Dáil debates

Thursday, 3 September 2020

Back to School, Further and Higher Education and Special Education: Statements

 

3:05 pm

Norma Foley (Kerry, Fianna Fail)
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I last spoke in this House immediately before it went in to recess. At that time I had just published the Roadmap for the Full Return to School. That was only five weeks ago and much has happened since then. An incredible amount of work has been undertaken in the school sector. As a country dealing with the challenges of Covid-19, we are in a different place now than then, but just as the publication of the roadmap represented an important milestone on the road back towards the "old normal", I concede that there are many miles left on the road to normality. I was at the Special Committee on Covid-19 Response yesterday and we covered a range of the issues of concern to school communities across the country as well as to me as Minister and to Deputies. It is a measure of the importance of education generally and indeed the education sector in this country that the Oireachtas has scheduled a significant amount of its time this week for education matters. This level of engagement with the Oireachtas has been a feature since the closure of the education sector in March and it ensures that we keep a light on the work being undertaken and the concerns that arise.

As Deputies know, the re-opening of our schools was since my appointment, and continues to be, my number one priority. It was not a hope as some would have characterised it when we were last in this House. It was very much a realisable ambition which like all ambitions presented a series of challenges for us to address in order to realise it. I have been fully supported by Government in putting in place the supports necessary to realise this ambition and in recent days and this week we have seen that ambition being realised. Government has been united in viewing the re-opening of schools as a national priority. I am very much encouraged by that cross-Government support and I wish to express my sincere thanks to all concerned.

Cabinet approved the Roadmap for the Full Return to School in July. It sets out how the public health advice provided to my Department on the safe return to school could be implemented at individual school level. Approval was given for over €375 million in additional funding necessary to support its implementation. I provided details of the supports being made available to both Houses of the Oireachtas during that last week of July and the effect of those supports has been seen across the country as schools re-opened their doors from last week. During August, I provided a number of updates on how the planning for schools re-opening was progressing. To date, the payments made directly to schools exceed €160 million.

My Department brought forward the payment of the annual minor works grant to primary schools, totalling approximately €30 million, which is typically paid in either December or January each year. In addition, an enhanced minor works grant, which matches the 2019 payment, has also been issued directly to schools. This amounts to €60 million which has now been issued directly to primary schools in minor works grants since the publication of the roadmap. A minor works grant amounting to €42 million issued to post-primary schools in the free scheme. The minor works grant provides schools with the necessary flexibility to implement necessary physical measures in their school quickly to enable the full return to school. These measures include, but are not limited to, reconfiguration of classroom space, repurposing rooms to provide additional space, purchasing furniture, altering desk layouts and the short-term rental of additional space. Given that each school setting is different, individual schools are best placed to decide on the appropriate reconfiguration measures for their school which are necessary to facilitate school re-opening. Further, more than €30 million of capitation supports has been made available to primary and post-primary schools to fund personal protective equipment and hand sanitiser requirements.

The roadmap was developed following intensive engagement with partners in education, including staff unions, representatives of principals and deputy principals, school management bodies and representatives of parents and post-primary students. This co-operation and collaboration has continued, including at a local level where school communities have worked together to best address their local circumstances. On Tuesday, officials met with the primary and post-primary stakeholders again to maintain that spirit of partnership regarding school re-opening. There was also a meeting of the advisory group on the State examinations earlier this week, emphasising the continued co-operation in that area. There are daily engagements with partners in education and these will continue.

I take this opportunity to acknowledge the unstinting and selfless efforts of school communities across the country over the last weeks and months to do all that is necessary to re-open our schools. We owe a debt of gratitude to all of them for their generosity of spirit, a reflection of their absolute dedication to their students and the provision of education for all.

The roadmap and its accompanying documentation provided schools with guidance on training, checklists for schools on preparing for reopening and guidance for operating the school safely in a Covid-19 context. Template Covid-19 response plans for schools were also provided to schools. These plans provide clear and practical guidance and support to schools on the range of measures that need to be put in place to bring everyone back to school safely. The Department has produced age-appropriate guidance for students in the form of animated videos which are intended to help students further understand some of the new routines when they return to school. Guidance is also available for parents in several languages. These animations are available at gov.ie/backtoschooland also issued to schools to be disseminated to parents.

The HSE's Health Protection Surveillance Centre has confirmed that all recommendations in the public health advice I published at the beginning of July including physical distancing guidelines as set out in the roadmap still apply in all schools, with the exception of the recommendations on face coverings, which have been updated to reflect the latest research and expertise. Teachers and post-primary school students should wear face coverings similar to those worn in shops or on public transport when a physical distance of 2 m cannot be maintained. Guidance for parents, guardians and families on the return to school is available online at gov.ie. Parents and guardians can direct specific queries to their school should they prefer.

A letter was issued to all schools last week, together with a HSE document titled, Schools Pathway for COVID-19, the Public Health Approach. This document sets out the approach to managing isolated confirmed cases of Covid-19 within the school community and also the principles that will underpin the management of outbreaks or potential outbreaks and the aligned testing strategy within an educational facility. It is important to note that the response to confirmed cases or outbreaks of Covid-19 in the community or in a school is the responsibility of, and will be led and managed by, the HSE's public health department. All decisions as to appropriate actions following a confirmed case or outbreak will be made by their teams in the context of a full public health risk assessment procedure according to the principles set out in the document. Any actions to be taken by the school will be communicated directly by the HSE's public health department.

School management will be informed as and when actions such as the exclusion of children or staff, or partial or full closure, are deemed necessary on public health grounds.

Children will continue to display symptoms of many other circulating respiratory viruses. It is known that young children often have a persistent cold. According to HSE guidelines a child with a blocked or runny nose but no fever can attend school, but if they require paracetamol or ibuprofen they must stay at home for 48 hours and parents or guardians should contact the GP to assess whether a test is required.

Students and staff who have symptoms of Covid-19, including fever, new cough, shortness of breath, breathing difficulties, or loss or change to their sense of smell or taste, should not attend school.

The definition of close contacts within a school will be variable and determined by a risk assessment that will take account of individual factors within each school or class. It will not be automatically assumed that a whole class will be deemed as close contacts. Close contacts will be directly notified by the HSE and advised to restrict their movements and present for testing on day zero and day seven. Close contacts will restrict their movements for 14 days even in the event that Covid-19 is not detected in both of these tests. There is no blanket policy to test entire classes or years. The testing strategy will be aligned to the public health risk assessment, which may recommend widespread swabbing within a class or school under HSE testing procedures.

In the event of an outbreak, public health will determine between a range of possible interventions, from exclusion and testing of a small group or pod of pupils up to and including closure of an affected facility. All schools are required to have a summary of key information to assist public health in its public health risk assessment, ready to be provided on request.

Outside the school environment, everyone should follow the latest public health measures announced on 18 August, which are available on gov.ie. Specifically in regard to medically vulnerable children and household members, guidance is published by the HSE. In the context of achieving physical distancing in schools, schools have reconfigured their available space and have sought to utilise all of the options available to them.

I have heard the concerns raised in regard to class sizes in our schools and in our primary schools in particular. It is important to note that we have seen what is commonly referred to as the pupil-teacher ratio reduce in recent years. The staffing schedule has undergone a number of changes in the period since 2014. These changes include the general average pupil number per teacher being reduced from 28:1 to 26:1; the introduction of retention for small schools in 2015; and the changing of retention thresholds for Gaeltacht schools. The current programme for Government commits to making further progress during the term of this Government on the staffing schedule.

I know that school transport is an area of considerable interest to Deputies. It came up during the Covid-19 committee sessions yesterday. It was perhaps the issue on which we spent most time yesterday. The school transport scheme is a massive daily logistical undertaking right across the country and it is worth repeating the numbers involved. In 2019, more than 120,000 children, including some 14,200 children with special educational needs, were transported in more than 5,000 vehicles on a daily basis to primary and post-primary schools throughout the country, covering more than 100 million km at a cost of €219 million. Several Deputies at yesterday's Covid committee hearing raised the area of funding for the operation of the hygiene requirements on school transport vehicles. A sum of €11.3 million has been allocated for this purpose. This cost estimate was based on cost per vehicle, based on the number of vehicles on the scheme, and includes a contribution towards the cost of personal protective equipment, PPE, for drivers, enhanced cleaning and sanitising materials and labour, with an estimated cost of €6.1 million for the period from September to December 2020. For the period from January to June 2021, an estimated €5.2 million will be required for cleaning materials, labour and PPE.

The provision includes ongoing monitoring of any additional expenditure for enhanced cleaning requirements or PPE to ensure continued compliance with safety requirements in line with public health advice. Under the terms of the arrangement my Department has with Bus Éireann, it is funded on a cost recovery basis for costs associated with the operation of the school transport scheme. Therefore, as costs are incurred as a result of the additional hygiene and PPE requirements, they will be included in the bill to the Department for the relevant period. The Department has not given the sanctioned €11.3 million over to Bus Éireann. The costs as they arise will be charged to the Department by Bus Éireann as they are incurred.

The recently received updated health advice from NPHET does impact on the operation of post-primary school transport services. The Government decided that the arrangements made for the primary school transport scheme would proceed as planned when schools reopened. These services are operating fully with additional measures in place, such as preassigned seating and additional hygiene and cleaning measures as already outlined. The post-primary scheme has also commenced operation with additional measures in place, such as preassigned seating and additional hygiene and cleaning measures on services, and with the rolling implementation of measures to provide physical distancing in line with those required on public transport, and which is using 50% of passenger capacity on the post-primary services as required.

My Department is engaging with Bus Éireann in respect of these plans to implement measures so that any services that can operate from the start of the school year at 50% capacity will do so. Over the coming period, all other post-primary transport services will be reorganised and additional services will be provided as required to allow for physical distancing. Bus Éireann has returned to the market seeking additional operators to provide services. I expect to see additional capacity coming on stream over the coming weeks and we are committed to ensuring the public health advice is given effect in the operation of school transport.

Deputies will also be aware of my recent announcement which provided for the parents of children who are eligible for transport, but decide not to avail of post-primary transport services, to receive a grant to support them with the cost of private transport arrangements within defined parameters.

Deputies will also be aware of the announcement I made this week on calculated grades, which followed a Government decision on proposals I put forward to amend the national standardisation process within the calculated grades model. Under the calculated grades model, estimated marks from schools will be adjusted, as planned, to ensure a consistent standard is applied across schools throughout the country when judging the performance of students. The change I introduced removes the use of school-by-school historical data in the standardisation model and places a greater emphasis on the estimated marks provided by schools to individual students. Fairness has always been at the heart of the calculated grades model. The calculated grades process is being used for the first time. Standardisation will ensure the candidates receiving calculated grades in 2020 are treated fairly and equitably relative to each other.

3:15 pm

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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I must interrupt the Minister as her time has elapsed.

Norma Foley (Kerry, Fianna Fail)
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I apologise. I thought I had 20 minutes.

Photo of Donnchadh Ó LaoghaireDonnchadh Ó Laoghaire (Cork South Central, Sinn Fein)
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Tá mé ag roinnt mo chuid ama leis an Teachta Conway-Walsh. There have been many happy scenes throughout the State of children returning to school and it is a positive thing. We had our own return to school with our nine year old last Thursday and I must give a lot of credit to the school. It has been excellent so far. I acknowledged yesterday, agus d'aithin mé ar maidin sa chruinniú a bhí agam, go bhfuil obair dochreidte déanta ag múinteoirí, príomhoidí agus boird bhainistíochta chun é seo a eagrú agus a réiteach. Aithním freisin go bhfuil an-chuid obair déanta ag an Aire agus ag foireann na Roinne. Is ceart agus cóir é sin a rá. Of course, while it is one thing to get the schools back it is as great a challenge, if not an even greater challenge, to ensure they remain open. I put it to the Minister that we have seen case numbers rise in schools in recent days. It is not our role, and it would be wrong for us to create any undue concern or to whip up any hysteria around that. It is, however, a reminder that our schools are potentially fragile with regard to remaining open unless the right policies are put in place. It is vitally important that reassurance comes from the Department. That reassurance will come from making it very clear that decisive action is being taken and that correct investments and correct policies are being implemented to ensure schools remain open. It must be a national priority to ensure our children can stay in school safely and sustainably.

While the schools have opened, it is very apparent to everyone involved in the running of schools and to families that there are still significant gaps and shortcomings.

During August I contacted every primary and post-primary school in the State and of the more than 200 principals that responded, 48.5% felt that they did not have sufficient staff to meet their school's needs, 76% did not believe they would have sufficient access to substitution and 19% felt that they had been left unprepared by the Department's policies. A full 25% of school principals said that they did not have sufficient classroom space and 22% said they would have to increase the voluntary contributions in response to additional Covid-related costs because they felt the funding they had received would not be adequate. I have had numerous discussions about the fact that while the funding was enough to reopen schools it would not be enough on an ongoing basis. There is a concern that principals will have to pass additional costs on to families because they will not have enough funds to provide adequate sanitiser and other equipment to ensure that schools remain clean, hygienic and safe.

As far as I am concerned the key priorities for ensuring that schools remain open include rapid, priority testing for students and staff; protecting the jobs and incomes of families whose children have to be kept at home; reducing class sizes which are among the highest in Europe; tackling the teacher shortages; and ensuring that no child is left behind. I will now go into a bit more detail on those key priorities. The Minister said publicly yesterday for the first time that there will be priority testing. There has been confusion on this question and departmental briefings to RTÉ have been contradictory. Priority testing is absolutely essential and is a crucial element in ensuring that parents are confident that schools are safe and staff are confident that they will be supported and protected. This needs to happen, with turnaround times of 24 to 48 hours, maximum. This must be delivered and I ask the Minister to give a timescale on that.

We have already had three cases of Covid-19 in schools since the reopening and there could be more today, potentially. In each of those instances there are hundreds of parents who may have to take time off work to stay at home with their children. They may not have any paid leave left and may not have an employer who is understanding. I hope employers will be understanding but that will not be the case in every situation. I accept that this goes beyond the Department of Education and Skills but in the context of the Minister's priority of keeping the schools open, it is essential that she talks to the Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation, the Taoiseach and the Minister for Social Protection. It will not be possible for schools to remain open if parents have to make a choice between doing the right thing and keeping their child home because they have symptoms or paying the bills that are mounting up in the context of a threat to their jobs. That needs to be tackled. Parents need to be confident that their jobs and income will be protected.

We need to reduce class sizes. We have the largest class sizes in the EU and one of the largest class sizes in the developed world according to the OECD. This is what has made reopening our schools so difficult. We have an underfunded, understaffed and overcrowded education system. Some school buildings have barely been renovated in the last 30 to 40 years and often there are 30 to 40 children per classroom. Social distancing in that context is extremely difficult to achieve. Indeed, many would say it is impossible. The Department must undertake an urgent audit of school buildings and staff to identify the areas of greatest need, with a specific funding stream set up to ensure that additional space, beyond what is provided through the minor works scheme, can be provided on a rolling basis.

We also need to tackle the teacher shortages and there is certainly scope for expanding the hours of teachers who are unemployed. Finally, no child must be left behind. I am very concerned about those who lost out most when the schools were closed, namely, children with special educational needs. Their parents are concerned at being forced to choose between special units and mainstream classes. They are worried that the special education teachers will be pulled from pillar to post and that their children will not get the support they need. These children need additional support, not just thestatus quo. They have lost out significantly and that ground needs to be made up. If ever there was a time for the children with special educational needs to be a priority for the Department, it is now.

Before handing over to my colleague, Deputy Conway-Walsh, I would point out to the Minister that a solution can be found for those students who sat the leaving certificate last year. I urge her to find a solution. I have sent her an email with a number of suggestions. This needs to be done and it can be done.

3:25 pm

Rose Conway-Walsh (Mayo, Sinn Fein)
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I thank the Minister for appearing at the Special Committee on Covid-19 Response yesterday. At the outset I want to acknowledge all of the hard work that has been done by principals, teachers, caretakers, secretaries and boards of management in all the schools. I thank them all and wish them well for the future.

I must return to the issue of school transport because I am not sure that the Minister realises the extent of the problem. There are many children who will not have school transport tomorrow morning or on Monday morning. I am continuously getting calls from parents about this. It does not matter to them how clean the buses are if their children cannot get on them. I am not putting all this at the Minister's door but I am putting it at her party's door because Fianna Fáil destroyed school transport in 2008 when it conducted a review of the system and since then further changes have been made by Fine Gael. I am shocked that the Green Party does not have a school transport policy which would ensure that every child can get a seat on a school bus. This nonsense of calling children "concessionary" or "eligible" has to stop and I ask the Minister to address it. I welcome information I received from the Ballina office which indicates that the national school buses site will be up and running again from next week. This needs to happen immediately so that the secondary school applicants are not blocked out.

I wish to draw the Minister's attention to a survey we conducted recently entitled "Telling the real story", in which 73.5% or three out of four young people said they did not have adequate support from their guidance counsellors. On Monday students will be encouraged to go to their guidance counsellors but if three out of four students have already told us that they did not get an adequate service from their guidance counsellors then we cannot be pushing them in that direction. The Department must make sure that the necessary resources are provided so students get an immediate response next week. Guidance counsellors must be there to support students, particularly the 10,200 students who are going to find that their grades are lower than expected as a result of the calculated grades process.

Photo of Aodhán Ó RíordáinAodhán Ó Ríordáin (Dublin Bay North, Labour)
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I welcome the Minister. Politics can be a difficult and harsh game but we in the Labour Party do not see it as our job to make the Minister feel uncomfortable over the next number of years. In fact, I want to be in a position to congratulate the Minister as often as I possibly can. There are certain issues in Irish public policy that go beyond the over and back, Punch and Judy style of politics and education should be one of those. We are in an historic situation where for the first time in the history of the State there is a question mark over the leaving certificate and over the reopening of schools in September. I do not believe that happened during the Second World War and am pretty sure that it was the mammoth task the Minister took it to be when she took over her role. On that basis, the Minister is deserving of congratulations and her Department is deserving of great credit for the fact that the schools are opened and that on the really dangerous part of the assessed grade system, the school profiling, they did listen.

There are two different types of Opposition speeches and politicking. One is where members come into the Chamber hoping that what they are raising will not be adhered to by the Government because then they can keep complaining about it. Sometimes they put down an amendment to legislation, hoping that the Government will not adopt it so that they can keep giving out about it. There is a different type of Opposition where members raise something that they genuinely, earnestly hope that the Government will take on board because it comes from a place of deep concern and understanding. In fairness to the Minister, we raised the school profiling issue again and again and it was with great joy that we learned a number of days ago that the Minister had listened to the concerns raised and had acted upon them.

That type of politics does this House some credit and I thank the Minister most sincerely for the moves she has made and for taking on the responsibility of opening up our schools.

Obviously, there will be issues over the coming months and I know the Minister appreciates that. We are not going to agree on everything. Perhaps we will not even agree on most things. At the same time, if we are determined to work together in some capacity, we might actually achieve some things.

Many schools were not in a position to tell the true story of the difficulties they had because every school runs on the basis of reputation. If those running schools start telling the world that the schools cannot open because of lack of space or whatever, it could potentially reflect poorly on them. Every September many schools are concerned about the numbers necessary to keep teachers and resources etc. There can be a conspiracy of silence sometimes whereby schools are so determined to keep their reputations going that they will soldier on and not put their heads above the parapet.

School transport is an issue. It falls between the Department of Education and Skills and the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport. We need a dedicated unit so that Members of the Oireachtas and school boards of management can access a dedicated unit swiftly to get answers to the transport questions arising.

It has been said that we need not only to open schools but to keep schools open. The testing regime for teachers, special needs assistants and other school staff, including secretaries and caretakers, has been prioritised by teaching unions and the Minister is responding to this.

At the briefing earlier today, I raised the issue, as the Minister is aware, of those who are over 16 years of age and, therefore, have no legal requirement to be in school. I was comforted and satisfied by the answer Department officials gave that the Minister is aware of the issue of the potential for a lost generation of young people, that the Minister is alive to that fact and that resources will be made available to schools to ensure that no young person is lost from the system.

The final thing I will say on this matter is what Covid-19 has done, as in other areas of the economy and society, is it has ripped open the plaster covering deficiencies in the system, including the relationship between the Department and individual schools, the fact that the Department does not like to engage in the day-to-day management of schools and the amount of autonomy given to school boards of management and patron bodies that really should be part of the role of the Department. These are historical constitutional matters that I want to raise in the Citizens' Assembly on primary and secondary education. I know the Minister has committed to that in the programme for Government.

We are determined to work with the Minister to find solutions. There has been enough distress, uncertainty, chaos and tears over the leaving certificate and the school system in recent months without politicians adding to it. We need to talk about the leaving certificate in 2021 and what last year's fifth year, or this year's sixth year, students are going to face. We must have some recognition in the system of the difficulties they had last year and we need to think of the kind of system we put in place for them. I hope the Minister takes the Labour Party's bona fides at face value. We genuinely want to find solutions.

3:35 pm

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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We will go back to the Government side. Deputy Stanton has nine minutes and is sharing time.

Photo of David StantonDavid Stanton (Cork East, Fine Gael)
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I am sharing time with Deputy Christopher O'Sullivan. I take this opportunity, the first chance I have had, sincerely to wish the Minister well in her role. It is a very important role and I congratulate her on her appointment.

