Seanad debates

Tuesday, 10 February 2009

4:00 pm

Photo of Batt O'KeeffeBatt O'Keeffe (Minister, Department of Education and Science; Cork North West, Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the opportunity to contribute to this debate and, in particular, to outline the key role for education in driving Ireland's economic recovery. Our current economic challenges drive home the critical importance of investing in the protection of our future competitive advantage. As well as dealing with the current financial crisis, we must also plan for the future. We must ensure Ireland is in the best possible position to benefit from the next wave of world economic growth. In Building Ireland's Smart Economy: A Framework For Sustainable Economic Renewal, the Government has clearly set out the strategic direction and priorities for establishing Ireland as the innovation island.

One of the key objectives we want to achieve is a thriving sector of high value, research intensive, innovative Irish and multinational companies providing well paid, quality jobs for our people. Ireland has been successful in attracting such companies to locate here. We want to build on previous success and we want more Irish-owned companies to be established and see them thriving along with the multinationals.

Future competitive strength will rely on our ability to foster a culture of ideas and innovation and on our capacity to translate these into high value jobs. Education at all levels obviously plays a key role in fostering and developing the skills, such as creative and critical thinking and entrepreneurship, that people need to contribute to society and the economy and that will enable people to adapt and innovate.

We have a younger and better educated workforce than many other countries. However, we must continue to improve the standards of education available throughout the system. We need to ensure the education system continues to adapt and respond to the needs of society and the economy. We also need to ensure it responds to the needs of a wide range of individual learners. This means increasing the flexibility and diversity of provision as well as ensuring quality across the system. That is why, as well as striving for improved educational outcomes generally, we are prioritising key initiatives such as reform of the mathematics curriculum at second level with the roll-out of project maths.

One of my key priorities for the future is to ensure a focus on the quality of teaching in our classrooms. The educational outcome for the student is crucially dependent on the quality of learning within the school. In 2009, the inspectorate of my Department will continue to support schools and promote improvement through the whole school evaluation and inspection programme in primary and post-primary schools. Through its school evaluation work in the period ahead, my Department will maintain a focus on promoting best practice in school development planning and self-evaluation. This continues to be an important objective for our system and I am encouraged by the many examples of leadership in this area that are highlighted in most evaluation reports.

In a very small number of schools where serious weaknesses arise, my Department will undertake appropriate follow-through activity. My Department's administrative sections are working closely with the inspectorate to ensure schools engage with recommendations for change and are enabled to improve their leadership and the quality of education provided for students.

Numerous influential reports have highlighted that teacher quality is the single most important factor — far and above anything else — in improving outcomes in the classroom. It is vital therefore that we not only continue to attract the right people into teaching but that we provide them with the continuum of professional development opportunities they need to be effective educators. The teaching profession in Ireland is highly regarded and continues to attract from the top quartile of students, which is a key ingredient to the provision of quality education.

The Teaching Council has been given a key statutory role in ensuring the teaching profession operates to a high standard. The council is aware of the priority the Department and I attach to improvements in areas such as pre-service and induction in particular. The Department has a responsibility to ensure teachers have access to appropriate support and training. Teachers also have a responsibility to update their own knowledge and skills, and to maintain a good standard of instruction throughout their careers.

Curriculum is another important contributor to quality outcomes. There have been significant developments in recent years across the primary and post-primary sectors. As I mentioned earlier, we are prioritising the reform of the mathematics curriculum at post-primary level. Project maths is designed to encourage a greater take-up at higher level and to provide a solid foundation which prepares students for careers in the science, technology, engineering, business or humanities options. The 24 project schools started the cycle in September 2008 and will complete the final phase in 2010-11. The mainstream phasing will begin in September 2010, prefaced by a programme of professional training for teachers starting the previous year.

Project maths will be supported by intensive investment in professional development for teachers. A mathematics support team has been appointed and is supporting the project schools, as well as preparing for mainstream in-service development which will commence in September 2009. As well as the mathematics support team, teacher training in a number of areas will be prioritised in 2009, including special education related programmes, training for language support teachers and training for information and communications technology co-ordinators.

As regards school staffing and funding, my immediate priority is to sustain the existing level of service to the greatest possible extent. In terms of current expenditure for the school system, this comes down to what we can reasonably afford to spend on teachers and other support staff along with what we can provide for day-to-day running costs. This will not be easy, given that the demographics mean we will see further increases in the number of pupils in the form of continued growth at primary level. Furthermore, the pressure evident at primary level in recent years will be reflected increasingly in the numbers attending at second level as well. At primary level we have made substantial investment in providing extra teachers and special needs assistants for those with special needs. We recognise, however, that as pupils transfer to second level schools, many will continue to need support, thus creating pressure for additional teaching and SNA resources.

The Government is committed to providing targeted support for special needs and has allocated additional funding of €20 million for 2009 to continue to enhance front-line services for these children. A sum of €10 million is being provided for my Department and this will complement the additional level of supports to be delivered through the allocation of the other €10 million to the health services. This additional allocation has enabled me to provide a 33% increase for the Department's psychological service — a demand that has been ongoing from the teaching unions and the profession generally. This will provide for approximately 50 more psychologists working directly with children in our schools. This means that every school in the country will be covered by the service by the end of this year. The psychologists will also support school staff in catering for children with special needs in the school setting. Funding will also be provided for the National Council for Special Education to enhance the council's capacity to co-ordinate the provision of services at local level for children, parents and schools.

