Seanad debates

Thursday, 16 October 2003

Order of Business. - OECD Education Report: Statements.

 

10:30 am

Photo of Brian Lenihan JnrBrian Lenihan Jnr (Minister of State, Department of Education and Science; Minister of State, Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform; Minister of State, Department of Health and Children; Minister, Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform; Dublin West, Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the opportunity to address the House on the publication of the OECD report, Education at a Glance. My colleague, the Minister for Education and Children, Deputy Noel Dempsey, accompanied the President on her State visit to China and is not here today.

Education is topical because it touches on the lives of everyone from parents to students to businesses, communities and various non-governmental organisations. Each year, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development publishes Education at a Glance: OECD Indicators. At 451 pages, the document is more than a glance. It covers the vast and complex area of education in the 30 member countries of the OECD plus a number of other countries such as China, Russia India and Brazil. A major part of this year's report deals with the results of the OECD programme for international student assessment, PISA. PISA is a survey of various areas of achievement with a particular focus on literacy in reading, mathematics and science as well as a number of cross-curricular abilities.

The data in the most recent Education at a Glance come from PISA 2000. Since 1992, the volume and range of statistics on education at international level has grown enormously. It is now possible to compare countries on a whole range of indicators from expenditure, class size, teachers, school organisation, use of computers, student achievement to participation in adult education. The demand for timely, accurate and relevant measures of educational development is to the fore more than ever nowadays recognising the fundamental role of education in our world.

It is timely that we engage in a more serious and detailed consideration of some of the key findings in the recent report. It is easy to focus on one or two indicators to demonstrate some particular point of view. It is much harder to take an overall view that takes into account the many facets of Irish education in a global context. The OECD report shows Irish education in a favourable light on many fronts of international comparison. It suggests that we are above average on many aspects of performance and that public and private investment in education has yielded good results.

The facts speak for themselves in that, despite media reports which casually suggest otherwise, Ireland's performance in reading literacy at age 15 is the fifth highest of all 27 OECD member countries reported, thanks to the dedicated work of students, teachers and families. We have a substantial literacy problem with some of the older age cohorts, where the education system did not succeed in earlier generations. In scientific literacy we are above average at ninth place internationally, while in mathematics we were at least as good as the international average.

Ireland stands out as having high rates of graduation at third level diploma and certificate levels. Drop-out at degree level here is much lower than elsewhere, although the opposite is true in the case of certificate and diploma courses. Class size has fallen at first and second levels over the past decade. In the case of junior cycle at second level we are below the OECD country average of 24, with a class size of 21.9.

Average class size at primary level in Ireland was 24.5 in 2000-01 compared to an OECD country average of 22.07. OECD countries which have larger average class size at primary level include Australia, Korea and Japan; these are relatively high achievers in international comparisons of reading and mathematics. Smaller class sizes can help performance but many other factors come into play.

The pupil-teacher ratio at primary level, which is typically lower than average class size due to differences in the teacher and student instruction load, is still above average here at 20.3 compared to 17.0 internationally.

At third level, our ratio of full-time equivalent students to full-time equivalent teachers was 16 compared to 16.5 on average across OECD countries. In all countries, some of the difference in reading literacy at age 15 across schools is associated with the socio-economic status of families but the difference tends to be less here.

We continue to invest heavily in third level where, in 2000, we spent more in absolute terms per student than the OECD country average. Over the period 1995-2000, spending in real terms increased by 38% over all levels of education, the second highest of 19 countries. At third level the increase was 80%, the second highest among OECD countries.

Starting from a relatively low base in terms of educational completion four decades ago, successive Governments have enabled increasing numbers to participate up to the completion of second level education. We have now almost closed the gap with other countries in terms of completion of senior cycle and the equivalent of leaving certificate. Close to 80% of young persons here complete some form of qualification up to leaving certificate standard. Our level of educational attainment is similar to the OECD average for people up to the age of 35.

More needs to be done, however, especially in terms of addressing inequalities in school completion among girls and boys where the latter are much more likely to drop out of school. Subject choice and take-up of scientific and technical subjects for girls need to be improved. In addition, educational attainment among the middle aged and elderly is low by international comparisons. Lifelong learning does not stop at school or employment. With changing age profiles and in a fast changing world, we need to invest in lifelong learning at all stages. Up to now, we gave priority to initial education from first to third level.

The OECD report refers to recent data, typically 2000-01 for most indicators. Improvements or change since 2000 are not reflected in the figures shown in the report. It is important to recall that this Government continues to invest heavily in education at all levels, especially at primary level where the number of teachers has increased from 21,100 in 1998 to a current total of 24,700. Overall, the number of resource teachers has increased from 104 in 1998 to over 2,000 currently while the numbers of special needs assistants have grown from about 300 to over 4,000 full-time and almost 1,200 part-time staff at present.

Going forward, we need to pay particular attention to early childhood education and care, as well as continuing education and training in the workplace and the wider community. In the context of scarce resources and competing demands on the public finances, we must keep the focus on disadvantage.

The OECD report also points to a number of areas where we need to do better. Some 11% of 15 year olds perform at level one or below in the reading literacy proficiency scales and while this is much lower than the OECD average of 18%, there is no room for complacency.

We have one of the highest gaps between boys and girls in completion of second level education, with a difference of close to 14% while girls perform better than boys in international test scores of reading and mathematics.

The age of commencement of education in modern foreign languages is high. Expenditure by resource category at primary and second levels is heavily skewed towards the cost of employing teaching staff. This reflects relatively high levels of teacher pay compared to other OECD countries as well as a relatively lower proportion of non-teaching staff in total pay expenditure. Expenditure per pupil-student is heavily skewed towards higher education compared to elsewhere. For example, we have a ratio of 3.27 for spending per third level student divided by spending per pupil at primary level. Only Mexico and Slovakia have higher ratios. These figures do not provide a case for cutting back on third level; rather they point up a need to devote relatively more resources at primary level, especially in cases of disadvantage.

The allocation of resources for education by level and type of education is a difficult political challenge. The question of who – the individual, family, society or corporate – should pay for education and training, and at what level, is also a vexed issue in most OECD countries. Families and individuals spend a lot of time, money and support for learning activities inside and outside the classroom. Unfortunately, the OECD does not have complete data on total private expenditure for education and still less on the non-monetary expenditure, which families and communities invest in children and young people. Available data indicate that the proportion of total expenditure accounted for by private sources, be they family, corporate or others, is about average for OECD countries at first, second and third levels.

The proportion of private funding for third level institutions dropped from 30.3% to 20.8% between 1995 and 2000 reflecting the introduction of the free fees scheme for full-time undergraduate students from the EU. These figures are exclusive of student maintenance support.

Considerable focus has been placed by international comparisons of public spending on education as a percentage of GDP. Although our public expenditure on education has risen rapidly in the 1990s, GDP has risen even more rapidly, partly thanks to investments in education in the past. GDP provides a distorted picture of comparisons in this regard because of the unusually high levels of profit repatriation by overseas companies in this country. A more reliable comparison based on gross national product or GNP shows that we are closer to the international average.

It is worth recalling that statistics about education, whether at national or international level, can never provide a complete account of learning in the many areas it takes place, be it the family, peer groups, school, community or the workplace. Neither can the quality of learning and the many factors that go to influence education be adequately captured in statistics and indicators. Nevertheless, sound empirical evidence is essential to back up public policy. Without data we are only opinion holders.

The success of the economy in the 1990s is generally acknowledged as having resulted from many factors, including cumulative investment in education and the general quality of the learning environment in schools, families and communities. Education has contributed in a powerful way to opening up our society and enhancing the quality of life for many people. However, the extent of early school departure and the persistence of under-achievement, particularly among the disadvantaged, points to a need to give priority to educational equity at all levels.