September is usually an extraordinarily busy time in schools and this September has been no exception. I recognise the work that schools, teachers, principals, staff and officials in the Department have done to ensure that the schools opened. I contacted some schools in my area in recent days. The reports I have been getting back are generally positive, which is a good sign. Let us hope it continues like that. Everyone has been working hard to make it happen.

Some issues have arisen. I know the Minister has been conscious of the needs of vulnerable teachers and medically vulnerable students. Another issue relates to where there might be a vulnerable family member at home. There are concerns that in some instances teenagers are coming back into a home where there is someone who is medically challenged and this is causing concern. Has the Minister addressed this and whether there are mechanisms in place to allow such a student to work from home and maybe use webcam facilities to be virtually present in the classroom? That is one suggestion. Several families have been in contact with me and they are concerned about that.

Colleagues have already mentioned the issue of school transport. It is a major concern. The concessionary ticket comes up again and again. Last year, it was a major concern but thankfully extra funding was found to make it go away. A relatively small amount of money did solve the problem. Let us put ourselves in the situation of a parent who for three or four years has had a child going to a school under the concessionary ticket regime. Let us suppose that at the last minute they are told there is no ticket this year. What do they do? If both parents are working, how is that family going to cope? This is a major challenge.

Another issue arises. I came across one instance involving a family who had paid €170 for the ticket for the year but the actual cost was €175. They had made a mistake. They were told they were not getting a ticket because the portal had closed, tough luck. That kind of inflexibility should not occur. I ask the Minister to look at the issue of school transport and concessionary tickets. There are some instances - I know the Minister is aware - in my area, which includes Middleton and Carrigtwohill, which are very close. If both towns were seen as one education centre for school transport purposes, it would solve many problems in that area. That may be something the Minister might take on board.

The weight of schoolbooks is something that has come up again and again. I understand that lockers are no longer being used because of space requirements in schools. The weight of school bags is a concern. We need to see whether we can have virtual copies of books and whether the Minister can make available funding to students who need to buy extra laptops, tablets and so on. That might cut down on the problem. Over the years we have had debates about the weight of school bags and the damage this can cause to the backs of young children. Physiotherapists and others have been aware of that.

There has been some concern about the availability of sanitisers and other equipment in schools. I heard what the Minister said earlier. She said that would happen and that funding has been made available, which is important.

I heard other colleagues talking about career guidance counselling. I have some experience of that myself. I suggest that a guidance counsellor in a school cannot solve every problem. Every teacher can become the significant adult in the child's life. Children can be concerned at this time and it is important that they have a listening ear. I know that professional teachers will make themselves available for that while the guidance counsellor acts as back-up and support in those instances.

I thank the Minister for what she has done. I thank the officials in her Department and the teachers and staff throughout the country. Let us hope the progress to date continues in a positive way.

Christopher O'Sullivan (Cork South West, Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Minister and congratulate her on the work she has done to date and on guiding the ship through incredibly stormy waters. She has done a fantastic job. I thank her and congratulate her on that.

I take this opportunity to thank the teachers and principals who have put in enormous effort and work in recent months in preparing their schools for the return of students. I visited the national school in Inishannon some weeks before the reopening. The thought-processes, effort and different ways to figure out how they could bring back children in a safe manner were inspiring. These professionals are there to educate. That is their passion and first priority. I thank them for that.

I thank parents as well. They have had to manage considerable anxiety, worry and excitement as well as their own anxiety. They have been incredibly understanding for the most part.

I wish good luck to all those students who are still returning to school in a phased manner. I have many nieces and nephews who are returning to school. They are absolutely over the moon to be going back to school. I take this opportunity to wish them the best of luck.

Yet, as we know, with all these processes involved in dealing with the pandemic and this situation, there will always be some issues. I want to take this opportunity to highlight some of these issues with the Minister. She might look at these individual issues and come back to me on them.

The issue of school transport will crop up. There are two sides to this. On the one side, we have situations where children are unable to avail of tickets or school transport.

On the other side, we hear stories of situations where buses are at full capacity and there are safety concerns among parents. To give an example from Glengarriff, not far over the border from the Minister's county, a family have four children, one of whom is attending primary school and has a ticket. However, of the three children attending secondary school, only one of them has been given a ticket and the other two have not qualified. I am trying to get my head around this. The Minister knows Glengarriff is not far from Bantry, which is the secondary school they would attend, but these two children are being told they should attend school in Kenmare, over the border in the Minister's beautiful county of Kerry. It is an anomaly and these anomalies exist, but we need a system whereby we see fewer of these situations. I would like the Minister to take that case on board and look into it as similar situations are happening in Drimoleague and other parts of the constituency.

On the other side of the scale, there is a situation in Belgooly, close to Kinsale, where parents are very concerned because the bus is at its full capacity of 57 students, which flies in the face of what we are trying to do in terms of bringing children back to school safely. It may be that all of the provisions are being adhered to but, again, it is a concern. If an extra bus was provided in that area, it would allay many of those concerns and would be much safer.

There are issues in two local schools in my constituency. Scoil Bhríde in Ballydehob is a lovely national school but it is in a situation where there are three classes in the same classroom, with 28 students and one teacher, and it is appealing for an extra teacher so children can return in much safer numbers. A case of which the Minister is already aware, and which she has said she will look into, is that of Millie McCarthy, a seven year old child with Down’s syndrome. Unfortunately, she cannot attend school with her classmates because the class is already well over capacity at 34 students. Again, for me, the solution is the provision of an extra teacher for that school so the class can be split and Millie, who has underlying health conditions but is desperate to return to school, can return safely. That is the plea I am making.

I thank the Minister again for the incredible job she is doing.

3:45 pm

Photo of Eoin Ó BroinEoin Ó Broin (Dublin Mid West, Sinn Fein)
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I want to start by acknowledging the exceptionally difficult job the Minister, her Department and the entire school community have had and will continue to have in ensuring the reopening and functioning of the schools. It is a job we all need to acknowledge is difficult and we need to work with the Minister and her Department on that.

I want to restate Sinn Féin’s clear position. We have said all along that we want the schools to open. We want them to open, in the first instance, in the best interests of children but that must be done in a way that is clearly safe both for the pupils and for staff. What I would like to do is outline to the Minister the kind of representations that have been made to me by parents, in the first instance, but also by teachers and some principals and members of boards of management in recent weeks, so she can include those considerations in her work in the coming weeks and months.

While I want to echo the comments of others that there have been many success stories and many very happy moments over the last number of days and weeks, we are also getting representations from parents, teachers and principals who are concerned. The kind of language they are using with many of us is that there are aspects of the schools reopening programme that they feel are last-minute, that some aspects of the advice are unclear and that, at times, some aspects of the advice are contradictory. I want to emphasise that point.

There are a number of areas where the Government needs to improve its response in the coming period. The first is the messaging of the public health advice itself. Probably one of the biggest failures of the Government has been its failure to make very clear to parents and communities why public health advice for the reopening of schools is necessarily different from other settings. Parents will often say to me that they see us in the Dáil with very significant social distancing but those same rules are not being applied in school settings. I am not questioning the public health advice and I understand why it is there, but the Government must work harder to convince parents in particular why that is appropriate, is necessary and is what is being done.

We have teachers and principals who are still concerned around the provision of PPE but also about staff levels for permanent teachers, resource teachers, substitute teachers and special needs assistants. The Minister and the Department need to do much more to reassure schools, principals and boards that all of those resources will be there as needed, particularly in the event, as we have already seen happen, that some teachers or staff have to give up work temporarily to self-isolate or in other circumstances.

While there is absolutely no one-size-fits-all approach, each school has to take the public health guidance and apply it to its school as is most appropriate. Some members of boards have said to me they feel that in certain instances, they are effectively taking public health decisions. It is important to recognise the fine line between the flexibility that is required and the requirement that, ultimately, public health decisions are made by public health officials.

I want to finish by reiterating all of the comments that have been made by other Deputies around public transport. My experience, particularly in parts of Lucan in my constituency, is that there seems to be a lack of co-ordination between the Department of Education and Skills, the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport and the public transport and private transport providers. The Minister is aware of the situation in Confey College, affecting my own constituency in Lucan and colleagues in Leixlip, County Kildare, and that still is not resolved. We also have issues around differing arrangements for children travelling to special needs schools and the concerns parents have, given that in some instances 19 or 20 children are on a bus for up to an hour. We need greater clarity and greater assurance on resources. Where the Government and the Minister do the right thing, they will have our full support.

Photo of Gary GannonGary Gannon (Dublin Central, Social Democrats)
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We are discussing the reopening of our schools and I would imagine that, all over the country, educators are listening in to what we have to say. Not only that, they will also be looking at where it is we are saying it. I want to direct the point not necessarily at the Minister, who has no control over this, but more at the political establishment itself. We are speaking here in an auditorium with several hundred spare seats and with a distance of 20 m or 30 m between us. All over the country, there are teachers teaching in classrooms that are overcrowded, placing their health at risk, and we should never step away from that fact. It looks arrogant and it gives in to the belief that there is one rule for some and other rules for others. We need to step away from that because we are not demonstrating any leadership.

The reopening of schools was the minimum expectation we should have had as a modern society. However, one of the things I have been disillusioned by is some of the commentary about the rush on the road to normality, as the Minister put it in her comments. We know full well what normality looks like for many people in our schools. Surely we should have a bigger vision than a rush to return to a scenario where we have one of the highest pupil-teacher ratios in the OECD. Our normality looks like an antiquated education system that was designed for mid-20th century learning and is now out of date. Surely, if the Covid pandemic has taught us anything, it is that there should not be any rush to go back to normal.

That lack of ambition for the education system has been compounded by generation after generation of a political establishment that has sought to see our education system as an afterthought. We need something better. We need a broader vision of something more substantial and of how we not only bring our children back to education, but how we can educate them in places that are exceptional, in buildings that are suitable, with teachers we are paying appropriately.

One of the things I have raised an eyebrow about in the last couple of weeks, particularly the last couple of days, is the very welcome decision to remove calculated grades and the historical parts of that from the leaving certificate results next week. We are now being told that disadvantaged students will not be disadvantaged as a consequence. While that is certainly very welcome in the context of the leaving certificate, let me be very clear that, from the very moment a child enters our education system, they are met with an incredible degree of inequality. A student coming from a poorer household will start primary school with lower language skills.

We heard yesterday that CSO data show that one in five children in this country is living in conditions of forced deprivation. Those children go through the same ranks of primary and second level education. They go through first, second, third, fourth and fifth year at the same level of inequality. We then expect them to sit the leaving certificate in the knowledge that they are the children who did not have access to a nutritious meal, standard provisions in terms of their clothing such as a warm coat and, in modern times, Wi-Fi access. These are the children who were at the forefront in terms of tech inequality when students had to remove themselves from class. This is not fair.

Education in this country does happen in isolation. We cannot separate out the environment in which a child is educated from the system in which he or she is being educated. It is grotesquely insulting to believe that combating disadvantage in this country stops at the removal of historical grading from the leaving certificate, because it does not. If the Department of Education and Skills takes the view that child deprivation and poverty has nothing to with it and it takes a hands-off approach in that regard, I disagree with it. The Minister should not tell us that is fair because it is not.

We need a broader vision for what education and combating disadvantage in our schools looks like that extends beyond the realms of us every year enabling a scenario whereby a couple of children squeeze through the ranks and we then convince ourselves that that is okay. It is not. Those seeking evidence of this need only look to The Irish Times yearly feeder schools list which shows that students who attend private schools or schools in wealthy areas are the ones who get access to the universities, with students in low-income communities being disproportionately impacted by that. Education, poverty, inequality and disadvantage are intrinsically linked. We have removed one small component of that to make the situation better, but not to a satisfactory level.

I want to speak about fairness, which is an issue that has come up over the past while. Yesterday, the four unions representing teachers appeared before the Special Committee on Covid-19 Response. Teachers and schools have done an incredible job. It is lamentable that some of the public commentary that has taken hold has not been respectful to the role of our teachers, special needs assistants and school secretaries. I acknowledge the work done by them but I do not want only to acknowledge it. In every staffroom in this country there is a level of unfairness because some teachers, despite that they are all doing the same job as their colleagues, are being paid disproportionately on the basis of the year in which they commenced teaching. A vision for education that extends well beyond the rush to return to normality would result in fairness, not only in terms of how we educate our children and the conditions in which they engage in education but how we pay our teachers.

Another exceptionally important component of our education system that has come to the fore during the pandemic is our special needs assistants, SNAs. They are incredibly valuable to society but we are not appreciating them. If we are to really acknowledge the role of the SNAs in our schools, then over the course of this Thirty-third Dáil, a vision for a better education would be a professionalisation of the SNA community, paying them appropriately, improving their working conditions and standardising the role across schools such that an SNA in one particular school does not have an entirely different role from an SNA in another school. It is fundamentally important that we have actual vision for education that extends beyond returning to a 20th century antiquated, outdated mode of education.

3:55 pm

Marc Ó Cathasaigh (Waterford, Green Party)
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I am sharing time with Deputy Cathal Crowe. This time last year, Deputy Crowe and I would have been welcoming a class into school. This is the first September in 15 years that I have not done so. In the past week, I visited a number of schools in my constituency, from the larger schools such as my own school, Glór na Mara in Tramore, to some of the smaller country schools such as Newtown Junior School, Ballydurn. I visited one particular classroom in this school that I want to speak about. There will be countless examples of it throughout the country. It speaks to some of the work and level of responsibility that the boards of management and principals are taking on at this time. The classroom in question is a typical country school classroom, which is small and accommodates a fourth-fifth year split class comprised of 34 children, one of whom has special needs. The principal and the board of management of the school are worried that they will not able to provide for social distancing in the way that they would ideally like to be able to do. They are worried about the responsibility that they bear and whether they are making a public health decision in allowing the children to sit in that classroom. They want the support of the Department in making that decision. It is an awesome burden of responsibility. At the best of times, being a principal or serving on a board of management in a primary school entails a great deal of responsibility. These people are looking for backup from the Department such that can feel supported in the decisions they make.

I want to raise a second issue, which I raised yesterday at the Special Committee on Covid-19 Response, namely, grade inflation, but in regard to the 20,000 students who will be bringing 2019 or earlier year results into the CAO system this year. I will give a specific example. I know of a constituent who took 2019 to improve on her HPAT results and knows that her current aggregated score would be sufficient to secure her a place on the course she has being trying to get into for the past three years but she is worried that she will miss that boat because of grade inflation this year. Students in this situation need to be looked after when the next round of CAO courses are announced.

On a different but related issue, namely, leaving certificate 2021 and some of the issues likely to arise, I have reviewed a document from the Department of Education and Skills outlining assessment arrangements for junior cycle and leaving certificate examinations for 2021. In that document, there is an acknowledgement that we have set out adjusted assessment arrangements for the coming year examination cycle and it states that no centrally prescribed adjustment to the curriculum and course of study would be effective. We have to accept that point. It also says that changes can be reviewed as reflected, recognising a loss of learning over time and that provision will be made for additional examination choices. I have a nagging concern in terms of, in particular, a mathematics course, where if there is a wider range of choices on the examination paper, there may be units of work which are not completed. It is important that the Department of Education and Skills and the Department for further and higher education, research, innovation and science co-ordinate and get ahead of this problem. For example, if a student is going into a physics or an engineering course and he or she has not taken time to study functions in the leaving certificate, that needs to be tracked such that there will be no lacuna in that learning when it comes to third level.

I will cede the remainder of my time to Deputy Crowe.

Cathal Crowe (Clare, Fianna Fail)
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I pay tribute to the many principals, teachers and caretakers who have worked tirelessly over the month of August and recent days in particular to get the doors of schools reopened and children back in classrooms so that the learning can begin. My eldest son, Sam, started junior infants at Parteen national school on Monday morning. I was delighted the Dáil was not sitting and I could bring him to school. To see the smiling faces back in the schoolyard of the school in which I taught up to a few months ago was a lovely sight. It felt like normality was returning to the country. We all want to see that happen in the best way over the coming months.

I pay tribute to the Minister, Deputy Foley, and her Department for the work they have done. It has not been an easy start for the Minister. A baptism of fire is definitely a cliché overused in politics, but that is exactly what the Minister has experienced. Along with her officials, she has put forward the best possible roadmap to deal with what is happening and will happen in the months ahead.

I want to speak briefly about a school in my locality, Meelick national school, which has been mentioned over the past 24 hours in the media as a school that has closed on a precautionary basis due to the Covid pandemic. There should be no stigmatising of any school. I take this opportunity to speak on behalf of the local community in saying that we fully believe that it has done what is right. I am a former pupil and teacher of this school. The school is following public health guidance. It is unfortunate that it is the first school in the country to close due to Covid, but there will be many more to follow. On a rolling basis, we will see classes closing and, probably, schools closing as the next academic year or two gets under way. Meelick school is doing what it should be doing and I look forward to it reopening next Wednesday and getting back to what it does best.

There are two competing policies that I would ask the Minister to review. First, there is a requirement on schools, insofar as they can, to adhere to social distancing guidelines, but there is also a requirement on those schools to have in place a plethora of supports for special educational needs. A number of schools in my constituency have applied for additional teachers based on current or projected enrolments. They anticipated that the criteria typically used for the sanctioning of new teaching posts would be loosened from the Department's point of view but those posts have not been sanctioned.

Faced with not having an additional teacher, they have faced a trade-off decision between having 33 or 34 in a class or bringing a teacher out of special education and making him or her an additional mainstream teacher. They are moving staff around. They have done that. I believe it is the right thing and it ensures that classes are smaller and the social distancing principles are adhered to. Unfortunately, it does not fully fit with the congruency of rules in the Department. A little bit of clarity there would be appreciated.

Yesterday I met with the Minister on the fringe of the Dáil sitting to speak about bus transportation in my constituency. It is certainly a major problem. I know there is a review under way but I ask that the Minister also deal with the issue of concessionary passes. I believe this year Bus Éireann chose 4 August as a cut-off date for any parent who had not paid up the bus fare, to drop them off the system. That rule has been there for a long time but was not implemented by Bus Éireann. It was not the best of years for it to be implementing it. There should have been much more flexibility this year given where education is at and given the difficulties families are facing.

The final thing I want to mention is distance learning. Many schools have advanced plans but some do not. I hope the Department can bring us up to speed on this in due course. An audit is needed of what facilities schools have to deliver distance learning. Some have local constraints such as lack of broadband while others have fantastic, cutting-edge equipment. I want to wish all the boys and girls, whether their school will be open for the full year or closing intermittently, the best of health and the same to the teachers as the new school year gets under way. It is about learning but it is also about staying safe.

4:05 pm

Photo of Denise MitchellDenise Mitchell (Dublin Bay North, Sinn Fein)
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I welcome the reopening of schools after such a long absence. I hope they can be kept open even though they are going to be facing many challenges in the coming weeks. I thank the principals and staff for being proactive in recent weeks in the reopening of our schools. The concerns of teachers who are in a high-risk category must be heard. This morning, The Irish Times reported that almost 650 teachers who have been assessed to be high risk have been told that they must go back to school. This seems an extraordinary move by Medmark. I believe there has been some movement on this but it will be totally unacceptable if teachers are forced back into a classroom where they do not feel safe. Many parents who are categorised as high risk share similar concerns. They are worried about the risk of their children attending school. I ask the Minister to seek that Tusla clarify the 20 day absence rule and that some common sense is used in allowing flexibility in these uncertain times.

The issue of class sizes has been raised a lot. It is important to highlight the impact of decades of under-funding which is leading to some of our children being crammed into tight spaces where social distancing is not an option. Student-teacher ratios here are among the highest in Europe and this is a measure of how the failure to fund our schools has had a negative effect. The lack of isolation spaces in schools is not good enough. The Department of Education and Skills needs to support schools in identifying appropriate spaces where children can isolate. Schools in my constituency contacted me last week because they had no supply panel in place for Dublin 17. This has since been sorted but it speaks to how the concerns of many schools have not been addressed by the Department in recent weeks. Communication has not been great and this needs to change if our schools are to be kept open. Rapid testing must be prioritised for students and staff who present with symptoms. I ask the Minister to make a commitment to introduce rapid testing as a matter of urgency.

As elected representatives, it is vital that we all look at the weeks ahead and present a united front, that Opposition spokespeople who have concerns are listened to and that their proposals will also be heard. I really believe it is important that Deputies across this House are kept up-to-date on any developments.

Photo of Paul MurphyPaul Murphy (Dublin South West, RISE)
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I am sharing time with Deputy Mick Barry. This is the first debate in which I have spoken under the new speaking rules and what an attempt it is to muzzle the Opposition. By the time we get to speak for five minutes the Government has spoken for 32 minutes. By the time our slot comes up, instead of four slots before us there have been eight. By the time some of the other Opposition groups get to speak for five minutes, the Government will have spoken for a total of 60 minutes. No wonder they tried to drive this process through without regard for the opinions of many people in here. For that reason, it simply will not be accepted.