A further key plank of policy has been to target resources at educational disadvantage. We have also sought to address the language needs of newcomer children. My priority and that of my Department will be to do the best we can to balance these competing needs within the overall limits on the number of teachers and other support staff that can be provided within the resources available. We must ensure we target available resources effectively and efficiently.

While I have made improvements to the capitation grants this year, I had to cut other grants. Faced with the overall funding limits and the pressures of providing extra money in 2009 for pay and pensions, I had to make difficult decisions. I ultimately want to work to a position where the main funding instrument for schools is the capitation payment, rather than multiple grants requiring separate budgeting and accounting by the Department or schools themselves. This will allow schools to allocate funding according to their own plans and priorities.

The higher education sector has undergone massive growth and change and this has been matched by substantial increases in public investment. Funding for the sector increased to approximately €2 billion in 2008. This is an increase of 33% in the past four years and an increase of 135% since 1997. Higher education delivers important national goals in teaching and learning, research, promoting social inclusion and through provision of opportunities for life-long learning. The sector is a key element in the objectives set out in the Government's economic renewal framework.

I recently established a group to develop a national strategy for higher education. The strategy will aim to provide a vision and strategic direction for the future development of the higher education sector in contributing to Ireland's economic and social development in the 21st century. The process will provide an opportunity to review the environment for higher education and to look at the challenges and changes that are impacting on the sector as we seek to increase participation levels and access, foster innovation and develop the workforce skills needed to help Ireland remain competitive in the global knowledge economy.

Internationally, higher education institutions are grappling with the challenges of enhancing the quality of teaching and learning and responding to the needs of learners for more flexible provision. The strategy process will also examine how higher education is evolving in other countries and will seek to ensure that the Irish system ranks effectively against relevant international comparators. An examination of the overall operational, governance and resourcing framework will be important elements of the strategy review. The Government is investing unprecedented levels of public funding in higher education and in identifying future development objectives for the sector. It is also appropriate to establish the effectiveness of the use of current resources.

We also need to look critically at roles and relationships within the higher education system itself. If Ireland's full innovation potential is to be realised, we need to ensure that our higher education institutions are appropriately configured to deliver maximum impact on investment. We need to create the policies and institutional arrangements that drive Ireland up the economic value chain so that we can create quality, well-paid jobs for current and future generations.

I expect that the process of developing the strategy will be completed before the end of this year. Opportunities will be provided for all the various interest groups to express their views as part of that process.

I am also working with my ministerial colleagues on maximising upskilling and reskilling opportunities in the further and higher education sectors. Funding has already been provided through the strategic innovation fund, SIF, for upskilling projects in a number of higher education institutions. Under the SIF, priority will be given to flexible learning initiatives targeted at upskilling people in the workforce. Other initiatives are being developed to provide new upskilling opportunities on a full-time and part-time basis for people in vulnerable areas of employment or people who have become unemployed. A swift response to emerging upskilling needs is required from the education and training sectors. The current level of engagement of providers in formulating responses to that immediate challenge is very welcome. In addition, continued investment in research and development has specific, urgent importance in supporting innovation, attracting inward investment and allowing our indigenous enterprise to grow and flourish.

The programme for research in third level institutions, PRTLI, is a crucial element of our innovation strategy. The PRTLI was the first strategic investment programme in research in higher education and has laid the foundations for what we now call "fourth level" education which will underpin Ireland's ability to sustain higher quality employment opportunities in the future.

The investments made under PRTLI have transformed our higher education campuses, creating the research capacity and capability from which the future innovation capacity of the economy can grow. Some 30 new state-of-the-art research centres have been established in various disciplines. PRTLI has provided research space equivalent to four Croke Parks and has funded in excess of 1,600 postgraduate students. Through its role in both skills development and the generation of new knowledge, it has been one of the key building blocks to our recent economic success and, more importantly, to our future prosperity. Internationally, we are now seen as a credible location for world-class research.

As well as the transformation in physical infrastructure, PRTLI has also provided us with highly skilled graduates who make wider contributions to the economy and society. However, research and innovation are limited in their contribution unless we also turn a significant number of these ideas into commercialised products and services. The creation of a strong research, innovation and commercialisation ecosystem will be a crucial driver of future economic growth.

The strategy for science technology and innovation is a critical element of the roadmap for laying the foundations for economic renewal and expansion. The recently announced fifth cycle of PRTLI is an essential plank for delivering on the objectives of that strategy. The call for proposals, which has now issued under cycle 5 of the PRTLI, is an important component of our future strategy for the economy. The aim under cycle 5 will be to deliver concentrated investments that consolidate and build on the research strengths that have been developed under previous PRTLI cycles. The aim is to create national strength in key priority areas that will support Ireland's economy objectives and provide a platform for our development and for "innovation Ireland".

As the Taoiseach outlined last week, the Government is maintaining proportionately the largest capital investment programme in Europe. A significant element of this investment is in educational infrastructure, including the schools building programme. Over €640 million was spent on school building projects in 2008. I am very pleased the Government has increased my capital allocation for schools for 2009 by €75 million to €656 million, the largest allocation ever in the history of the programme.

This will provide for a significant construction programme and will see major projects under way across the country. This is in addition to the smaller capital projects that will be offered for public tender under the devolved grant schemes. As well as this, I will be making provision for a summer works scheme for 2009 thereby responding to the calls of schools throughout the country which outlined to me the outstanding value that can be gained from these small works and the opportunity for local employment.

