Wednesday, 7 March 2007
Education System: Motion (Resumed)
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Haughey, back to the House from where he started. I look forward with great interest to what he has to offer us. We hope it will be positive, productive, creative and satisfying, which I am sure will be the case.
I welcome the debate on the issues raised by Senator Ulick Burke. They are crucial. I am disappointed that my colleague and old friend, Senator Fitzgerald, refused to deal with the issues raised. They include the fact that 110,000 primary school children are in classes of 30 or more pupils and the other issues specifically outlined. The problem with the amendment to the motion is that it does not deal with any of those issues. I do not have a difficulty with many of the issues outlined in the amendment were that the case. If the Government dealt with all the issues presented, I could support many aspects of the amendment.
I commend some of the issues mentioned in the amendment. However, I met two principal teachers last night — I can give the Minister the names of the two schools of which they are the principals, and they are Fianna Fáil schools——
——who told me that this week they lost their access to the educational psychological service. That is a reality.
There is no reference in the amendment to the recent report from the National Council for Special Education, which outlined the way the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act was to be implemented. I intend to refer regularly to that aspect in my contribution. That report gave a time-line set of objectives for the implementation of that Act. The report was given to the Minister three months ago. Implementation of the Act requires a great deal of money but that is not happening.
The issue for me is class size. I ask my colleagues to accept this point. Trying to deal with class sizes of more than 30 for those 110,000 pupils is an undermining of the curriculum. It cannot be done. I am not trying to gild it and I know that the Senators opposite will not disagree with this point. On average 10%, 3 pupils, would have a learning difficulty and would need some form of remediation. Perhaps two would have some form of special need. More than likely the class would have one or two newcomers. The focus of the Department of Education and Science at the moment is to ensure that as far as possible children with special needs are educated in those classes also. That is impossible and it is why the excessively large classes do not work. We all supported the inclusion proposal when discussing the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act. However, it cannot work in classes of that size, which is why we need a maximum class size.
When we last discussed education here Senator Minihan made substantial and important points about teacher efficiency. He made the point that teachers who are not efficient in their job should be found out, on which I support him. Children only get one chance and they deserve the best, which is why they also deserve not to be in classes of 30 or more. Large classes damage all children in the system and not just the ones I mentioned.
My problem with the Government amendment is that it reflects emotional blackmail. The Minister is claiming that although the Government was going to do one thing, it is now doing something else instead. It was going to reduce class sizes but it has decided to look after children with special needs and disadvantage instead. This is at the same time as the same Minister has told us all — and was cheered to the echo for doing so — that there would be additional supports for special education and disadvantage which we all welcomed. Nobody knew at that point that a solemn commitment and promise given to reduce class sizes as outlined in the programme for Government would now be ignored, which is causing chaos.
While I am not sure about Senator Minihan, Senators Fitzgerald and Ormonde will certainly recall back as far as 1987 when Fianna Fáil returned to Government and owing to a huge problem with money it increased class sizes at the time. It approached the education partners but there was war. At the end we all sat down and came to a conclusion. For the past 20 years solemn agreements have been hammered out with school managements, teachers, education partners and the Department of Education and Science every year. It has rarely been satisfactory for anybody. I have negotiated most of it myself.
I was rarely happy leaving those negotiations but we stuck by our agreements. It used to stick in my craw every week to hear questions in the other House being asked as to why an additional teacher could not be sent to a particular school. The reply always stated that because of an agreement with the INTO, the extra teacher could not be sanctioned. We got blamed every time and I needed to defend it for 20 years. I do not take lightly that a solemn agreement entered into has been unilaterally broken. It is a breach of trust and confidence that is utterly unacceptable.
As I said last week it was cheap and nasty to try to deflect attention from this debate by referring to the quality of those leaving teacher-training colleges, some of whom never got to become teachers anyway. I made my points on that subject last week. I am uncomfortable with the final point in the Fine Gael motion that "a change in leadership at the Department of Education and Science is long overdue". I have considerable confidence in the people running the Department of Education and Science and they are not here to defend themselves. I do not know whether that was the point Senator Ulick Burke intended and I can talk to him about it at some stage.
The other significant and serious points need to be addressed and should have been addressed by the other side in the course of the debate. Considerable work remains to be done in primary education. A survey during the week showed that most schools have inadequate access to physical education, which is a problem. The percentage of schools on the west coast is appalling.
I thank Senator O'Toole for sharing time. I congratulate Fine Gael on tabling the motion on a very worthy topic. I cannot support the motion for precisely the reason Senator O'Toole outlined. I believe that the Minister should not go. I understand from those working in education that there is a hope that she will stay and will not be promoted after the general election. I believe she is probably the best Minister for Education and Science we have had for a long time. As I believe she should stay, I will not support the motion.
However, I agree with the long list of actions not being taken as outlined in the motion. We have a long way to go to get so many other things done. The concentration on special needs must place heavy emphasis on intellectual disability. Today I attended a launch by the National Institute of Intellectual Disability, which covers intellectual disability at all levels, including primary, secondary and now an institute in Trinity College. It is a joy to see the achievements of people who never had the chance to be educated at that level because of their intellectual disability.