On the question of teachers at high risk, it is really scandalous that at this stage 650 teachers at high risk have been instructed by Medmark, a private company employed by the Department, a gun for hire, to go back to school. These are not people with a cold or minor problems. These are people with serious diseases such as cancer, kidney failure and substantial underlying conditions. In some cases, they have received advice from their doctors or consultants that they cannot safely return to work. There was one case referred to of a teacher who had acute leukaemia, type 2 diabetes, asthma, anaemia and an autoimmune disorder and Medmark said they should go back to work despite their doctor telling them they were not able to. It is simply not acceptable. Anybody whose doctor is telling them it is not safe to go back to work should not be put in this position, particularly by a private corporation dictating that they do so.

I have been raising for months with the Minister and have had written correspondence with her and her predecessor on the issue of school buses. It has been largely unnoticed and unremarked upon in the media that there has been a widespread cut of school bus services across Dublin. At a time when we need more buses, the school bus service has been scrapped entirely. For at least three schools in my constituency, St. Mac Dara's, Tallaght community school and St. Paul's secondary school, the bus run is being scrapped entirely and the answer is that the students should just take the regular bus. That is not a runner for people and the cut needs to be reversed.

Photo of Mick BarryMick Barry (Cork North Central, Solidarity)
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The Minister said in her opening remarks that the pupil-teacher ratio has been reduced in recent years. That is true, but the point is that it has not been reduced nearly enough. We have 100,000 students in classes of more than 30 according to the Irish National Teachers' Organisation, INTO. We have a pupil-teacher ratio of 25:1 in primary school when the European equivalent is 20:1. Teaching takes place in bigger classrooms in Europe. Here, the largest classroom size is 49 sq. m and there may be a few in recent years of 55 sq. m. It is not uncommon in Europe to have a classroom size of 100 sq. m. It is no surprise that the Teachers Union of Ireland says that even 1 m social distancing cannot be achieved in some schools. We need a pupil-teacher ratio of 15:1 and to achieve that we need to up the ante with spending on prefabs for the schools and then school buildings as soon as possible after that.

Teachers suffering from heart failure, chronic kidney disease, liver disease, cancer, obesity and weak immune systems are being instructed by Medmark to go and teach in classes. Medmark says they are high risk but not very high risk. The World Health Organization makes no such distinction. There should be no such distinction in terms of health and safety for teachers going back to work.

I have a number of final points. The leaving certificate class of 2021 has not yet been mentioned in the debate but changes have been introduced to the course to give students more choice. I register my opinion now that these changes do not go far enough or take sufficient account of the loss of direct and face-to-face teaching time these students have suffered. There is a particular issue with oral examinations, as for three months over the end of last year, people did not have the face-to-face assistance with oral preparation. The oral examinations should be scrapped and the Department must go further in making changes for this year's course.

4:15 pm

Photo of Alan FarrellAlan Farrell (Dublin Fingal, Fine Gael)
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Deputies Leddin and Costello will be sharing time.

Brian Leddin (Limerick City, Green Party)
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As Deputy Costello is unable to attend, I will use his time to raise matters I discussed with him a short while ago. I also take this opportunity to congratulate the Minister, whom I have not had the chance to address in the House yet. I wish her well in her new role as Minister for Education and Skills.

When schools closed and the country went into lockdown, many schools kept working in order to feed pupils who relied on the school for meals. Credit should go to these schools and teachers for keeping a vital service going. As we now reopen schools, there is great uncertainty about breakfast clubs in schools; some are opening again but others remain closed. There is a degree of confusion and uncertainty that should be avoided at this difficult time. Will the Minister or her Department give us a reassurance that breakfast clubs will be able to reopen and the Department will support schools in keeping open this vital service and will issue clear guidelines to remove any doubt? Will the Minister or her Department share any information on the matter with me or Deputy Costello, as this would be very helpful?

I raise a matter related to school transport in my constituency of Limerick city. We have a unique issue in Limerick because of the common application system for secondary schools, which means the school transport system is heavily relied on by many families whose children are not placed in a school near them. I have been contacted by such families across Limerick city and its environs and I understand at this stage there are at least 38 concessionary students who have not received a place for this year. I wrote to the Minister some weeks ago and I ask her to request her Department to give this matter its attention.

The principal matter I wish to address is active travel to school. As kids, many of us enjoyed the freedom of cycling to school but, unfortunately, in recent decades there has been a total collapse in the number of children who cycle. Roads have become more dangerous, and quite understandably as a result, parents tend to drive their children to school now more than ever. Of course, the more children are driven to school, the more cars are on the road and the more dangerous it is for those people who would like to cycle. It is a self-perpetuating and vicious cycle.

The 25 years from 1986 to 2011 saw an 87% decrease in the number of people cycling to secondary school, which is an incredible indictment of our society. Vast sums of money have been committed to road building in those decades and while much of this has encouraged driving, it discourages cycling and walking by making such activities unsafe and inconvenient.

There is a wide acceptance both in this House and outside it that the temporary phenomenon of driving children to school over short distances in recent decades has been a mistake. It has been a mistake because an environment that encourages children to be driven to school causes many children to develop health issues due to a lack of exercise, including what we now believe is an increased risk of contracting the coronavirus due to obesity. It has been a mistake because increased air pollution causes many premature deaths. It has been a mistake because we are denying our children the joy and independence of safely travelling to school under their own steam. This mistake has led to a greater expense for parents, more stressful lives and poorer health for children, as well as many more adverse outcomes.

Fortunately, this mistake is temporary and can be reversed. I pay tribute to the Limerick cycle bus in my home city of Limerick. This morning, like every school morning, a group of committed parents set off from the north side of the city, following their children as they cycled to school in a group. The sight of these children cycling along while talking and laughing as they start school each day is an inspiration. Rain does not stop them and neither does traffic. These committed parents in Limerick, as well as other cycle buses around the country, have demonstrated that a better way is possible.

Happily, the necessary changes do not require a large amount of funding. Starting in cities and quickly expanding to regional towns and villages, in the majority of cases we have the road space; we must allocate it better in order to facilitate those who live in a neighbourhood instead of those who are simply passing through. We saw first in the Dublin City Council area during the Covid-19 lockdown, and subsequently in Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown, how safe cycling and walking facilities can be implemented quickly and cheaply.

Coming back to Limerick, our Covid-19 mobility measures were more limited than those in the capital city but I am happy to report one small measure has been kept temporarily. A single segregated lane on a bridge over the River Shannon is dedicated to cyclists, and every morning this lane is used by the Limerick cycling bus to cross the city. Parents must still physically protect their children as they cycle in traffic but for that short period crossing the River Shannon, the parents and children enjoy a brief period of safety and experience of what our roads and streets could be like if they prioritised people of all ages. Just this morning, a constituent contacted me from the north side of the city to say this small piece of infrastructure had enabled his son to cycle to primary school. In Limerick and across the country, we must now continue bringing this infrastructure to every school gate. In the coming years, we must build an entire coherent network of safe walking and cycling infrastructure, making hard and sometimes unpopular choices in order to do this.

Our education system is not fit for purpose if we cannot provide our children with a safe way of getting to and from school and college. There is no point spending much time combatting obesity within the school gates if the environment outside is hostile to active travel. All of us have made mistakes in how we have allocated space on our roads and streets in an unhealthy way. We must acknowledge these mistakes and quickly remedy them in order to provide a healthy future for our education system.

Photo of Dessie EllisDessie Ellis (Dublin North West, Sinn Fein)
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The reopening of schools across the country has been a nervous time for parents, pupils and the staff in schools. Covid-19 has brought many challenges to schools, which have a responsibility to protect both staff and pupils by providing a safe environment for all in school. Without diminishing the problems faced by other schools, I will refer to one school that has faced a particular challenge in reopening.

I recently corresponded with both the Minister and officials in the Department of Education and Skills about Gaelscoil Uí Earcáin in Finglas, raising a number of issues it faced both in reopening and its day-to-day function. Gaelscoil Uí Earcáin is a coeducational all-Irish school founded in 2005 on a temporary site in west Finglas. In 2008 the Gaelscoil moved to its now permanent site on the former De La Salle boys' national school site on Glasanaon Road in Finglas east. It now has almost 350 pupils and 30 members of staff. It is a DEIS band 1 school. I recently met the school principal, toured the Gaelscoil and saw its facilities. It was clear to me that the Gaelscoil faced unique challenges as it worked to reopen, some of which I will outline today.

As it is located in a former boys' national school but now caters for both boys and girls, the design and layout of the school building raises a number of a practical challenges in the current environment. The boys' and girls' toilets are at opposite ends of the building, making it particularly challenging for a teacher to accompany both boys and girls to the toilet at the same time. The Gaelscoil has structured teachers and pupils into pods but there are insufficient sinks and toilets in the school to meet the daily demand of pupils and staff while maintaining the integrity of the pods, even with a tight timetable implemented to try to facilitate everybody.

The Gaelscoil has reasonably sought to place hand-washing facilities in each classroom in order that teachers can know for certain that pupils have washed their hands after using the toilet.

Good hand-washing practice is essential to preventing the spread of the virus during this pandemic. Proper ventilation is also essential to preventing the spread of respiratory infections and of Covid-19. During my visit to the Gaelscoil I found that 14 classrooms lacked the ventilation that would allow sufficient proper air circulation to prevent the spread of the virus. Opening the archaic windows in some classrooms was very difficult. They are beyond repair and in need of replacement. The Gaelscoil has received two minor works grants totalling a mere €23,728. This is clearly not sufficient for the installation of the necessary sinks, vents, hand dryers, screens and so on. An additional €30,000 will be needed to carry out these essential repairs. The Gaelscoil has a very committed and motivated staff who are providing a real service to the development, growth and continuation of the Irish language in Dublin.

Tá Gaelscoil Uí Earcáin ar cheann de na scéalta rathúla i bhfás na Gaeilge i mBaile Átha Cliath. Chinntigh blianta d'obair chrua agus de thiomantas na foirne agus an phobail áitiúil é seo. Molaim don Aire smaoineamh ar na ceisteanna atá ardaithe agam agus an maoiniú riachtanach a sholáthar chun go mbeifear in ann bearta a chur i bhfeidhm.

4:25 pm

Photo of Peter FitzpatrickPeter Fitzpatrick (Louth, Independent)
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There is no doubt that we are going through one of the most challenging times in our history. We are now facing another massive challenge as we attempt to get our children back to school safely. I would like to put on record my complete admiration and support for the way teaching professionals and support staff have risen to the challenge of making our schools safe for students and staff. We must not underestimate the challenge they face. I have visited many schools in my constituency, particularly in the Dundalk area, and I have been very impressed with the wonderful work of the staff to make the schools safe. While the schools have been made safe, I wish to express some concerns that have been raised with me by parents, teachers and SNAs.

Parents have concerns about the protocols to be put in place if a child is in close contact with another person who is confirmed to have Covid-19. They have genuine concerns for the children, particularly those in vulnerable groups. Will parents be informed if their children are in close contact with a confirmed case? Teachers have also raised valid concerns. Will it be safe for them to work if they are in a vulnerable category? What measures will be taken to ensure their safety? Will they have enough PPE? Who will ensure that proper social distancing measures are taken? SNAs are also worried. They are dealing with vulnerable children and are very often in close contact with them. Is the Government sure they will be protected? Will they have sufficient PPE? What will happen if a particular child puts them at risk? These are genuine concerns on the part of parents, teachers and SNAs.

I would also like to raise the issue of substitute teachers. A lot of schools are very concerned. Is the Minister confident that we have enough substitute teachers? What plans are in place to ensure a sufficient supply, particularly in large towns like Dundalk and Drogheda? What will happen if there are not enough to provide cover? Will classes or schools close, as happened with one school this week?

We have said all along that we are all in this together. Now more than ever, we must all work together to ensure our schools and colleges are safe for students and staff alike. We must make sure that teaching staff are given every support they need to ensure our schools are safe environments. I agree with the approach taken to date. It is vital to get our kids back to school. The long-term effects of keeping children out of school will be serious.

In my role as chair of Louth GAA I have seen at first hand the positive effects of getting children interacting with each other again. In Louth, this summer saw a very successful return to the GAA Cúl camps. Throughout the country more than 71,000 children have enrolled in Cúl camps in recent weeks. It must be noted that there have been virtually no cases of Covid-19 in any of the camps. This shows we can bring our children back into an environment where they can interact in a safe and secure setting. There is no reason why our schools cannot accomplish the same thing as the Cúl camps. We must all work together to ensure that the necessary support and help is available to our teaching and support staff to ensure that schools and colleges are safe environments for everybody. It is important that Deputies raise concerns regarding the approach taken by the Government to the opening of schools but we must not use this issue to score political points. We must all take a proactive role in this and work together to ensure a successful return to schools.

To conclude, I once again put on record my support for the approach taken by the Government. The Minister should address the concerns I have raised today. If she does not have enough time to do so, a written reply would be good.

Photo of Michael LowryMichael Lowry (Tipperary, Independent)
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Children are happy to be back in school. They are back to leading their normal lives with their friends and back to a normal routine. Both their social and developmental needs are being met. Several parents have told me that they have never seen their children more enthusiastic about returning to school, having been away from their normal routine for six months. The work and effort that have gone into preparing schools is a credit to their boards of management and their wonderful teachers and staff. The reorganisation of schools and classrooms has been nothing short of amazing. Teachers did not receive pandemic training in college, but they have been briefed very well and they are doing a phenomenal job at helping to ensure that students are informed and compliant with the guidelines and feel relaxed and comfortable. Above all, they are ensuring that school is a happy place.

I wish to raise a concern around secondary school transport with the Minister. This is a serious issue throughout the country and in my constituency of Tipperary in particular. I understand the Department has allocated an additional €11.3 million to Bus Éireann specifically to provide school transport. However, I may say without fear of contradiction that the company is not upholding its contract to provide such transport. As a result, many students are denied access to buses to secondary school. Bus Éireann needs to get its act together and to get this right as a matter of urgency. Where services between Limerick and Tipperary are concerned, Bus Éireann is not engaging with parents, school principals or bus operators. This lack of communication has led to a total mess. I am asking the Minister to act as quickly as possible to address this crucial issue. I appeal to her to immediately appoint a senior official to tackle this issue and ensure that the €11.3 million allocated to Bus Éireann is used as intended. I ask her to give urgent consideration to availing of the services of private bus operators in this time of need. Our schoolchildren and their parents deserve nothing less.

Photo of Alan FarrellAlan Farrell (Dublin Fingal, Fine Gael)
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There will now be eight minutes of speaking time for the Government parties. I understand Deputies O'Donnell and Calleary are sharing this time. Deputy Durkan has also indicated that he would like to speak.

Photo of Kieran O'DonnellKieran O'Donnell (Limerick City, Fine Gael)
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I wish Deputy Foley well in her brief as Minister. In my contribution to the debate on school transport, I will refer to a case with which the Minister will be familiar. It relates to John the Baptist community school in Hospital, County Limerick. At present, 38 students in east Limerick are without bus tickets. They live in such areas as Fedamore, Carnane, Ballybricken, Ballyneety, Knockea and Bruff.

The specific circumstances concern a common applications system through which people in Limerick city have to apply, similar to the CAO system. In this area of east Limerick, the common application system takes account of students' distance from the GPO in Limerick, rather than from individual schools in the town. This has given rise to an anomaly whereby students are deemed to be closer to the GPO than to their local school, John the Baptist community school in Hospital. As such it is not deemed to be the nearest school.

If their home is more than 4.8 km away, they do not qualify as eligible for transport to the school. Bus Éireann locally has been working to try to resolve this issue in recent years. The anomaly goes even further in that as well as being deemed not eligible for their local school, many students are also being deemed not to qualify for schools in the city under the eligibility criteria for the individual schools. Bus Éireann has made a submission to the Department, which I understand is being examined, in which it has sought approval not for new routes but merely to upgrade the size of buses on the existing routes to ensure the children who are affected can attend their local schools. All these children should have been deemed eligible for transport to their local school but that has not happened because of this anomaly. I ask the Minister to give John the Baptist community school in Hospital her urgent attention and to address the difficulties for children in the east Limerick areas of Fedamore, Carnane, Ballybricken, Knockea and Caherconlish village itself. It is hugely important that this issue be resolved.

There is a lot of talk about encouraging children to cycle to school. There is a strong case for the introduction of a bike to school scheme which might be modelled on the bike to work scheme and would include children from all sections of society.

I conclude by asking the Minister again to give urgent attention to the situation of school transport for pupils in the east Limerick area to John the Baptist community school in Hospital. There is a serious anomaly in the provision, as I outlined, which means children in local areas are not deemed eligible for transport to the school. I hope she will give serious consideration to the request to the Department from Bus Éireann for increased bus sizes on the existing routes.

4:35 pm

Photo of Dara CallearyDara Calleary (Mayo, Fianna Fail)
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I join colleagues in complimenting the Minister and her departmental officials on the superb job they have done to date in getting our schools up and running. I also compliment school communities throughout the country, including principals, teachers, special needs assistants, caretakers, secretaries and boards of management, who worked late into many nights over the summer to get their schools reopened. It is vital that we keep them open and operating safely and that we have full rapid testing facilities in place throughout the country in the event of a breakout of Covid. All the supports the Minister has made available to schools in terms of the provision of personal protective equipment, PPE, and sanitising equipment must continue to be available to them as the school year proceeds.

In the past 24 hours or so, I have had a number of queries in regard to Medmark and its assessment of whether teachers are at high risk in respect of Covid. In some cases, the conditions that are deemed to be high risk seem to contradict public health advice for other professions in terms of who should go into work and who should work from home. I ask that there be some sort of consistency in this regard and understanding shown towards the teachers who are expected to be in a classroom situation even though they may have high-risk conditions. Support should be given to them in dealing with Medmark.

Like many other colleagues, I am aware of issues around school transport provision. I compliment Bus Éireann, whose staff, particularly in the Ballina office, have been excellent in terms of providing information. Their difficulty is that they are faced with a capacity issue at secondary school level. I ask that the secondary school application hub be reopened in order to see what the actual level of demand is. The hub was closed early in August and some people missed that deadline for various reasons. It needs to be reopened if we are to work out the level of demand. Consideration should be given to involving other groups. The Local Link service, for example, has provided an excellent service throughout the country, including in County Mayo. I am sure an engagement with that company would show its capacity to facilitate the Minister's Department in providing school transport. In some areas of the country there is an excess of coaches available at this time. There should be some type of central hub operated by the Department to enable those coaches to be relocated to areas where there is a shortage. We must try to tackle this issue before it becomes a barrier to the successful ongoing opening of schools.

I know the Minister will show the same commitment and attention to the issue of school transport as she has shown to all other issues since her appointment. It is really important that information be given to parents as to how the Department is proceeding with the provision of extra capacity. Parents need to know that work is under way within the Department to ensure that school transport, particularly secondary school transport, is given the priority it needs at this time.

Photo of Bernard DurkanBernard Durkan (Kildare North, Fine Gael)
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Like previous speakers, I wish to raise the issue of school transport, which is a crucial element in the delivery of education services. In my constituency, this year in particular and in previous years, there have been difficulties with concessionary tickets and places on buses in Maynooth, Leixlip and Carbury. I hope this issue can be resolved and I believe it can be. It would be a pity, having gone to all the trouble the Minister has gone to in regard to the delivery of essential school and other education services, if the reopening of schools were to falter on the crucial issue of transport provision. These are not simple issues because there may be different interpretations of the provisions of schemes. Bus Éireann, for example, may have arrived at a particular interpretation of some of the eligibility criteria. In the emergency situation in which we find ourselves, whatever needs to be done should be done to resolve the remaining issues that are causing difficulty for children in getting to school.

Photo of Michael CollinsMichael Collins (Cork South West, Independent)
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I am sharing time with Deputy O'Donoghue. As colleagues have outlined, pupils and parents are having a nightmare in regard to school transport. I spoke about this issue yesterday at the meeting of the Special Committee on Covid-19 Response and I will do so again today. We have seen a lot of improvements carried out in schools throughout west Cork in the past couple of months. A lot of these were funded and carried out by the Minister's Department but major works were also made possible by teachers, other school staff, boards of management, parent associations, pupils and the general public giving voluntarily of their time. I thank all the people who are doing all they can to protect children from Covid-19.

Many schools have the room to implement the required social distancing but they do not have the number of teachers they need to adhere to the rules. I spoke yesterday about the situation at Our Lady of Mercy national school in Bantry, the details of which I have sent to the Department. There is a beautiful girl with special needs who attends that school and whose parents are desperate to get her back there. However, she cannot go back because the classes are too full. This child deserves to go to her school and I plead with the Minister to step in to ensure she can. The school has requested an extra teacher and has the space to ensure students are properly socially distanced. Scoil Bhríde in Ballydehob has the same issue of plenty of space but not enough teachers. As a result, there are too many pupils in each classroom and many parents are stressed about the situation. The school has requested an additional teacher. There is also a situation in the same school where one SNA is teaching three children, which should not be allowed to happen in any school in these times. I ask the Minister to intervene to help the very stressed parents of the pupils of Scoil Bhríde.

