. There was full engagement in bringing forward many and all of the initiatives that are in the roadmap. I confirm to the Deputy that the guidelines will be available. I believe those guidelines are in the best interests of the students. I have not heard at any point that students are not happy with the proposals, which are very fair. It would not be acceptable to interfere with the curriculum but it is manageable and right, and will be fair, that there will be an adjustment in the assessment method for the benefit of all concerned. I think students will see those changes for what they are and I reiterate that students were represented in the partners in education consultation. I am confident that what is being proposed is in the best interests of all.
I will conclude by saying that it may well be the case that what the Minister says does not contradict the Taoiseach's line that there will be maximum consultation and a need for consent.
It is possible that it will contradict that. If it does, the Minister will need to review that position. We will leave it at that.
My opening remarks allowed me to set out again the commitment of the Government and my Department to the education of our schoolgoing students, and their families, schools and communities. I could use the time available to me to detail again all that has been done in the school sector, but the roadmap for reopening our schools has been published and is available to all on gov.ie. It is exactly what its title says, namely, a roadmap signposting how we can get our schools open once again and children back into their classrooms. We need our children back in school. They have lost enough of what we considered normal less than six months ago. Schools in the new term will not be exactly the same as they were, but they will be familiar places and are the best places for our children to learn in the broadest sense from their teachers, peers and experiences of being together, and, for some, from the structures, routines and sports that schools provide them with.
I have listened carefully to contributions from Deputies today and on every other occasion on which I have spoken in the House. I was in the House to take priority questions earlier. I was in both Houses on Tuesday. I have been impressed by the engagement and interest shown by Deputies and the shared commitment to reopen schools safely and fully.
I am very much aware that our schools are rooted in local communities and that we must ensure in the coming weeks that each school can reopen safely, remain open and, as we work to implement the programme for Government, can develop and meet the demands of communities in the longer term. There are challenges to reopening our schools over the coming weeks, but there has been significant resilience and initiative shown across society since March. By working together, we can get the work that is needed done to reopen our schools fully and safely.
The reopening of our schools is a major logistical undertaking, and I know that has been a much used phrase. I also know that some have expressed concerns about whether there is enough time to prepare, whether additional staff will be required and available and what might happen if there are outbreaks of the virus. We will all work together through any challenges that emerge. My Department is available to schools to support them in any particular challenges that might emerge.
In the longer term, the programme for Government offers the framework for us to address many of the issues which Deputies and others have raised with me in recent weeks, including reform of the curriculum to include a focus on modern languages, digital skills and inclusion, enhancing how we support our language and culture, how we fund and resource our schools, including capitation payments, class sizes and support staff in schools, and how we can improve the school transport system to make it more sustainable in every sense of the word.
I look forward to the establishment of a citizens' assembly on education, as it will give us a vehicle to debate some of the fundamental issues that Deputies and Senators have raised over the course of this week in different sessions with me.
This House will go into recess tomorrow, but I and my Department will continue to work towards their priorities of reopening our schools and delivering leaving certificate calculated grades to 60,000 students on 7 September. Many of the students will have received those results and offers of further and higher education places by the time we have the opportunity to debate education matters in the House again. Our schools will also have reopened.
As the Minister with responsibility for education and a former teacher, I know how important education is for our young people. Everything I, my Department and the education partners do is motivated by the best interests of the children and young people that we serve. Our schools in every sense, including their students, families and staff, are at the centre of our communities. Perhaps it took the restrictions which were necessary to combat the Covid-19 virus for us as a society to make that connection once again.
We are truly all in this together, and we will continue to work with all concerned to the benefit of our students across the country, not just in the weeks ahead but in the years ahead as we strengthen and invest in our school sector. Faoi mar a bhí riamh, is atá sé anois: ní neart go cur le chéile.