Yesterday saw the publication of the latest report from the expert group on future skills need. In spite of the extra funding mentioned by Senator Fitzgerald, there is no way that we will get anywhere near the requirements by 2020. Taking a long-term approach the Minister has considerably more to do. We are seriously under-investing in our education system. In spite of the increase in recent times, the Minister needs to convince her Cabinet colleagues that we need to invest considerably more. We must take a long-term view. The responsibility is on us, the legislators, and on the present Government to look to the future. Given the predicted skill shortage by 2020 in spite of the considerable investments, we need to do more otherwise all the work the Minister has been doing and for which she deserves credit will be lost.
I join previous speakers in welcoming the Minister of State, Deputy Haughey. As this is my first opportunity to do so, I wish him well.
I am conscious of what a number of previous speakers have said regarding the framing of the motion. Senator Fitzgerald summed up many of the points I would like to make. I will not support the motion for many of the reasons outlined by the previous two speakers. I felt that the final part of the motion was uncalled for and took away from the spirit of the motion. We have called for debates on education in this House a number of times recently. We had a debate last week on teacher training. The Government amendment is factual and we can stand over it. While it may not be the record the Opposition wants to hear, it is our record.
However, some points raised by the Opposition are worthy of consideration. In all the debates we have in this House I am concerned that we do not get one meaningful proposal or constructive idea from the Opposition. The Opposition is living in hope that some day it may have a responsibility. As of now, everything the Government is doing is wrong but the Opposition does not know what it would do if it were in office. I would be much more interested if I heard its proposals. What does it propose to do? Governments make decisions and they prioritise.
We can go through some of the points made and debate them. I would like to speak about some of the points raised. Nobody would disagree with the Government in regard to its strategic decision vis-À-vis investing in special needs and disadvantage. Nobody would disagree with how our society has changed so dramatically in the past ten years with the multicultural society and the strains that puts on our educational system. Those challenges had to be met and responded to.
Senator O'Toole raised the issue of the pupil-teacher ratio. We must address this issue. As Senator Quinn said, we need substantial investment in education and a major increase in the budget allocation for education. We need a front-loaded major adjustment in Government spending to cater for our educational needs. It is not good enough to speak about a knowledge-based economy and a well educated workforce unless the resources are put in place locally. Having addressed the changes in society and the integration of special needs in recent years, the time is ripe for that to be done. I welcome the commitments given in the national development plan but I would like more front-line investment in the annual budget.
With regard to the pupil-teacher ratio, we can argue figures upside down and inside out. However, we must also be conscious of the changing structures in schools where non-teaching principals and language resource teachers are included in the numbers. The time has come for us to look at the actual teacher in the classroom with the actual class, assisted by the other professionals who are in a supportive role. We must be real about how we do that. I welcome the appointment of 800 new teachers in September, 500 of whom will be for mainstream classes and 300 for language tuition and so on.
I wish to raise the issue of special needs education. The reason I raise this is because I have called for a debate on the area of special needs education and I am not sure if there will be time for that debate. Therefore, I will piggyback on the Fine Gael motion and use my time to address the points I would like to address in the debate.
I fully acknowledge and support the work we have done but I have genuine concerns. These arise having looked at the issue internationally and the methodology used in other countries. Are we doing it right? I do not want to come back in 20 years' time and say we got it wrong. One of the problems in this area — one has to be careful how one says this — is that the special education we give to children with special needs must be focused on the best interests of the child, not necessarily on what the parents want. That is a politically dangerous statement to make but in some cases I fear parents are so concerned with having their children in mainstream schooling that it may not necessarily be in the best interests of the child. Whatever assessment process is put in place, and I am not playing politics here, we must ensure that what is suitable for the child is in the child's interest.
In that regard I am concerned about the international research on which the Department bases its approach to special needs. We have the inclusion and eclectic intervention approach. I am genuinely concerned about that because in the US, Canada and the UK there is a move away from that type of intervention and yet we are staying with that system.
We began to address the special needs area 20 years behind the international norm. That norm has moved on but we seem to be starting where they were 20 years ago. In regard to children with autism or those on the autistic spectrum disorder, there are 12 applied behavioural analysis, ABA, pilot projects ongoing for the past seven years. How long is a project a pilot project? When does it become a permanent project? My understanding of any pilot project in anything is that there would be a timeframe and an evaluation, at the end of which one would decide whether to progress with it, abandon it or adjust it. I would like to know from the Department of Education and Science when we will see an evaluation of those pilot projects. Some 12 applications have been made for further ABA initiatives but they are not being considered. I want to know why they are not being considered.
The Department has said that the model it is using is the correct one but on what research is it based? What comparatives in Europe are on the international stage? I do not condemn in any way the approach we have had to special needs. All I am saying is that we should look at international surveys, evaluations and expertise and get it right. We have a golden opportunity so let us not go down a road only for us to have to reverse back in 20 years' time.
I welcome the Minister of State to the House. Like Senator Quinn, while I support much of what is contained in the motion, the Minister for Education and Science has done an incredible amount of work. There are great failings within the education system but the Government amendment claims that progress has been made and I applaud the Minister for that. The issues the motion addresses are worthy and another ten could have been added without asking for the removal of the Minister for Education and Science.