I have tried to make contact several times over the past couple of months with the Minister of State with responsibility for disability services, Deputy Rabbitte, but for whatever reason, she will not entertain me. That is unacceptable for a person in her role. I have been working with others to try to open hubs for adults and teenagers with disabilities who are in desperate need to get back to a routine and to interact with their peers. In the current situation, these disadvantaged people are regressing. We have identified the Mizen medical centre in Schull in west Cork as an ideal location for a hub as there is ample space in the fantastic building. As per usual, however, there are many hoops to jump through before anything can be done when all that is really required is a little bit of common sense from the HSE and the other powers that be. On behalf of the parents of children and adult teenagers with special needs, I ask the Minister to do her very best to ensure they can return to their schools and other services.

Richard O'Donoghue (Limerick County, Independent)
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I wish the Minister well in her brief and compliment her on getting the schools open. Even though there are a lot of issues to deal with, I believe she will work to resolve them. The issue I wish to raise is the fact that Bus Éireann's school transport application system has been closed for the past four weeks. When parents tried to book their children in for transport in early August, they were told it was too late. The Department of Education and Skills allocated €11.3 million for the cleaning of buses, to be distributed by Bus Éireann. Only 50% of that money was given to private operators, even though they provide 90% of school services.

The money that has been allocated equates to between €4.50 and €8.50 per day for private operators.

Deputy O'Donnell referred to the difficulties in Limerick. I have been contacted by 40 families in east Limerick. The children attend schools such as John the Baptist community school in Hospital, and Coláiste Iósaef, Coláiste Chiaráin or Desmond College in Newcastle West. My office has been inundated with requests for help from people who cannot get a place on a bus - even though they had a place last year - because they are considered to be the holders of concessionary tickets. I have spoken to providers who offered to put on bigger buses but were told by Bus Éireann that it will not pay for them. This is an absolute disgrace. The private bus operators who provide 90% of the service have been told by Bus Éireann that it will not allow them to put on bigger buses. If they put on those buses, it would be possible to cater for all the people to whom I have referred. Front-line workers all over the country are trying to keep a roof over their heads in these hard times, but now Bus Éireann wants people to give up their jobs in order to be able to drive their children to school. This cannot go on any longer. I am calling on the Minister to immediately intervene with Bus Éireann and investigate what it has done with the money from the Department of Education and why it is stopping bus operators from putting on bigger buses which can facilitate the required services and get young people back to school safely.

4:45 pm

Photo of Alan FarrellAlan Farrell (Dublin Fingal, Fine Gael)
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The final group is the Independent Group, represented by Deputies Connolly and Fitzmaurice.

Photo of Michael FitzmauriceMichael Fitzmaurice (Roscommon-Galway, Independent)
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I wish the Minister well in her position. We should compliment everybody involved in the whole school set-up for getting schools opened.

In recent weeks, I have listened to the proposals of the new Government and taken note of its commitments in the programme for Government regarding emissions and having less traffic on the roads. Bus Éireann has made it clear that the Minister or her Department closed the portals three or four weeks ago. I refer to climate change and an equal society. Children are being left on the side of the road by the Department because it would not allow their parents to pay in the past few weeks. The Minister must bear in mind that we have gone through Covid and a time when people were out of work and did not know whether schools would reopen.

I refer to the cohort who are considered to fall into the eligible bracket and asked to send in their medical cards. I am aware of a parent who sent in for a ticket a few months ago, before the so-called closing date, but never got a reply. That individual's child has been left on the side of the road. Will the Minister stand over that? Will the Green Party or Fine Gael, as members of the Government, stand over that, particularly in the context of the commitment to reducing the amount of road traffic? It is a disgrace that parents who are going out to work must try to get a neighbour or another person to bring their child to school or pick them up at a time when people are meant to limit their interactions. Bus Éireann stated - and I hope the Department will confirm this one way or the other - that it was instructed two weeks ago to close the portals. Whatever the portals are, that is the instruction the company received. Bus Éireann will not now engage with parents or anybody else. It is waiting for a few months to see whether it can get more buses on the road. These children travelled on the buses last year and the year before. Bus Éireann was damn well aware that the children would be going to school again this year. If one's sister or brother went to school last year, they will be going to school again this year. I am asking the Minister to go to Bus Éireann tomorrow morning to ensure it opens the portals such that those people can get a place for their children on a bus.

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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I have two minutes and in that time I will zone in on school transport. First, I say "Well done" to the Minister on the schools reopening. It is a good news story. I also say "Well done" to her in respect of the leaving certificate and with regard to sense finally prevailing in the context of not profiling schools.

On school transport, I wish to move beyond her statement that it is a massive daily logistical undertaking. It certainly is that and it certainly is of benefit that 120,000 children, including 14,200 with special needs, who avail of it, but we are way beyond that. The Dáil declared a climate emergency. A recent Supreme Court judgment found that our mitigation plan is vague, not fit for purpose and does not set out properly the targets in respect of climate change. We need to move on this massive logistical undertaking and realise that we need to have proper public transport and school transport systems. We need to stop looking. I will not be party to a discussion whereby people are giving out about Bus Éireann or private operators. We are beyond all of that. It is time to lead.

The Minister is new to the job and I wish her the very best, but she cannot do this on her own. She needs to speak to Deputy Ryan of the Green Party, who is the Minister with responsibility for transport. They need to speak to each other on this matter and to facilitate a comprehensive school transport system for all students in order to take cars off the road.

The mixed messages that are constantly going out are of grave concern to me. This matter was raised earlier in the context of pubs. The Government is sending out the very bad message that people should avoid public transport. We should not be sending out a message that people should avoid public transport. Rather, we should be sending out regular updates on how public transport is being made more suited to carrying more people such that we can rise to the challenge of climate change. It makes absolute sense to so do. I am not here to give out about or demonise any side in respect of this issue. Rather, I am here to put on the record that we must provide comprehensive school transport for all pupils, regardless of whether they have medical cards or concessionary tickets.

Photo of Kieran O'DonnellKieran O'Donnell (Limerick City, Fine Gael)
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On a point of order, I have no doubt I am speaking for many of my colleagues in asking whether the Minister could briefly respond to some of the queries raised. It would make the session far more productive for everyone.

Photo of Alan FarrellAlan Farrell (Dublin Fingal, Fine Gael)
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I understand that. I regret that Standing Orders and the Order of the day precludes her so doing unless Deputies had given enough time for her to reply within their own slot. She may, of course, respond in writing if she is agreeable to doing so.

Photo of Simon HarrisSimon Harris (Wicklow, Fine Gael)
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I am glad to have this opportunity to address the House as Minister with responsibility for further and higher education, research, innovation and science. I will be sharing time with the Minister of State, Deputy Niall Collins.

Deputies have already received an update regarding the schools sector. It is a testament to the work of parents, teachers, principals, special needs assistants, cleaners, ancillary staff, boards of management and, of course, students that schools have reopened. The excitement on the faces of schoolchildren shows how much it means for them to be back to school. Indeed, it is a great relief for many parents to see their children back with their friends and teachers. As colleagues know, much work has been undertaken to plan and prepare the further and higher education sector for the new academic year. Colleges, universities and other settings closed their doors on 12 March, almost six months ago.

Thanks to the good work of staff and the patience of students, most of the academic year was moved online. I wish to pay tribute to the sector on the record of this House because a report issued by the Quality and Qualifications Ireland, QQI, last week notes that this move was certainly not without difficult and challenge for all involved. There was positive feedback that they managed to keep the show on the road, albeit in very different circumstances. While the report acknowledges that it was necessary, it was not easy for students and staff and what was done is a testament to their dedication.

In a few weeks' time, over 260 days after they closed, our colleges will begin the new academic year. It will not be possible to simply return to the way things were before the pandemic. We all wish it were, but it will not be. The college experience many students left in March will not be the same one to which they will return later this month but that does not mean it will be an inferior experience. The days of crowded lecture halls or crowded campuses must be over for the time being.

It is important that we acknowledge the impact that this pandemic has had on students and their well-being. They want and need to be back at college in a manner that is safe and they want to resume their studies. The resumption of the academic year is our most pressing challenge and ensuring that students and staff are safe is my number one priority.

The Government has allocated €168 million in funding to support further and higher education institutions in reopening their doors. This has been welcomed by students, staff, unions and many Opposition parties. This will enable our institutions to return to blended learning with some on-site campus learning in a safe and practical way. Crucially, it is not only about investing in Perspex, hand sanitiser or buildings, although these are important, it is also about investing in and supporting students. Therefore, included in that package is a €15 million fund to allow both higher and further education institutions to place bulk orders for almost 17,000 laptops for students. It is not acceptable to say to a student that the lectures are going online and that he or she must source a laptop if he or she does not have the resources or the means to do that. What is proposed will go some way towards bridging the digital divide - an issue to which I will return. Deputy Ó Ríordáin did much good work previously on literacy, and digital skills must be a priority for us in this House. I hope we can discuss that again. I also hope these devices will go some way towards ensuring equality of access to education.

This pandemic has had a disproportionate impact on young people. It is disappointing to see some people attempt to blame a younger generation in respect of Covid. As a House, we are much better than that. Young people have made incredible sacrifices. It has been difficult for them and, as I said, it has had an impact on their mental health. There have been concerns about mental health for a long time but these concerns have been compounded by the isolation and uncertainty brought forward by the Covid pandemic. For these reasons, the Minister of State and I sought to support student counselling services, key mental health interventions and the provision of a safe, respectful, supportive and positive environment in our higher education institutions. We are allocating an additional €3 million, on top of the additional €2 million in the budget, for student mental health support services and that funding is being distributed throughout all the higher education institutions.

We also need to recognise that this is a year when, perhaps, getting a part-time job will not be as easy as it was previously. This is a year in which families and students will have fallen on hard times through no fault of their own. For that reason, we are doubling the student assistance fund from €8 million to €16 million. As the House will be aware, this is a fund which students can access through their access office if they are in need of assistance because circumstances changed for many. In that context, we also need to make sure that the SUSI grant system changes. There is a commitment in the programme for Government to completely review the student support grant system and I have asked my officials to prepare an options paper on how best to do that. I will be back to this House in that regard. As a first step, we have made sure that the SUSI system can take on board whether a person's income has changed suddenly as a result of the Covid pandemic. We have now seen over 91,000 applicants to SUSI since it opened in April. This is over 2,000 extra applications compared to this time last year, reflecting the changes Covid has enforced on people.

As colleagues may be aware, I announced changes to the support scheme for students living in direct provision, with certain rules being relaxed and the scheme being placed on a long-term footing. I want to see an end to direct provision - so does the Government - but saying that is not enough. While we are bringing about an end to direct provision - this is a commitment in the programme for Government - we need to look at actions we can take today to support people in direct provision to access education. I hope that this will be of assistance. It is being welcomed by many of their representative groups. Hopefully, these changes in the student support schemes will result in more people accessing third level. I am pleased to say that we have seen more people who are seeking asylum in Ireland accessing supports as a result of this policy change.

The arrival of the Covid pandemic has also interfered with the normal means by which students complete their secondary education and move on to the next stage in their education or employment. The Minister for Education and Skills and her Department have undertaken enormous work - the Members have been debating that at length here in this House - in the context of calculated grades. I do not intend to go back through that. What I want to say is that I have done all I can to provide additional extra course places. This week I received Government approval to increase the number of places in colleges by 1,250. That is on top of 1,450 additional places we were already planning. When these are taken together, it means that over 2,600 additional third-level places have been made available. We are doing this while recognising that often a person coming out of sitting the leaving certificate might decide to take a gap year and go to Australia, America or travel the world but that this is not an option in a Covid pandemic. The person might also decide to work for a while and then go to college, and that may not be as much of an option. Providing more college places will, I hope, be of some assistance.

I want to say the following on the record of this House to the students of Ireland who will be getting their calculated leaving certificate grades next week. Whatever their results, whatever the outcome, they will never be judged by one grade, one mark or one piece of paper. There are many options, avenues and pathways. We need to drop the snobby attitude we have to the effect that the only way one can progress in life is to go from the sitting the leaving certificate to the university. Whether it is an apprenticeship scheme, whether it is the post-leaving certificate, PLC, courses, or whether it is using the further education and training infrastructure, there are many ways to get to where one needs to get and I do not know why we insist on narrowing the conversation so early. I hope that we can work on a cross-party basis to broaden that conversation.

While I have only been eight weeks in the role, I would like to think that we have made some important improvements. It must be recognised that we had a considerable amount of work to do. Last week, I also announced an allocation of €25 million for capital works and equipment in higher education institutions. This will provide institutions with the flexibility to address small-scale capital investment and equipment based on their own priorities so that they do not need to keep coming to the Department asking for permission. By setting up this fund, it will enable them to get on with making the improvements they wish to.

We reached a key milestone on a programme to deliver 11 new higher education buildings. This is not about investing in buildings. We can facilitate 8,000 additional student enrolments as a result of the delivery of these public private partnership developments. The first bundle will go to tender immediately and will include six projects in the eastern and southern region and in the midlands.

We are also making important progress on the issue of consent in our third level institutions. The issue of sexual violence and sexual harassment is not confined to third level institutions. This is a societal crisis and education needs to lead in respect of it. Education should be a place of safety, equality and inclusion, and it is not acceptable that we hear of so many students reporting sexual harassment and sexual violence in the third level institutions. That is why I have written to all university presidents and institute of technology, IOT, presidents asking them to provide consent classes for all first year students this year. It is why I have also mandated each of them, through the Higher Education Authority, to produce an action plan on how they intend for their specific institution to promote gender equality and tackle sexual violence, and that needs to be delivered by February of next year.

I want to come back to this House and have a discussion about how we rethink both the funding model for the third level sector and the correct balance between autonomy and accountability. I believe in the autonomy of our institutions. I believe in the autonomy of the education system, allowing people govern, think and do things freely, but there also has to be accountability and oversight. I believe the current governance structures are too archaic in that regard. I hope to bring legislation before this House in this regard.

We are entering an important time. I hope it will be an exciting time - the beginning of a new academic year. It is a time full of challenge, but the fact that we now have a dedicated Department, we now have a dedicated Minister and Minister of State and a Civil Service, may be shining a light on issues that perhaps got lost in the past or did not get enough attention. If one is the Minister for Education, whatever party one is from and whatever one's name is, one has a long list of issues to deal with. Sometimes, perhaps higher education was the poor relation. If higher education was the poor relation, further education was the Cinderella. We cannot allow that to continue. I look forward to trying to engage with colleagues across this House as we set out on what I hope is a new departure and a new beginning for higher and further education.

4:55 pm

Photo of Niall CollinsNiall Collins (Limerick County, Fianna Fail)
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We have all heard today of the incredible amount of planning and work that has gone into supporting the various sectors in education through this most difficult period and the current work on reopening schools and third level institutions. As Minister of State with responsibility for skills and further education, I will update the House on actions taken to support those sectors respond to the Covid-19 crisis to date and into the future.

First, I will cover the ongoing work to reopen education facilities generally. As the Minister mentioned, a Covid-19 adaptation framework was developed by the Department to assist this work. Changes to public health advice that are likely to be made throughout 2020 and 2021 will change and shape the learning experience in further and higher education and the framework has been developed in a way that eases accommodation of these changes for the sector.

The planning for a return has been ongoing but we must remember that managing the response to the Covid-19 crisis will not end in September. The framework will provide a structure for the ongoing management of the Covid-19 crisis as we move through the academic year. Blended learning will need to continue and to be enhanced for learners according to the current local public health situation and prevailing circumstances within the institution and provider. However, as the acting Chief Medical Officer noted earlier this week, "there are no zero risk options for reopening schools or indeed any other environment" and cases and outbreaks are likely to arise despite all best precautions. We must reopen in as safe a way as possible by ensuring that all appropriate public health measures are in place. Physical distancing, hand hygiene and other health and safety guidelines will require adaptations to the physical environment and any new restrictions. Institutions and providers are prepared to show their resilience again by responding quickly and innovatively should there be a return to a higher level of restrictions, as they did during the emergency period of the pandemic. Everyone will need to stay abreast of the emerging situation as facilities reopen and people return to campuses and facilities throughout the State. The Health Protection Surveillance Centre and HSE will continue to publish advice and guidance to help us all deal with any changing situations.

The general principles which apply to the management of Covid-19 include the safety and welfare of employees as well as students and trainees. There are, therefore, responsibilities on all facilities to ensure compliance and it is incumbent on all employees returning to the workplace to fully comply with any plans.

The Department has also been considering how to respond to skills issues emerging in light of the impact of the public health crisis on employment and the labour market. Tertiary education provision will also be shaped to respond to skills issues emerging in light of the impact of the public health crisis on employment and the labour market. These issues have been considered by the national training fund advisory group and the National Skills Council, groups that bring together employers, Departments and agencies and education and training providers. A set of recommendations has been developed through this process. These have been communicated to providers and employer bodies and included in the National Skills Council’s summer statement in May. The recommendations emphasise how education and training supports for companies and workers and expanded activity in providing skills for a wider pool of jobseekers should be informed by the medium and long-term skills priorities. This includes responding to the rapid pace of workplace change, which intensified over the period of the pandemic, the centrality of digital skills in virtually all occupations, the need to drive the green economy and respond to the challenge of Brexit, and the importance of leadership and management, which has been made even more apparent as workplace change and product and service innovation have accelerated in recent months.

The balance of the impact of the pandemic has also placed an increased emphasis on the need to support regional development and to focus on upskilling those in more vulnerable employment, who have benefited less from employer investment in training. All programmes will need to be flexibly delivered to a diverse set of learners and, in particular, interventions to support jobseekers will be short, focused, agile and well integrated with the workplace. The tertiary sector is now moving to expand its skills provision to support those displaced or impacted by the crisis. This will be done through a new initiative titled Skills to Compete developed by SOLAS and the education and training boards to shape the delivery of education and training for jobseekers, through an expansion of Springboard+ and the roll-out of the human capital initiative in higher education and through a set of targeted interventions from Skillnet Ireland.

The health and safety of everyone in further and higher education remains the paramount objective. Our approach is anchored in national public health advice. As has been shown during the initial emergency period of the pandemic, having clear lines of communication provides clarity and encourages strong, ongoing engagement within further and higher education which, by its nature, is a diverse sector. It is essential, therefore, that communications are delivered by universities, colleges and training providers with clarity for all learners, research, teaching, service and support staff, stakeholders and industry. Ongoing communication will proceed on a continuous basis with students, learners, staff, stakeholders and industry when the new academic year commences and institutions and providers reopen.

5:05 pm

Photo of Alan FarrellAlan Farrell (Dublin Fingal, Fine Gael)
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We now move to the Sinn Féin slot, Deputy Conway-Walsh has ten minutes.

Rose Conway-Walsh (Mayo, Sinn Fein)
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I will share time with Deputy Ó Laoghaire. I am encouraged by what the Minister and Minister of State have said today, on which I have some questions. Will they make a clear commitment to implement option 1 of the Cassells report which requires substantial increases in the level of State funding? Pushing the ever-increasing fees and escalating costs on to students and their families must stop, as the Minister and Minister of State recognise. Sinn Féin recently carried out a survey entitled Telling the Real Story. We heard from 1,022 students and I would like to share the findings of this research, much of which related to SUSI. The Minister recognised that SUSI needs to be reformed. There is a lot of good information in our document of which the Minister might take cognisance. Three out of four of the students who responded to our survey told us their families were experiencing financial stress and anxiety. Four out of five indicated they were concerned or extremely concerned that they will not have enough money to go to or remain in college. The SUSI grant system is supposed to help struggling students and their families. Too many of these struggling families are excluded.

I will give the example of two parents, one of whom is on an invalidity pension as a result of an accident while the other is on a disability payment having suffered a permanent injury. Both have been refused the SUSI grant based on income when the second spouse became eligible for a disability payment. That cannot be right. In the past month, hundreds of working parents have contacted our office outlining their financial circumstances, desperate that they cannot get access to SUSI and do not have the money to send their children to third level. Many of these people are front-line and essential workers, the people we clapped for because of the tremendous work they do, the personal risks they took and the sacrifices they made and we will ask them to make again in future. Will the Minister commit to using his statutory powers to expand and increase the SUSI grants at the first available opportunity?

Young people with autism are also excluded. Many of them need to study full-time online courses. Mature students with children are also assessed on parents' income. Young people who are estranged from their parents, who are often the most marginalised, are being told they do not qualify. We heard story after story of hardship and exclusion. These students do not qualify for support and are also forced to pay extortionate fees of €3,000. I hope the Minister will not try to push responsibility for this on to the third level institutions. The upper limit for fees is set by the Government in the full knowledge that the colleges will have to charge that amount. Does the Minister accept that in practical terms fees are set by the Government, rather than the institutions? I welcome the Minister's recent acceptance that fees are too high but he will forgive me for being a bit sceptical. We all remember the Labour Party education spokesperson taking part in a photo op in February 2011 outside Trinity College when he signed a pledge to the Union of Students in Ireland promising to freeze fees at €1,500. The Labour Party also pledged to reverse the €500 increase the Fianna Fáil education Minister committed to in 2011-12. That Labour Party promise amounted to a hill of beans. It did not reverse the €500 increase commitment and it oversaw a fee increase of €250 a year bringing fees to €3,000. That is unacceptable.

