Dáil debates

Tuesday, 28 September 2021

Ceisteanna - Questions

Cabinet Committees

4:05 pm

Photo of Alan KellyAlan Kelly (Tipperary, Labour)
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1. To ask the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on education last met; and when it will next meet. [43261/21]

Photo of Gary GannonGary Gannon (Dublin Central, Social Democrats)
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2. To ask the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on education last met; and when it will next meet. [43759/21]

Photo of Richard Boyd BarrettRichard Boyd Barrett (Dún Laoghaire, People Before Profit Alliance)
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3. To ask the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on education will next meet. [43762/21]

Photo of Mick BarryMick Barry (Cork North Central, Solidarity)
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4. To ask the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee dealing with education last met. [43780/21]

Photo of Rose Conway-WalshRose Conway-Walsh (Mayo, Sinn Fein)
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5. To ask the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on education will next meet. [43828/21]

Photo of Mary Lou McDonaldMary Lou McDonald (Leader of the Opposition; Dublin Central, Sinn Fein)
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6. To ask the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on education will next meet. [44742/21]

Photo of Cathal CroweCathal Crowe (Clare, Fianna Fail)
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7. To ask the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on education met last; and when it is next due to meet. [44817/21]

Photo of Rose Conway-WalshRose Conway-Walsh (Mayo, Sinn Fein)
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8. To ask the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on education will next meet. [45152/21]

Photo of Pádraig O'SullivanPádraig O'Sullivan (Cork North Central, Fianna Fail)
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9. To ask the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on education will meet next. [45990/21]

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 9, inclusive, together.

The Cabinet committee on education oversees implementation of the programme for Government commitments in the area of education, including preparing for post-Covid education. The Cabinet committee last met on 13 May and discussed topics including special education policy in schools and increased demand for places at third level in 2021 and 2022. I have regular engagement with Ministers at Cabinet and individually to discuss priority issues relating to their Departments. In addition, a number of meetings have been held between my officials and officials from relevant Departments since the establishment of the Cabinet committee in July 2020.

Photo of Aodhán Ó RíordáinAodhán Ó Ríordáin (Dublin Bay North, Labour)
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The Labour Party and I want to work with the Taoiseach and the Minister for Education on the issue of back-to-school costs. The Taoiseach will agree that this topic comes up every September and then goes away again. I am concerned that the book publisher, Folens, has now acquired the teacher training institution, Hibernia College. An educational book entity, which exists for commercial interests, is now effectively the largest provider of teachers for the education system. In Northern Ireland, schoolbooks are free; in the Republic, they are not. In fairness, two budgets ago the Taoiseach's Department introduced a scheme to provide 50 schools with free schoolbooks. This was then extended to 100 schools. Working with the Opposition, and with the best of goodwill, we could, for €20 million, which is not a large sum in the overall budget to be presented shortly, provide free schoolbooks for every child in the Republic, just as they are provided in Northern Ireland. Can we take away the conversations about money at the school gates and replace them with conversations about education? The Taoiseach will appreciate that far too many of the conversations teachers and principals have with parents are about money rather than education. I ask him to prioritise that issue in the budgetary cycle.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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We will have to limit questioners to one minute each given the number of questioners.

Photo of Aodhán Ó RíordáinAodhán Ó Ríordáin (Dublin Bay North, Labour)
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I am sorry.

Photo of Gary GannonGary Gannon (Dublin Central, Social Democrats)
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Last week, I raised the issue of education with the Taoiseach under Questions on Promised Legislation and he assured me that his Government had moved heaven and earth to keep our schools open. I do not doubt his intention but we differ substantially with regard to our preferred approach, particularly in respect of mitigation. On Monday, close contact tracing for asymptomatic close contacts in primary schools ended. A clear explanation for this approach has not yet been given. I would like the Taoiseach to clearly state why that approach was taken now, as we approach winter. I will once again ask him to elaborate on the issue of air monitors in our schools. At the moment, a school with nine to 12 classrooms has seven air monitors while a school with 13 to 16 classrooms has nine. There are substantial issues regarding air filtration. In the absence of the antigen testing used in other European countries, will the Taoiseach elaborate on the end of contact tracing and the absence of mitigation actions that would have enhanced this measure?