The physical condition of some of our schools appears to be extraordinarily bad. Despite the fact that so much money has been spent on them, there are reports and photographs of buildings which I have found unbelievable. There is another issue that I find unbelievable as well, namely, that in this day and age, we are still talking about the lack of facilities for physical education in schools in deprived areas. A former Senator, Thérèse Ridge, used to speak about a school in her area of west Dublin area which had been built for 20 years and yet had not got a sports hall. That the position is the same today is depressing. No progress is being made in this area. We have seen reports of how little physical education is done in our schools. It is not as if our children do not enjoy and want it. The facilities must be made available for the children and teachers. Thanks to global warming, there has been an improvement in the weather. At least we are not walking through snow and slush. There is a need for proper indoor facilities.
The issue of reading is serious. I read a survey which showed that children from disadvantaged homes fell badly behind in the age at which they were reading properly, if at all. One part of the survey which struck me forcefully referred to the reading skills of children in houses where there were ten or less books. I looked at the coffee table in front of me and there were more than ten books on it. There are children who come from homes where there is a serious lack of concern about reading. One passes by bookshops all the time which have special offers and sell paperbacks very cheaply. Obviously, many children come from homes where there is no great emphasis on reading.
We are still talking about class sizes. I know they have been reduced somewhat, but one would have thought that by now, we could have reduced them to more manageable levels. I know all about full-time principals and additional help within the classroom, but very few countries have class sizes as large as we have.
In respect of the early school leaving age, one thing that is constantly brought to my attention is the lack of remedial help, especially for boys going from primary to secondary school. Many of them lose heart at that stage. If they have been behind in primary school and are still behind once they go into secondary school, they feel they are big men who are not going to put up with this. It is very important that they get assistance at this level because it appears that if they do badly in first year at secondary level, it is very likely that some of them will drop out very shortly afterwards. Assistance at this level is badly needed so that boys in particular are encouraged to remain in education.
The computer situation is ridiculous. If there are that many computers beyond repair or use, one wonders why they were there at all.
The last point made in the motion is one that concerns me most. This relates to the lack of access to psychological services. This is not just a vital need for children with special educational needs. It can be a vital need for children with special social needs. Like Senator Minihan, I wonder when a pilot project stops. We have seen surveys which show that psychological assessment and help delivered as early as possible make a huge difference to the progress made by the child. At first, I thought primary schools could have two psychological assessments per class. I was then told it was two assessments per year. I would be delighted if the Minister can correct me on that, but this is what I have been informed. That is ridiculous. There is no way one could function with that sort of thing. The children who need assessment should get it. It is terrible to discover that the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul pays for psychological assessments for children who are badly in need of them.
I look at the situation of children who come before the courts. If they had been given psychological assessments in the educational system, would we be looking at them before the courts and trying to get psychological assessments for them then? At one stage, I was told that there were no psychologists available to take up additional posts and that this was why greater emphasis was not placed on psychological assessments within the education system. I investigated that and found there was a panel of people waiting to get jobs in the National Educational Psychological Service. Something really odd is going on there. Parents, teachers and child psychiatrists have complained to me about this issue.
One of the worst cases involved a woman who told me she worked in the section of the Courts Service dealing with psychological assessments for children but gave it up some years ago because she found it too distressing to talk to children who, if they talked openly and freely to her about all their problems, thought something would happen when, in fact, nothing happened. This issue is really serious and if we address it, we might not have quite so much discussion about the need for anti-social behaviour orders for children. I am quite sure it would be picked up and they would not find that the educational system fails them.
Earlier today, I mentioned the fact that the Stay Safe programme is not available in 25% of primary schools, which is ridiculous. I do not know when this is going to change.
Senator Minihan discussed autism and attention deficit disorder, which are serious disorders for children. However, one thing we never address is the question of whether families in whom autism is present should be offered genetic counselling. There is the possibility that autism may be genetic in some families. People deserve to be told if this is the situation.
I can see numerous things that should be done to improve the situation in our school service but, as I said previously, I do not know if the removal of the Minister for Education and Science is the most important one.
I welcome the Minister of State to the Seanad and second the Government's amendment. When I read the motion, I thought we were dismantling everything in terms of looking at what the Government has tried to do, acknowledging the progress that has been made and accepting that much more needs to be done. We cannot do it overnight. As least, we should, as an old line in a book puts it, "praise the ford as you pass it". A considerable amount of work has been done, a considerable amount of commitment has been given and progress has been made.
The motion is a complete dismantling of everything achieved since 1997. It seems to say that nothing has happened since then and that we are a disaster and a failure. Nobody is coming forward to tell us——
I listened very carefully to the Opposition. I will discuss three areas which I know best, namely, school building, class sizes and special needs and disadvantage. It was said that the Department has thrown all the responsibility onto boards of management by giving them the allocations, expecting them to get on with it and that this is the way forward. I was a member of a board of management and witnessed situations where a school needed to be extended and where new classrooms and a sports centre were needed. We received such support from the Department in respect of the architect and the building control section and any co-operation that was necessary was given to us the moment the request was made. The line that has come from the opposite side of the House in this debate has been negative. I believe it is the way forward. We should move it to the board of management, which knows the area and the builders in it and can get a local architect to co-operate with the school building programme within the Department. There is no difficulty with that and I welcome it.