Some areas of educational investment will take time to catch up, including the provision of new school buildings, the employment of non-teaching professional staff, and expenditure for other learning supports. However, in the main, we have got the fundamentals right in terms of drawing on the foundations laid by families, giving priority to the quality of teachers and teaching, giving responsibility to schools to achieve and improve on student-staff ratios as resources permit and making the needs of students with special learning needs a priority.

I am sure that many Senators will wish to contribute to this debate and I look forward to hearing their comments on the education system.

Photo of Ulick BurkeUlick Burke (Fine Gael)
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While I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Brian Lenihan, it is regrettable that the Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Dempsey, is not here. For the second week running we have statements on education, yet the Minister is not present to hear them.

By any standards, the OECD figures demonstrate that Irish students have performed very well within our education system. Such a study can only provide an indication of the situation pertaining, at a glance, within OECD countries as a whole. The indicators, however, can provide a detailed view of the many aspects of Irish education that still need to be corrected. The dedication and commitment of the teaching profession at primary, secondary and tertiary level have led to high standards of attainment among students. I am glad the Minister of State acknowledged that fact in his speech. The teachers' dedication and commitment, leading to high standards in certain areas of educational endeavour, have continued despite a lack of support from successive Ministers for Education, particularly in the good times.

It is good to see that Ireland's performance in reading literacy is the fifth highest of all 27 OECD member countries and ninth in the area of science. It is regrettable, however, that we have fallen back in the area of mathematics, which is crucial for prosperity. If we invest carefully in education, the response will be a return in economic growth at an early stage. That is a recognised fact which has largely given rise to the Celtic tiger in the past decade.

It is regrettable that the current Minister's predecessor sat on his hands on education when everything should have been going full blast by way of directing resources into education to improve the situation. He did nothing when it was possible to provide greater resources and greater improvements in certain areas of education, which were needed. The current Minister has in his short 18 months in office caused more disruption than any of his predecessors. He challenged teachers and literally wiped the floor with them in relation to their legitimate claims for improvements across a wide range of areas. The current Minister has an attitude and a problem with teachers in regard to their work at all levels. There are schools at national and second level, and to a degree at tertiary level, which are unsuitable for the activities they must carry out. These schools are unsafe. These details, however, are glossed over but it is the reality of what is happening in education today.

The Minister has failed dismally to acquire funding from within his Department. He was bailed out by the Tánaiste and the surplus funding she had unspent to alleviate further disruption relating to the reintroduction of fees. While we have a Minister who is so short-sighted and incapable of making a focused and determined effort to improve the lot within education, we will be in a sorry state. Whether we like it or not, we will face a crisis in education within the next decade or so.

The report indicates that the most sought after occupation in Finland is the teaching profession. Any Minister who creates within the profession discontent and dismay and fails to recognise the importance of the teaching profession is doomed to cause further crises. An important statistic which should be highlighted is the fact that almost 50% of teachers are currently over 50 years of age and they are obviously past their prime when it comes to commitment and dedication – I am not saying people lose these qualities when they go over that age. What has been achieved is a credit to the profession given the circumstances in which they must work and the resources available.

The question I pose to the Minister of State is what could be achieved if the best possible resources were available to teachers? It is important to look again at the education system. An obvious peculiarity in Irish education is that children begin school so young, yet there is no support by way of pre-education facilities. The options are ad hoc, private or just not available. The age of entry in other countries is much higher than in Ireland. In Australia the age of entry is six or seven while in Ireland it is four years of age on average. Some may say that children are going to school too young. We must ask why this is happening in the current climate. Perhaps the answer is that parents send their children to school at a very young age because often both parents are forced to work to make ends meet. Another factor is the cost of child care facilities and the fact that there is no child support available in a crisis. As there is no State commitment to such facilities the age of entry into primary education is very young. Children who lose out at this early stage must try to catch up for the remainder of their education, and very often they fail. According to the statistics, just less than 20% of pupils drop out of the education system before taking up tertiary education if they have access to it.

The Minister of State said there are currently 2,000 special needs assistants and resource teachers. Why is there such a demand for these teachers? If we look at what has been highlighted in the report we will see the reason for it. We must review this situation.

It is important to point out that a primary school had to be closed just this week because of rat infestation. How can we expect the children, teachers and parents in that area to have the education service to which they are entitled which is equal to the best in the country? There should not be such inequity throughout the country and we should not have a Minister who asks people to find out on the Internet where they are listed and he will come back to them eventually. Is that the response of a good Minister who is dedicated to the brief he holds? I say it is not and he has failed miserably.

Prior to the last general election, Fianna Fáil's manifesto stated that, among other things, it would implement a programme to achieve at least minimum modern standards for all school buildings. Do these minimum modern standards mean a rat infested school? Is the Minister satisfied with such standards? We will lag behind in the future in many areas where the indicators show we are already behind in spite of Government investment. Every school building requires modern standards. Where has the school modernisation fund evaporated? The only modernisation which has occurred has been in response to crises.

We were promised under the Education (Welfare) Act that school attendance welfare officers would be appointed. That role was to be taken from the gardaí and given to welfare officers. We were told it would improve the attendance of pupils at schools. However, the Minister has also failed in that area. One of the first Bills he introduced as Minister has yet to be fully implemented. There are only 37 officers at present. We have been told that the Minister is in the process of appointing approximately 30 more officers. Many disadvantaged areas are experiencing a crisis, yet nothing is being done. The seeds of difficulty have been sown for many of the people who drop out early from school and who find themselves in the justice system in the long term.

As long as we have a Minister who causes discontent within the teaching profession, who fails to recognise that teachers and students should be provided with a proper learning environment and who fails to provide the support facilities for pre-school education, our future in terms of our OECD partners will disimprove rather than improve. Many people in education believe that league tables are important as a way of monitoring the effectiveness of schools, the work of teachers and the response of pupils. The one country which stands head and shoulders above all others in this report is Finland, yet it rejected out of hand the idea of league tables.

I ask the Minister of State to ensure the Minister recognises the dedication and commitment of parents and students. The statistics show that Irish students have a greater affinity with their schools than many others in the report. It is not just a question of the old school tie; it is more personal than that. Students feel dedicated to their schools. It is important that pupils are happy within the school system, and we should try to keep it that way. The Minister is being provocative by distracting people from the dedication they have shown in the past.

It is a pity the Minister is not here to respond to the comments about the crisis in education over the past 18 months. He has caused disruption to the school service and to people. Prior to the third level examinations last year, the Minister started an argument about the re-introduction of fees. That caused students to divert their attention from their studies and pending examinations. If the Minister continues to act like that in the future, we will continue to lag behind in the tables.

Liam Fitzgerald (Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the Minister of State to the House and the many things he said about education. He made projections about a number of areas which were identified as ones where we could perform better in terms of international comparative analysis. I welcome reports, such as the OECD report, because international comparative analysis is important in terms of telling us where we stand and how we compare to our neighbours and competitors. It has been important since it started 40 or 50 years ago, but it is even more important now because of rapidly changing global markets. Globalisation is rampant. As people travel more, international influences are brought to bear on countries, such as our own. We need to know how individuals, citizens and members of our society are coping with the aggregate of international influences.

Senator Ulick Burke was extremely scant in his acknowledgement of the praise proffered in the report for the current state of Irish education. One would think from some of the views he expressed that our education system was still experiencing the doom and gloom of the early and mid-1980s. I remind him that our Government brought the education system, many other services and the economy out of the doom and gloom of the early and mid-1980s and into the boom of the 1990s and the millennium. Listening to Senator Ulick Burke, I became confused about whether I had read the right report.

Photo of Ulick BurkeUlick Burke (Fine Gael)
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The Senator is still confused.

Liam Fitzgerald (Fianna Fail)
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Perhaps there are two different reports. Perhaps the one the Leader gave me was an alternative version which was souped-up for my viewing only. We seem to be at odds over how to read this report on the education system in Ireland.