This investment will obviously impact positively on job opportunities in the construction sector. Some economic commentators work to the principle that every €255,000 of investment in construction activity is likely to generate a single job. Applying this theory to my overall capital allocation indicates that it will support significant employment in the construction sector this year. As well as providing employment in the construction sector, I anticipate that greater competitiveness within the sector will provide much better value for money, enabling us to get maximum benefit from this increased investment.

While there has been a reduction of €56 million, mainly to the higher education capital allocation, the remaining budget of more than €227 million is still significant and given the value to be obtained from tendering for building projects at the moment, I am confident we will still achieve a substantial programme of works in our universities and institutes of technology this year. Aside from the immediate economic benefits of supporting construction sector activity, these investments in quality education facilities are an essential foundation for our development ambitions as an advanced knowledge society.

The overall priority for me as a member of Government, is to secure Ireland's future at a time of a global economic downturn. The work of my Department cannot be looked at in isolation from the economic realities facing this country. The Government has set out a clear strategy for dealing with the current economic difficulties and for ensuring Ireland is well positioned to benefit from a global economic upturn. Education is and must be central to this strategy. Future jobs, investment and the strength of the Irish economy now depend on the quality of our educated workforce and on our capacity for research and innovation. I will be working with the education partners to ensure we deliver the best possible outcomes for all our learners and that the education system at all levels continues to adapt to meet the needs of society and the economy.

We are faced with many challenges in this task. The current economic situation sets a difficult framework for both the public and private sectors. The challenge for all of us working in education is to find innovative ways to deliver better outcomes with the resources available to us. We must think outside the box and strive to create new opportunities. In doing so, we will be well positioned to enable our country to take full advantage when the economic situation improves.

Photo of Fidelma Healy EamesFidelma Healy Eames (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister to the House. It took us four months to get him back here.

Photo of Batt O'KeeffeBatt O'Keeffe (Minister, Department of Education and Science; Cork North West, Fianna Fail)
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I am a busy man.

Photo of Fidelma Healy EamesFidelma Healy Eames (Fine Gael)
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Absolutely.

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Fine Gael)
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He was afraid to come in.

Photo of Batt O'KeeffeBatt O'Keeffe (Minister, Department of Education and Science; Cork North West, Fianna Fail)
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I am absolutely delighted to have this opportunity.

Photo of Fidelma Healy EamesFidelma Healy Eames (Fine Gael)
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Good. I was fortunate to meet the Minister in committee in the meantime. The Minister contextualised his speech in preparing for the future and being ready for the economic upturn. This has much merit. However, let us not risk the current tranche of students going through the system. It would not be at all fair to them and what we risk are the lives and education of children and the second and third level students in the system at present.

Where does Ireland stand at present? The Minister is familiar with the programme for international student achievement, PISA, 2006. It showed that with regard to maths and science, Ireland is mediocre and needs attention with 5,000 students failing foundation level maths last year. I notice the Minister makes much mention of project maths. We look forward to this but I would ask whether it will answer all of the Minister's questions with regard to maths because it will start at second level. We had huge literacy problems in the past and we went some way towards solving them by intervening much earlier. I know from practice and from speaking with teachers that problems with maths occur when children are five, six or seven years old. While I commend the Minister on project maths if it is good, he needs to focus on maths problems much earlier at primary level.

Photo of Batt O'KeeffeBatt O'Keeffe (Minister, Department of Education and Science; Cork North West, Fianna Fail)
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We have changed the curriculum for maths at primary level and it has been an outstanding success.

Photo of Fidelma Healy EamesFidelma Healy Eames (Fine Gael)
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I am familiar with that but I am discussing children who need learning support in maths. Considerably fewer children receive learning support in maths compared to reading. We are not doing enough with regard to higher level maths. As the Minister knows, Google had to go abroad to hire 20 high level mathematicians and computer science experts. The Minister mentioned he is focusing on fourth level but no fourth level was available for Google and this was an incredible opportunity for the country to have missed.

The PISA report shows we are above average in reading but we are way behind the top countries such as Finland and Singapore. One of the reasons we are improving in literacy is because 20% of children in first class receive learning support in reading unlike in maths and this is my point. In 2000, 10% of children left national school without being able to read and we then had a reading initiative. It built gradually to obtain the gains we see today and I ask the Minister not to lose this.

Consider the facts. A total of 18% of children, or one in every six, drops out prior to the leaving certificate. This is not good. This is not only about underachievement. I am happy to state that the Oireachtas has supported me in conducting a study on underachievement at second level. This is under way at present and an expert committee has been convened. The results will emerge during the year. I am sure the Minister and every speaker in the House will agree that for one in every six of our children to drop out prior to the leaving certificate is an incredible indictment of us as a nation and an indictment of our education system. This must be addressed.

We have a lack of emphasis on learning how to learn in our secondary schools and this is why we have such a huge emphasis on the grind system. Every teacher needs to show a child how to learn their subject and how to become learners so they do not rely on rote and have these skills.

Clearly, there is a lack of adequate career guidance. Last week, Dáil na nÓg presented to the Joint Committee on Education and Science. One of its main recommendations was an increase in career guidance. I see it in children in first year who are full of the joys of life but by the time they come to doing the junior certificate they are disappointed because they did not have career guidance to guide them with regard to their choices. Many students in junior certificate state to me that if only they knew the subjects on which they should have focused in their career interest they would have put more work in to them.

