Dáil debates

Thursday, 3 June 2021

Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate

School Library Grant

6:55 pm

Photo of Pádraig O'SullivanPádraig O'Sullivan (Cork North Central, Fianna Fail)
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I apologise to the Minister of State, Deputy Burke, he has had a busy evening. I am here to echo previous calls from many quarters, including Children’s Books Ireland, for the reinstatement of the school library grant. This was a grant of €2.2 million which was cut over a decade ago. This is an important issue. Cultivating the skill of reading in our young people we must all encourage. We speak repeatedly about literacy levels amongst disadvantaged students and minorities and in the modern world we speak about digital literacy.

Part of me laments that with our focus on technology and fast-paced society we have neglected the fundamental skill of reading and it being a pleasurable pastime for students.

When I was young I can remember many teachers I was lucky to have who encouraged the avid reader in me. My preference was for medieval and modern history and I subsequently became a history teacher. Getting people reading at a very young age, ingraining that love for reading in them, not only helps in moulding them as people but also provides an escape for them. Critically, international studies have found a significant link between reading for enjoyment and educational achievement. An OECD report from 2002 found evidence that reading for pleasure has a greater impact on a child's success than the family's socio-economic status and could be an important way to help combat social exclusion and raise educational standards.

I understand the limitations in what the Minister of State can say this evening about this matter, which would have budgetary implications, albeit relatively minor in nature. The reinstatement of this programme would cost approximately €2.2 million or €4.52 per school student. The reality is the lack of funding is quite apparent. Most schools I have taught in as a teacher had no library or one that was run entirely with the goodwill of teaching staff and was dependent on donations of second-hand books or money to buy books.

A survey of school libraries a decade ago indicated the majority of schools, or 53%, did not have a library and did not intend to buy books from the school's capitation grant or its own resources. Unfortunately, with many schools, large sums of money are diverted into keeping the place clean, bums on seats and the show on the road. The luxury of books is not foremost in the mind of school management.

I listen to Ryan Tubridy's radio show most mornings on the way here to the convention centre or Leinster House, and to be fair to him, he is a great advocate for reading. He regularly raises it on his radio show and we all watch the toy show slot every year with wonderful kids who clearly enjoy reading. As part of his bedtime routine, my two-year-old son looks forward to reading through a few books before sleep instead of playing with toys or anything else. He refuses to go to sleep until he has had two or three books read to him.

At nine, children with more books at home or on loan from a library are 30% more likely to read than children from lower income and lone parent families that typically have less access to books. Schools and the role they play in educating, socialising and moulding our young people are the one area where all are equal and can have access to books. The reinstatement of this grant should be considered as reading should not be a pastime for the few. Reading should be for everyone and literacy should not be taken for granted. It should be funded adequately and encouraged in every household, school corridor and classroom.

7:05 pm

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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I thank the Deputy for those words of wisdom.

Photo of Peter BurkePeter Burke (Longford-Westmeath, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Deputy for raising this matter of library funding, which is very important. He set out a very strong case for the reinstatement of this funding stream.

The Department of Education has responsibility for primary and post-primary education and is charged with facilitating individuals through learning, to achieve their full potential and to contribute to Ireland's social, cultural and economic development. The Minister for Education is very conscious of the importance of library services and the value of these in the context of the supports available to schools. However, responsibility for the support and provision of library services rests with the Minister for Rural and Community Development, Deputy Humphreys.

As the Deputy may be aware, local libraries provide a wide range of resources and activities that support primary schools in developing children's literacy, numeracy, creativity and communication skills.By building on existing partnerships between schools and libraries, all schools can benefit directly from this ongoing co-operation. Each library service operates a network of central libraries, branch libraries and smaller part-time branches. Some library services also provide support for schools through mobile libraries or a school library van. Schools can access all of the services for primary schools through the larger branches or a central library. Schools can also access some services through smaller part-time branches.

Considerable progress has been made in promoting a high level of literacy since the 2011 literacy and numeracy strategy. This strategy set out a vision for raising literacy and numeracy standards in early years, primary and post-primary school settings. The interim review in 2017 highlighted the considerable progress made and the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study 2016 results indicate the reading skills of primary school children, both in the paper-based and online assessment, are among the best in all European and OECD countries.