I acknowledge that for more than 40 years the OECD has played an extremely important role as a catalyst for change in Irish education. Its review of the Irish education system goes back to the 1960s report on investment in education. I think we referred to it as the ICE report, although I am open to correction – I see Senator O'Toole smirking. When I was sent from the country to college in Dublin, the ICE report was the document to read. Everyone was familiar with it. However, as the years roll by and we all become older and perhaps less enlightened, we realise the significance of those early days and the huge impact they had on education in terms of what was happening and where it should go in the future. It is recognised as a defining moment or a milestone in Ireland's recognition of the vital link between education and the social and economic development of the country. It created a sea change in people's expectations and ambitions and it laid the foundation for major investment in education. Until then it was not generally recognised that major investment was needed in education because of the pivotal role it plays in society. This investment played a crucial role in driving the transformation of the past eight or nine years.

The OECD has been an extremely positive influence on our policy making and on our plans for the future. Overall, it must be acknowledged that in recent years the performance of our education system has improved significantly, as has been mentioned not only by the Minister but also by Senator Burke. Dr. Tom Kelleghan of the Education Research Centre has also acknowledged that the OECD has been a major force for radical change in the Irish education system.

The focus of this year's Education at a Glance publication is on the quality of learning outcomes and the policy levers that shape these outcomes. The report draws attention to the improvement in the educational profile of the Irish population and describes as "significant" the improvement in the proportion of the population with upper second level education. Through its programme for international student assessment the OECD also gives us a good overview of the comparative performances of our 15 year old students in literacy, mathematics and scientific knowledge. In the areas of literacy and science we have performed exceptionally well, as the Minister said, and everyone in the House would agree that we should congratulate the students themselves, the parents and the teachers. We should also acknowledge the role played by all those who contribute to the formulation of education policy and its delivery because we have a broadly successful education system of which we should all be proud.

The results confirm a trend, visible in several recent OECD reports, that Irish students have been performing well. Let us not knock ourselves, but give a clap on the back to all concerned. We should not be totally negative about things. Compared to other public services, it is fair to say that education does a good job for a good proportion of our people although, as the Minister fairly and reasonably acknowledged, not for everybody.

Photo of Joe O'TooleJoe O'Toole (Independent)
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Are those in the sector entitled to their benchmarking?

Liam Fitzgerald (Fianna Fail)
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I will come to that in a moment: the Senator has carried out a pre-emptive strike. I will have a word with my colleagues across the way about this.

Much of this success is due to the dedication and commitment of our great teaching force, many of whom, it must be acknowledged, have helped their students to achieve outstanding results. However, we should not be complacent. We cannot sit back on our hands and say that everything is great because we are being praised, clap ourselves on the back and allow ourselves to be lulled into a false sense of security.

Photo of Ulick BurkeUlick Burke (Fine Gael)
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As I said, the Senator should sit on his hands.

Liam Fitzgerald (Fianna Fail)
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We all accept that knowledge and its successful application are essential to economic and social progress. In recent years we have increasingly come to acknowledge this in the way in which we manage education. However, time waits for no man. We cannot become complacent. Such is the pace of change in our world today that any education system, no matter how successful – I know Senator O'Toole will agree with me – which stands around to admire itself will have gone backwards in an instant. That is a sobering thought. The countries that were long regarded as having successful education systems have seen a deterioration in their OECD comparative performances recently. Why is this? What did they do to cause this deterioration, this drop in standards? Surprisingly – or perhaps not surprisingly – the answer is nothing. They had done nothing to keep their education systems moving forward; instead they sat back in admiration of what they had achieved. In so doing, they let down the learners, the people they were there to serve.

If our education system is to continue to serve learners into the future, which it must, it must continue to move forward and evolve. We must continue to embrace ongoing change. All of us – partners in education and legislators – must keep abreast of the changes in employment needs, for example, which are being flagged frequently in surveys being carried out on future skills needs. One recent survey pointed to the fact that upwards of three-quarters of the jobs to be filled in ten to 15 years' time would be for third level graduates alone. That is a clear indication of the need for all the partners in education to embrace change. Equally, changes in the social development of our country, as I mentioned earlier, with so many influences from abroad and within, are huge challenges for which education must always be ready as it plays a vital role.

I join with the Minister and Senator Burke in paying tribute to our teachers who, especially in recent decades, have enthusiastically embraced phenomenal change with the highest level of professional dedication and commitment. My colleague across the way, who was once in another world my boss, acknowledges that fully. We must give them due respect for that. If people in this House have any doubts about the justification for benchmarking – I am sure nobody has such doubts anymore – I suggest with the deepest of respect that they pay a visit to a few primary and secondary schools around the country where they will see the sea changes that have taken place which are being enthusiastically embraced by teachers. They will be left in no doubt that benchmarking and the justification for it is beyond dispute.

Photo of Ulick BurkeUlick Burke (Fine Gael)
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Will they be getting a bonus? What about their survival rates?

Liam Fitzgerald (Fianna Fail)
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I am confident our teachers, as they have in the past, will continue to embrace change with equal enthusiasm and commitment in the future.

The public has huge regard for our education system but sometimes it does not have enough regard. I had the privilege of visiting Finland for a few days with the education committee and I spoke about it briefly to a colleague here when I came home. It is right that the public should have a great regard for the education system. This level of public support underpins massive State investment in education, although I know there are shortcomings, some of which the report has highlighted. We should not doubt that investment in our social and economic well being as a nation is investment in education – they are one and the same. Education is fundamental to where we are and where we want to go. In recognition of the key role of education as a social and economic engine, Government investment in the sector has doubled in the last five years. The report refers to less than this but I remind the House that it deals with the period 1995 to 2001 and does not take into account the last two years. This is a clear recognition by this and the previous Government of the huge contribution and pivotal role of the education sector.

Photo of Ulick BurkeUlick Burke (Fine Gael)
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Will there be cutbacks?

Liam Fitzgerald (Fianna Fail)
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All is not well. We know that more must be done and the Minister had no difficulty acknowledging that today, in terms of pupil-teacher ratios and investment in all levels of education, particularly primary and second levels.

We have read about the percentage of GDP invested in education. Like the Minister, I am not happy with the idea of this being expressed in terms of GDP. The gross domestic product includes the huge volumes of money taken out of the country by foreign multinational companies. This should be factored out of the calculations if we are to compare like with like. In Britain GDP and GNP are almost the same, but this is a very open economy and multinationals are repatriating large sums of money – upwards of 15% of total GDP. Our place in the table of countries was based on GDP data, but it should be based on GNP as the Minister said. In the table of investment in education as a percentage of total unrepatriated income we are in eighth place, which is a significant improvement.

I refer briefly to Finland to justify the two and a half day trip to that country. As a member of the Joint Committee on Education and Science I was delighted at the opportunity to visit Helsinki during the summer and to meet all the partners in education. We met the Minister of State, the head of the Department of Education with responsibility for policy, the head of the Education Board and his staff, teachers at different levels, teacher unions, a few parents and associated teacher services. I was fascinated by a number of things. I acknowledge the Department of Education and Science is taking an extremely keen interest in the system in Finland which I welcome. The report puts Finland at the top of the class. So many things are done differently there, as adverted to by Senator Ulick Burke. Children go to pre-school at six years of age. There is no comprehensive pre-national school network because I challenged teachers, parents and others on the board and in the department. It does not have a national network but there is pre-school which most children attend from the age of six to seven years. At seven they attend formal school and continue in the same school up to the age of 16 years. About 3% drop out. Early school leavers is not an issue there. Between the ages of 16 and 19, they divide, two thirds and one third, between academic – what we call secondary school – and vocational school. At the age of 19 they sit their first State examination, the matriculation. Up to then there are many in-house examinations. According to the information I have been given, for those who leave the system before the age of 19 there is no State examination. This is an interesting aspect, to which Senator Ulick Burke adverted.