I ask the Minister to clarify some points. Will students receiving the pandemic payment lose it when they take up a college place? Many students are relying on these jobs to get them through college. Are those who chose to sit their leaving certificate in November and who will not take up a college place until September and October next year entitled to claim unemployment benefit if they cannot find a job in the interim? If not, what are they supposed to live on? What provision has the Government made for the 20,000 students who sat the leaving certificate last year? I acknowledge the increase in places but I am concerned about how they will be judged and if they will be at a disadvantage this year because of the increases in grades.

I also ask the Minister to examine the supports available for students studying abroad, particularly in the Netherlands. These young people may be on campus for only one day per week but they have to stay in the countries they are in and cannot come home because of Covid-19. They are not entitled to a full grant, yet they attend college for 11 months of the year. Many of them face very difficult financial circumstances.

Will the Government request third level institutions to publish their timetables as quickly as possible in order that students can sort out their accommodation requirements?

I would appreciate if the Minister could address those questions. It was extremely unsatisfactory that the Minister, Deputy Foley, left the Chamber without answering the questions put to her.

5:15 pm

Photo of Alan FarrellAlan Farrell (Dublin Fingal, Fine Gael)
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The order of the day stipulated that the Minister, Deputy Foley, would not answer questions unless Deputies ceded time, as Deputy Conway-Walsh has just done. Deputy Ó Laoghaire is getting three minutes, so the Minister will have one minute to respond if he wishes.

Photo of Simon HarrisSimon Harris (Wicklow, Fine Gael)
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I did not know that was the format.

Photo of Alan FarrellAlan Farrell (Dublin Fingal, Fine Gael)
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Deputies may cede time to the Minister to answer, if they so wish.

Photo of Simon HarrisSimon Harris (Wicklow, Fine Gael)
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I was not aware of that but I am more than happy to respond. If I do not get to all the issues in the brief time I have, I will write to the Deputy, if that is okay.

The House has, on all sides, been in an almost "Father Ted" mode of asking whether there is anything to be said for another committee. The Cassells report came before an all-party committee, which decided it would be worth having an economic evaluation. Before the existence of my Department, that economic evaluation was commissioned, with input from the European Commission. It is due back, I hope, in early 2021, and I will not be found wanting in acting then. I will be informed by it but not necessarily led by it. I do not want students to be starting their working lives levelled with significant debt, and that is the approach I will bring to that.

On SUSI reform-----

Photo of Alan FarrellAlan Farrell (Dublin Fingal, Fine Gael)
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I am sorry but I must ask the Minister to take his seat. Deputy Ó Laoghaire has the three minutes that remain.

Photo of Simon HarrisSimon Harris (Wicklow, Fine Gael)
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That is okay, but I do not want people who watch these proceedings at home to think I do not wish to answer the questions.

Photo of Alan FarrellAlan Farrell (Dublin Fingal, Fine Gael)
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I accept that and thank the Minister.

Photo of Donnchadh Ó LaoghaireDonnchadh Ó Laoghaire (Cork South Central, Sinn Fein)
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I now have only have three minutes to contribute so, unfortunately, I will not be ceding time to the Minister.

While it is probably a crossover issue between the Minister and the Minister, Deputy Foley, CAO applicants from 2019 or earlier are seeking to access higher and further education and a solution needs to be found. I firmly believe that solutions can be found. It is about allocation and decisions to be made in that regard. There are ways to achieve this. I sent an email on the matter to the Minister, Deputy Foley, and I can send it to the Minister, Deputy Harris, if he wishes.

I acknowledge what the Minister said about further education. The attitude is really positive. Nevertheless, he is not the first Minister to have said what he said, and actions will necessary. It will not all be about policy, although an awful lot of it will be. Much of it is about communication. There is almost a propaganda element to this, to try to get the message out there and to challenge the culture that exists. That is vital.

Another crossover issue that falls within the area of the Minister's Department concerns student teachers and those in the second year of the professional master of education, PME, programme. Their training falls under the Minister's Department primarily. We presume that, during the course of the year, they will be deployed, but the manner in which they will be deployed to schools, which will be of great assistance to schools, is somewhat unclear at this stage because the institutions themselves are trying to get their houses in order. There is scope for a meeting between the Ministers, Deputies Harris and Foley, and these institutions to try to figure out how the process can be expedited, not least this year because there will be a great deal of remote teaching. Many student teachers and PME students could assist small rural schools that might not previously have benefited from them because the student teacher or PME teacher will be based at home, in his or her locality. There would be great benefit in that, but there needs to be a meeting and a discussion to try to expedite it.

My final point, which is a practical one, relates to Safe Pass courses. I have had some feedback suggesting that the guidelines that SOLAS has issued provide that no more than 11 people should be involved in a training course. Organisations are booking courses, however, and hotels are telling them there should be a maximum of six attendees. Whichever is the case, the public health guidelines have to be abided by, but if there is confusion and it is delaying Safe Pass courses, which are intended to facilitate people getting into work, that is obviously not desirable. It does not seem as though that should be too difficult to resolve but the matter needs to be clarified.

Photo of Alan FarrellAlan Farrell (Dublin Fingal, Fine Gael)
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For the benefit of all Deputies, the Business Committee agreed that this discussion would be statements, and that if Deputies wished to cede their own time for a Minister to respond, they could do so.

Photo of Aodhán Ó RíordáinAodhán Ó Ríordáin (Dublin Bay North, Labour)
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I welcome the Minister to the House and the establishment of his Department, which will give us an opportunity to focus on the issues of further and higher education. I very much welcome his opening remarks because he covered a number of issues, such as the stigmatisation of young people, which is unfortunate, and the issue of sexual violence in third level institutions, which he is passionate about tackling. We also want to discuss the funding of third level education and the Cassells report, which the Minister referred to. The previous Minister with responsibility for the area, during the previous Government, ruled out the student loan contribution scheme, which was a positive move.

I turn to an area the Minister has highlighted since the beginning of his tenure, namely, the issue of literacy and numeracy among our adult population. I feel passionately about it because, like many areas of Irish public policy, not enough people talk about it. There is a significant element of stigma attached to it, just like most matters that are difficult to grapple with, and there is even an element of shame. A total of 17.9% of Irish adults are functionally illiterate. "Functional illiteracy" means being unable to read an instruction manual, an application form or the back of a medicine bottle. It does not mean the person is illiterate or that he or she cannot read or write his or her own name, but it does mean he or she cannot fully participate in our society. The figure of 17.9% is one sixth of the population. Many people either do not believe that figure or are astounded by it, but it is true and it has actually improved, given that a number of years ago, it was calculated at 23%. Can one imagine how one could live one's life, or negotiate one's day, without the level of literacy that one needs?

One of the measures we proposed in the previous Oireachtas was a plain language Bill, which would have ensured that all public documents would be accessible. More often than not, those who need public documents the most to survive are those with lower literacy standards. It should not be so difficult to read a public document. It should not be like opening an encyclopaedia. It should be accessible and easy to read and understand. I sometimes wonder whether public documents are put together almost deliberately to confuse. If this is what is between a person and accessing his or her rights, payments or benefits, often it can be one step too many for people.

The second positive policy proposal we had was to establish an agency that might be called "Literacy Ireland". As the National Adult Literacy Agency, NALA, has told us, there are about eight Departments that deal with literacy or with elements of literacy. With that kind of approach to literacy, whether from the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation, the Department of Education and Skills, the Department of Children and Youth Affairs or the Department of Health, there is not one overall strategy that can effect change. One in three children leaves disadvantaged schools with basic reading difficulties. In the United States, private prison operators calculate how many prison cells they will need in 15 years' time by looking at the literacy rates of ten year olds. In this country, as in most other developed countries, the difference between the oral language capacity of a three year old from a disadvantaged family and that of a three year old from an advantaged family is as much as 66%. On average, there are 400 words in the oral language capacity of the former, versus 1,200 words in that of the latter. Obviously, that will reflect itself in the adult's experience.

I have only a number of minutes to raise these issues with the Minister, but it could be really powerful if Members in government and in opposition could together achieve something on the literacy scale. If we were to establish an agency such as "Literacy Ireland", or to place a governmental priority on an issue such as literacy, imagine how many people it would liberate. They would be able to say that while they have grappled with a literacy issue all their lives, a door has now opened to them and they can fully participate in their society, their economy, their families and their democracy.

It is powerful. I appreciate that was one of the first statements the Minister made in his current role and one of the first groups that he met. If he is genuine about working with the Opposition and having positive policy proposals to tackle this issue, that is something powerful that the Oireachtas could achieve.

5:25 pm

Photo of Holly CairnsHolly Cairns (Cork South West, Social Democrats)
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I congratulate the Ministers on their appointments. It is exciting to see a focused new Department and I look forward to working with the Ministers, especially with regard to the shocking rates of sexual assault and rape in our third level and further education institutions in Ireland. There are many other issues and today I will focus on the reopening of colleges in these unique times. The reopening of third level education will be as challenging as the reopening of schools. Colleges and universities are doing the best they can to prepare against a backdrop of some uncertainty. Students and families need the Minister's Department to provide clarity and the necessary resources.

It has been reported that the Minister plans to provide more than 1,000 extra college places for high-demand courses to ease pressure. While any initiative that enables more people to attend college is welcome, will the corresponding resources be put in place too to support that? More students will put additional stress on a third level sector that operates at nearly full capacity already. Medical courses cost multiples of what the universities receive per student. Numbers of dental students are limited by the number of dental chairs, for example. The announcement of additional numbers is welcome but has to coincide with the announcement of additional resources. There is the knock on effect for student healthcare and mental health services, accommodation, and the vastly over-subscribed SUSI. Without proper resources, these additional places will only be for those who can afford it.

The media coverage has focused on prominent courses, such as medicine, law, and engineering. Has the Minister examined if additional places will be needed in further education and skills training too? Will apprenticeship schemes, agricultural courses, and others need more capacity as well? The provision of extra places also presents a challenge when colleges have to implement social distancing. Will this result in a de factopolicy of many courses going mostly, if not entirely, online? If so, when will students be informed? Many are making decisions about booking accommodation now so they need to know. Will the Minister outline what levels of engagement he has had with colleges and universities about these additional places? Were they aware of them?

The focus will fall firmly on leaving certificate results and college admissions next week. While much attention has understandably been on this year's leaving certificate students, who have endured uncertainty for months, those who are entering third level through other means are also impacted. In some cases, up to 30% of admissions are from students who have not completed the leaving certificate that year. The Minister's Department needs to provide clear guidance on how these students will be supported. Those using last year's results to access college, students completing the leaving certificate applied, mature students and others need clarity. What assurances can the Minister give that these students will be treated fairly in the coming weeks?

The Union of Students in Ireland and others have rightly called for a reduction in student contribution fees to reflect the challenges students and their families face at this unique time. Third level education is a public service and it should be available to everyone. Earlier this week, the Minister said that registration fees for students are too high and he would like to see fees addressed. I agree. Will this reduction be expedited immediately because it is essential that it helps this year's students, who are facing considerable uncertainty, loss of income, and additional costs?

The SUSI system, an essential lifeline for many, defines students in the early stages as dependent or independent when they first apply. Even if their personal circumstances dramatically change, they remain categorised according to that initial assessment. This feature of the statutory instrument at times deprives students of support they are entitled to. Will the Minister assure us that a more flexible system that allows students to change their classification from dependent to independent, if that is the case, will be put in place?

I did not realise there was such a thing as business that did not have questions. I am not sure what the point of making a statement is. If the Minister does not mind, and it is okay if he does not want to, will he address that issue of if one has to change from dependent to independent, a natural thing to do in one's college years?

Photo of Simon HarrisSimon Harris (Wicklow, Fine Gael)
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I am planning on a review of SUSI but I will see if we can expedite that based on the point Deputy Cairns made and I will write to her directly on it. The Deputy asked if the colleges know about the extra places, which is an important point. We went out to them. Of the 1,250 additional places, which is approximately a 3% increase, we identified 363 in health and education, where we asked if they could take on an extra student. The other 900 places will be divided up and given to each higher education institution based on the latest year's undergraduate intake. We will ask them to allocate them against their high-demand courses, so it is bottom-up. I will write to the Deputy on the rest.

Photo of Alan FarrellAlan Farrell (Dublin Fingal, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Minister. Some Members might have noticed that I inadvertently skipped ahead there using the old top-down list. The Social Democrats were usually after the Labour Party.

Photo of Richard Boyd BarrettRichard Boyd Barrett (Dún Laoghaire, People Before Profit Alliance)
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We should go back to that.

Photo of Alan FarrellAlan Farrell (Dublin Fingal, Fine Gael)
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That is a different discussion. I will now return to the Government slot.

Photo of Jennifer Murnane O'ConnorJennifer Murnane O'Connor (Carlow-Kilkenny, Fianna Fail)
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It is appropriate that we congratulate the colleges now that they are reopening. I am sure this weekend will be a long weekend for them. I am sure they will all be working, with the CAO offers out next week, to get colleges ready, whether it is for online education or otherwise. I also welcome what the Minister said about fees. Several constituents have contacted me to say that they cannot afford full fees this year because as students could not work this summer, they could not save. Communication is important.

SUSI grants need to be reformed. I have dealt with appeals over the years and it is hard to win an appeal for a SUSI grant. This year, we need information on how someone can qualify, how much they can qualify for and exactly what the mechanism is and how much one needs to earn. It is all about earning to qualify for one's grant at the end of the day. Information on that will be crucial. Is this ready? Can the Minister give us information on that so that we can give it to people who have contacted us? Families have contacted me. One woman rang me last week and said that she did not qualify for the grant for her child a few years ago, and she does not know if she will qualify this year. She thinks her child will be working from home and in college. She feels as if she is going into a restaurant and paying for a full steak, but is only getting half a steak. We need to be careful about how we handle this. Students who need and want to go to college need to get that chance. It would be a disaster if we do not have something in place to give those students that chance to get to college so that their dream can come true. That is something that they always want. I will look for information on that and think it is important.

I welcome the increase in student access funding and the provision for laptops. I know the Institute of Technology Carlow got more than €530,000. I understand that, across the board, many colleges will be doing much online teaching. The Minister mentioned capital grants. IT Carlow got €1 million in capital fund. The most important funding that the Minister has given this year, which I really want to welcome, is the support for mental health and well-being. I know IT Carlow got €240,000. I am proud of IT Carlow. It is an excellent college. I have been working with the Minister, other Ministers and other Deputies in the south east on the technological university, which will be important for the south east.

I have a problem. We have another excellent third level college in Carlow and it did not get funding for either laptops or capital works. How many more third level colleges such as the one in Carlow did not get funding because they do not meet the criteria? It is unfair. We have excellent colleges doing excellent work, getting this crucial investment for laptops, capital works and well-being.

There are other excellent third level colleges that are not meeting the criteria. Do these other third level students not deserve laptops? Why are they not getting the laptops? Courses will be going online now and it is so unfair to have some colleges getting it and some not. I would like an answer on that. I will then come back to the Minister with my other questions.

5:35 pm

Photo of Simon HarrisSimon Harris (Wicklow, Fine Gael)
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All institutions funded through the Higher Education Authority should have received funding from the mental health pot, if we may call it that, and from the digital pot. Those institutions in the further education space that have not received it should receive funding through the education and training boards, the ETBs. I am aware that the Deputy and I are due to have a meeting next week on the Carlow issue. We can try to resolve it in relation to that.

Deputy Murnane O'Connor is very passionate about the technological university for the south east. I have met with Tom Boland, the new executive officer, who is driving this project. I expect we will have a full project plan for the delivery of the technological university in October. I am absolutely committed to making sure we all work together - and there is much work to be done - to see that open its doors in its new capacity on 1 January, 2022.

Photo of Jennifer Murnane O'ConnorJennifer Murnane O'Connor (Carlow-Kilkenny, Fianna Fail)
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I really welcome that. In fairness, the Minister, Deputy Harris, has worked extremely hard in the weeks since he became the Minister with responsibility for higher education. It is important to get the technological university for the south east. Carlow and Kilkenny are my priority, as is Waterford, with all of us working together. I really welcome that. I am glad that we will sit down to talk about the college that has not had the same funding for laptops, which is important too.

Has the Department of Education and Skills received any information about staff who were unable to return to work for health reasons? If so, are our colleges adequately prepared to replace teachers? Are there enough supports in place for lecturers and tutors, especially now we are going online? Given that lectures are going online broadband is important. I have spoken with the chief executive in Carlow, Dr. Patricia Mulcahy, who told me that the college hopes to do a few days on campus and some days at home online. What is the Minister's view with regard to that and are the supports there for teachers and lecturers? We are in a whole new world. It is so different now even for the lecturers, tutors and students. Normally a college might be able to fit 200 students into a lecture, but with the health guidelines a hall may now only hold 30 students due to social distancing, and rightly so. These are different times and perhaps the Minister would come back to me on that.

I had another question for the Minister of State with responsibility for special education, Deputy Josepha Madigan, but I will also ask it of the Minister because it is important. Has anything been explored with regard to the private bus and coach operators, who could certainly do with the business? The Federation of Transport Operators are only too willing to engage with the Government on this. I received correspondence this week on this issue. Given that many of us are now working from home and that courses can be done online, is there any way that something could be done to perhaps get these private bus and coach operators to bring buses of students to colleges for the few days they are in? On certain days students will be in college and on other days they will not. Is there anything we can do there to help? It would also be a great help to students since they may not be staying in accommodation if they are only going to be doing a day or two in college. I am sure they will all know shortly. Perhaps the Minister, Deputy Harris, will come back to me on that also.

Photo of Simon HarrisSimon Harris (Wicklow, Fine Gael)
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I will ask the Minister, Deputy Foley, and will come back to the Deputy on the issue of engaging. It is always important that Government engages with people, so I hope that could happen.

On the specific issue on lecturers and staffing, if people have underlying health conditions their health must be our priority. There are established protocols in primary, second level, and higher education with regard to how one goes about that in the workplace.

On the funding for additional lecturers and so on, we have divided our Covid-19 package of €168 million for further and higher education among the institutions to use as they see necessary to adapt their facilities for Covid-19. In many cases this may involve staffing.

The Deputy is right to ask about the plan, and there is no point in being dishonest about this at all. The plan for the return to higher education is to see a blended mix, which will mean online and on site. The safety of staff and students has to be our priority.

Photo of Alan FarrellAlan Farrell (Dublin Fingal, Fine Gael)
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I call Deputy Quinlivan, and offer my apologies for the inadvertent issue with the speaking order.

Photo of Maurice QuinlivanMaurice Quinlivan (Limerick City, Sinn Fein)
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That is no bother, Acting Chairman.

I welcome the opening remarks by both Ministers. They were very positive. As my colleague, Deputy Ó Laoghaire, said, we will check the Minister, Deputy Harris, on his actions on these and see how he gets on. Hopefully he will deliver on what he has said. I wish the Ministers the best of luck in their new roles, and especially my county colleague, Minister of State, Deputy Niall Collins.

The Ministers will be aware that Limerick has a great number of third level institutions, including the University of Limerick, Mary Immaculate College, the Limerick College of Further Education and, of course, my old alma mater, the Limerick Institute of Technology, which includes the Limerick School of Art and Design.

Unfortunately, many constituents of mine in Limerick cannot afford to go to third level college. I wish to raise the issue of the SUSI grant with the Minister, Deputy Harris, and how difficult it is for many people to access the SUSI grant.

Working families are excluded from grants because the assessment criteria does not reflect the income available to the household. Bluntly, grant assessment is based on gross income not net income. This is wrong and leads to the exclusion from the grant process of many who are in need. Even if a person obtains a grant, in many cases it is simply not enough. The amount allocated is not adequate. The SUSI grant should contribute towards the day-to-day living costs, but the highest rate of grant is just too low. It does not cover accommodation costs for the academic year, let alone the high costs of books, food and utility bills. These moneys put huge stresses and burdens onto parents and students. The Minister is aware that traditionally, students could top up their grant amount by obtaining part-time work, especially seasonal work, over the summer months. This avenue of revenue, however, has all but ceased for many students due to the economic impact of the pandemic on the tourism, hospitality and entertainment sectors. This will be devastating for many families who will not be able to fund third level education for their children.

I commend my party colleague, Deputy Rose Conway-Walsh, on the great work she did on the Tell the Real Story funding survey. The survey asked students directly about the financial costs of higher education. Some of the direct feedback was heartbreaking, even though I have heard it myself in my constituency office. Young people are not able to go to college due to their ineligibility for a grant. A two-parent working family could not afford university for a child due to the high day-to-day costs of living. I thank all those students and potential students who participated in the online survey as their stories have put a human face on the struggles of an often forgotten sector of our society.

Is it really a surprise that the SUSI grant is not adequate? It has not been increased since 2012. It is no longer fit for purpose. The grant payments must be increased along with an adjustment of the eligibility criteria. The financial impact of trying to attend a college does not end there. Students still have to pay the full €3,000 in registration fees.

My time is running out and I have a quick question for the Minister, Deputy Harris. The programme for Government committed to a review of the SUSI eligibility. Will the Minister provide an update as to how the review is progressing or can he confirm whether this review has started at all?