The Government has committed more than €540 million for school buildings this year. When one compares this with more than £90 million in 1997, one can see that this is progress. We may not have a 100% success story, but we are moving in that direction. A total of 1,500 projects will be undertaken this year. These projects range from new roofs to windows to large extensions to new schools in some cases. This is a commitment. This is a fact and I like to talk about facts. This is the reality stated by the Minister and I welcome this progress. There is nobody better than the present Minister when it comes to understanding the world of education, given that she has been there herself and understands how it operates inside and outside the building. The Minister is doing her best at this given time. I could not believe that the motion stated that a change in the leadership at the Department of Education and Science is long overdue. That type of thinking is below the belt.
It should be acknowledged that there are 4,000 more teachers than in 2002. That is progress and it cannot be denied.
The majority of the extra teachers hired in recent years have been targeted rightly at providing extra support for children with special needs, those from disadvantaged areas and those who need help with English. This is the way forward. That is my interpretation of how class size is being addressed. I hope the Minister will move to reduce class sizes because, ideally, the pupil-teacher ratio should come down further. Nobody would dispute that. That said, teachers are very professional and can do a superb job in the classroom. Whether they have 24 or 26 pupils, the majority of teachers are well able to carry the load and are very good at doing it.
Special needs is an area with which I am very familiar. There are more than 5,000 teachers at primary level dealing directly with children with special needs compared with 1,500 in 1998. We also have 8,200 special needs assistants compared with 300 in 1998. The sum of €50 million has been invested in school transport for pupils with special needs. There are 7,000 special resource teachers who can be accessed by those who need special attention in schools.
I welcome the establishment of the National Educational Welfare Board. It must deal with children who have strayed from the educational pathway at some level. It was set up to work with schools and monitor children at risk. Breakfast mornings have been set up for those who are very much at risk and cannot get to school for whatever reason, especially in disadvantaged areas. Much work remains to be done.
I would like to see more emphasis on early intervention, especially at primary level. It is a benefit if problems are picked up when children are four, five or six. If the National Educational Welfare Board, the home-school-community liaison team, schools and educational psychologists can help children at an early stage, there will be less need for resource teachers at second level and more opportunities for those who are disadvantaged.
A great deal of progress has been made. I am delighted the Minister of State, Deputy Haughey, is present to hear what we have to say. I accept more needs to be done but it cannot be done overnight. The Minister's heart is in the right place. I have great confidence she will get it right.
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Haughey. He has been in the House on a number of occasions in recent months.
I pay tribute to our spokesperson on education, Senator Ulick Burke, for tabling this motion on behalf of the Fine Gael group so we can debate the matter at least, for his consistency on all issues concerning education and for being such a strong advocate for children and the education system which we all have a responsibility to cherish and nurture.
It is great to return to primary school and see children start school. In my case, my eldest son, who is five years old, started school last September. We now have smaller classes than we had some years ago or even when I was in school. We have better buildings and many advances have been made by successive Governments in the past 15 to 20 years. That must be acknowledged on all sides.
The reality is we have not done enough to root out educational disadvantage which is the major impediment against which many children must work. My five year old son is in a class of 20. That is a fantastic start for any five year old. The problem is next year he will be in a class of 30. One invariably takes a greater interest in these matters when one's children are in that situation. Schools should not be forced to carve up resources such as pupil-teacher ratios as a means of trying to present an opportunity for one year to a child at that age.
I issue a warning to all political parties not to make ridiculous promises they cannot keep the other side of a general election. One of the problems with which the Minister for Education and Science is currently faced is one of her own making, namely, that she promised to deliver class sizes of 20 and under for children aged under nine. She now claims that is aspirational but originally it was a promise. The reason she looks foolish is she made a promise she could not keep. The advice for all political parties is not to follow what the Minister, Deputy Hanafin, and Fianna Fáil have done. We should be honest and realistic about what we want to achieve as a society. There is no point in making promises that are not achievable either in the short term or the medium term. We must keep this at the forefront of our minds as we approach the general election.
New communities are a significant issue in my area. In recent years, 2,000 or 3,000 new homes often have been built in areas in a short period. We find that virtually no planning has taken place between developers and the local authority or the Department of Education and Science to provide for the educational needs of children living in these areas. This is leading to an increase in commuting times and to traffic gridlock because, invariably, parents in these new estates have to bus their children out on a daily basis as a means of accessing educational opportunities.
I wish to make a proposal to the House and to the Government concerning the current social housing provisions whereby 15% or 20% of land must be used for social and affordable housing. It is entirely appropriate that those who have gained so much, either through land speculation or the building of houses in new suburban Ireland, would be asked to contribute funds towards the establishment of those new schools. In Adamstown in west Dublin, we have an example that should be replicated in other parts of the country. The primary school and the secondary school there are an integral part of the planning process. It is a condition of the masterplan that after 1,500 houses are built, the school is built by the developer. That is the way to go.
That is the point I am making. I am suggesting it should be extended to other areas. The reason it has happened in Adamstown is due to the integrated area action plan which has been designated by the Government but it should be replicated in every other part of the country to ensure we have schools built on time. The school building programme is important.
I raised another issue last week in the House that is a real scandal, namely, the failure on the part of the Health Service Executive, HSE, to employ speech and language therapists and other therapists in the Dublin area. We have 25 unfilled posts in Dublin. The money has been provided for them but we cannot find people to fill them to help children in schools and hospitals in other parts of the city of Dublin. I put forward a suggestion last week, and I ask the Government to consider it, that a new junior post would be established for young graduates, 100 of whom are coming from four colleges throughout the country this year, and that those posts should be ring-fenced for those graduates. This would mean that we could establish at least that new posts ready to be filled would be taken on.