An Leas-Chathaoirleach:

I am interested in the detail too but the Senator's time is running out.

Liam Fitzgerald (Fianna Fail)
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I found it extraordinary that the teaching profession was one of the most difficult professions to get into in Finland. One has to have a postgraduate qualification. For every vacancy for a teaching job there are ten or more applicants. It is among the top two professions most aspired to by all opinion polls, yet it is not about salaries. Every teacher with whom I spoke at third, second and primary levels said they were badly paid and that in terms of other professions in the country their salary was a disgrace, though I do not know what it is. However, it was suggested there is a clear correlation between respect for the teaching profession in Finland and the performance that is vindicated through the OECD report. There is great respect for the teaching profession there. How do we bring back that respect and status for the teaching profession here? We earned it in the past. I do not know how we can restore that respect for the profession but I would like to refer the matter to the Minister of State and the Department.

I welcome the report. There is much we can learn from it besides acknowledging the nice things it says about us.

Photo of Joe O'TooleJoe O'Toole (Independent)
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I welcome the Minister of State to the House, the openness of his contribution and the fact that he referred to the issues we have not tackled. It is refreshing to see that.

Unfortunately, this is a good news story. There is much good news in this report, therefore, by rule of thumb, we will not read it in any newspaper headlines. Somebody announced a couple of years ago in a study which nobody fully understood that the level of illiteracy was 25% in Ireland. This made national headlines for a full week. During the following six to 12 months, each time a news editor had to fill a space in a newspaper this news was trotted out again. We should say today that the teachers of Ireland can take a bow and that these are the real facts in front of us, so that we know from where we are starting, and accept also, as the Minister of State has said, what we have to do. I will be critical of that later and I support much of what Senator Ulick Burke said on that issue.

According to page 69 of the report, OECD, Education at a Glance, we have the second highest literacy level in the EU. I have tried to extract the EU figures from the OECD as it is a comparator that people understand a little better. Our teachers work the fourth longest teaching hours of the 45 countries surveyed, which included countries outside the EU and the OECD, a figure which is way ahead of most countries. Even in the area of mathematical literacy, where we believe we have much to do, we were well above the OECD average. Ireland is well ahead of Germany, Greece, Italy, Luxembourg, Norway, Portugal and Spain, even though we have some way to go. It is important these news stories are circulated. I would like teachers and those in education to know it. We need to spread this good news.

Ordinary people felt demoralised when they read that the illiteracy rate in Ireland was 25%. Many people asked me if one in four people was unable to read, which is nonsense. Any of us who meet people know that is not correct, but that was the story that made headlines. Nobody will publish the good news story in this report. It barely got a line in the newspapers last week when it was published.

The figures I quoted relate to the primary and post-primary sectors and though there are slight differences between them, the figures are a tribute to the teachers in both areas. In primary schools we still have the second highest class sizes in the EU, but despite this our Irish teachers are delivering. They need to be acknowledged for what is being done in the least well-equipped schools in Europe. We read about the infrastructure of Irish school buildings in our newspapers every day and we know there is a need for huge investment. Despite all that and all the disadvantages, Irish teachers are still delivering. Despite the fact the majority of schools do not have staff rooms or general purpose rooms in most primary schools, teachers are still delivering. Despite the fact that Ireland is ranked eleventh in the EU in terms of student expenditure and is way down in terms of State investment, it is at the top in regard to delivery. The bridge between those two facts is the teachers and the way they do their business, including their innovation, creativity, commitment, generosity of time, understanding and support for the system and the children and students put in their charge. We need to get that message out. I ask the Minister of State to make that point at every available opportunity. It will be thrown back at him. I am one of those who will say that if they are doing so well why not give them more support, something which Senator Ulick Burke and I will continue to say as they deserve it. It is money well invested in education as our teachers have proven time and again.

I have some reservations about this OECD report which I will come to but by the standards of this report, Irish teachers are the most productive and effective in Europe and give the best value for investment. They have more than earned their benchmarking and much more besides. The reality is they earn every penny. They are entitled to every penny and their claims need to be listened to.

Photo of Mary O'RourkeMary O'Rourke (Fianna Fail)
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Hear, hear.

Photo of Joe O'TooleJoe O'Toole (Independent)
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They deserve proper career structures, proper reward and a proper response from the Government in terms of what they seek. I wish the media would listen to this story. One will not read the good news story in the newspapers about how well the Irish education system is doing despite all the difficulties it encounters. It really is good news and we can be proud of what we have managed to achieve in this area.

My reservations about the OECD report are clear because the real issues in education are the unmeasurable aspects. While I hate quoting philosophies or doctrines over 100 years old, John Newman's definition of educated person was the quality of tolerance. Nobody will measure the quality of tolerance but, as we discussed here earlier, that is what we need more than anything else. Nobody has found a way to measure the quality of mercy, understanding, creativity, risk taking, leadership or articulation which are all the issues needed to create a new generation of Irish people. All these qualities have to be learned and inculcated within the Irish school system. Parents and communities do it also. The problem with the OECD report is that it drives us through a right wing three Rs measurement of education, which does not measure up.

If I had my way, I would write a curriculum for the schools of Ireland. I would go through all the sections of society and the professions and ask what qualities are required in the next generation of politicians, church leaders, business leaders, trade union leaders, etc. When I have asked different people what are the qualities required, the answer is the same. They want people who are responsible, ready to take unpopular leadership decisions, who will be creative, innovative and articulate and will look at problem solving. One will find, more or less, that people look for the same qualities in the next generation of leaders in any part of society.

Having established that list, we now ask where we find these qualities in terms of the curriculum and that is where we fail to make that bridge. Teachers make the bridge all the time, but it is not written into the curriculum. For example, where do we teach creativity or leadership? Any teacher who has ever looked after a question time team, a football team, a chess team or a rugby team could tell one that if a student is chosen to be captain of a team and then loses the county quiz final or an inter-school football final, he or she will have learnt a valuable lesson which can never be measured by the OECD report. It will never be fully understood, but these are the people who can value and measure success afterwards. They are the people who win and lose and know the difference. They are the people who can look at defeat and take it on.

The same is true of problem solving. Schools may ask how do they deal with problem solving, that it is not covered in the curriculum. When I was a teacher I had a system of problem solving and when I was the school's principal, I insisted that it should be taught in every class. It was a way of dealing with problems – identify the problem, get all the information about it, work towards possible solutions and make decisions. Ultimately, these things can be done. They are not covered in an OECD report and the problem is that it drives us towards the three Rs and the measurables in education, which are referred to in the report as the outputs. However, they are not the only outputs. The real outputs are those that will stop crime and make moves towards peace making in this country. The real successes and outputs are the people who can look at the needs of the future, who can be futurists.

Where do we prepare futurists in the education system? How do we measure somebody with a futurist capacity? We do not do that and if we continue along this road, we will keep valuing and rewarding people who can give the outputs that are measurable and easily put together. The result is a dull generation of leaders who are total experts in a narrow area and cannot move outside it. Often, they are totally tied to a subject. This is not the way to run a country or to go forward and we need to look carefully at that issue.

I know there is no profit in what I am suggesting. There is nothing popular or populist about it – there are no votes in it and it is an issue for the long term. We in politics are all aware that there is no value in political or voting terms in being futuristic or in long-term thinking, but that is what we have to do. We have to put people into a situation in which they can deliver. We can do much more. For example, literacy is an issue that could be sorted out. It is not that difficult. The first point is that we do not need to spend any money on measuring the size of the problem. I have said this a million times that any teacher in any classroom in Ireland who is doing his or her job any way well will be able to say how many children in the class have a problem with reading. That could be done at the ages of four, six, eight, 12, 14 or 16 – it does not matter. Any teacher can do it. We do not need a huge number of tests. The real issue is what is to do next and that is where we have to put structures in place.