Photo of Richard Boyd BarrettRichard Boyd Barrett (Dún Laoghaire, People Before Profit Alliance)
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I will return to the question I asked the Taoiseach earlier about Clonkeen College and the plan of the Edmund Rice Schools Trust and the Christian Brothers to sell off its playing pitches. He agreed with me that this is wrong and that it will deprive the school, the ASD unit, local community sports organisations and others who use these fields but he said that there was nothing he can do. I would like to point out that this issue was raised multiple times during the term of the previous Government and we had the same hand-wringing. The point is that there is much bigger precedent involved. These religious organisations own a vast number of our schools and hospitals. They are publicly funded, yet the Government says that it is completely powerless when they decide to flog off lands to property developers at the cost of local community and school facilities when there is a chronic shortage of land for schools in our area. There is a queue of schools looking for permanent sites and there is a chronic shortage of sports facilities in the area. There has to be something the Taoiseach can do.

Photo of Mick BarryMick Barry (Cork North Central, Solidarity)
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In August, the Minister for Education provided a subject by subject breakdown of the changes she intended to make to leaving certificate 2022 by way of compensation to students for classroom teaching time lost as a result of the pandemic. A survey conducted by my office has since found that 82% of leaving certificate students who replied expressed the view that the proposed changes are insufficient. These students lost months of classroom teaching time as a result of the closure of their schools. The changes I would most like to see are the abolition of the leaving certificate alongside the introduction of a policy of open access to third level. The examination is unnecessarily stressful, it is out of date and it discriminates against students who are not neurotypical or who come from homes that cannot afford grinds. At the very least, these students should be given a far greater concession than that made by the Minister. They will be very interested to hear the Taoiseach's views on the matter.

Photo of Rose Conway-WalshRose Conway-Walsh (Mayo, Sinn Fein)
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As we speak, the independent economic evaluation carried out on behalf of the European Commission into the Cassells report is sitting on the desk of the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science.

The Cassells report was completed five years ago and laid out three options to address the chronic underfunding in third level. Earlier, the Taoiseach said third level investment was a key factor in attracting FDI and economic development, and I agree. Since the report, successive governments have avoided addressing the issue of underfunding at third level. In real terms, colleges get 50% less per student than in 2008 and, at the same time, fees have increased from €850 to €3,000. We have spent less on research and development as a percentage of GDP and of public expenditure every year since 2011. The Cassells report made clear in 2016 what action was needed and presented three options for how this could be funded.

4:15 pm

Photo of Mary Lou McDonaldMary Lou McDonald (Leader of the Opposition; Dublin Central, Sinn Fein)
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The programme for Government states that, "A strong education system is the cornerstone of a thriving language", and commits to providing Gaelscoileanna agus Gaelcholáistí. This and successive governments have failed the parents, the children, more particularly, and the staff of Gaelscoil Choláiste Mhuire on Parnell Square East. These have been waiting for a permanent school building since the late 1990s. I can only describe what they have been through as an ongoing saga. The children and staff find themselves in completely inadequate accommodation.

The Department of Education and the State have played a game of blink and bluff with this school community. It is outrageous. There is provision for a new school build in Dominick Street. This has dragged on and on. The Department of Education tried to convince the school community and others that the fault for such delays lies with a neighbour, which is not the case. I appeal to the Taoiseach in the name of reason and fairness to intervene in respect of Gaelscoil Choláiste Mhuire.

Photo of Cathal CroweCathal Crowe (Clare, Fianna Fail)
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I raise the issue of capacity for secondary school students in Shannon town. The Taoiseach visited one of the secondary schools there with me two years ago, namely, St. Caimin's Community School. The other school is Shannon comprehensive.

As we come out of Covid, there is a need for the post-primary buildings unit to take a comprehensive look at both schools. St. Caimin's was built with an enrolment capacity of 600. It is far exceeding that, yet Department officials fail to recognise the growth of the town and the wide hinterland it encompasses.

Shannon comprehensive is a much older school dating to the 1960s or 1970s, but some of the buildings are crumbling. I fear some of the concrete work may have pyrite in it. The buildings unit will urgently have to come to the town and look at the capacity it has and at the deficient buildings. There needs to be a comprehensive look at how this town, Ireland's newest town in the 1960s but now ageing, can meet its current needs. It needs an urgent re-examination.