St. Joseph's School, a special school in the constituency in which I live, and Coláiste Eoin were allocated a half post between them or a quarter post each on the basis of one week on, one week off. In April 2006, the therapist resigned and the Health Service Executive, HSE, advertised for a replacement in December. No one has been appointed yet because of bureaucracy.
My third proposal is that the Department of Education and Science directly employs speech and language therapists in the schools. There is a mismatch between the HSE, responsible for filling the posts, and the Department of Education and Science which allows the HSE to make these decisions. These are specialist schools, not mainstream schools, where all children have mild intellectual disabilities and require help with speech and language training. The Department of Education and Science could not fill a quarter post. It remained dormant for a year. Why can the Department of Education and Science, with a constitutional obligation to the children in those schools, not effect the appointment of a quarter post to each of those schools in Dublin South-West? It is a scandal and the solution is for the Department of Education and Science to take responsibility for speech and language training within our school system rather than delegating it to the HSE which is not capable of producing the solutions teachers want to see.
We expect far too much from our education system. I admire the young dedicated Irish teachers at primary and secondary level. They do fantastic work but the Oireachtas continually sets them new tasks and asks them to take responsibility for matters that are outside the remit of education. The Oireachtas must get real and ask teachers to teach. That is their function, not to be social workers or take on the burdens of modern society. They need resources and the goodwill that exists toward the education system, especially primary education.
I have made my point which is a perfectly legitimate one. A great deal of progress has been made and we are fortunate to have the current Minister for Education and Science. She ranks equal with the Leader as the best Minister with responsibility for education in the past 20 years. When she is opening a new school, one can see how well she relates to children, parents and teachers. The first item of the motion refers to new classrooms and buildings. There is a tremendous number of projects under way.
I take pleasure in the new gaelscoil in Tipperary town, the new gaelscoil in Annacarthy, the new school in Ballyporeen and the extension at Grange. The chairman of the board there is Mr. Liam Ahearn, the brother of the late, lamented Mrs. Theresa Ahearn.
The level of spending on building and improvement is far beyond what was possible in the past. There is much more to do, at least as much in the next five years as there was in the past five, and we are aware of many things that need to be done.
One political point of debate, with the unions as much as the Opposition, is whether emphasis should be placed on reducing the pupil-teacher ratio or tackling disadvantage and special needs. The Minister has correctly chosen to provide funding for resource teachers and special needs teachers. Not enough has been done yet. A resource teacher looking after three children reduces the pupil-teacher ratio in that class for the time involved. It removes some of the burden. I would like to see the general ratio reduced. One may find small classes co-existing with large classes. We must provide teachers to even this out as well as to cater for our growing population.
During the 2002 election campaign it was not clear where the demographic of the country was going.
A teacher told me she wished the Government would impose natural family planning because she needed to fill her junior infants class. She would have no trouble filling the class today. I quoted the European social survey, a good external reality check, on the Order of Business and will quote from it again now. It is a comparative benchmark of facilities in the local area, giving the percentage that find the facilities satisfactory by country.
Ireland comes high on the list, sixth out of 27, with 78% finding facilities satisfactory. Cyprus, Belgium, Finland are higher but the majority of countries are lower. The UK, our nearest neighbour, is at 62%, suggesting that we are not doing everything wrong. One of the good aspects of the Irish education system is that we pay our teachers a decent wage and give them social respect. It is not regarded as a downbeat, dead end job. Everybody recognises the social value of education.
I agree with Senator Hayes that while all parties need to be ambitious for education in terms of setting targets for the next five years, we should not make unrealistic promises. That only leads to disappointment. There should be a greater emphasis on physical education facilities. Children need and deserve them. Schools in rural areas will often have access to a field around the school in which children can play. However, we have not given enough attention to this issue. It has sometimes fallen between the two stools of the Department of Education and Science and the Department of Arts, Sport and Tourism. The Department of Education and Science should take responsibility for it, but in liaison with another Department. There is nothing wrong with Departments liaising.
Sometimes good school facilities, especially in small villages, can serve the community and there are cases where good community facilities can serve neighbouring schools. There is the example of a school in Clerihan, four miles outside Clonmel. The school is building a sports hall because the parents believe it is necessary. It is a new town that is growing exponentially. The parents are providing the sports hall from their own resources. They are not applying for Government aid because they know they will not get it.
I welcome this debate. It is always important to debate education.
Cuirim fáilte speisialta roimh an Aire Stáit atá sa suíochán sin den chéad uair. The Minister of State, Deputy Haughey, is welcome. It is the first time I have seen him in that seat.
Whenever we discuss education we should first acknowledge how fortunate we are in the quality of our teachers. Many of the populist phone-in shows focus on bad teachers. Of course, no profession is without problems and perhaps the process for dealing with a bad teacher is extremely cumbersome. However, the majority of teachers are superb.
It is well known that old fellows, including myself, will, if let, moan about the younger generation. In fact, all older teachers I have spoken to, especially in the primary sector, have nothing but praise for the quality of young new national teachers. It is an astonishing reversal of the usual practice whereby older people tend to complain that the young people are not interested. The enthusiasm of new teachers in schools of various sizes to do new things, change things and broaden their teaching is wonderful.