I highlight a decision taken in the Minister of State's Department in the last two months which will worsen the literacy problem. This is the decision not to continue to provide educational psychologists. It cannot be done. If a child has a reading problem, in some cases, that can be dealt with in the classroom by the teacher. In other cases it can be dealt with by a remedial or resource teacher within the school, if one is available. In further cases it could be a reading problem identified by the teacher or resource teacher, but the method of dealing with it may require an education psychologist. Therefore, that service must be available.

If it is not available, the child carries his or her reading problem on to the next stage. If a child has a reading problem at the age of six when he or she is being introduced to reading and writing, which are the basics of education, by the age of nine, if the problem persists when the child now needs to be able to read to deal with subjects such as geography or more difficult maths problems, he or she will fall further behind. That is the reality. It means the problem will continue and emerge in an OECD report after a number of years.

This relates to the finding in the report that Ireland is eleventh in terms of student expenditure – that should be student investment, to explain it properly. I will not get into an argument about GDP and GNP and I wish the Minister of State had not referred to it. He should tell his speech writers not to include that again because no economist in Ireland can explain it at present. I heard my colleague, Senator Fitzgerald, making a brave attempt.

Liam Fitzgerald (Fianna Fail)
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I am an economist of the 1970s school.

Photo of Joe O'TooleJoe O'Toole (Independent)
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Can anybody explain to me what has happened to our export figures for this year? It cannot be done, so we should forget comparisons between GDP and GNP. It is a nice point – the Department of Finance trots it out all the time and tells the Minister of State's Department to use it. It should tell the Department of Finance to get stuffed. It is not part of what we can do at all. The reality is that we just count the amount of money we spend per pupil on our educational system. That is the easiest measurement. There is nowhere to hide and we can all count it. It is in this document, worked out in international terms, so we know whether we are spending more or less or otherwise.

The fact is that the best and most productive and effective teachers in Europe are working in a system which is very close to the bottom of the league – eleventh – in terms of the amount of money we invest in our students. It is a good news story and the Minister of State can make it better by making more money available for the education system, improving our schools and the levels of support, such as educational psychologists and special education, and improving the structures of buildings.

John Minihan (Progressive Democrats)
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I join previous speakers in welcoming the Minister of State to the House for this important debate. The need to improve the quality of education is voiced frequently in political circles. This is to be expected and I support this call. When I see an international report on educational matters, I listen to understand where we are in relation to our neighbours and whether we are ahead, behind or holding our own. I do this in a competitive frame of mind because I believe our future economic success depends on our ability to present a highly educated workforce to the economic and business world that can compete at the highest level.

I do not discount our responsibility to view education in the broadest sense, to ensure young people receive a balanced well rounded education that will enable them to take their place as responsible members of society. The report, Education at a Glance, OECD Indicators 2003, is a detailed comparison document. It contains interesting statistics and one can draw positive conclusions from its overview in respect of this country. In that regard we should congratulate all those involved in our educational system, from departmental officials to teachers, students and parents, who are an integral part of the provision of a balanced education.

This report suggests we are above average on many aspects of performance and that public and private investment in education has yielded excellent results. Detailed examination will highlight negative aspects of the report and we must respond to those results and correct them. We must ensure we do not sit on our laurels in the areas where we have been successful. We must build on our success and strive for ever higher standards.

The detailed facts speak for themselves. Ireland's performance in reading literacy at age 15 is the fifth highest of 27 OECD member countries. In scientific literacy we are above average, at ninth place internationally, while in mathematics we are at least as good as the international average. Ireland also stands out as having high rates of graduation at third level and diploma and certificate levels. Drop-out at degree level here is much lower than elsewhere although the opposite is true in the case of certificate and diploma courses.

I will comment specifically on the country spend indicator in regard to expenditure per student. Lower expenditure per student cannot automatically be equated with a lower quality of educational services. Australia, Finland, Ireland, Korea and the UK, for example, which have moderate expenditure on education per student at primary and lower secondary levels, are among the OECD countries with the highest levels of performance by 15 year old students in the key subject areas. This proves that good management and a basically sound educational system can be effective. We have the basis to move forward with confidence based on past experiences. We can and should continue to invest in education in the knowledge that such an investment is based on a solid and independent proven record.

The programme for international student assessment is a cyclical operation. The first assessment was in 2000, a second one has just been completed in 2003 and there will be a third in 2006. In 2000, reading literacy was the major domain while mathematics and science were minor domains. The assessment did not fully sample the minor areas and used shorter tests. In the 2003 assessment just completed, the major domain is mathematics with minor domains in science and reading. In 2006 science will be the major domain with the other two as minor domains.

Senator O'Toole spoke about the qualities required of the next generation of leaders in Ireland and said curricula should be based on our vision of what we want those leaders to be. I wish to concentrate on this area. Given my particular interest in science and how critical it is to our future I take this opportunity to highlight the need to promote science and to strive for an even higher position by 2006 than we have achieved this year.

The ability of a company to respond to change and compete on the international market is today seen as the lifeblood of modern economies. Senator O'Toole referred to keeping economists out of this area. Unfortunately, it is economics that moves society forward and that is an important factor. OECD studies have shown that over that over 50% of economic growth can be attributed to developments in technology. They have also shown that the sectors which contribute most to economic growth and job creation are those in which high technology is developed and applied in products and services and where there is a strong scientific base present.

In this modern era most technologies are associated with various fields of science. Electronics is related to the physical sciences, pharmaceutical technologies to the biological sciences and software to mathematics etc. Future advances in technology, and in our economic development and job creation, will rely on a detailed understanding of these sciences and on the techniques used in the advancement of science.

The Education at a Glance report emphasises the points I have made. It clearly flags the emphasis we should place on the whole area of education when it states:

Tertiary graduation rates are an indicator of the current production rate of advanced knowledge by each country's education system. Countries with high graduation rates at the tertiary level are the most likely to be developing or maintaining a highly skilled labour force.

There has been a substantial expansion of third level education over recent years across the OECD area. By international standards, Ireland has a relatively high proportion of graduates with certificates and diplomas. The proportions graduating with degrees and masters degrees here is close to the average for all OECD countries. However, our output of graduates from PhD programmes remains below average. In this regard the Embark initiative, which invests in people and ideas, is important, as are the funding programmes for postgraduates, post-doctoral fellowships and basic research grants. We must ensure we have sufficient people at PhD level if we want to attract the best research and development programmes to this country. This area concerns me and I hope the five year agreement as set out in April 2002 between the Department of Education and Science and IRCEST will continue thereafter to ensure we bring up the level of PhDs in the country to meet the present and future demands that a knowledge based economy requires.

Education, science and technology should be treated as an operational whole – as a dynamic innovation system – rather than being looked at separately.

My main message is that the future strengths of our economy are dependent on us investing in research and development and in science education from primary to postgraduate level. A failure to meet this challenge will have a detrimental effect on this country's medium to long-term economic success. As legislators we do not have to understand what science is but we need to be aware that the issues that affect us today are either driven by new scientific developments or have a scientific solution.

We should take on board the findings of this report. We should respond to the positives and the negatives with a particular emphasis on the area of science. We must ensure that come 2006 we will score even higher. That will further enhance the economic successes of this country. There is no point in having an education system that will not deliver job creation and a sound economy.

Photo of Joanna TuffyJoanna Tuffy (Labour)
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I agree with the concluding remark of the Minister that the success of the Irish economy in the 1990s is generally acknowledged as resulting from many factors, including cumulative investment in education and the general quality of the learning environment in Irish schools, families and communities. He went on to say how education has contributed so much to our society and has enhanced the quality of life.