We are losing opportunities with regard to career guidance. I know the Minister may have to leave the House and I call on him to follow on the recommendations of the association representing those in career guidance of having one career guidance teacher per 350 students. This would be a fairly decent ratio. At present, it is approximately 1:400 so this is not too much to ask. A total of 30% of our college students drop out in first year. The poor choices they make at second level are a contributory factor and this is as a result of a lack of adequate career guidance.

The Minister presented a really good story on the need for us to become "innovation island" and I support him on this. However, if the Minister wants to make a difference with regard to innovation in this country, he should consider the problem with regard to subject options in first year and after junior certificate. In first year, children have come from primary education full of the joys of spring and dying to hit secondary school but cannot choose the subjects they want because they are pitted against each other on the timetable. For example, a child with creative strengths may wish to do art and technical graphics but cannot do so because they are against one another. However, these are the skills they will need if they want to continue to study architecture or graphic design. It would mean more teachers but it would lead to better gains in the long run and it is well worth considering. I see it as a great investment.

I considered what is fundamental to a good education and the first item is the relationship between pupil and teacher, student and lecturer and school and home. Clearly, that is not being prioritised by the Minister.

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Devins. The real Minister, Deputy Batt O'Keeffe, is absent. The Minister will be remembered as Minister Batt, the buildings-before-people Minister. It may have been time to prioritise buildings but I would certainly not prioritise them over the relationship between the pupil and teacher.

All Members will attest to the difference certain teachers made to them because of the unique relationship that existed between them. The increase in the pupil-teacher ratio will have a negative effect. There are 1,000 classes with more than 30 pupils and some have more than 40. This is unbelievable and really difficult to cope with. I taught in such circumstances and it was not easy. No teacher can be accountable for the learning of the children if there is a pupil-teacher ratio of 1:35.

Consider the capping of the number of English language support teachers. If relationships are crucial, I do not know how the affected children will survive in the mainstream classroom. The withdrawal of supervision is also a factor. Many children at risk of dropping out of second level build relationships with their teachers through games and extra-curricular activities. By withdrawing supervision and substitution teachers, the Minister is cutting out the key relationship builders.

The home-school liaison teacher has a fundamental role in building relationships between the school and the home. I understand 59 home-school liaison posts are to be lost at primary level. How will the schools in question manage? The teachers kept children at school who were at risk of dropping out.

The second fundamental aspect of a good education involves competent teachers with professional standards. By and large, we have invested in our teachers at entry level only. In Finland, which is at the top of the OECD table in terms of education, 95% of the teachers have attained qualifications at Masters level and above, including doctorate level. In Ireland, the number of teachers with qualifications of this level can be counted in single digits — there is no comparison.

We have done well in respect of the education of teachers in the area of learning support but we have completely failed in respect of teaching English as a foreign language. In many schools I have visited, 26 languages, or 26 nations, are represented. A teacher emerging from college without specific training in this area cannot deal with this and needs help.

The use of unqualified staff in classrooms is deplorable. Qualified staff are being let go at the other end due to the increase in the pupil-teacher ratio. The cutting of supervision and substitution staff without providing trained alternative staff is unacceptable. It demoralises the teacher who believes in professional standards. That is the fundamental issue and high expectations for our students are critical if they are to achieve success. This is a function of high morale among teachers as much as anything else.

Another fundamental aspect of good education is support for difference and difficulty. That is absent in the Minister's thinking given the move to cut the number of English language support teachers and the cutting of 59 home-school liaison teachers in non-DEIS schools. The Government has forgotten that disadvantage still exists at individual level in what one might call advantaged areas. One of the key ways of tracking this is to track the families with medical cards. The Minister of State, given his having been engaged in medical practice, knows who they are and that families with medical cards can be living in well-off areas. Their children are in the schools that are now losing the home-school liaison teachers and the book grant. The effect on learning support will be considerable. I was glad to hear the Minister state he is investing €20 million in this area but that is only a drop in the ocean compared to what will be required to meet the needs that will arise if he reduces the number of teachers at mainstream level.

With regard to the loss of the book grant, second level textbooks for one of my children cost me €500 this year. How can those families at risk of poverty with children in non-DEIS schools, who are now losing the grant, survive? Considerable pressure is being placed on the schools to provide books. A crisis has arisen over capitation and the underfunding of education.

Speech therapy should be school based because children who leave the school environment to go to a HSE facility for speech therapy are losing out on very important teacher contact time. Without the speech therapy, their speech problems come between them and their learning.

The provision of learning opportunities and addressing change are critical to a good education. The Government has cut IT funding. Last August it cut €250 million from the allocation in the national development plan. I visited schools in disadvantaged areas in the United Kingdom and noted there was one computer for 1.8 children; here there is one computer for 20 children and many of them are obsolete. There is no way our children will be able to compete.

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Fine Gael)
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Hear, hear.

Photo of Fidelma Healy EamesFidelma Healy Eames (Fine Gael)
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The Minister just stated he is preparing children for the future. The lack of investment in IT is a national disgrace. The Minister is talking a lot of gobbledegook if he does not invest at primary level.

The transition year grant has been abolished. Last week I visited the Presentation College in Galway and its staff spoke about the likely abolition of transition year because it can no longer be funded. Does the Minister of State, Deputy Devins, know the transition year grant is abolished? A range of subject support grants, such as that for home economics, has been affected.

Substitution and supervision are fundamental to learning opportunities. I encountered a group of 15 students in student councils in Galway who had to cancel a trip to Dáil na nÓg last week because their school had not got enough money to provide the necessary substitution and supervision. Schools are now cancelling trips to career fairs and trips abroad. These comprise an area of experiential learning that benefits all pupils, including those who do not often have a very good experience of school.