Another issue is the impression that is given that our schools work for a small number of hours and weeks. One of today's newspapers — I cannot remember whether it was the Irish Examiner or The Irish Times — carried an interview with a 17 year old German girl, who is spending a year in Castleisland, County Kerry. She was asked what was different about Ireland. She said that the length of the school day was striking. We have all heard about the hard-working Germans but she said that in Germany, she went to school at 8 a.m. but finished at 12.30 p.m. The 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. school day was a real shock for her. Let us not do silly sums about the school year and utter silly talk about teachers' holidays. The evidence is that, overall, the number of hours an Irish teacher spends in contact with a pupil is among the highest in the developed world. Perhaps the school day is too long or the academic day should be shorter with more time allocated for sport and so forth.
The real issue before us is whether significantly more could have been achieved in the last ten years. Undoubtedly, the answer is "Yes". I do not dispute that a great deal is being done now. However, according to the Minister's figures, in 1997, there were 190,000 pupils in classes of more than 30; now the number is 110,000. That is a reduction but given that, as the Taoiseach said, this country achieved a level of economic growth in ten years that most countries barely managed in 30, it would have been a reasonable aspiration effectively to have got rid of that problem. It is disappointing, to put it mildly, that it still exists.
The same applies in other areas. Sometimes economists get into a tizzy about the fact that public expenditure will drive up prices. There is a limitless world supply of information technology equipment of declining price. One in five school computers, or 20%, is more than six years old. In computer terms that means they are probably using not XP or Windows 2000 but Windows 98 which cannot use half the software schoolchildren should be using. There is no reason for every computer in every primary school not being replaced, as a matter of budgetary planning, every two or three years. However, there is an unwillingness to make that financial commitment on a continuing basis. Schools should be able routinely to replace their computers every three years. It should be built into the funding of the schools and it is extraordinary that it is not.
What proportion of our primary schools still do not have access to broadband? Access to broadband is essential to make serious use of information and communications technology in a school. It is ridiculously expensive and painfully slow, if not impossible, to use them otherwise with a group of pupils.
There should not be any bad quality classrooms or school buildings in the primary school system. As soon as money became available, there should have been an aspiration to get rid of all the poor quality buildings. However, a bigger problem is arising with regard to planning. Senator Brian Hayes referred to it and it is troubling. Adamstown is the single spectacular exception and I accept that in South Dublin County Council, similar plans are being made.
Throughout the country villages on the periphery of middle-sized towns are expanding dramatically. There are huge housing estates and despite what some people in these villages think, I believe that is a great sign. Small communities are coming alive. However, there is no sign that anybody in the Department of Education and Science is planning for the inevitable fact that if 500 houses are built in, for example, Watergrasshill, within four or five years between 500 and 1,000 children will be born there. There is a certain inevitability to that which does not require elaboration.
If houses are being built, the obvious conclusion is that more or larger schools will be required. However, every September crises of such a scale arise that they are featured in the newspapers. Other crises of a smaller scale result in extra prefabs or rooms being added to schools. That is the problem with planning. I considered, more in jest than otherwise, complaining to the Advertising Standards Authority during the last census campaign. We were told that the census data were needed so we could plan for the needs of children in the future. That was the most misleading advertising I have seen in years because we do not plan. I do not believe the Department of Education and Science reads the census figures other than to see what happened a number of years ago. I do not believe there is any serious effort on the part of the Department of Education and Science to plan for the growing populations of our villages and towns.
I support the motion not because a great deal has not happened — much has improved — but because a wonderful education system and its personnel have been let down by the failure to use unprecedented wealth to rid the schools system of all its physical fabric problems. A guarantee of preschool education for all children is one of the Labour Party's commitments when it is in Government after the general election. Such a move would make an enormous difference to disadvantage.
This has been a robust and lively debate on education. The Government has prioritised education like no other in recent decades. In 1997, it took over from an Administration in which the current leaders of the two main Opposition parties had voted to freeze direct school funding and cut teacher numbers. The education system and our children were suffering the consequences of their neglect and lack of foresight. The Government set out to return education to the centre of policy, to increase investment and to improve outcomes. As the amendment to the motion sets out, we have succeeded in this.
The Government is proud to have hired thousands of extra teachers, brought class sizes to their lowest level and provided greater support for children with special needs and those from disadvantaged areas. The Government is equally proud that under the largest school building programme, thousands of existing schools have been modernised while new ones have also been built.
The improvement in outcomes is what matters most to the Government. More young people are finishing school with the creation of 45,000 extra college places and the success of targeted access initiatives. Real breakthroughs have been made in the participation of students from disadvantaged areas in third level education. At the same time, the foundations have been laid for a vibrant fourth level sector as the key to attracting greater investment. The Government is aware of the many needs which have to be addressed still, but it is proud to have provided for the most sustained increase in funding and participation.
This motion raises several issues from class sizes to reading levels, school completion rates, buildings and ICT. There were 80,000 more children in classes of more than 30 pupils when the Government came into office. The previous Administration, far from being committed to reducing class sizes, had actually voted to cut teacher numbers. Over the past ten years, a revolution has taken place in our schools, with the largest increase in teacher numbers. An extra 7,000 primary teachers have been hired. The average class size has fallen from 27 to 24 pupils. With all the extra support teachers, there is one teacher for every 17 pupils, down from one for 22 in 1997.