Photo of Pádraig O'SullivanPádraig O'Sullivan (Cork North Central, Fianna Fail)
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I raise the issue of special education provision in Cork. The Taoiseach has a long history of delivering for special education provision as a previous Minister with responsibility for education. Cork City Council has identified a site in the Glanmire area that is suitable for a school for special education provision. I urge the Taoiseach, given we have such challenges in Cork, to look upon that site favourably and progress it as expeditiously as possible.

Photo of Paul MurphyPaul Murphy (Dublin South West, RISE)
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Why is the Government taking risks with children's health in our schools? Why is there no decision to have a CO2 monitor in every classroom? Why is there no decision to have high efficiency particulate air, HEPA, filters in classrooms? Why has the Government made the decision, which makes no sense to me whatsoever, to say something magical happens in a classroom which means the regular rules of contacts for Covid do not apply? If a child goes to a birthday party for half an hour with another child who has Covid, they count as a close contact and have to get tested. However, if they sit in a classroom in the same pod for a week with that same child, they do not count as a close contact. How does that make any sense?

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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There are a lot of questions there.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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Yes. Some of them would be more appropriate, I would have thought, to the Minister for Education.

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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Sure, I am multitasking all the time. Deputy Ó Ríordáin raised the issue of free schoolbooks. I would need to talk more about this, to be honest. Targeting of resources is still very important in terms of children who need additional supports in socioeconomically disadvantaged areas. It is the old argument about universality of provision versus targeted provision to those who need it most and those on the lowest incomes. Given the multiple needs in our education system, I have no issue with increasing the number of schools but there is value in staying around the thresholds and looking after children on other fronts in terms of the variety of supports required, from therapies right across. I am open to engagement on it.

Deputy Gannon raised contact tracing, as did Deputy Paul Murphy. Public health advice is saying this; Government is not making this up. The clear explanation relates to the testing that has been done. There are relatively low levels in terms of schoolchildren, at around 6%. Public health has advised and the Minister and Department of Education have adhered to public health advice all along in respect of classrooms of children. We are not risking children's health in any actions we take.

On air monitors, that arose from a special advisory group that advised the Department of Education on ventilation in schools and the use of air monitors. They are not static; they are mobile. It is about having up to 25,000 air monitors provided to the system, which is significant, as part of the broader return to school protocols.

To Deputy Boyd Barrett, I have given my views already on Clonkeen College. The Government has a lien on properties and physical buildings in respect of investments made in voluntary secondary schools.

Deputy Barry raised the issue of the abolition of the leaving certificate. I do not agree with abolishing it overnight. I believe in reform of it. There has been ongoing reform which has dramatically changed it. The leaving cert we sat 20 years ago bears no comparison with the leaving cert today.

Photo of John LahartJohn Lahart (Dublin South West, Fianna Fail)
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Forty years ago. Excuse me, Taoiseach.

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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I was just testing Deputy Lahart. He is alert.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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Did you do honours maths?

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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Deputy Conway-Walsh spoke on open access to college. She needs to think that through. I do not agree with it. It would create mayhem overnight. We do not have the capacity to do that, nor is it necessarily the right thing to do. We need to have a wide provision over time so people can access courses, modules and so on to take the urgency out of the leaving cert and to remove the idea that it is the be-all and end-all. We need to create a roadmap for young people so there is a route to where they want to go, through a variety of colleges of further and higher education and modular-based education. That is the approach we need.

I met with the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science recently on the Cassells report. It has been given active consideration by the Minister and he is engaging with other Ministers on how we roll that out and deal with it. There are Estimates and budgetary contexts to that.

On Gaelscoil Choláiste Mhuire, I do not believe it is because of the Government or the Department of Education over the past 20-odd years. Twenty is on my mind today. It is not all blink and bluff. There were genuine issues there. I will ask for the report on that from the Department's building unit and come back to the Deputy on it.

Photo of Mary Lou McDonaldMary Lou McDonald (Leader of the Opposition; Dublin Central, Sinn Fein)
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Two decades for kids in those communities.

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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On Deputy Crowe's point, I am not sure whether the schools have applied to the Department, but he should engage with the Minister for Education. He has made a fair point on the broader issue in the town and the two schools needing expansion or a new plan for post-primary provision in Shannon.

I will work with Deputy O'Sullivan. We have already opened two new special schools this year, one in Cork and one in, I think, Dublin West. Sites are crucial. The city council has made a site available and we should push hard with the Minister for Education to acquire that site for another special school.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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We have to move on.