The next fundamental aspect of a good education is the focus on learning outcomes. Let me say something that might be regarded as controversial: I really believe we should be rewarding performance based on improvements so all schools and teachers can be rewarded. One should take measurements when children enter a school to form a baseline and reward the school or the teachers on the progress of those children. This is the essence of real benchmarking but it was missed completely by the Government.

I question the effectiveness of home-school evaluation. Some inspectors are expressing dissatisfaction with the system. We have yet to see delivery from the teaching council. We must learn the lessons of PISA and invest in maths, science and computer science. I am concerned that the Minister believes project maths will answer all our concerns. We should consider reading and literacy and not touch resources in this area. We must invest further in career guidance, as I recommended earlier.

An interesting item of information emerging from research on children who drop out of the education system early is that the most critical preventive factor is a supportive home environment. We do not really invest in the home environment, we are now deciding to cut the number of teachers. Child poverty is a major factor and 76,000 children are suffering therefrom. There is to be a motion on this in the House tomorrow evening. Child poverty is a major factor affecting drop-out levels. One needs to target initiatives across the country and not just rely on local actions. I note Barnardos has just introduced a really good initiative in Cork and that is good for Cork, but one must ask about the rest of the country.

Consider the reintroduction of third level fees and the increase in the registration fee. The latter was really a way of introducing fees by the back door. The Government is threatening the future of the nation and the future of the current tranche of children at second level by reintroducing fees. It will end up putting many of these children on the dole queues. Yesterday I spent two hours talking to people at the dole queue in Galway and discovered that some were graduates looking for opportunities. There are 40% more students in college now than there was as a result of the abolition of fees by the Fine Gael-Labour Government and there are 33% more from lower socio-economic groups. Given the risk, the Government should bear in mind its responsibility when deciding to reintroduce fees. Individual needs will not be met nor will future skill needs. The Department of Education and Science indicated its goal is that 70% of second level students would attend third level by 2020. We are now at approximately 52%, so we are a good way off the target. How will the Department achieve that goal if fees are reintroduced? The Department needs to explore the options around third level and higher education funding far more broadly than just one shot at returning fees.

It is important to use resources differently. The Department should not hit the quality of pupil-teacher time. It should invest in teachers to achieve more, reward increases in learning outcomes and upskill special needs assistants so they can become teaching assistants to assist with supervision. The Minister should support the home also because the greatest gains are to be made there and he should invest in early intervention and career guidance.

Photo of Cecilia KeaveneyCecilia Keaveney (Fianna Fail)
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I was interested to hear the Minister talk so much about maths. I was wondering when is 15 minutes, 15 minutes?

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Fine Gael)
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In Donegal it is no minutes.

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Fine Gael)
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There was not much injury time.

Photo of Cecilia KeaveneyCecilia Keaveney (Fianna Fail)
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I suppose we will all get the same injury time.

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Fine Gael)
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Senator Keaveney should be interested in the quality of the speeches not the time. The Senator could have learned from Senator Healy Eames.

Photo of Cecilia KeaveneyCecilia Keaveney (Fianna Fail)
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I am only going on past performance.

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Fine Gael)
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She is a fine spokesperson on education.

Photo of Cecilia KeaveneyCecilia Keaveney (Fianna Fail)
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I did not interrupt anyone and I do not want to lose my time now.

Photo of Fidelma Healy EamesFidelma Healy Eames (Fine Gael)
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Senator Keaveney is talking rubbish.

Photo of Ann OrmondeAnn Ormonde (Fianna Fail)
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Here we go again.

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Fine Gael)
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Senator Keaveney should be allowed to speak without interruption.

Photo of Cecilia KeaveneyCecilia Keaveney (Fianna Fail)
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I went to school when I was three and I left education at 27. I am a product of the education system of the 1970s and 1980s. I came out with a BMus, a PgC, an MPhil and an LTCL and then I landed here. There are many questions to be asked in that regard. I went through a good education system but I can point to the faults, some of which I will outline. Some things have not changed since I went to school, which is one of the core issues we need to address. Given the advances in technology, science and how people approach life, if the education system is the same now as when I was going through school, surely we all need to learn lessons.

It would be much easier for me to read off a tranche of statistics to prove we are doing more than we ever did before, but I do not wish to go down that route. Today's debate is not focused on one particular element of education, it is about education across the board. We need openness across the board. Too often within departmental structures there is no such thing as crossing over. When do we ever talk about primary and secondary education in the one breath, or do we ever talk about secondary education and universities in the same breath? God forbid that teacher trainers would ever see real live secondary schools other than during the six weeks of placement or whatever the system ordains. Those are the fundamentals with which we must engage. In the context of education we must begin at departmental policy level and work our way back down.

I had great fun when I was first elected to the Dáil. I spent weeks following Niamh Breathnach, then Minister for Education and Science, to ask parliamentary questions about remedial teachers. No matter what way I asked the questions there were statistics, damned lies and statistics, and they could be presented whatever way the Minister wanted. Fundamentally, the only extra support in a school was a remedial teacher. There may have been one teacher between five schools. Significant changes have been made in that regard. Senator Healy Eames suggested there was no link with homes but a home-school liaison programme is in place. Many extra resources are in place. The Minister announced the appointment of 50 extra psychologists and there is the National Council for Special Education — I will return to that issue. The intention is to integrate students and parents in the school experience not to have separate identities that are mutually exclusive.

