Tuesday, 4 October 2022
Ceisteanna - Questions
I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 7, inclusive, together.
The measures announced in the budget last week will continue to strengthen our schools and third level institutions, help families, support students and children with special needs and improve the learning environment for all. I do not have a date for the next meeting of the committee but, obviously, I liaise regularly with the Ministers for Education and Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science.
In line with our commitment in the programme for Government, we will further reduce the pupil-teacher ratio at primary level to a historically low level of 23:1 and will provide for 2,180 new teachers and special needs assistants. This is a further reduction on the already historically low level and the first time such a reduction has been made in three consecutive budgets. A sum of €50 million has been allocated for the introduction of free books for primary school students from autumn 2023 which will benefit half a million children next year.
Additional funding of €2 million will be made available in 2023 to continue progress on senior cycle reform which puts the student at the centre of the process and includes the development of new subjects and revised curriculums for all existing subjects. There will be a significant emphasis on additional assessment components outside of the traditional final written exams.
We have made an unprecedented commitment to students with special educational needs and their families. We are making an investment of over €2.6 billion to build on progress made to date around additional classes, teachers and supports.
We have provided for a once-off €1,000 reduction in the undergraduate student contribution fee. Student maintenance grant rates will increase from January 2023. Funding of €17.4 million has also been provided for a once-off and extra one-month payment for all student maintenance grant recipients, to be made by this December. All apprenticeship fees will be reduced by one third this year and over 8,000 additional apprenticeship places will be supported. A once-off increase of €1,000 to support eligible postgraduate students will be made available, increasing the figure to €4,500.
The Cabinet committee on education oversees implementation of the programme for Government commitments in the area of education. Its next meeting will take place shortly. 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.
This Government has made great strides in delivering on our education commitments in the programme for Government. Some of the highlights include the massive increase in apprenticeship places and the establishment of the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, which will ensure that our commitment to the primacy of learning continues into the future.
In the past two years, we have introduced our plan for reform of the senior cycle of education and significantly expanded the DEIS programme for schools at risk of educational disadvantage.
At third level, we have launched Funding the Future - a landmark policy on the future of higher education. We are also addressing cost as a barrier to higher education, including changes to the student contribution and enhancements to the SUSI grant.
Since 2019, five technological universities have been established and since last year, as part of CAO reform, apprenticeships have been included on the application system for students. We are also working to support inclusion and diversity in our student body through our National Access Plan: A Strategic Action Plan for Equity of Access, Participation and Success in Higher Education 2022-2028.
In the early years and childcare sector, we have continued investment in the national childcare scheme and are making access to early learning and childcare substantially more affordable through the core funding scheme of €221 million which was introduced in September 2022. In addition, employment regulation orders, the first of their kind for the early years services sector, commenced on 15 September 2022. These orders will see increases in funding to early learning and childcare services to support improvements in staff wages.
The annual Education at a Glance report published by the OECD found that Ireland's investment in education as a percentage of GDP is ranked lowest in the OECD. That is the reality. As regards the teaching unions, the Association of Secondary Teachers Ireland, ASTI, has warned that schools are in urgent need of a significant increase in funding. Similarly, the Teachers Union of Ireland, TUI, raised concerns regarding students from disadvantaged backgrounds and that the refusal by the Government to invest appropriately will only serve to widen inequality in Irish society. Indeed, research published recently by Dr. JoAnne Mancini of Maynooth University provides evidence of just how deep educational inequality in Ireland really is. The research found that State investment in post-primary education in Dublin 8 was radically lower than it was in Dublin 4 and Dublin 6. In Dublin 4, 99% of children go on to higher education, compared with just 28% of children in Dublin 8. That is one example; I could give more. The study also found that the Department of Education's planning decisions on school builds are serving to exacerbate rather than remedy inequality. Such is the case for Gaelscoil Coláiste Mhuire in Dublin 1, which is still not out to tender and has been refused DEIS status.
I thank the Taoiseach for the report on the Cabinet committee on education. A number of relevant questions arise. First, when will we see a date for junior certificate results? I note a events company in Cork is suggesting it will be around 12 October. Approximately 130,000 students and their parents are waiting the results but no date has been set. I would welcome a response on that issue.
We in the Labour Party welcomed the announcement by the Government in respect of free school books at primary level. It is a matter on which we have been campaigning for many years. My colleague, Deputy Ó Ríordáin, has led on that. Will the scheme be extended to secondary schools in the budget next year, recognising the immense cost faced by so many families in the purchase of books for secondary school students?
Finally, I ask the Taoiseach to clarify whether the schools energy retrofit pathfinder programme is going to be expanded to support a sufficient number of schools to make it worthwhile. It looks as though the retrofitting programme will only work for about ten schools a year at current rates. It is simply not enough.
On behalf of people who are studying to be psychologists, I have raised with the Taoiseach on numerous occasions the fact that educational and counselling psychologists who were doing doctorates did not get funding for very expensive courses. In the budget, the Government extended the funding to counselling psychologists but not to educational psychologists, which is madness when one considers the huge waiting lists for assessments of special needs in the area of education and for services and supports. That needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency.
I was contacted yesterday by a person studying social work, another area in which we need lots of qualified people. The person is doing a master's degree in UCD and stated that students are now required to do 14 weeks of placement unpaid while doing their master's, with no capacity to pay for that because it is not funded. That needs to be looked into as a matter of urgency.