What signifies the major difference in class size between 1997 and today is major drop in the number of children in large classes. In the 2005-06 school year, there were 80,000 fewer children in classes of 30 or more than in 1997. Last year, the number of children in classes of 35 plus was just a fifth of the 1997 level. The improvement in the Dublin City Council area is even more dramatic. In 1997, nearly 6,000 children in Dublin city were in classes of 35 or more. By 2005-06, this had been slashed to fewer than 400 children. While there is more to be done to reduce class sizes further, the progress made in this area in recent years must be acknowledged.
In providing 4,000 extra primary teachers since 2002, the Government had to decide how best to use these posts. If all 4,000 had gone into classroom teaching, our class sizes would be much smaller. The Government, however, decided to target the majority of extra teachers at providing extra support for children with special needs and those from disadvantaged areas. It was decided to reverse the past neglect of children with special needs and to ensure they received the extra help needed to reach their full potential. More than 5,000 resource teachers and more than 6,000 special needs assistants work in our primary schools. Not only are these extra staff making an immeasurable difference to the lives of children with special needs, they are providing vital back-up for their classroom teachers.
Extra posts have also been used to ensure more than 50,000 pupils in disadvantaged areas are in classes of 15 or 20 at junior levels and 20 or 24 at senior level. It was decided to target children with special needs and those from disadvantaged areas in the first instance. Doing so has greatly improved the teaching support available to such pupils. With these areas addressed, in the current school year extra teachers were provided to reduce class sizes. The Government has already committed to providing another 800 primary schoolteachers next September, approximately 500 of whom will be classroom teachers.
The goal must be to enable each child to reach his or her full potential and to equip him or her with skills that will help him or her to live a happy and fulfilled life. Increasing the number of young people with at least upper second level education or equivalent is central to this. To this end, the Government has pursued a dual strategy of encouraging more young people to finish school and ensuring much greater second-chance and further education opportunities for those who left school early.
The National Educational Welfare Board was established to tackle absenteeism problems that lead to early school leaving. The board's budget in 2007 is €9.8 million, an increase of 20% on the 2006 allocation and of 50% on the 2004 level. It has been given approval to hire 15 extra staff in 2007. A further 25 staff are to be provided between 2008 and 2009 under Towards 2016. In addition to providing increased staffing for the board, we have also targeted a range of extra supports at young people in disadvantaged areas to encourage them to finish school. These include extra educational supports and services such as breakfast clubs. Working with parents to promote school attendance is also an important part of the work of the home-school-community liaison officers appointed to disadvantaged schools. Access to these services is being increased under the DEIS action plan.
For those who leave school without completing the leaving certificate, the available statistical evidence indicates the increasing range of further education and training opportunities available for these students is having a positive impact. Central Statistics Office, CSO, data shows that the educational profile of 20 to 24 year olds has improved steadily over the past five years as increasing opportunities have been made available in the further education and training sector. By 2005, 85.8% of 20 to 24 year olds had attained upper second level education or equivalent, up from 82.6% in 2000 and putting Ireland ahead of the EU average of 77.5%.
This real progress is reflected in the number of young people from areas such as Finglas, Ballymun and the inner city attending third level institutions, which doubled between 1998 and 2004. More needs to be done to improve school completion rates in disadvantaged areas, but under DEIS, real progress has been made in recent years.
The Private Members' motion also raises the issue of staffing for the National Educational Psychological Service and the number of schools served by the service at present. Senators will be aware that all schools have access to psychological assessments for their students, either through NEPS or through the scheme for commissioning private assessments, of which NEPS covers the cost. More than 4,000 such private assessments were funded in the 2005-06 academic year. Therefore, the number of schools served directly by NEPS is only half the picture.
Nonetheless, the Government is committed to expanding NEPS. Before we set up the service, there were only 43 psychologists in the Department of Education and Science. We have increased that level dramatically, to 127 psychologists in NEPS, with a further 16 whole-time equivalents in the Dublin city and county VEC service.
Towards 2016 provided for increases in NEPS staffing over a three-year period. The Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Hanafin, has already announced the recruitment of an extra 31 NEPS psychologists this year, to be followed by another 35 between 2008 and 2009. The Government has set out an expansion plan for NEPS that will bring the number of psychologists to 193. Taken with the 16 in the Dublin VEC service, that will bring the total complement of psychologists in the Department to 209.
Regarding demand for assessments, it should be noted that since the Government provided for a guaranteed allocation of resource teaching hours to all primary schools in 2005, the majority of primary schoolchildren have no longer needed psychological assessments to secure extra support. As well as increasing the number of educational psychologists, the Government has taken steps to reduce the need for assessments so that children can get appropriate help at the earliest possible stage.
I am pleased to advise the House that the national development plan provides for investment of €252 million in ICT in schools to give effect to a new comprehensive ICT strategy to be published this year. That strategy will aim to develop an e-learning culture in schools and ensure ICT use is embedded in teaching and learning across the curriculum. It will address teachers' professional development, the maintenance of a national broadband network for schools, technical maintenance and support requirements, and the upgrading and renewal of hardware along with the provision of software and digital content.
The new ICT strategy will build on recent investment under the ICT in schools programme in the provision of networking grants to schools and the schools broadband access programme. It will also build on the 10,000 training places provided annually by the National Council for Technology in Education to meet the specific needs of teachers in their use of ICT, including technical courses, subject-specific courses, and Internet, web design and digital media courses.