Photo of Simon HarrisSimon Harris (Wicklow, Fine Gael)
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The review has not started yet. The Deputy will forgive me as I am just eight weeks in office. It is my intention to prioritise it. It is a key commitment in the programme for Government. The priority I have attached so far is to make sure the scheme this year understands the fact the people's income can have changed during the year as a result of Covid-19. I met with SUSI on this recently, and also on making changes for people living in direct provision. Any other announcements about the review, grant limits and so on will be for the budget next month.

Photo of John McGuinnessJohn McGuinness (Carlow-Kilkenny, Fianna Fail)
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I am delighted both Ministers are here for this debate. I welcome the interaction in terms of questions and so on and the commitments that the Ministers will come back on the other questions that may be unanswered.

The Minister has a new Department and there are two Ministers. There is an opportunity with Covid-19 to explore all the possibilities to perhaps open up third level education to those who were locked of it up to now. Much will depend on how the Minister approaches this and how it is funded. I accept in good faith the commitments given by the Minister but I ask her to consider the last debate we had in the House and this debate. For example, the Minister said children were happy going to school, that the schools have reopened and that children went to school with a smile. I can point the Minister to children who could not go to school. As a result of a problem in the Department in funding appropriate transport to an autism spectrum disorder unit in St. Colman's national school in Clara in Kilkenny, these children are still not back to school.

The three families concerned are asking why the Department is fighting over nickels and dimes when it could have the contract in place, the school serviced and the children who need an education back in school as soon as possible. These are the small things that make a difference.

The Minister mentioned the capital programme of €25 million. While this programme is essential, so too is the support for students who want to go through third level and go on further, do a Master's degree or go back to education. It is the cost of education that is preventing them from accessing the full range of courses that might be open to them or in which they might be interested. As a result, they are not fulfilling their dreams and their own wishes to get on. Perhaps there is a skill set within those individuals that would be enhanced by virtue of the fact that they have a passion about what they want to do. That possibility must be opened up for them. Therefore, all third level institutions should have been given access to the Covid funding and the funding for laptops and there should have been no ambiguity about it. The Minister needs to look at where that funding did not go and to ask why some third level institutions were not deemed eligible for funding.

The Minister and the Minister of State, Deputy Niall Collins, both mentioned safety and welfare at work in their contributions. They spoke about safety for the students, the teachers and lecturers and those that would attend college. It is interesting to note that there are those within the system who lectured, who were sexually harassed and bullied to the point of making a complaint and who have become victims of the system. These may be legacy issues in some of the colleges but they need to be addressed because we cannot carry on with the same culture or the same set of rules in a world that is changing by the day for all of us. We need to release those that are caught in that system of complaint or protected disclosure and let them realise their full potential. We must put something in place that can mediate a satisfactory outcome. We cannot talk about sexual harassment, bullying and intimidation and link it to Covid-19 because the picture is much bigger than that. It is an issue that has been overlooked for years and it needs to be addressed now. Now that the Minister is presiding over a separate Department, he must bring about a resolution to that issue.

The Minister also mentioned accountability and oversight. Mr. Boland attended hearings of the Committee of Public Accounts. He has some history in relation to Waterford Institute of Technology but I hope that baggage from the past will not interfere with the valuable work he must now do in terms of Carlow and Waterford. It is essential that the Minister keeps a political handle on the developments at both colleges to ensure that Carlow and Waterford can play a central role in education in this country and in the south east in particular and to bring forward the campus that will be necessary in Kilkenny for the future of the technological university and how it will perform. It is essential that we get it in place for 1 January 2022. Accountability and oversight is also necessary in terms of the legacy issues in those colleges. In both Carlow and Waterford, human resources issues need to be addressed. The financial issues need to be addressed, with one college in the red and the other not. Until we address these issues in a realistic way and provide adequate funding to do so, we will not overcome the problems associated with the amalgamation and the establishment of a technological university. We need to face up to the issues, to be honest and truthful about them. In recognising the truth, we will arrive at solutions to the problems. Then we can all move on for the betterment of the people that we represent, in the context of university status and the opening up of universities to those who have not had the opportunity to attend in the past.

School transport was also mentioned, as was online delivery of courses. At primary and secondary level we have a transport system that is not transparent, does not deliver and is not giving value for money. That system needs to be reformed as soon as possible. Those who are waiting for places, whether on concessionary tickets or otherwise, need to be told that they will have transport to school. The way the school transport system is operating is a national scandal. It is excluding young people and preventing them from attending the school of their choice. It is not a modern system and it requires reform and until that happens, we will be excluding some families and individuals from the education they deserve. This is another example of a simple decision being made to reform. The process may be complex but it can be achieved. Finally, I support the calls that have been made for the reform of the SUSI grant system, which is out of date and out of step with modern society.

5:45 pm

Photo of Alan FarrellAlan Farrell (Dublin Fingal, Fine Gael)
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Deputy Ward from Sinn Féin is next. He has three and a half minutes.

Photo of Mark WardMark Ward (Dublin Mid West, Sinn Fein)
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I wish the Minister well in his new role but he will not be surprised to hear me raising the issue of mental health once again. It was announced last week with great fanfare that over €5 million was secured for student mental health supports in institutions of higher education nationwide. While any additional funding for mental health support is welcome, it is worth noting that this is not all new money. Approximately €2 million of this funding is old money and was promised by the Minister's predecessor in 2019. According to a report from the Union of Students in Ireland, USI, previously allocated money did not reach the institutions that needed it. In University College Cork, UCC, for example, the waiting list to see a guidance counsellor is nine weeks, which is not acceptable. The same report also states that there is no documentary evidence that the €2 million in funding that was allocated to UCC was actually provided. I have submitted some parliamentary questions on this issue and if the Minister has time at the end to respond, that would be fantastic.

Student counselling services are doing a great job but they are overstretched and under-resourced. These services are highly valued by students but accessing them can be a challenge. As I said, waiting nine weeks for an appointment with a counsellor is not good enough, especially in these times. Early intervention is key to preventing more acute mental health issues from manifesting. Higher education, like many other institutions, will find it hard to operate when online or blended learning are the only options. This could have a devastating effect on students and not just in the academic sense. Learning online requires a high degree of independent study that many will find difficult. I know from personal experience, as somebody who went into third-level education as an adult, that students rely heavily on the peer and lecturer support that they receive while attending college. Losing out on the overall college experience could have a detrimental effect on students and may have an impact on their ability to finish their education. While a qualification is the goal for students, the journey in achieving that qualification is just as important in terms of the personal development of students. The friendships students form with their peers can be lifelong and the solidarity of meeting deadlines together and cramming for exams together is important.

Let us not forget that part of student life involves student nights out. These are being missed at the moment as well. For the class of 2020, college life will be completely different for returning students and first-year entrants this autumn.

It is vital that the additional funding of €3 million recently announced goes straight to the colleges in order that they can provide the much-needed mental health supports for students. I call on the Minister with responsibility for higher education to ensure that institutions are closely monitored and that ongoing consultation is carried out with the relevant stakeholders to ensure all supports are in place to assist students in finishing their educational journey in these challenging time. Will the Minister ensure that the funding does not get lost in the red tape and bureaucracy?

5:55 pm

Photo of Richard Boyd BarrettRichard Boyd Barrett (Dún Laoghaire, People Before Profit Alliance)
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Even before Covid-19 hit, higher education in this country was in a sorry state because of the impact imposed by misguided austerity. In February, before Covid-19 arrived, further and higher education were still suffering from the cumulative impact of €550 million in cuts and were operating with less than the funding that existed in 2007. Student to academic ratios in that period went from 16:1 to 20:1. The numbers in third level went up by an incredible 50% while all of those cuts were being imposed.

The pre-Covid-19 Cassells report suggested that we needed at least an extra €600 million by 2021 and €1 billion extra by 2030. That was the sorry situation. To put it dramatically, there was more investment per horse in this country than there was per student for most student categories pre-Covid-19.

Now, how can a disgraceful situation like that not make our capacity to deal with Covid-19 for students and our third level sector all the more difficult, notwithstanding the positive decision to set up the new Department and some additional funding? It is not even enough to bridge the gap of the austerity cuts the Minister's Government had previously imposed or to bring us anywhere near the level of investment which now needs to dramatically increase in the light of Covid-19.

Of course, one of the impacts, which is relevant to the Covid-19 situation, is that this has put pressure on third level institutions to concentrate on ratcheting up numbers to get registration fees and make money out of over-priced student accommodation on campus as well as to increase their reliance on the higher fees they receive from international students. I spoke to two people in universities today and have heard that universities are over-promising what they can deliver in terms of a face-to-face experience in the environment of Covid-19 because they are desperate to get the numbers in and because they want people to come into the student accommodation to get the revenue, even when the students are uncertain. They do not know what they are facing. They are not going to get face-to-face lectures. It is highly questionable how much face time they will get at all. Many of them are wondering whether to come. Should they pay out big deposits to get student accommodation? Will they get shafted the way they did in February, when they paid deposits and rent upfront only to be put out because of the pandemic? They are asking whether they will they be in the same situation again.

Against that kind of background, it seems simple. It is not as if this is an easy situation - I understand that. However, there was never justification for registration fees - they are the highest in Europe - and they should simply go now. There is no justification to charge €3,000 to students whose families may have also lost income on top of the capacity of students to gain employment while studying being significantly diminished. That is my main call. The Minister should get rid of the registration fees. He should do it now. They should not have been there in the first place but there is absolutely no justification for them in the context of Covid-19.

We should get our levels of investment in higher and further education up to something like the European standards. Where could the Government find the money? A total of €700 million is going on research and development tax relief, mostly to a few big corporations. Why not redirect some of that money to our universities?

I do not expect the Minister to answer my main points but I wrote to him on 13 July about psychiatric student nurses. They have been told that after they do their placements for six weeks they will have to self-isolate for two weeks but they cannot have other employment because of Covid-19. They are looking for some financial assistance because they cannot work.

Photo of Joe CareyJoe Carey (Clare, Fine Gael)
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I welcome this debate. I welcome the establishment of the new Department. I wish the Minister with responsibility for higher education, Deputy Harris, and the Minister of State, Deputy Niall Collins, well in the new Department.

I wish to compliment all our teachers throughout our educational system, whether in primary, secondary or third level, on how they managed to convert from a classroom scene to a digital format in what was literally a matter of days. I wish to compliment the many principals and their staff. They spent most of the summer converting their schools into a safer environment for pupils and staff to enable their return during the past week.

I wish to also compliment the parents in converting to new technology. I can say as a father of two schoolgoing children that there is a greater appreciation of the work teachers do. The use of this new system of teaching with broadband has highlighted the weaknesses of our broadband network throughout our country and County Clare. A family with two children and parents working from home puts strain on the broadband capacity, if they have broadband at all. This pandemic has shown us that we need to accelerate the national broadband plan and possibly broaden capacity as well. We also need to conduct an audit of all our schools and educational institutions to ensure they are provided with adequate bandwidth.

I want to raise two issues that have been specifically raised with me by constituents in County Clare. The first relates to people with special needs who are 18 years old or older and who have, or are seeking, a place in sheltered workshops, sheltered employment, training centres or other suitable placements. This has always been a difficult period for those with special needs as they transfer from full-time second level education to a suitable place in one of these centres. Some of these centres are either closed or operating with restricted capacity. I call on the Minister to make special provision for these centres to accommodate as many as is safely possible. I remind the Minister that many of these pupils and trainees have been in virtual lockdown since the middle of March with their carers. Both need respite as soon as possible.

The second issue is that of apprentices in the aviation industry, especially those based in the Shannon region. The aviation industry has been a drastic casualty of this pandemic. A significant number of aviation-related companies are based around Shannon Airport. In the normal course of events they would recruit a significant number of apprentices at this time of the year. My concern is that there are few, if any, apprenticeships being offered at this time because of the pandemic. These apprenticeships are eagerly sought and normally provide a lifetime of employment anywhere in the world. I accept it is unlikely that there will be many places offered this year, if any, but I call on the Minister to examine the possibility of offering incentives in the coming years to these companies to recruit additional apprentices to make up for the shortfall this year.

The Minister might come back to me on those issues.

6:05 pm

Photo of Simon HarrisSimon Harris (Wicklow, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Deputy and I will respond to him in writing on those issues. The Deputy is exactly right about the new appreciation we all have for teachers and other people working throughout the education system. I look forward to working with Deputy Carey on trying to drive investment. I saw some very positive investment in regard to the further education facility in Ennis in recent days and I look forward to working with him and to having the opportunity to visit there shortly.

Mairead Farrell (Galway West, Sinn Fein)
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Bhí mic léinn ó Ollscoil na hÉireann, Gaillimh, i dteagmháil liom le roinnt seachtainí anuas faoin bhrú uafásach airgeadais atá orthu. Tá mé tar éis fadhb na táillí do na hathscrúduithe a ardú leis an Aire i litir cheana féin. Fuair siad réidh leis na táillí seo i go leor ollscoileanna, ach ní bhfuair siad réidh leo in Ollscoil na hÉireann, Gaillimh do dtí seo. Impím ar an Aire brú a chur ar an ollscoil sin fáil réidh leis na táillí seo.

I have been contacted by a large number of students in recent weeks and months in regard to their precarious financial situation on the return to third level education. Young people have been hit very hard by this pandemic. Many have lost their jobs, others have been unable to take up summer work and, at the same time, many have been ineligible for the pandemic unemployment payment as a result of the nature of their jobs. As another blow, many find themselves just above the threshold and, therefore, outside the eligibility criteria for SUSI, and we have, of course, seen an extra 2,600 students apply for SUSI.

Bhí cúpla duine ón nGaeltacht, a bhíonn ag obair i gcoláistí samhraidh na Gaeltachta de ghnáth, i dteagmháil liom. Chaill siad amach ar an obair seo mar gheall ar an bpaindéim. Bíonn siad ag brath ar an airgead a fhaigheann siad ón obair seo chun íoc as an ollscoil, ach níor cuireadh é sin san áireamh agus iad ag cur isteach i gcomhair SUSI.

The reality is that even if people are in receipt of SUSI, it no longer covers rent. NUI Galway students union has highlighted that the cheapest room in the new student accommodation is at a cost of €8,800. Let us be realistic about this. That is out of reach of most 18-year-olds and highlights once again the huge financial pressures students find themselves under.

I have contacted the Minister directly in regard to the repeat exam fee being levied on students in NUI Galway. Students are being asked to pay €295 for repeat exams in that institution despite these exams being held online and despite the fact most universities have waived this fee. I urge the Minister to intervene in this calamity and to ask that NUI Galway would follow the example of other universities in waiving this fee.

I understand that, because of the continuous underfunding of this sector by successive Governments, the third level sector has to rely on other income sources for funding. However, last year, according to figures I received, NUI Galway collected €340,539.97 in repeat fees. How did we ever get to the point where institutions are relying on students failing exams to fund our education system?

Students are being told they will be spending approximately 30% of the semester on campus, yet there is absolutely no let-up in fees. One woman contacted me today to say that her fees have increased for the part-time course she is doing despite all lectures being online for the first semester. Students in NUI Galway are also being asked to pay a levy of €240 to register despite this being used towards clubs and societies. I do not see how this can be justified when, realistically, most of it will be online.

This pandemic has highlighted once again the real inequality in our education system. The costs I have highlighted are massive barriers to people who want to enter third level education. I urge the Minister to intervene in this regard.

Photo of Thomas PringleThomas Pringle (Donegal, Independent)
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As I have five minutes, I will ask my questions and then give the Minister the time to answer them. On his website, the Minister talks about the SUSI grant and he also spoke about it in his introduction today. He wants to reassure people there is scope to address loss of income as part of the grant scheme. I would like the Minister in his response to expand on how people will actually go about accessing that. It had always been the case that there was provision for situations where income changed within the year, but I want to know how people will go through the process and arrive at the point where income for the year will be considered by SUSI. This is very important and needs to be cleared up, given many people will be asking us questions in this regard.

A major worry for parents and students will be the lack of accommodation or the need to get accommodation which may be for only one or two days a week during the university year. Will that be addressed and how is the Minister dealing with that with the various colleges? I know colleges will try to blend the year to make sure students can have access for the full time while also maximising accommodation use, and I believe this will be detrimental to students. What does the Minister intend to do in this regard? I will give the Minister time to respond to those questions.

Photo of Simon HarrisSimon Harris (Wicklow, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Deputy. If we were in normal times, I would organise a briefing in the audiovisual room. However, I hope to organise an online briefing for Oireachtas Members on the SUSI grant system with SUSI officials. I know we are all getting a lot of queries into our offices, so I will arrange for that to happen very shortly.

I want to make sure there is flexibility this year. SUSI officials usually assess people based on last year's income, and they have made sure this time - I met them last week specifically on this - that they are helping students who have seen a sudden change in their income that is expected to last for some time. I know 2,500 extra people have applied to SUSI so far this year. On the change of circumstances form, I understand some 40% are citing Covid as the main reason, so SUSI is showing excellent extra flexibility in terms of sudden changes that may have happened. I accept there has always been a change of mind-----

Photo of Thomas PringleThomas Pringle (Donegal, Independent)
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Why are they doing that?

Photo of Simon HarrisSimon Harris (Wicklow, Fine Gael)
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I will send the Deputy a note on the technicalities in regard to how that is done but I believe it is working quite well. If the Deputy's belief is to the contrary, I will come back to him on that.

On the issue of accommodation, there are two points. First, we do not have enough college-owned accommodation. There is an issue at present, as the Deputy will know from his own constituency, in regard to institutes of technology not being able to access funding to build on-site college accommodation in the way universities do. We need to overcome that, and I have a meeting with them on that. Second, I have asked our universities and institutes of technology, where they have accommodation, to try to show flexibility in terms of its use. If they think students are only going to be there two or three days a week, I have asked that they try to allow students to book for the two or three days a week. A number have already indicated their willingness to do that, although some do not have the flexibility as all of their rooms are already taken, but again, on the record of this House, I encourage people to show that flexibility. If students are not going to be there four or five days a week but just for two or three days a week, many more people could be accommodated in that way in a safe manner.

I will come back to the Deputy specifically on the Covid change.

Photo of Thomas PringleThomas Pringle (Donegal, Independent)
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The Covid change is important because I know that, in practice, people are not accessing that.

With regard to accommodation, there are many private providers of accommodation and students have been caught in the last year and do not want to be caught again. It is an unfair burden and the Minister needs to address it.

The Minister referred earlier to laptops. Will there be a clawback from students by the colleges in regard to the costs? I hope there will not be and I would like the Minister to confirm that.

Photo of Simon HarrisSimon Harris (Wicklow, Fine Gael)
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There certainly should not be. Through the Higher Education Authority, we have effectively given a quota to each higher education institution. We have ordered almost 17,000 in bulk and they are distributed. Legally, I think they may remain in the ownership of the college but they are given to the student, and there absolutely should not be any fee associated with that.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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I call the Minister of State, Deputy Josepha Madigan, for the third session.

Photo of Danny Healy-RaeDanny Healy-Rae (Kerry, Independent)
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We were supposed to be in the second session.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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The Deputy was but he was not here. He will definitely be in this session.

I will give the Deputy precedence. I now invite the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, to make her opening statement.

6:15 pm

Photo of Josepha MadiganJosepha Madigan (Dublin Rathdown, Fine Gael)
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I am pleased to be here, following on from statements to the Dáil by the Minister, Deputy Harris, and Minister, Deputy Foley on the reopening of education and the training sector in general. My specific focus is students with special educational needs. We want to ensure that they are supported in our schools. I have sought to be an advocate for young people with special educational needs and their families, and I have engaged widely and extensively with groups from across the sector over recent weeks. I have been in close contact with many schools, parents and students since taking up my position as Minister of State at the Department of Education and Skills, and I have heard first-hand how many families and schools have been preparing to return to school and to welcome their students. The commitment of this Government and my Department is demonstrated in the overall financial allocation which is made annually to special education, which is €1.9 billion or 20% of the total of the Department's Vote.

As in many other sectors, the Covid pandemic, unfortunately, has created unprecedented challenges for young people and their families in Ireland, in particular, I would argue, the special education sector because the prolonged absence from school has posed particular challenges for these students and their families. Teachers, of course, have been excellent in responding very creatively to closures by endeavouring to provide remote learning for these students, but some of them have found it very difficult to engage with remote learning in a meaningful way. We know that families have experienced stress in trying to meet their child's learning needs within the home and that the transition for students in terms of routine and getting back to school and learning will be difficult. I want to reassure families that we are doing everything we can to relieve and alleviate the stress and anxiety for these students. It was critically important, therefore, that the summer programme went ahead this year. I will comment further on that later.

The National Educational Psychological Service, NEPS, has published resources, which I mentioned yesterday, in terms of supporting the well-being of students with special educational needs. It is a well-structured document which is illustrated appropriately, and it is very accessible for families and should be of help to them. Various guidance documents have been provided to schools which address many matters pertaining to special educational needs. I want to work with schools and parents to ensure that everyone has the full information. By way of further clarity, a compendium of frequently asked questions, FAQs, will be published in the coming days, which will provide students and their families with the relevant information on practical issues arising in regard to the return to school. I have been anxious that this FAQ document would be provided as soon as possible. It is being provided in response to a request from families and teachers in the special educational sectors. I commit today to the provision of that document which will be really useful for people who have questions in regard to children with special educational needs and their return to school. We want to ensure that this happens successfully.