Last year, a study published by Tuismitheoiri na Gaeltachta demonstrated that only 23% of parents in the Gaeltacht are raising their children through Irish. Thankfully, the use of Irish outside the Gaeltacht seems to be increasing, but there can be no real revival of the Irish language without its native speakers. A crucial part of that is the education system and treating Irish as a living language instead of a subject in which one just needs to pass an exam. Will the Taoiseach commit the Government to supporting the Gaeilge4All campaign and commit the Department of Education to beginning an immediate consultation process to formulate the policy for Irish all the way through the education system? According to information received by Conradh na Gaeilge under a freedom of information request, the State Examinations Commission has expressed great concern about the decision to move paper one of the Irish leaving certificate to fifth year and the grave consequences that would have for students' education, particularly male students. Will the Government reverse that decision?
I wish to raise with the Taoiseach the issue of the school completion programme. I know he is very familiar with it. While I welcome the announcements in budget 2023 last week, such as the €2.6 billion for special education the Taoiseach mentioned, the record number of special needs assistants, the provision for Irish Sign Language interpreters and, of course, the €13 million for the National Council for Special Education, NCSE, the one thing lacking was an up-to-date report on the status of the school completion programme.
Will this programme revert to the Department of Education and be detached from Tusla?
When can members of the junior certificate class of 2022 expect to see their results? They are all anxious to see the fruits of their labour but beyond wanting to get out and celebrate and digest their results, some of them have to make lower level decisions in respect of their fifth-year examinations and what may happen thereafter.
On the school transport measures, this is a fantastic scheme, although there have been glitches with it. Does the Taoiseach envisage the scheme being rolled out in the years ahead? In July and August, people can travel through any town or city because the cars dropping off children to school are gone. From an environmental point of view, it makes sense to have school buses on the road as this reduces congestion on the streets.
Deputy McDonald raised the issue of the OECD. GDP is not the correct metric. GNI* is a more appropriate metric given the particular composition of the Irish economy and the influence of foreign direct investment, FDI. In the OECD Programme for International Student Assessments, PISA, the Irish education system stands up pretty well in respect of literacy, numeracy and so forth, but we need to continue to develop. That is why we will have a record number of new school buildings and extensions completed this year and into 2023. The pupil-teacher ratio has been reduced for the past three years in a row and that will continue. The DEIS scheme is also being widely expanded.
On Deputy Bacik’s point on junior certificate students, which was also raised by Deputy Cathal Crowe, I do not have a specific date on the junior certificate examination results yet. It seems the State Examination Commission, which is responsible, concentrated originally on the leaving certificate and then the appeals arising from that examination because students would be depending on the appeals outcomes for progression to third level. I will speak to the Minister and revert to the Deputies on a potential date for that.
Deputy Bacik also mentioned the pathfinder programme. The Department of Education is at the forefront of design with respect to sustainability in school buildings and its performance has been recognised at both national and international levels, winning sustainable energy awards for excellence in design and specification. The schools that are designed and built in accordance with the Department’s schools technical guidance documents must achieve an A3 building energy rating, which is typically a 20% higher performance than is required by the current building regulations, along with 10% of primary energy being provided by photovoltaic and infrastructure provision for electrical vehicle charging.
Since 2017, the Department of Education and the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland, SEAI, have been involved in an energy-efficient retrofit pathfinder programme for schools built prior to 2008. To date the programme has retrofitted 41 schools across Ireland with work on an additional nine schools added in 2021 under way. In 2022, six additional schools are undergoing deep retrofit to a building energy rating of B with renewable heating systems. This is jointly funded, with a €28 million budget from the Departments of Education and the Environment, Climate and Communications. It is administered by the SEAI and the planning and building unit of the Department of Education.
On the issue raised by Deputy Boyd Barrett, I am aware of the issue in respect of education psychologists and counsellors and I will follow up with the respective Ministers in respect of the issue.
Deputy Paul Murphy raised the issue of the Gaeltacht. We have to proceed with care on this matter and perhaps with a greater degree of deeper analysis. Labhraím Gaeilge, bainim an-taitneamh as na Gaeltachtaí agus baineann an-chuid daoine taitneamh astu. Caithfimid a bheith réalaíoch chomh maith. Is ré nua-aimseartha atá ann anois leis na meáin chumarsáide atá againn agus ní féidir aon áit a dhaingniú lasmuigh de gach aon bhall den tír, nó is é sin an tuairim atá agam féin, ar aon nós. Caithfimid níos mó áiseanna a thabhairt do scoileanna sna Gaeltachtaí, do na státseirbhísigh agus, gan amhras, níos mó Gaeilge a chothú. Caithfimid, áfach, a bheith cúramach gan an iomarca brú a chur ar dhaoine ag an am céanna mar go dtarlófaí go mbeidh siad i gcoinne na Gaeilge sula i bhfad má dhéantar é sin. Táim sásta déileáil leis na grúpaí éagsúla chun an cheist seo a phlé in terms of Irish for everybody, Gaeilge for all. It is much more challenging and complex than just a simple mantra.
Deputy Pádraig O’Sullivan raised the issue of the school completion programme, which was also raised on the margins of the recent public sector pay agreement. I spoke on it at the IMPACT conference. I am anxious that the programme move back to the Department of Education because it is an integral part of the education agenda and objectives. It was also part of the 1998 Act, with both the educational disadvantage committee and the idea of school completion being a core aim of education. There have been moves in that direction between Tusla and the Department of Education. I will provide more detail if I can get it in respect of completing that move.
Deputy Cathal Crowe raised the issue of the junior certificate, on which I have already given an answer. He also raised the school transport scheme. We should endeavour to continue that, not least because it is a cost-of-living measure that saves families about €650, but it also gets people out of cars and into buses. That is good for climate action, the environment and towns and villages as it reduces congestion. There always has to be balance when we start providing free schemes because capacity and affordability become issues. In respect of schools, however, we should work towards a model that takes the cost out of it and incentivises the utilisation of buses and trains as opposed to cars.