As the Minister acknowledged, we cannot be complacent about this. We must ensure we continue to increase investment in education in order to remain competitive and maintain economic growth. It is clear from the OECD report that the Government is complacent about this issue. To paraphrase Fianna Fáil's election slogan, a lot more needs to be done in regard to investment in education.

I want to highlight the meaning of some of the important figures from the report. In regard to expenditure on educational institutions per student here, Ireland is nineteenth out of 28 countries. The United States, Canada and 14 European countries are ahead of us in that area. Apart from Greece and Portugal the countries behind us are Mexico, Turkey, Korea, Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic. Despite this, as the OECD notes, Irish 15 year olds are among those with the highest performance in key subjects. This reflects well on pupils, their parents and teachers but the investment levels reflect badly on this Government and its expenditure on individual students.

The Minister of State mentioned that Ireland fares badly in the percentage of the adult population which has obtained at least upper secondary education. This is clear on page 37 of the report which shows that among 25 to 34 year olds with upper secondary education, Ireland comes nineteenth out of 30 countries with 13 European countries, as well as the US, Japan and Canada ahead of us. Among 45 to 54 year olds, Ireland is twenty-second out of 30 countries. If it is national policy to build the high value of added competitiveness in our economy through investment in education these figures show that we will not succeed in that regard. We are in great danger of failure unless we invest much more in adult education and training and up-skilling the workforce. Of graduation rates for advanced research programmes Ireland is 14th out of 27 countries, behind most of our competitors including 11 European countries as well as the US.

The Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment frequently says that our economy should be knowledge based. How can we aspire to be an innovative, knowledge-based economy if we are so far behind and are now cutting back on investment in research and development? In that regard Sweden does three times better than us. I am a member of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Education and Science which heard a presentation on our IT capacity in primary and secondary education. In terms of the availability of computers to students in upper secondary education Ireland ranks 11th out of 14 countries. Ten European countries are ahead of us and only Mexico, Spain and Portugal are behind us.

If we want to base our future industrial and commercial development on the development of ICT how are we preparing the workforce for that economy? While we claim to be committed to this we are doing very badly in practice in terms of investment in IT in schools. There is a similar debate occurring in the UK. We are in grave danger of missing the boat in terms of developing our economy in this way and it will fall on that. We have taken pride in the Celtic tiger and so on, and as everybody across the political spectrum has said, that is largely due to our investment in and high regard for education. Cutbacks and the Government's failure to face up to what needs to be done will hamper our growth and we will lose out to other countries which realise it is necessary to invest properly in education.

In his address the Minister of State said "Going forward, we need to pay particular attention to early childhood education" with which I agree. He added "In the context of scarce resources and competing demands on the public finances, we must keep the focus on disadvantage." While I agree with the Minister of State on the need to focus on disadvantage I notice he says who should pay for education and training, and at what level, is also a vexed issue in most OECD countries. He is obviously referring to the Government's considerations as well. I welcome his comment that "these figures do not provide a case for cutting back on third level, rather they point up a need to devote relatively more resources at primary level, especially in cases of disadvantage." That seems to be a shift in Government policy because when the Minister for Education and Science talked about reintroducing third level fees his intention seemed to be that the money saved in this way would be invested in primary and secondary education. That argument was exposed to be false and really the Government wanted to make cutbacks. I am pleased to hear what the Minister of State says here because it indicates a shift in his approach and I call on the Government to continue holding the recently expressed view that the issue is not to set one educational sector against another.

It is important to do something about equality of access and disadvantage but not by disadvantaging others in third level education. Labour's policy is based on the idea that access to education should be universal, and one factor in our educational success, as the OECD report confirms, is that our educational attainment is high. That is due to the underpinning principle in our system of the universal access approach. Fianna Fáil and the Progressive Democrats have played a historic role in this regard. Donogh O'Malley, who was a member of Fianna Fáil but is connected to members of the Progressive Democrats, introduced free second level education. He believed that second level education should be universal and that has been very successful in terms of our educational achievements. Similarly, the Labour initiative in bringing in free access to third level education has also been successful as shown by the reports of the Action Group on Access to Third Level Education which were a significant factor in changing the Government's mind – at least I hope they were. The abolition of fees has resulted in more people entering third level education and it reversed falling participation rates in certain lower middle class sectors of society. The basic Labour Party philosophy is that if one accepts that society will benefit from investment in education the next step is to have universal access and to properly fund our educational system to make it successful.

I did not intend to focus too closely on third level education but I am concerned that the Minister of State's mention of who should pay may bring the issue of third level fees back onto the Government agenda. I note the question is being asked in England today and the wrong answer is being given as individual students are being asked to pay third level fees. In this country, as in England, it is not student support which gives rise to the greatest cost in third level education. Other factors, including the need for better technology, research and development and so on, are causing increased costs at third level. That increase is not attributable to individual students and, therefore, they should not be penalised – certainly not to the point where some students have to withdraw from third level education. The other factors should be looked at also. In the final analysis, society benefits from investment in our educational system, including third level, in research and development. That contributes to our economic competitiveness. The Government must continue its investment and private industry also has a role in that regard.

The Minister for Education and Science has indicated that he wishes to do something about educational disadvantage at various levels. It is very welcome that he is looking at proposals to make second level education and the leaving certificate much more flexible. People from different economic backgrounds need flexibility as to how education is delivered. I urge the Minister to force the third level institutions to adopt similar flexibility in their delivery. There should be greater focus on modular education, on-line education and part-time day courses. There should be a free fees initiative in relation to part-time study as one of the approaches to inequality in access at third level. As identified in the report, there is a need for greater action on life-long learning. That is related to the approaches I have mentioned in relation to third level education.

The overall message to the Government from this report is that we cannot be complacent about our economic competitiveness without taking account of educational requirements. Greater investment in our educational system at all levels is essential.

Rory Kiely (Fianna Fail)
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The time allotted for this debate allows just five minutes for each of the remaining speakers.

Photo of Mary O'RourkeMary O'Rourke (Fianna Fail)
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I appreciate the time constraints, a Chathaoirligh. It is a pity we did not have more time for this excellent debate. I wish to share my time with Senator Mansergh.

I welcome the opportunity to contribute to this debate on the report, Education at a Glance, OECD Indicators 2003. Perhaps because it is a "good news" story, it has not received a great deal of attention, as often tends to happen in Irish society. While I do not pretend to have read all of this large volume, I have been reading through it and taking note of debates and commentaries on it. This report has not achieved the widespread dissemination it deserves. Perhaps, if the statistics had been different or if there had been startling revelations of failure, the report would have featured in every broadsheet and every medium would have carried debates on the horror of it all. However, it is a good report.

I acknowledge Senator Tuffy's great interest in educational matters. However, I must point out that we are not in any way complacent in this regard – the shortcomings are pointed up just as much as the achievements. Clearly, this report has the right mix and balance. I compliment those involved in the OECD and our own Department of Education and Science in producing the report, as well as the Minister for Education and Science and his immediate predecessor. I welcome the Minister for Agriculture and Food, Deputy Walsh, who is standing in for the Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Dempsey, who is on overseas duty with the President.

Reference has been made to various aspects at primary, secondary and third levels, including excellent statistics. In setting out to highlight a few points, one would need five years rather than five minutes to discuss such a comprehensive report. The PISA 2000 OECD initiative considered how girls and boys, at age 15, viewed their future in terms of their role in life and their intended occupation on leaving school or college. I advocate a much more focused approach towards the career expectations of girls at that age as they approach young womanhood.

Leaving aside the old idea of dolls for girls and cars for boys, the approach must be in terms of women and men working together in complementary roles in life, jobs, sciences, professions, careers and so on. The expectations raised through their school environment lead many people to take a path other than an alternative and, perhaps, less travelled path more suited to their inclinations. The PISA report and the ensuing OECD indicators should be further exploited and developed.