I studied music through my entire educational career. I tortured the Minister of State, Deputy Devins, about music therapy and the role of music therapy as a therapeutic intervention for people with special educational needs. I believe that because I studied music I have the confidence to stand in this Chamber and talk to the House today. Music gave me an important range of skills to engage with people in a classroom situation and outside it in the broadest sense, yet when one mentions the arts in education it is frowned upon, laughed at and put to one side with the comment that we will do that another time when we can afford it. The Minister referred over and over to maths and how it was core. However, I challenge all the experts in the Department of Education and Science to look at the evidence in terms of those who study music who go on to become engineers and the research that has been done all over the world on how music is fundamental to rhythmic and co-ordination development and the whole development of the child, which is crucially important for reading and writing when children go to school.

I start at that point. That is one of my big gripes. While I understand that universities are important and that we need to develop fourth level education I wonder at a time of global financial and economic crisis when there is a call to stop and look forward, whether that should be the approach we take. I accept the argument about children who are currently in the system but if we are to examine education fundamentally — I accept there needs to be a major overhaul — surely we should not be looking at two or five years time but ten, 15 and 20 years time. We need to start with children up to the age of six.

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Fine Gael)
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Hear, hear.

Photo of Cecilia KeaveneyCecilia Keaveney (Fianna Fail)
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If we do not start with children from the beginning then there is no point in doing all the remedial work when they get to primary school.

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Fine Gael)
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Hear, hear.

Photo of Cecilia KeaveneyCecilia Keaveney (Fianna Fail)
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That is the kernel of one of the issues. It is great being in opposition. I was in opposition the first year that I was elected and I had a field day. I could fire out all the ideas about what I wanted to do without doing the costing. There is a battle between fourth level versus pre-school, second level versus primary, and VEC schools versus community schools. There are real issues. I accept there is a finite budget. However, if we are looking at the overall structure and where we are going, children up to the age of six must be core to that.

I welcome the fact the school building programme is ongoing because it is important. I declare my interest in that a primary school is currently being built in my home town of Moville and there is one in Clonmany. The construction industry is getting a boost from that, which is an incidental benefit because the building programme is important in itself. I am pleased the Minister made the point about the continuation of the summer works scheme and the devolved grants scheme.

Deputy Quinn had a bit of a go at prefabs recently. He made it look as if everybody was in some kind of prehistoric land in prefabs. There are expensive prefabs in Moville community college for the past seven or eight years and they are excellent. They are of high quality. It is dishonest to say they are not. However, I can see the other side of the equation. Our heating bill and lighting bill, especially the former, is much more expensive because we have two heating systems, one for the half of the school that is in prefabs and one for the other half of the school that is in the main building.

I urge the officials in the Department of Education and Science to consider the success they had when they went against their instinct and agreed with me and two or three Ministers to let the second phase of Moville community college go straight to bricks and mortar. We promised we would not go over budget or over time and we delivered. That second phase is more economic than the prefabs. Had we been allowed to do the two phases as one building we would have a much more economical building to heat, light and maintain. There are economies of scale. The right decision was made.

I do not accept the criticism of putting buildings before people. We are not doing that; we are addressing all the issues. This is the right time to invest money in buildings and if people think it is the wrong time they should say that rather than speaking out of both sides of their mouth. Labour costs are coming down. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the cost of blocklaying has come down from €2.10 a block a couple of years ago to €1.10 currently. Prices are coming down and therefore we are getting better value for money. This is the right time to invest money in buildings.

The focus must be kept on educators and educatees. Primary school is a child's first formal encounter with the education system and it is all about exploring the sand, discovering the different textures and exploring books and colours. The curriculum and teaching styles have changed to focus on the development of inquiring, creative minds, which is what we want. Even within the primary school sector, teachers are not confident in their Irish and, therefore, some children leave who are very fluent in Irish while others have virtually no ability. The structure of primary school teaching must be examined and perhaps the unions should be consulted. For example, if I am a musician and I have a primary school class, surely I should be able to take Senator Buttimer's class for music one day a week while he takes my class for history, geography, art or whichever subject in which he has an expertise. That might also be healthy for the children. That would not cost anything because we are teaching in the school anyway but agreement is needed between teachers and unions to take off the hat to allow children to gain from their expertise. They should not hide behind their lack of Irish by not letting on to anyone that is the case. If they are useless at music, their instinct is to not let on to the children that is the case and they do not teach the subject. There is scope for flexibility.

I agree with the Minister about giving schools flexibility regarding grants and they should decide what they want to do with them. Primary school teachers come to my clinics in the context of the cutbacks saying they have a lot of money for one venture but not for another, when the latter is the more important one and if they were able to use the money for it rather than the other venture, everybody would be happy. The Minister is totally correct about flexibility regarding grants. The grant should be embracing and the amount should not be less than that provided currently. It should be accepted resources will not be cut but things will change around with students having the right to go one way or the other.

I welcome that the special needs assistant issue in Inishowen was taken on board. A review was granted and while the number of SNAs was not maintained, it was not reduced significantly. I acknowledge the role of the National Council for Special Education in this regard. I hope it will do what it says, which is to work with us on a vision for special needs education. Perhaps the council is correct that we are engaged in a firefighting exercise by keeping people contained but in my area, we are well ahead in special needs education. However, we need the support and recognition the NCSE, which is the guardian angel, should provide.