Deputies are aware that the Cabinet approved the roadmap in July which set out the public health advice provided to my Department on the safe return to school which could be implemented at individual school level. Approval, as we know, was given for more than €375 million at that particular time. This was necessary to support PPE and hand sanitisation. We know as well that schools with special needs students have particular concerns in this regard. In response, I wanted to ensure that we had a dedicated package for the special education sector covering additional resources in terms of personal protective equipment, PPE, enhanced cleaning, release days for staff, their supports and, in particular, to cover absences for special needs assistants, SNAs, because the SNA and the role of the SNA has to be protected for the child with special needs. The SNA is integral to the successful return of a child with special needs to school and for his or her continuation in school as well.

The provision of this dedicated package recognises all of the additional requirements and vulnerabilities faced by these students. Approximately €160 million has been paid out, including payments to special schools in Ireland, of which we have 124. There is a particular emphasis on the drawdown of PPE for those schools and hand sanitizer materials. Funding will continue to be made available for these schools into the future. Within these payments, the allocation for PPE provision is enhanced for these students. At primary level, the capitation payment for the first term is €25 for mainstream students and €100 for those with a special educational need. At post-primary level, the corresponding figures are €40 and €160, which gives Deputies an idea of the additional supports provided to children with special needs.

I recognise the particular challenges that these special schools and special classes face in dealing with young people with complex medical and care needs who are at higher risk in terms of Covid-19. The additional targeted resources that are being provided include special schools, which will receive the equivalent of ten days' support for the purposes of employing an aid to assist with the logistics of preparing for the reopening, and a once-off enhanced minor works grant was paid to all schools, with an enhanced rate paid to special schools and schools with special classes to support their additional needs. Special schools and schools with special classes where there is a teaching principal will receive one release day per week. Those schools with an administrative deputy principal will be provided with 16 release days. As I said, the Department is supporting the filling of all absences of SNAs in school settings. Enhanced related rates are also payable in respect of students attending special schools and special classes attached to mainstream schools to assist with the extra costs associated with the cleaning of classrooms, with a small number of students operating specialist provision.

Earlier, I mentioned the NEPS psychologists. There are approximately 120 additional psychologist posts because of the particular emphasis on well-being this year in the context of Covid. It is a fundamental element of my Department's overall plan to ensure the successful return to school and to continue to manage the impact of Covid-19 during the year. My Department has developed and prepared a comprehensive tiered response to support the well-being of school communities at this time. It comprises the provision of guidance and services built on a strong, universal approach to support the transition back to school while also recognising that some may require more ongoing, targeted or individualised support. As I said, there are approximately 120 psychologist posts, which represents the full restoration of the guidance service following on from previous cuts. Schools will have flexibility to consider how best to align these posts within the schools guidance plan.

In addition to NEPS, they will play a key role in leading and implementing the Department's well-being response. An additional 17 NEPS psychologists will be appointed to provide enhanced services to support the well-being of our school communities at this time with, as I said, a particular emphasis on the well-being of our special school communities. I welcome the well-being resource that I mentioned in regard to NEPS, which is accessible on the gov.ie/backtoschool webpage. This is a companion resource to the well-being webinars and the well-being toolkits for school staff, which contain information, guidance, tips and advice for schools on how best to support the well-being of children and young people, including those with special educational needs.

I was also very pleased to support the work of the NCSE, which produced a suite of resources to support young people and their families to transition back into school. The resources include a booklet for parents and teachers on helping to prepare young children for primary school. There is also an engaging leaflet for schools to help young students understand public health advice, various resources for young people with complex needs to foster resilience in the transition back to school and a signposting guide for teachers, directing them to existing resources around managing the transition back to school, starting school and well-being in that transition.

I refer to summer provision. More than 15,200 people registered this year, which is the most ever for the summer provision. There were 3,900 in a school-based programme and 11,375 children with special needs who availed of a home-based programme. It is considerably more than in 2019 and in previous years. It was a crucial stepping stone in reconnecting students with their schools and learning which had been disrupted during the closure of school buildings back in March. The programme aimed to re-establish relationships, build connections, meet emotional needs and re-engage students with the school environment. I had the privilege of visiting the summer provision programmes at St. Augustine's school in Blackrock and Gaelscoil na Fuinseoige in Churchtown. The excellent work done by both schools was a testament to the commitment of the staff to fully support the educational rights of young people with special educational needs. I pay tribute to them and all the schools that took part in the programme this year. It was significantly broader than in previous years. Approximately 24,000 children with special needs were eligible compared to 15,000 who were eligible in previous years. This helped children with diagnoses of autism, severe and profound learning difficulties, any child in a special school or special class, young people transitioning into a special class in primary school from early years settings, pupils in primary school mainstream classes who present with Down's syndrome, young people who are deaf or most severely hard of hearing, who are blind or have a visual impairment or who have a moderate general learning disability, and young people with severe emotional and behavioural difficulties. I commend all those who were involved with the July provision in all those schools. It was really appreciated. Report cards have gone back to the schools now which will help with those children.

On school places, one of the most important things for me coming into this role as the first dedicated Minister of State with responsibility for special education is to ensure that every child has a suitable school placement. It is a key concern for me in this role. We have a long tradition of schools enrolling young people with special needs. Since 2011, the number of special classes in mainstream schools has increased almost threefold from 548 to 1,618 for the 2019-20 school year with 1,353 of those places catering for young people with autism. In recent times, a small number of families have experienced particular challenges in securing a place for their child in a special class or special school, particularly in south Dublin and Cork. There has been momentum in recent weeks from all involved to secure places for all of these students. There are powers under the Education Act, through the section 37 letters, whereby we can require schools to open new special classes where it is clear that they have the capacity to do so. The Department is working with various schools to see if we can collaborate on it, and most of them have been very obliging in engaging with us and trying to facilitate these places. It is a natural consequence that children can look for places during the year. I believe in equality of opportunity for children with special needs and it is something I want to try to eradicate if I can. The NCSE does a lot of work and is working with school patron bodies, boards of management and families to resolve this. Progress is being made and school visits are under way at present. I am hopeful that a conclusion can be brought to matters for the families concerned. It is hard enough to parent a child with special needs, not to mind trying to find a school place for them. I will be doing all I can to support these families.

On the school transport issue, I can speak to the special education sector only because the primary bus transport brief is with the Minister. Bus Éireann has advised that with regard to young people on dedicated post-primary special education services, more than 70% of the 560 services are in a position to operate at 50% capacity at the start of this year. The company has returned to the market seeking additional operators to provide services. The commitment is there on my part and on the part of the Department and Bus Éireann to have 100% of services operating at 50% of their capacity as soon as this is possible to achieve. Some parents are anxious about how their child will travel to school. Provision has, therefore, been made for parents of young people who are eligible for transport who decide not to avail of the post-primary transport services to receive a grant to support them with the cost of private transport arrangements within the defined parameters.

6:25 pm

Pauline Tully (Cavan-Monaghan, Sinn Fein)
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I join with others in welcoming the fact that between last week and this week, schools have reopened since their forced closure five and a half months ago. All of us hope that they will remain open in what are challenging times for teachers, auxiliary staff and pupils. I commend all of the staff involved in getting schools ready at very short notice in what are exceptionally difficult and unprecedented circumstances. We all want our schools functioning properly so that our children and young people get back to some sort of normality and receive the best education possible during the Covid crisis.

The past five and a half months have been very difficult for all sections of our society and our young people have been particularly badly affected. The forced isolation from their extended family and friends has not only impacted on their education but curtailed their personal development and social interaction. The Covid lockdown has had an even greater and disproportionate impact on young people with special educational needs. Children and young people with additional needs have reported emotional, social, physical and behavioural difficulties. The absence of play and the inability to socialise with friends has had a seriously negative impact on their lives. The lack of routine as a result of school closures has adversely affected many, not least those with ASD and their parents, who have had to shoulder the considerable burden of home schooling and remote learning. The results of surveys carried out during the lockdown indicate significant regression in children's behaviour and social skills with many reporting increased levels of anxiety and agitation and more challenging behaviours for some. It has been additionally difficult for children with more complex needs to understand and comprehend why restrictions were required in the first place and what a pandemic means.

In addition to the closure of schools, other services have also ceased or operated at a much reduced capacity. I particularly refer to therapeutic services such as speech and language therapy, occupational therapy, physiotherapy and so on, all of which have been stopped or only offered on a limited basis. I am told the reason for this is staff have been redeployed to testing and contact tracing, which might have been justified at the outset of this crisis when no one knew what was in store for the country or how everything would pan out. I do not understand why these particular staff remain redeployed. These are highly qualified staff tasked with taking care of people who have additional and complex needs. They provide vital services that are being denied to the children who badly need them and without which their anxiety levels greatly increase, especially now as schools reopen. Children with special educational needs are returning to school after being denied essential help for five and a half months. These services must be reinstated immediately. Such children transitioning from preschool to primary, primary to secondary, or secondary to a post-leaving certificate course or third level need the support of therapies. Normally preparatory courses are carried out with the young people transitioning from one school to the next. They are offered supports and their parents given advice on how to support their child. A transitional report is then prepared for the new school outlining the needs of the student in order that they are provided with the supports to manage their new environment.

For example, this could be as simple as identifying that a student is unable to cope with crowds and a locker being assigned at the end of a row rather than in the middle, where people tend to congregate. It could also be colour coding the timetable to assist the student or better orienting the school rota. To my knowledge, the report was not done this year, which is worrying, as such preparation in these most difficult of times is more vital than ever.

I am also very concerned about the lack of information pertaining to students with special educational needs in the roadmap for reopening schools. There was a half a page that gave advice that did not differ in any way to advice given to other students. There should have been links to NEPS, Enable Ireland, child development teams and other organisations that would normally have an input into helping young people with special educational needs in returning to school.

Concerned parents have contacted me about SNAs being shared between classes. Most students are only allocated access to an SNA, which results in those staff having to travel between classes, which has raised understandable concerns that such an arrangement may result in the spread of Covid-19. This sort of contact should be limited so there must be an immediate increase in the number of SNAs. It is also vital that special education teachers in mainstream schools are not used to cover classes of teachers absent due to Covid-19 or any other reason. Special education hours must be ring-fenced for special education and the Department must take decisive action against any principal who even attempts to reallocate staff in this way.

Due to the lack of support outside school, children who are finding it difficult to return to the school environment must now be given the support to do so, or, if necessary, they should be given access to the home tuition scheme. Reporting such incidents to an educational welfare officer will only serve to add to the stress of a case, and every effort should be made to encourage students back to school without resorting to such action. Some parents have indicated that because children are out of school and a routine for so long, they are finding it difficult to get the children back to school.

When will therapeutic services resume? I acknowledge this may not relate directly to the Minister of State's portfolio but it is very strongly connected to it. Are there plans to increase the numbers of SNAs? She made reference to the 120 additional NEPS psychologists to be recruited. Are they now working in schools or is it something that will happen in the coming months?

6:35 pm

Photo of Kathleen FunchionKathleen Funchion (Carlow-Kilkenny, Sinn Fein)
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I refer to the various campaign groups we regularly see advocating, which mainly comprise parents who advocate on behalf of their own children with additional needs. In particular I mention Enough is Enough: Every Voice Counts, and at this stage everybody knows the excellent work it does. I will also reference the AsIAm survey.

It is good that we have a Minister of State with responsibility for special education and I hope we will see results and very good practical solutions for families as a result. AsIAm conducted a survey of 1,100 families in August regarding the return to school and 77% of those families indicated that their children would need extra supports on top of what they had been getting before the Covid-19 pandemic. Unfortunately, half the parents felt those supports would not be forthcoming. This highlights how a parent of a child with an additional need faces a constant battle. I have found myself saying this repeatedly, as I have found myself saying repeatedly that we have a two-tier education system when it comes to children with additional needs. Unfortunately, this is still the case as parents and children must wait so long to see if they can secure a class place, even before the issue of transport is sorted, which comes with that. This is unacceptable and I hope that within the Minister of State's portfolio, we will see good and positive changes.

She referenced the July provision in her statement but 53% of parents in the AsIAm survey did not access July provision. Anecdotal evidence suggests parents found the online system confusing and extremely difficult to understand. Disturbingly, simple elements such as links did not divert to correct pages or work at all. We really need to look at this. In general, we get calls from various schools and parents to see if the July programme can be extended and now is the time to look at it for next year so we can extend it to others. I know some additional children were able to access it this year but we can always improve it. The more children get it, the better.

I also ask about assessments, as people have to wait a crazy length of time to get an assessment for a child. The process has become even worse since the onset of Covid-19. At yesterday's meeting of the Special Committee on Covid-19 Response, representatives of Inclusion Ireland stated in response to some of my questions that they felt some of the delays arose from some HSE staff being redeployed to deal with Covid-19 testing and tracing. It is important to note there were extreme difficulties in the area and parents were facing a delay anyway, so all this cannot be pushed to the door of Covid-19. Delays were being compounded so I would like to know if this was the case. If HSE staff are involved with assessments, they absolutely should not be redeployed. I understand the complexities around Covid-19 but children need those assessments.

What is being done for children who would have expected an assessment by now or who should have expected access to an ASD class? I have asked the question in a number of forums on different occasions but what is happening for those children? What is happening for children who had an SNA and resource hours before the Covid-19 pandemic? Is there a commitment to automatically increase resource hours as children will need additional support if they were getting resource hours? SNAs do excellent work. Will there be a substitute panel of SNAs, as we have heard mentioned a lot, for the teaching profession? That is required and it is important for the transition to be done as smoothly as possible with children who are used to a certain person and routine.

Photo of Aodhán Ó RíordáinAodhán Ó Ríordáin (Dublin Bay North, Labour)
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I welcome the Minister of State and appreciate the opportunity to share some thoughts with her. My time is short so I will speak to two main matters. The first is the way SNAs are treated and the second is access to very basic provisions for children with additional needs in the community, including school places.

A crisis often reveals what society is really like, the priorities of that society and what it genuinely respects. The SNA role has been in our education system for approximately 20 years and there are endless stories of disrespect being shown to SNAs within the school system and individual schools, sometimes by principals and often by the manner to which they are referred. For example, most are referred to by their first name rather than surname in secondary schools. They are asked to do menial tasks such as collecting lunches and they do not get to use the same staff facilities. This does not happen in every school, clearly, but such cases in a number of schools have been brought to our attention.

It is difficult to stamp out this practice and get people to show more respect to our SNAs in daily school life when the Department demonstrated a stunning lack of respect for the role they play in our schools during the pandemic. This was not the fault of the current Minister of State, who was not in situat the time. The manner in which the potential redeployment was handled just goes to show once again that when it comes to teachers and buildings, the Department knows everything. If it is not a teacher or a building, the Department of Education and Skills knows nothing or pretends to know nothing. It will act as if anything that is not a teacher or building is an irritant and that people should almost be thankful they have a job in the first place.

I want to impress on the Minister how we are coming from a very low base when it comes to showing respect for our SNAs. They are included in every parliamentary or ministerial speech about the education system and we all love our SNAs. If this is the case, they must be paid properly and they must have proper terms and conditions of employment. Respect must be shown to them in the school system and this should also be shown by the Department. If the redeployment debacle is anything to go by, we have a long road to travel for SNAs to believe the Department and Minister has their back. I was embarrassed by the manner in which they were treated when we were all told we were in this together.

On the issue of school places for children with additional needs, particularly autism, I was quite frankly horrified by the treatment of parents who are completely exhausted. The Department is almost depending on the exhaustion of parents dealing with a challenging diagnosis to prevent them exposing the scandal of what they are expected to go through. It is one thing to receive a challenging diagnosis and do one's best as a parent. It is quite another, when trying to find a school place, to be handed a sheet of paper with a list of schools on it by the special needs organiser and wished the best of luck. It is up to the parents to access a school place. Schools have given any number of excuses for not being able to facilitate children with additional needs, many of whom have autism.

I know the Department and the Minister have intervened in certain circumstances. The Education (Admissions to Schools) Act 2018 allows the Minister to do so. However, it is an absolute scandal that just when parents need as much support from the State as they can get, they are handed a sheet of paper. In my constituency of Dublin Bay North, they have been directed to schools with addresses in Drogheda or told to pursue home schooling. That is all very well, but which of us is competent to know how to choose a tutor to come into our homes so that a child with special educational needs will be taught well and given expert tuition?

I wish the Minister of State well on these two issues and I am determined to work with her. I said the same to the Ministers, Deputies Foley and Harris. However, I want to firmly mark the Minister of State's cards on these two issues. She must address the treatment of special needs assistants. Moreover, the Department is depending on the fact that the issue of school places falls between two Departments and on the exhaustion of parents preventing them from campaigning. That is a scandal and I hope the Minister of State will be able to address it.

6:45 pm

Marc Ó Cathasaigh (Waterford, Green Party)
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I welcome the appointment of a dedicated Minister of State with responsibility for special education and inclusion. It was sorely needed. I am very hopeful that it will drive some of the changes needed in this sector. I am glad there is someone with specific responsibility for this and I wish the Minister of State luck with this role.

I would like to acknowledge the huge difficulties faced by all parents minding children at home during the lockdown period. These challenges were even greater for parents of children with special needs. I also wish to acknowledge the work of the special educational needs teachers who maintained the connection between children and their schools and facilitated their transition back to the school environment. During their appearance before the Special Committee on Covid-19 Response yesterday, representatives of Inclusion Ireland said that 87.5% of children with special needs are expected to return to full-time schooling. This is welcome, but it still leaves us in a situation where one child in eight within that cohort will not be coming back, mostly due to health reasons. It is important that whatever supports they need to pursue home schooling or some form of blended learning are factored in and that those children are catered for.

I would like to talk about the provision of autism spectrum disorder, ASD, places, an issue which has been raised by several speakers already. I am advised that for every 16 children who leave an ASD place in the primary sector only six places are available at second level. A real logjam has arisen in the transition between the two schooling systems. I know from my own experience in primary school classrooms that a great deal of what one does in the final term of sixth class is about the transition to secondary school. That applies to all children, not just those with special needs. It is critical, particularly if there is a child with ASD in the classroom, that the teacher talks through these issues, manages a transition programme and makes the connection between the primary school and the secondary school so children can make that transition as smoothly as possible.

There is still a huge issue around the number of ASD places that are available and where they are located. I will draw particular attention to my own home town of Tramore, whose experience will be replicated across the country. Some 12,000 people live in that community and we do not have a single dedicated ASD place in the entire town. The incidence rate of ASD is one in 68, so we know that statistically there is a demand for those places in our community. As a result, children who need specific ASD teaching have to leave our community and travel to Waterford city or beyond to get the placement they require. For children with ASD a relationship with their community is so important and so difficult to build up. It must be fostered. I am sure there are many towns across the country that find themselves in a similar situation, but I ask the Minister of State to take a particular look at my own community. With a population of 12,000 people, specific provision should be made for us. I recognise that the Minister made a commitment to increasing school places and I ask the Minister of State to look at Tramore in that regard.

I would like to raise the issue of SNAs and social distancing within classrooms. All teachers, particularly those in high-risk categories, are being advised to tape off a 2 m cordon so they can teach their classes while maintaining social distancing. It is extremely difficult for any primary school teacher to maintain a 2 m gap between himself or herself and students, but it is practically impossible for an SNA. Many SNAs may not even have the option. They may not have a dedicated desk within the classroom. I ask the Minister of State to ensure SNAs who are teaching in that environment have access to medical-grade personal protective equipment, PPE, so that at the very least they can be assured of the equipment they are using to protect themselves. SNAs may have underlying health conditions or may be caring for people at home. They bring those worries with them into the classroom just like anybody else. Can we make sure they have the equipment they need to have peace of mind while discharging their duties?

I also think it would be useful for us to consider the free provision of flu jabs to SNAs as they are in an at-risk category. This would add to their peace of mind and allow them to do their job.

I want to raise the issue of appointments for occupational therapy, speech and language therapy and dental care for children with special needs. This issue has been referred to already. Many of these appointments have been cancelled. I know from talking to people in my constituency that parents of children with special needs often experience huge frustration because the waiting times for these appointments are so long. I know we are doing all we can to reduce waiting times, but this is a cause of significant frustration among parents. They are concerned that having missed appointments during the lockdown period, they will be put at the bottom of the list and their waiting times will be increased again. I would like to be able to assure parents in my constituency that we will do everything possible to make good on appointments they may have missed during that period. Where occupational therapy is concerned, particularly speech and language therapy, we know that early intervention leads to much better outcomes. If appointments have been missed and things have been allowed to drag on, it really makes sense to make good those appointments and reduce waiting times in any way we can.

Photo of Pearse DohertyPearse Doherty (Donegal, Sinn Fein)
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Cuirim fáilte roimh an díospóireacht anseo. Tá a fhios agam gur chuir teaghlaigh fríd an Stát fáilte mhór roimh athoscailt na scoileanna. Ag an am céanna, bhí imní ar go leor daoine.

The families who were worried were those facing into a school year where their child might be without much-needed special needs supports in the classroom. That is the issue on which I will focus in my contribution.