Another interesting profile which one can extract from the report is in relation to reading. The OECD report gave us a very high rating on our literacy standards in terms of the level of achievement of many our young people in that regard. That is the most marvellous news I have ever picked up from an educational report. The report also discussed the development of reading skills. It stated that, contrary to what schools might try to inculcate, one should read magazines, newspapers and comics – everything that comes within one's grasp – thereby becoming a more interested and proficient reader. That is true. One has only to recall reading – perhaps with the aid of a torch under the bedclothes, when one was supposed to be asleep – whatever was currently in fashion for the age group concerned. It is worth highlighting the report's finding that young people who chose to read comics, magazines or whatever, acquired an interest in further reading and retained that throughout their lives. This is a topic on which I could talk forever, were it not for time limits.

Photo of Martin ManserghMartin Mansergh (Fianna Fail)
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This is, broadly, a very encouraging report. As most of the statistical aspects have already been addressed in the debate, I will confine myself to a few points. As a parent of five children going through the national school system, I regard our public primary education service as excellent. In my belief and experience, the vast majority of teachers are hard-working and committed, believing in what they are doing. As Senator O'Toole indicated, if we are to refer to benchmarking in this context, I believe we have a very productive teaching profession, broadly speaking. That is the key to the system, given that, in material respects, the system has been somewhat under-resourced.

Last night, the House debated transport infrastructure. It is not always recognised that education is just as vital a part of our infrastructure – arguably even more so than roads, railways and traffic issues. Obviously, we are not dealing with an either-or situation. However, education is vital for our competitiveness as well as human development and the quality of our society. I wish to see it given a very high priority in the context of the current Estimates. There are marvellous new schools, buildings and so on but, unfortunately, they tend to highlight the unimproved facilities. There is a backlog to be dealt with but I do not want so much to be attempted that it causes inflation to go through the roof or anything like that. I recognise and appreciate it has to be done in a staged way but I hope, subject to that caveat, that the maximum amount is put into working on those facilities to provide what the Taoiseach referred to at the weekend so that we end up with a world-class education system.

We need to be very careful about making sure we maintain the credibility of our standards and our examination system. Our neighbours across the water have got into some difficulty on that score in that there is a feeling that standards are diluted or manipulated. There is a certain objectivity about the intermediate and leaving certificate examinations and one needs to be very careful. I am not saying it should not be reformed or modified, but one needs to ensure that it is done without damage to the credibility of the results.

The Government also needs to urgently examine research and development at third level, which is vital for our competitiveness. We have had a good deal of support on this from America and not least for our own self-interest we should not demoralise or discourage those who have given us support or suggest that somehow we do not attach so much importance to it.

Senator Tuffy referred to free third level fees. That initiative did not sort out completely, by any manner of means, the whole question of equity and disadvantage. Clearly, there is still a substantial problem, something that people overlook when they refer to people from deprived backgrounds. Higher education was a middle-class privilege but we tend to forget that the middle-class has expanded enormously in the past 30 or 40 years and that represents an expansion of equality of opportunity. There is more that needs to be done, however. This report is encouraging but there is much more for all of us to do.

Photo of Brian HayesBrian Hayes (Fine Gael)
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With the permission of the House I wish to share my time with Senators Henry, McHugh and Feighan. Perhaps the Cathaoirleach will indicate when my time is concluded.

This is an important report and it is important that the House debates it, but I wish to raise one point. We heard a good deal in the debate about benchmarking ourselves against other countries – we are doing better than Germany or Spain in some areas, but not doing as well as other countries. We are benchmarking ourselves as an education system, and the OECD has done it as well, by comparison to other systems, yet we refuse to benchmark our own schools. I raise the issue of performance in secondary schools in particular. This is a thorny issue, one teachers and many people in the establishment do not wish to address, but parents want to know more about what is going on in classes and how their schools are doing. That is very important. We need to establish what is best practice, what is working in some schools and not in others.

Unfortunately, our education system is dominated by a view that everyone should get the same amount of funding. Funding should be directed towards the schools that are failing. Those schools need additional support and if that means having some kind of objective criteria on the performance of the school and the outputs of children, so be it. I make that point because we spent much of the time in the debate benchmarking each other against other international systems, yet we will not extend that principle to our own school system. That is a fundamental hypocrisy that needs to be challenged.

Mary Henry (Independent)
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I thank Senator Hayes for sharing his time with me. I support everything Senator Minihan said earlier about the need for us to put effort into scientific education. Perhaps we are being a little complacent about scientific and mathematical literacy levels in Ireland and I would like them to increase.

A very good feature of the education system is the very low drop-out rate at degree level. There is frequently much criticism about the high standards that have to be attained to enter universities, but it means that, in general, those who get in stay the course. The French found there was no point allowing everyone who gets the baccalaureate to enter university and have an appalling drop-out rate. I am not talking about the Grandes Ecoles but in general this has become a terrible problem with dispirited staff and students because there are too many people in courses of which they are unable to make use.

I ask the Minister for Education and Science to re-examine his ideas on having a common science course for many of the professional courses such as medicine, dentistry, radiography, pharmacology and physiology because this may mean that those from disadvantaged backgrounds will get no chance to enter these professions. They will be postgraduate degree courses which will not be paid for by the State and, as the Minister will be aware, the families of students from poorer backgrounds are anxious for them to get a job and earn money as rapidly as possible. We may find that in terms of those who do physiotherapy, instead of pursuing a four year degree course, they may be facing a six year course or that those doing a six year medicine course – we must remember that Great Britain is now coming back to five years – will be facing a seven or eight year course. These aspects may militate against those the Minister for Education and Science said he wants to help.

There has not been enough debate on this issue or on what it will cost the parents, the students, if they have to take our large loans, and the State. Has it been discussed with the Department of Health and Children from a manpower point of view? The Hanly report recommends huge changes in manpower which I do not believe have been married with the proposals from the Minister for Education and Science in terms of what he wants to do. I hope we will have another debate on that aspect.

Photo of Joe McHughJoe McHugh (Fine Gael)
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The OECD report has to be broadly welcomed and congratulations are due to those in our excellent teaching profession who have to work under certain stresses in terms of limited resources in some situations. A major factor in the mathematics score being so low is the large class sizes at primary school level. In an ideal world, a class of 12 would be appropriate, but we should aim towards classes of 15 at primary level.

Professor Coolahan from St. Patrick's College, Maynooth, attributed the success of the high score in literacy levels to the hands-on role of parents in the home, but, unfortunately, not every primary school student has the luxury of having the help of their parents in the home. They are in an educational trough.

Rather than focusing on the positive aspects, and the report is broadly positive, it should be remembered that 20% of the student population are falling through the system on the basis of socio-economic disadvantage. The way to tackle disadvantage and social exclusion is to socially include children at pre-school and primary level. That can be done through lower pupil-teacher ratios at primary school level and also through an initiative introduced by the Labour Party in Britain in its manifesto in 1997, namely, homework clubs in a community setting. Those have worked on a random pilot basis throughout Dublin and other urban areas. We must encourage volunteerism in terms of homework clubs and after-school support to help students who cannot get help at home. As Professor Coolahan said, after school help with homework is important in attaining high literacy levels. That is something on which we should focus.

We have a poverty industry in this country where people are making a lot of money talking about social exclusion and people who are socially excluded and outside the system. The way to include people in the system is to give them their entitlement to a primary education and to keep them in the system. I know social exclusion at an educational level is a separate issue, but it is something on which we should focus.