Pupils move from the exploring life of primary school to second level and unless they have a good and enthusiastic teacher, they end up in class reading their books and regurgitating them in examinations to secure the necessary results. A mechanism must be provided to enhance a child's imagination, life skills and spirit of entrepreneurship, something we want to instill in him or her before he or she leaves the education system. We want people who are imaginative and creative. While the arts have a role in this regard, we are not fulfilling that capacity.

When students reach third level, they are encouraged to be creative again. They are told the location of the library and given a list of books, excerpts of which they must know. If they get through that, they obtain a degree. That is blasé but I do not have sufficient time to elaborate on it. Why does a child go from being creative and analytical at primary school and absorbing all the colours to being so at third level without being given the same opportunities at second level? There is not a consistent path. There should be a link between the teachers and those charged with teacher training. Teacher training should have two elements. One should be strictly about the subject while the other should be strictly about how to teach. Practising teachers should outline to those teaching in the training colleges what life is like in the classroom and what methodologies work. When I was training, those who taught me had not been in a classroom for 25 years. A strong link is needed between second level schools and third level colleges in order that they can exchange information to improve teaching methods and ideas.

I wrote a report on how to teach history in areas of recent conflict. Projects are under way throughout the world through The Image of the Other portal and these will come before the Council of Europe in the next year or two. The Department of Education and Science should examine this work closely because the concept of looking at issues using a multi-perspectivity approach is feeding into leaving certificate history but it is not being felt at junior certificate level. If the curriculum is too wide and students are only trying to complete it, they will lose much of the exploration and discovery aspects we are trying to create because our goal should be to produce rounded adults equipped for the world now and in the future and not for in the past. That is our challenge, which is not easy.

5:00 pm

Photo of Rónán MullenRónán Mullen (Independent)
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I wish to share time with Senator Quinn. I welcome the Minister of State. The contribution by the Minister for Education and Science was interesting. I compliment his speech writer as I was taken by the statement: "The creation of a strong research, innovation and commercialisation ecosystem will be a crucial driver of future economic growth." That is a good example of green thinking in the Department and I commend the Minister. He said more than €640 million was spent on schools building projects in 2008 and he is pleased "the Government has increased [his] capital allocation for schools for 2009 by €75 million to a total of €656 million". Perhaps I misunderstood something but those figures do not add up and I would welcome clarification on that.

I welcome his comments on the increased allocation to special needs education and the recruitment of 50 additional psychologists. He also mentioned that every €255,000 invested in construction activity will generate a job and, on that measurement, he expects significant employment in the construction sector. Does he anticipate an increase in employment in the sector of approximately 2,500 jobs? Does he have specifics on that given he supplied the House with specifics on psychologists?

Every debate in the House at the moment relates to the economy, which is understandable. Most reasonable people accept the principle of the necessity for severe adjustments and, as I said on the Order of Business, people will feel a sense of injustice on occasion, which is unavoidable because they will be put in a position where they will have to worry about how to make ends meet. We are facing an uncertain future and we all accept a great deal of pain will go around. I am reassured, however, by the continuation of significant capital investment in our schools system as that is vital for the future. None the less, it would be wrong not to reflect on the fact that the cuts made in the budget last October are still live issues and their impact is being felt currently.

The most vulnerable in our society are probably most exposed to the risk for a number of reasons. First, the budget cuts have resulted in a substantial curtailment of both co-curricular and extracurricular activities offered by schools. This has a long-term impact for the broader educational experience of students at second level in particular. The difficulties experienced as a result of the substitution cuts are increasing pressure further.

The new staffing schedules are due to be sent out in the coming days which will detail the reduced staff numbers available to each school. This will have a significant and detrimental impact on the curriculum being offered, for example in the leaving certificate applied programme, which was particularly effective in retaining students at high risk of leaving the education system as it provided for a more vocational type of education. Schools have been striving to maximise education of these students and with the cuts they will become more vulnerable.

Senator Healy Eames mentioned the abolition of the book grant, which will have major ramifications, especially for families attempting to fund a student moving from the junior certificate cycle into the senior cycle. The outlay for books alone can be in the region of €350. Senator Healy Eames quoted an even higher figure in one case she had come across. Considering that this scheme was costing the Government only €7.5 million, its continuation could mean the retention of students who may otherwise drop out of school due to familial financial pressures. Those students may subsequently become dependent on the State at a later point. Even if half of this funding was continued it could at least fund those in most need of books for school. It is often those who are least able to articulate their needs who benefit most from such schemes which can be offered to needy families by schools.

The overall cuts have a knock-on effect for stand-alone schools, for example voluntary schools, that will be limited in the curricular choices they will be able to offer those who choose to send their children to such schools. The viability of these schools will be brought into question and may force closures for some smaller schools in, for instance, rural areas.

In the past I spoke in the House of the need to increase the number of IT advisers. Last year I called for a tripling of the investment in information and communications technology in schools to bring us up to OECD standards. I do not need to rehearse here the importance of information technology for us if we are to maintain the cutting edge in the global economy of the future. Last June the IT advisers of the 21 education centres around the country had their posts terminated by the Department of Education and Science. These advisers, working under the schools information technology implementation programme, were highly valued by the schools to which they were assigned. They provided IT support and advice for e-learning and the use of ICT generally in the classroom.

Interestingly, these positions were terminated on Friday, 20 June 2008 — a significant date — and the education centres appear to have had no further information on the potential reinstating of these roles or any other relevant information. I remember talking to one of the people closely involved at the time who felt very aggrieved at the timing of the announcement at the end of the school year when teachers would be least in a position to have their voices heard on the issue. Even at an in-service training session they had attended a number of days earlier they had not been given wind of this change. Is this a case of the Department playing PR with such people by timing the announcement so that it is least conducive to people making their voices heard? Given that it involved laying off people, I would be very worried if that were the case.