The commitments carried out in the lifetime of the literacy and numeracy strategy have prioritised the enhancement of learners' literacy and numeracy skills. Commitments under the strategy include reforms in initial teacher education, dedicated support for school leaders, teachers' professional learning and curriculum reform. Priorities are linked to actions for related policy developments in the Department of Education.

Under the programme for Government, the Department of Education is tasked with the development of a successor literacy, numeracy and digital literacy strategy for all learners in early years, primary and post-primary schools. Development of the strategy will be done in consultation with all education stakeholders and other Departments and bodies, including the Department of Rural and Community Development, which has responsibility for library services.

Deputy O'Sullivan has set out a very strong case. I have contacted the relevant Minister, Deputy Humphreys, as libraries come under her remit. Under the 1971 Act the responsibility was with the Minister for Education. I have raised the matter with the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, and will pursue it for the Deputy, who has set out a strong case, as I said. He has direct experience of this, as he comes from an educational background, and he has also told of reading to his child. I know the challenges of trying to read to a two-year-old at night as well, although it is a very rewarding experience.

It is so important for society to see children growing into and liking books. The Deputy articulated the cost as being approximately €4 per student. It is a relatively small cost and I hope that as our priorities evolve, this can be prioritised in the context of a new strategy. I will do my best to relay the exceptional case made by the Deputy tonight.

Photo of Pádraig O'SullivanPádraig O'Sullivan (Cork North Central, Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Minister of State for the response and doing the work for me in that he contacted the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, as well. I appreciate his proactive work.

Our public libraries are great facilities for all our kids and they play a role in making books available to all our students across cities and counties. I am speaking about libraries in schools specifically because, as I said, if kids are surrounded by books they are more likely to take up a book themselves. It is common sense but it is a fact.

We repeatedly emphasise the importance of literacy and improving literacy levels. We are lucky that in Ireland we have among the highest literacy rates in the world. We should be proud of that and maintain those levels. It is why this minor programme, at €2.2 million in the overall context of a budget overseen either by the Minister for Rural and Community Development or the Minister for Education, is worth pursuing. In a school with 300 students, it amounts to a cost of approximately €1,200 or €1,500. It is a fairly minor cost. It is irrelevant to me whether the funding comes from the Department of Rural and Community Development or the Department of Education once the provision is made. It could even come through the school grant system that is up and running. It would not be an issue for me.

It should also be said in the context of Covid-19 that the provision of books, reading and allowing kids in particular to explore alternative realities or fantasies gets them off computers or Xboxes, etc. There is also a link to children's health and mental health and well-being as it provides an escape for them.

As I said to begin with, I commend Children's Books Ireland, which is funded under the arts bursaries and grants, on the work done on the area. I can leave this with one final and startling statistic. The Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals recommends an average stock of 13 books per pupil or 17 books per pupil aged over 16 but most Irish schools fail to meet that threshold. The Department and the Government should show impetus and stop depending on teachers to put their hands in their pockets to provide something the Government should be doing.

Photo of Peter BurkePeter Burke (Longford-Westmeath, Fine Gael)
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As I have said, Deputy O'Sullivan makes a very strong case. The budget for the Department of Education is approximately €8.9 billion this year, which is an increase of 5%. With such a strong budget, one hopes something could be worked out. We will try to press the case for the Deputy.

Teaching children and giving them this skill as opposed to them watching television, etc. can last for their lives. We hope it brings them closer to culture and broadens their minds. The Deputy has set out a very strong case.

I will raise it again, as I committed to do, with the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, and with the Minister, Deputy Foley.

7:15 pm

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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As I listened to the Deputy and the Minister of State speak on this, I was minded of the hugely important work of one of our leading psychologists, Dr. Maureen Gaffney, which looks at the importance of early access to books by young children on their progression in life.

The fourth important item has been submitted by Deputy Thomas Gould, who wishes to discuss the special article published today by the Economic and Social Research Institute, ESRI, calling for increased borrowing to increase public housing delivery.