Photo of Frank FeighanFrank Feighan (Fine Gael)
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I thank Senator Brian Hayes for sharing his time. I broadly welcome this report but I am concerned that Ireland was placed 19th out of 28 countries in terms of spending on schools and colleges. I wish to raise the question of IT for students in primary schools which is a shambles. Primary school students should be competent in this regard before going into secondary school and should not be learning ECDL, Word, Excel and ACCESS in secondary school. Trying to get teachers to learn ECDL and how to teach children computers during the summer is not working. The teachers find that children are smarter and more competent and they find it difficult to teach them. It is like asking an architect to teach French.

The Government is putting considerable amounts of money into IT training for students, but that money is being used for aspects of the school curriculum other than IT. Until the Department realises it must provide external experts and tuition in schools, IT for students will remain a disaster. I speak as someone who is involved in a successful IT training scheme for students in my area of Boyle, County Roscommon. However, it will not be replicated in every area unless external expertise is involved.

Photo of Mary WhiteMary White (Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the Minister for Agriculture and Food. The Minister of State, Deputy Brian Lenihan, said that the proportion of private funding for third level institutions dropped from 30.3% to 20.8% between 1995 and 2000 reflecting the introduction of free fees. The Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Noel Dempsey, raised the issue of the policy of free third level education at a Fianna Fáil Parliamentary Party meeting a few months ago. He was criticised by some people but I believe he was correct to put this issue on the agenda. Private funding should be a critical part of education. Those who can afford to pay for third level education should pay for it. If the policy is not working, it should be looked at again. I know it was brought in with idealistic ambitions but it has not succeeded, so it should be revisited.

It is not good for any country for private funding to drop from 30.3% to 20.8% over a period of five years. It has increased segregation in schools in that people who used to pay for university education are now pumping that money into exclusive secondary schools. Data hints that there is increased segregation in the education system. This OECD report shows that those in secondary schools outperform their counterparts in community and comprehensive schools who, in turn, outperform students in vocational schools. People should pay for third level education if they can afford to do so and we should not have this segregation in schools which I see in the area in which I live.

I acknowledge what Donogh O'Malley did and what was done in regard to IT by the university scientists, engineers and technicians in the 1970s to fill the jobs in the IT industry. However, I wish to highlight two aspects of this OECD report which are shocking. Irish 15 year olds come third from the bottom of the league table for leisure reading even though Ireland prides itself on its literary tradition. Something must be done about that. In terms of mathematical literacy, Irish students come 15th out of 27 countries. There is something radically wrong. I know countries can be specialists in different areas of education but surely 15th out of 27 countries is a poor result.

There is no doubt the education system has been one of the key drivers of the Celtic tiger but we should not be complacent. While this report paints a broad picture, 80% of young people in Ireland are getting a brilliant deal thanks to the teachers and the parents. However, we, as politicians, must intervene on behalf of those who are socially excluded. That is from where I come and I will repeat that as long as I am in the Seanad. I am for those who are left out of society and who are born into disadvantaged families through no fault of their own.

Joe Walsh (Minister, Department of Agriculture & Food; Cork South West, Fianna Fail)
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I thank each contributor to the debate. I apologise for the inability of the Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Noel Dempsey, to attend. As has been said, he is abroad.

A report such as Education at a Glance is vital for informing the debate and countering exaggerated claims or opinions that have no basis in fact. I like the idea of Education at a Glance but I wonder what size this report would be if it was an in-depth study. At any rate, it gives us the opportunity to debate education in Ireland and that, in itself, is a good thing. Some areas of learning are hardly measurable but remain critical for success. Overseas investors in Ireland are appreciative of our education system not only of the quality of educational attainment, but also the flexibility, adaptability and a generally positive work ethic. They are important qualities in young Irish graduates and school leavers.

We should not neglect the importance of family and community background in supporting effective learning outcomes. Research by the OECD confirms the importance of many factors outside the school environment. Successive Education at a Glance reports confirm that, on average, from the age five to 16, young people do not spend more than about one fifth of their total waking time in school in any OECD country. Notwithstanding that fact, schools are crucial in the formation of many skills and abilities to provide personal fulfilment, economic competitiveness and social cohesion. However, we should not expect schools to cure all social ills. They need to work with other areas in the life of learners.

Much of the debate about education in the past has focused on resources, investment, class size and the number of teachers and students. These are still fundamentally important. However, the OECD, along with other international bodies, has helped to widen the debate by introducing new information about skills, cross-curricular achievement, measures of literacy as well as comparisons of how schools are managed and how the curriculum is delivered. There is now a greater possibility of examining how well we do compared to investment and how effective we are in terms of meeting the goals of education.

There is, however, a risk of sinking in a large quantity of information on many areas, but the simple messages still stand out. Education is good for individuals, society and the economy. Education has a profound effect on social equality and social inequalities shape access to education, especially at higher levels. Education covers a wide range of areas from schools to other contexts in which people learn throughout their lives. Other issues are the quality of teaching and learning, the use made of resources and the practical implementation of curricula matters, alongside the amount spent on education.

Investment levels matter, but we can testify to the fact that high educational standards are possible even if spending is not as high as in many other countries. Yesterday's leaders in educational innovation may be today's laggards. The facts are that 25 years or 30 years ago when investment was not as great in schools, when one went into a school the best piece of equipment for the assistance of pupils was an old world globe. Now, it is wonderful to go into primary schools and see how colourful they are and how many aids they have in the shape of IT and so on. Nevertheless, the education provided a few decades ago was still robust, but I welcome the advances made and the more outward-looking education system we have now.

Like Senator White, I have two areas on which I wish to expand. The first is that we are still weak with regard to languages, although it is much better than when I was at school when we had hardly any language teaching. French may have been available but, for some reason, it was only available to girls.

Photo of Mary WhiteMary White (Fianna Fail)
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Latin.

Joe Walsh (Minister, Department of Agriculture & Food; Cork South West, Fianna Fail)
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Many schools had the classics, with which I have no difficulty, but modern society, industry and teaching should provide a range of educational skills – not only EU languages, but also the far eastern languages. The Minister for Education and Science is in China today. I do not know how many people in Ireland are taught Chinese or Korean or any of the major languages in that part of the world.

My second point is that it was highlighted in the report that many younger people do not get the chance of education. They get a job or, in some cases, get married. They want to improve their education but face difficulties because of where they live. I live in a coastal area and I would like greater investment in distance education. There is no reason that distance education cannot be provided now with the rollout of broadband and facilities in most towns that are well served with classrooms and auditoriums. Infomatics and video-conferencing facilities are available and people could have access to third level education without having to be on campus. Crèche and other facilities are available in modern workplaces and technology parks and there is no reason that there should not be an opportunity for people to undertake modules of education. I would like greater investment in that area. The report mentioned that there is still a gap in terms of middle-aged people.

A sound evidence base, including statistical information on relevant areas, is an essential component of public policy. As some Members of the House pointed out, the OECD is not the only provider of statistics on education. In the future we can expect a much livelier debate than before on education and training in a European context, where social and educational issues will move up the agenda, and that is the way it should be. Once again, indicators and statistics of educational investment, outcomes and learning behaviour will be required to inform policy making at European level.

I thank the OECD for its massive contribution to the development of Irish education over the past 30 years or so. It was its initial report at that time that brought education onto a higher plane and has been so helpful to our development, in the broadest possible sense, over those decades. I welcome the organisation's decision to establish a separate education directorate and it is a clear indication by the Secretary General of the OECD of the central role that education now plays in economic and social development.

This change in structure has the potential to further strengthen the education work of the OECD while maintaining close links with the labour and social affairs areas. I have no doubt that it will bring its own challenges to Ireland and other countries, but these are far outweighed by the opportunities presented. It is up to each member country, working together with the new directorate, to make the most of these opportunities.

Rory Kiely (Fianna Fail)
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When is it proposed to sit again?

Liam Fitzgerald (Fianna Fail)
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At 10.30 a.m. on Wednesday, 22 October 2003.