I recently asked the Minister of State's Department to provide me with the numbers for exceptional review applications in respect of special needs assistance that were submitted by schools in my county of Donegal this year. The National Council for Special Education provided me with those numbers last week and they confirmed exactly what I have been hearing from teachers, parents and principals in schools throughout the county. Half of the applications were successful and the other half were either rejected or have not been processed or determined at this time. One third of applications which have been decided were unsuccessful. In other words, in the case of one in three of these exceptional review applications, the children in question are in school at this point in time without the supports their parents, school and board of management feel are necessary. In respect of one quarter of applications, it was decided that school visits were required to assess the child's needs. I have spoken to two previous Ministers for Education and Skills about the cruelty involved in how this process unfolds for those children. Parents are told that on-site inspections will take place some time at the end of September or in October to see if their child is failing in his or her environment and only then will SNA support be provided, with all of the hoops still to go through in regard to the acquisition of an SNA who is suitable for the post, Garda clearance and all the rest.

The idea that we would set children up to fail in this way is simply unbelievable. I have personal experience of this and have, as I said, relayed my concerns to the current Minister's predecessors. It is an area in which change is needed urgently. What is happening under the current system is that we are letting children suffer and waiting to see whether they can swim before throwing them a life jacket. Once they are assessed, it is anyone's guess as to when they will be given SNA support if they are deemed to need it. Many of these inspections find that the child does indeed need SNA support. There has to be a better way of dealing with this issue because what is happening at the moment is back to front. We must provide for the needs we are being told have been identified and then assess those needs as the child progresses through the school year. I have been contacted by a number of SNAs in Donegal this year who do not have a job to go to and are sitting at home. At the same time, there are children in desperate need of support in the classroom.

We need effective action in this area. I welcome the Minister of State's appointment and I hope there is real focus in it. In the past, we have had Ministers appointed whose remit is rural Ireland but the reality is that the situation in rural areas is much worse now than it ever was. We need real and urgent action in regard to special needs provision in our schools and we must ensure that provision is centred on the child. I challenge to the Minister of State to deal with the issue of how the need for an SNA is assessed and how assistance is delivered. It is not acceptable that parents could be waiting until October before there is a recognition that their child is failing in a classroom environment and before he or she is allocated the supports that were needed and deserved in the first place.

6:55 pm

Photo of Gary GannonGary Gannon (Dublin Central, Social Democrats)
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I welcome the Minister of State and congratulate her on her appointment. I do not in any way underestimate the scale of the task she faces and I wish her well in her efforts in this vitally important area. Her success is in everybody's interests.

The meetings of the Special Committee on Covid-19 Response from which I and other attendees have got the most satisfaction have been those pertaining to education, particularly where the witnesses were from interest groups which work with young people who have undergone the greatest upheaval in their education experience since April. One of the starkest discussions for me was when we heard yesterday from representatives of Inclusion Ireland who spoke about the experience of children with intellectual disabilities throughout the Covid period. They talked about how the children have regressed and how it is absolutely essential for them to be supported. I do not want to say that they need support to "catch up" but they do need help to get back to where they were before the Covid crisis.

There was a huge contrast in the presentations at yesterday's meeting where as well as representatives from Inclusion Ireland, we also heard from the National Parents Council Primary and the National Parents Council Post Primary. All three organisations have recently conducted a survey of their members. The two parent councils reported that there was a degree of satisfaction with the reopening of schools and that parents felt it was going as well as it possibly could, with the caveat that we are only at the beginning of the process. However, the parents of children with intellectual disabilities who were surveyed by Inclusion Ireland reported being highly dissatisfied with their children's experience throughout the education system. It would not be fair for me to say that this is anybody's fault but it absolutely is the responsibility of all of us to deal with it. I know the Minister of State met representatives of Inclusion Ireland last week. I ask her to take on board all the suggestions they have made, with particular regard to their finding that 11% of members surveyed were very clear in their view that remote learning was not suitable for their child. We must make accommodations for those children because it is not acceptable that any child should be left behind during this pandemic period.

Other speakers referred to SNAs and I have a very specific issue to raise in this regard concerning the guidelines for school staff in regard to PPE and medical masks. This guidance is of particular relevance for SNAs, who work in close proximity with children. The current guidelines are far too vague. The document states that principals "should consider" providing medical masks for staff. The words "should consider" are not acceptable. That vagueness is creating an ambiguity which means that some SNAs are being left without the appropriate medical equipment. Those guidelines should be shored up and there should be no doubt that all SNAs must be able to avail of the appropriate medical-standard masks in their interactions with students. That is absolutely essential and a basic show of respect for the special needs staff who do an incredible job. There are other considerations with regard to SNAs in terms of how we support the professionalisation of the sector but I will return to that on another day.

The final issue I wish to raise concerns a family in my constituency. It is a rarity for me to come into the Dáil Chamber and talk about a constituency issue but I am doing so again this evening after having raised it yesterday with the Minister and again earlier today with departmental officials. The mother of the family in question suffers from chronic lymphocytic leukemia, which is a very rare blood cancer, and is in the extremely high-risk category for Covid. There are two teenage children in the family, one of whom goes to a boys' secondary school and the other to a girls' secondary school. The parents have been unable to send the children to school for the fear of what would happen should the virus enter either of their schools and be brought into the family home. The Department has told the family that it is the responsibility of the school management board to resolve this matter. The board has rightly responded that it does not have the medical expertise to deal with the situation, nor has it been given any appropriate guidelines from the Department on how to cater for the very specific concerns, worries and terrors of this family.

When I raised the matter with the departmental officials, they noted that they are operating under the HSE and NPHET guidelines which say that all children, even those with underlying health conditions or with a family member with such a condition, should go back to school because of the need for socialisation and improved mental health support. That is an understandable position to take and I would accept it for many students across the board. However, it is not acceptable in the case of this particular family, who are not on their own in being in such a difficult situation. The Department must be malleable in its guidance where there are children or family members at extreme risk. I could not ask any teenager to go to school with the worry that he or she might bring home a virus that could have fatal consequences for a family member. It is absolutely incumbent upon the Department of Education and Skills not to wash its hands of this family's situation and say that it can only follow public health advice. We should all be taking advice from the HSE but we should also recognise that there are particular conditions in respect of which the evidence is just not there to support a return to school. Schools closed their doors in March and we do not have enough medical evidence to conclude, as was suggested to me today, that there is a very low risk of transmission from children to adults. In the case to which I referred, we are talking about teenagers who are soon to be young adults. The evidence is not there to justify asking that family to play Russian roulette with their health. Their situation must be addressed.

Réada Cronin (Kildare North, Sinn Fein)
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Ba mhaith liom comhghairdeas a ghabháil leis an Aire Stáit as ucht an post nua atá aici. Go n-éirí an t-ádh léi. Tá a lán obair thábhachtach le déanamh aici. I have spoken to many parents throughout north Kildare whose children require special education. Parents of children on the autism spectrum and with other special needs feel invisible. These are children who rely heavily on the classroom for support, order, regularity, security and routine.

This helps them to relax, learn, flourish and reach their full potential.

Children with special needs have lost out significantly since schools closed. Their routines were turned upside down and the lack of socialisation has affected them deeply. They lost almost two terms of the past academic year and they really do not wish to be overlooked again. Parents are contemplating the loss suffered by their children as well as experiencing all kinds of anxiety about sending the children back to school in this new Covid world. These parents are at the end of their tether in the current circumstances. They are afraid that their beloved children will be swallowed up in the sinkhole of pre-Covid school and post-Covid school.

Many of them are also afraid as a result of their child being one of the many in special education who have underlying conditions. These families have an extremely difficult decision to make. They must choose whether to send their children back to school and risk their health or keep them at home and apply for homeschool assistance.

Three schools were fully or partially closed as of last night. The latest reports I have heard today indicate that a further three schools have been affected. We need a plan B and a plan C. Remote learning must be an option for families at high risk, including those with a family member at home who is high risk or very high risk. I hope that is a matter which the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, can raise with the Minister, Deputy Foley. These parents need to have a choice and the right to change their mind if treatment for Covid-19 improves as we learn more about this novel virus.

Children with special educational needs were only afforded half a page in the guidance on special education in the reopening plan. A specific guidance document for this cohort is urgently needed and I hope that is something the Minister of State will be working on shortly.

Last week, I spoke to the Minister, Deputy Foley, about schools reopening at a special meeting she hosted for Deputies representing County Kildare. I asked her to ensure that special education teachers and special needs assistants would not be pulled in every direction and expected to take on extra tasks not connected with the provision of special needs education. Every SNA will be put to the pin of his or her collar and we will need extra SNAs just by virtue of the fact that there are more children who need that help, as well as to deal with the inevitable absenteeism that will occur.

The Minister of State has a significant task ahead of her. It is our special children's well-being that we are talking about and there is nothing more precious to parents than that. I wish her the very best of luck.

7:05 pm

Photo of Gino KennyGino Kenny (Dublin Mid West, People Before Profit Alliance)
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I doubt the Minister of State will disagree that the past six months have been extremely detrimental for children with special needs and their level of access to the services they need. The effects on children and their families are probably unquantifiable. Those effects are ongoing. The lack of routine and structure has been detrimental. The cessation of services and difficulty in accessing ongoing services has caused regression in learning and peer-to-peer relationships.

In many cases, certain challenging behaviours have arisen at home where it is not visible to the outside world and that has caused difficulties in the family environment. Familiarity is very important in the context of special education.

My question for the Minister of State relates to parents who are listening to her and other members of the Government this evening. Prior to Covid, the system of special education and assessment of needs was quite dysfunctional. I will not go over those issues again. Parents will want to know what resources and support the Department will give to parents and schools that provide these services which were slightly dysfunctional even before Covid. What support will the Government provide to them in the coming six months to a year?

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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I thank the Deputy. The next speaker is-----

Photo of Gino KennyGino Kenny (Dublin Mid West, People Before Profit Alliance)
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I asked the Minister of State a question.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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This is not a question and answer session. There is no provision in the Order of Business for that. If the Minister of State wishes to respond, she may so do.

Photo of Josepha MadiganJosepha Madigan (Dublin Rathdown, Fine Gael)
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This is not a question and answer session but I will briefly answer the Deputy's question. First of all, in the special education package for the reopening of schools we dedicated approximately €14.7 million for SNAs. Another €13 million was allocated to the provision of PPE, cleaning and other measures.

On the issue of giving a commitment for the future, €1.9 billion, or approximately 20% of the overall departmental Vote, is dedicated to the special education sector. Obviously, I will be looking for an increase in that allocation in the upcoming budget in October. We have approximately 17,000 SNAs and I will be looking for more in that regard as well. It will be difficult to ascertain the extent of Covid and we must take that into account. I can reassure the Deputy that I will be fighting very hard for this sector because I wish to be an advocate for those children and their needs and I will do everything in my power to represent them.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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I call Deputy Michael Healy-Rae.

Photo of Michael Healy-RaeMichael Healy-Rae (Kerry, Independent)
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How much time do I have?

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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You have five minutes.

Photo of Michael Healy-RaeMichael Healy-Rae (Kerry, Independent)
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I wish to highlight the situation surrounding SUSI grants. This year, they will be based on 2019 income. A person may have lost his or her job since then. It is possible to get assessed on this year's income but if one is in receipt of the Covid payment, he or she will be assessed on the basis of receiving €350 per week for the entire year, which, of course, gives a wrong reflection of that person's income.

The majority of calls received by me or my office are from parents or students who are extremely worried about the SUSI grant next year. If a person previously had a job but ended up on a Covid payment between March and November of this year, receiving €350 per week and €203 per week, that might work out at €10,000 for that part of the year and, as such, the person may be under the cap for SUSI. However, it results in others being over the cap. The SUSI grant is not fit for purpose because the qualifying criteria and the conditions surrounding it are outdated for the times in which we are living, particularly as a result of the pandemic. I am thinking of people who are very worried about the SUSI grant for 2021.

One third of students receive a SUSI grant, but the remainder do not and must pay college fees. They may have to pay full college fees for a year in which they may not be on the campus at all or may only be there for a very small amount of time because they will be doing classes online. That is a very important fact. Surely it is unfair to expect those families to pay full fees.

The situation with regard to accommodation is completely out of order. I know the Ceann Comhairle is very interested in this issue. It is ridiculous that parents and students will have to pay for accommodation of which they will not avail. This year, they are being asked to pay the full amount up front, which is totally unfair, because the landlords are afraid of another total lockdown. They are trying to squeeze the money out of the students and their parents at the very beginning of the college year, which is totally unfair.

Finally, I must say something about the issue of transport. How in the name of God is it right or proper that the Department took so long to make the decision to reduce school bus capacity from 100% to 50%? It has been announced as we are trying to get students back to colleges and schools. This situation is wrong and unfair.

7:15 pm

Photo of Danny Healy-RaeDanny Healy-Rae (Kerry, Independent)
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First, I must declare that I am a school bus operator. My family have been doing it since 1956. Since the announcement that the capacity of the buses should be reduced to 50% - I heard the Minister of State talking about transport - many children going to national schools and secondary schools cannot get their ticket to go on the bus. There is no answer to any phone call or email. Many children who applied and paid the money have not got their tickets yet and those who were entitled and applied on the basis of a medical card have not got their tickets. The buses are passing them on the way to school in rural areas. This is hurting rural areas because these children have no other way to go to school. It is as though something has happened in the Department since that announcement by the public health service, which by the way was too late. We have been asking about and highlighting what was going to happen all year and it left it until the last seven days to make this announcement. It is unfair. I am asking the Minister to go back to the Government to see what will be done tomorrow and give these children their tickets. They are entitled to go to school the same as the children in Dublin areas are. We are not denying them that right or saying they should not go to school.

School inspectors are doing their very best and they can do no more. Their hands are tied. When NPHET came out, with only a week to go, and stated that the capacity of the buses should be reduced to 50%, it was wrong. It should not have done so because it was too late then. The children will have to be given tickets to go on the buses. If the children do not have tickets, the Department will not have to provide extra buses to make up the 50%. That is what the Department wants.

Closing down the lines of communications is the wrong way of doing it. Emails are not working the way they used to and the children cannot get their tickets. It is a significant problem in Kerry but, as I have learned in this Chamber, it is a problem in every other county. There is some direction, which has come from high up, not to give out any more tickets and that is wronging the children of rural Ireland.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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My apologies to Deputy O'Reilly. The Deputy is there somewhere but I cannot see her.

Photo of Louise O'ReillyLouise O'Reilly (Dublin Fingal, Sinn Fein)
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I am here.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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Yes. The nearer the church, the farther from God.

Photo of Louise O'ReillyLouise O'Reilly (Dublin Fingal, Sinn Fein)
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I am here at the front. That is why the Ceann Comhairle cannot see me.

Much has been said about how children are managing in getting back to school and the way that it is being prioritised. We can all agree that every child wants to go back to school. In some ways, some are probably a little more reluctant than others. Their parents want them back at school and every effort is being made to get them back to school.

We need to acknowledge that not every child can go back in the same way and some children will need a little more support. I am sure the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, will be aware of this because my colleague, Deputy Funchion, has already outlined the figures. Parents of children with special needs have long come to expect that they will be let down by the Government. The figures from the parents surveyed by AsIAm show that. Parents themselves have set the bar very low because they have been disappointed on so many occasions in the past. They feel like their children are not a priority.

I welcome the fact Deputy Madigan has been appointed to this role. It is an extremely important one and I wish her the best in it. I look forward to working constructively with the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, and the officials in her Department because there is recognition that the pandemic has had a different impact on some children and some children have been more severely impacted than others. That is a fact. It is the Minister of State's job to redress that balance and to ensure balance is restored and that those children who need a bit of extra help can get it.

Let us look at the task ahead for the Minister of State in my constituency of Dublin Fingal. More than 1,000 children are awaiting physiotherapy, more than 1,600 are awaiting speech and language therapy and more than 1,300 are awaiting occupational therapy. In addition, there is a severe and chronic shortage of autism spectrum disorder, ASD, places within the constituency, which is the youngest constituency in the State and the one with the fastest growing population. There is an acute need in my constituency for a focus on children but that, unfortunately, is not happening. Parents are struggling.

As I stated previously, while we may be all in the same storm, we are very definitely not in the same boat. That can be said of parents of children with special needs. I want to put on record my appreciation for the principals, the school workers, the teachers, the volunteers, the special needs assistants, SNAs, and every person who has put a significant effort in. I have seen it in my own family in the effort my sister has put in to getting her school ready.

The senior Minister, Deputy Foley, stated that PPE will be provided, that it has been purchased and that it will be available, and yet we heard from the Fórsa trade union only this week that some schools are refusing to supply that to SNAs and to bus escorts. That needs to be addressed as a matter of priority because bus escorts and special needs assistants are very much in a front-line hands-on role and they need to have every piece of protective equipment. It is not expensive. A medical-grade mask costs 50 cent, and yet some of them do not have that. That is not acceptable. The minimum a worker needs is the tools to do his or her job safely, and it is the Minister of State's job to ensure that is provided.

I wish the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, the very best. She is taking on a considerable responsibility on behalf of those parents. They want the Minister of State to succeed as do we. We want to be able to work with the Minister of State but the record to date has not been good. The waiting lists are extremely long. There is a considerable amount that needs to be done to provide the support that every child needs in order that every child can get back to school, that every child can thrive and that every child can have a chance to do well in school.

I wish the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, well in her appointment. We look forward to working with her but I ask her to raise the bar and to try to impress parents.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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Last, but by no means least, is Deputy Joan Collins.

Photo of Joan CollinsJoan Collins (Dublin South Central, Independents 4 Change)
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I seek clarity from the Ceann Comhairle. In the previous two sessions, the Chair allowed questions and if a Deputy left time for the Minister to reply, the Minister replied.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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The order of the House did not provide for that but if Deputy Collins wants to ask questions and the Minister wants to answer-----

Photo of Joan CollinsJoan Collins (Dublin South Central, Independents 4 Change)
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There are three questions I want to ask.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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-----that is fine with me.

Photo of Joan CollinsJoan Collins (Dublin South Central, Independents 4 Change)
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If the Minister of State would reply, it would be good.

First, I welcome that there is a dedicated Minister of State and I wish Deputy Madigan well. The ball is very much in the Minister of State's court. It is a big task to take on. It is an area where so many families and children have been let down by the State to such an extent that the children had to go to the courts to try to get places in schools. Again, I wish the Minister of State well and vow to work constructively with her.

How many extra SNAs have been recruited in schools this year compared to the 2019-2020 school year? Does every child who has been assessed for an SNA have one and is there is no crossover of shared SNAs to different children? That is important, as it did not come through in the Minister of State's speech. Will the Minister of State clarify whether the four schools in Dublin 12 highlighted in the National Council for Special Education, NCSE, report have opened up those classes? Perhaps the Minister could reply to those three questions and I could come back in again.

Photo of Josepha MadiganJosepha Madigan (Dublin Rathdown, Fine Gael)
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I thank Deputy Joan Collins for her questions. I will try to oblige her with answers. I mentioned earlier the dedicated package for the special education sector which specifically provides for SNAs but I will explain where that €14.7 million goes. What it means is that if, for whatever reason, an SNA is absent from a particular school, whether it is in a special school or in a special class in a mainstream school, he or she will be immediately replaced. That is where that funding is going. It also applies to caretakers, school secretaries and cleaners, because sanitisation is extremely important with Covid. We all know the role of an SNA is critical in terms of children with special needs being able to function and that is what that funding is provided for.

The Deputy mentioned sharing SNAs. The guidelines do not prevent the sharing or integration of SNAs.

So long as PPE is in place, that is the most important thing.

There has been a query about assessments and waiting times. That matter does not fall within my remit, it is within that of the Department of Health.

On SNAs and special education teachers, I have been strong about asking schools to ensure that they are used for the purpose for which they are intended, namely, to look after children with special needs. Some Deputies mentioned exploitation of SNAs or special education teachers. They should be used for that purpose alone unless there are exceptional emergency circumstances and all other possibilities have been exhausted. I refer to using the supply panel and checking the panel for regular substitutes in schools and using TextASub. Those three options must be completely exhausted before SNAs or special education teachers are be used for anything other than their specific purpose.

In my initial contribution, I referred to our significant progress regarding school places. I have stated from the outset that I will try to eliminate as much as I can because equality of opportunity for every child, regardless of whether he or she has special needs, is extremely important. Education is a right for all children. I am working extremely hard to do that. I can send the Deputy a written update if she requires.

7:25 pm

Photo of Joan CollinsJoan Collins (Dublin South Central, Independents 4 Change)
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All the Deputies who represent Dublin South Central have asked for a meeting with the Minister of State about setting up Scoil Colm in Crumlin as an autism special school. Will she meet us? The parents' campaign has also sought a meeting with her. Everyone would be pleased to know that she will meet us.

Photo of Josepha MadiganJosepha Madigan (Dublin Rathdown, Fine Gael)
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Since I took over the role, I have had extensive engagement with a wide group of people. I am very aware of Scoil Colm. The Deputy will be aware that there is an ongoing conversation about possibly expanding. Scoil Eoin, which has approximately 150 pupils, is already in place but there is room and opportunity that we are trying to explore. If Deputies or parents want to email about a meeting, I will try to set it up. Obviously, however, there are time constraints.