The Government accepts the need for further investment in ICT in schools, and I am pleased with the provision in the NDP in that regard. The development of strong ICT literacy in all children will be an essential life skill as they seek to participate in the opportunities of the global knowledge economy. It is imperative that schools provide opportunities for all children to develop to their full potential in that regard.
Furthermore, the integrated use of ICT in the classroom can also enhance the quality of the educational experience. It can enrich learning and teaching activities, increase pupils' motivation to learn, and facilitate new ways of learning for children with special educational needs.
We have had a very robust debate and I thank Senators for their contributions. Several other issues were mentioned, including that of school buildings, which I have not gone into, although it is in my script if Senators are interested in learning what has been achieved in that regard. Several constructive proposals have been put forward.
There is a genuine consciousness in the Department that we must undertake real school planning. In my constituency and that of Senator Fitzgerald, on the north fringe in particular, Dublin City Council is very active in planning in association and partnership with the Department of Education and Science. That is a model other local authorities might follow. School planning is central to the Department's priorities and I would not like Senators to think otherwise.
The Government has prioritised education. As our amendment to the Private Members' motion sets out, great progress has been made in a wide range of areas. While challenges remain, we are also confident that we have put the investment and policies in place to address them.
I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Haughey, my seconder, and all those Senators who have contributed to this debate. It is unfortunate that the Government has failed to address the real problems of education today. While the Minister of State says we are having a revolution in primary schools, with fewer pupils in classes of 30 or more, the sad reality is that we have more than 101,000 students in classes of 30 or more. We are at the bottom of the class size league table in the OECD report. There may be some who do not wish to hear that, but it is the sad reality for many students. We speak of planning school buildings for the future of education, but 58,000 new students will enter primary school within a few years. If we already have such class sizes, how will it be then? We have had no sign from the Government that we might possibly have adequate facilities or accommodation for them.
We heard Senators' comments in support of the Government's view on class sizes, but we are not tackling the issue, despite the fact that we have had probably the greatest opportunity under any Government in this nation's history in terms of available resources. I reiterate for Government supporters that the OECD report, A Glance at Education, published last September, shows Ireland trailing other countries when it comes to education spending relative to our economic wealth. Our per capita gross domestic product spending is lower than that in most other countries. We are 29th of 30 countries in spending terms. Some Senators on the Government side said that we had not recognised what had been done in the shape of the new teacher appointments for special needs. The record will show that I warmly welcomed that as one positive Government contribution towards alleviating difficulties.
Senator O'Toole said that we should not use the fact that we prioritised special needs as an excuse for failure in other areas. We all welcomed that initiative, but the Government had to do it because it was forced to meet special needs by legislation. It was not the case that the Government decided to prioritise it; it had no option.
Senator Minihan said that we should get things right, and I agree with him. Across the board, we must get them right. There are situations in the Department of Education and Science and the Government generally where matters are not right, and that is why people say that there are no policies.
One of the most important policy areas we will set about changing if we form the next Government is the planning section of the Department of Education and Science responsible for school buildings. That section is totally wrong. It does not function as a normal enterprise would in the real world. It proceeds at a snail's pace. The Minister herself has visited Aughrim and Ballinasloe where she witnessed the complaints personally. People have been waiting there for ten years. Coincidentally, I will raise a matter on the Adjournment later concerning a school that has been the subject of dithering for eight years about what to do with it. As long as we have such indecision we will have failure and doubt. I agree with Senator Minihan on that issue.
In 2002, we were promised that every schoolteacher would have a computer. Our party leader, Deputy Kenny, has clearly outlined the importance of IT facilities in many educational disciplines, but particularly in mathematics and science. On many occasions, the Minister has mentioned the importance of tackling both those subjects but they would have been greatly enhanced if every child had access to a computer at school. The provision of IT facilities helps the educational process enormously.
As regards the other areas that have been mentioned, it should be noted that money was never as available for supporting education as is currently the case. Senators have repeatedly pointed out that our economic boom has been built on education. At the Minister's programme launch yesterday, the need for investment in all levels of education was made quite clear to her. If we do not get it right at primary level, however, the plan will collapse and we will not have the transition from second to third level the Minister expects. Such a developing transition to tertiary education is required in order that the current economic boom can continue. That is the sad reality facing us today.
The Dail Divided:
For the motion: 27 (Eddie Bohan, Cyprian Brady, Michael Brennan, Margaret Cox, Brendan Daly, John Dardis, Geraldine Feeney, Liam Fitzgerald, Camillus Glynn, John Gerard Hanafin, Brendan Kenneally, Tony Kett, Terry Leyden, Don Lydon, Marc MacSharry, Martin Mansergh, John Minihan, Pat Moylan, Labhrás Ó Murchú, Francis O'Brien, Mary O'Rourke, Ann Ormonde, Kieran Phelan, Eamon Scanlon, Jim Walsh, Mary White, Diarmuid Wilson)
Against the motion: 15 (Paul Bradford, Fergal Browne, Paddy Burke, Ulick Burke, Paul Coghlan, Noel Coonan, Frank Feighan, Michael Finucane, Brian Hayes, David Norris, Joe O'Toole, John Paul Phelan, Shane Ross, Brendan Ryan, Sheila Terry)