Schools have been left in a very vulnerable position in terms of incorporating information and communications technology tools into everyday implementation of the curriculum. The advisers performed a pivotal role in aiding teachers to choose and use the appropriate resources for IT. This gap is now being filled by companies who are selling ICT-based products and therefore may be based on commercial and not educationally sound information. The marketing and obtaining of such products may be so based.

We are all aware that the speed of technology change is rapid and that to be at the cutting edge of these advances, the skills being developed in schools must match our advancement in research and development in this area. We were once considered to be the software specialists of Europe and short-term measures such as the termination of the IT advisers will have long-term educational effects and will make it harder for future graduates to compete in the IT driven marketplace.

I wish to mention the issue of transparency and the speed of decision making on schools. Senator Healy Eames and I are former pupils of Holy Rosary College in Mountbellew. We both brought up the need for an extension in that school to double its size and include sports facilities. It was approved in 2001. This is an excellent school in a rural area that provides quality holistic education not just in academic standards but also in the rounded development of the student of which Senator Keaveney spoke. It is remarkable that as far back as 2005 this was marked as a priority extension. In 2007 the school was advised that the Department was anxious to proceed, yet it is still stuck at stage 3 and has not been advised that it will get approval to seek planning permission. It is anxious to move on and go to tender.

One wonders what is happening. Certainly some queries were raised with the school. However, they were technical and minor in nature, and were answered. One wonders whether there is a tendency to keep things bogged down in the system so that they do not come to the front of the house for dispatch as soon as they ought to. It cannot be good to delay quality education. Considering the care the teachers in that school have for their students, the support the school enjoys in the locality and that there are no grounds for the delay, one wonders what is happening.

I recently came across a school in Dublin city centre, which wants to expand. It wants to apply to the Department to knock down two existing schools and build a new school in that area. A religious order that owns a school, which has been closed, has offered the use of that school as an interim measure while the new primary school is being built. Does the Department have an ear for such opportunities? Presumably that religious order will want to sell on that property. Will the Department hear with urgency that it can make a saving by making a prompt decision or will the school be forced to go through a long waiting process, possibly resulting in the loss of the advantage to the State and the school?

I stress the importance of education to the economy, as mentioned by the Minister. We must also remember the need to educate our children for values. It is important to support the work of developing school children in a holistic sense — spiritual as well as academic and social — so that in these challenging times our students may become as rounded as they can be in the future.

Photo of Feargal QuinnFeargal Quinn (Independent)
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I thank Senator Mullen for allowing me time to say a few words. The Minister's speech is well worthwhile in spreading as widely as possible his intentions. A few years ago I had the opportunity to speak in South America about the Irish success story. We look back on it now as the good years. One of the books I read was a book about the success of the Celtic tiger written by two people with connections to this House, Senator Mary White's husband, Padraic, and Senator Marc MacSharry's father, Ray. The book listed what happened and how it succeeded. By far the most important reason given was our decision to concentrate on and pump money into education over the years in the bad times. With the current financial crisis we have some big decisions to make. Taking the long-term approach, we need to ensure that we again recognise that we need to pump money into education. I know there will be cuts and it will not be easy to do, but it is something we must continue to do.

Science, maths and technology will be of the utmost importance if we are to succeed in the coming years. I am pleased to hear the Minister say that we need to continue to concentrate on those areas. We really must pursue project maths at second level.

At primary level there seems to be a reduction in standards of handwriting. We need to remind people to work on that. Perhaps they are all texting now and do not feel the same need to do it. I recently mentioned that I have grandchildren being educated in France. The amount of attention and time they devote to handwriting for young children is very important.

I am pleased to hear what the Minister has said about higher education. I am involved in the university in which Senator Mullen is involved, NUIG. I am an adjunct professor there and I find it very interesting to go down there. Let us ensure we continue to concentrate on those universities. We sometimes take our eye off the ball when we see the amount of work that can be done there, particularly in the areas of technology and innovation.

For five years I was chairman of the committee of the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment which introduced the leaving certificate applied programme. I am a huge believer in the leaving certificate applied course as having the potential to bring into a school class people who would otherwise have been regarded as failures. I hope I am not mistaken but there seems to be a drop-off in the Department's interest in the leaving certificate applied programme. It measures the talents, abilities and intelligence that are not necessarily recognised in the traditional leaving certificate programme. I saw 16 to 18 year old students grow in front of my eyes, so to speak. These youngsters had been told they were failures because they were not very bright at the things that were being measured in the traditional leaving certificate programme such as a person's ability to remember facts and figures and put them down on paper in a three-hour examination after two years of study. The leaving certificate applied programme instead works on continual assessment and measures other abilities and intelligence.

The ability to communicate in writing is important but nearly as important going through life is the ability to communicate in spoken terms. I could see youngsters who at the ages of five, ten or 15 were regarded as failures because they were not very bright at reading and writing, yet when released from those controls, could speak and debate. I must have visited 50 or 60 schools in those years. Youngsters who had been regarded as failures suddenly gained in confidence and in self-belief and therefore were able to achieve much more. They could stand up and speak and communicate. This had never been measured before and is just one example of what can be achieved.

I refer to a report issued last month by the Children's Rights Alliance which highlighted the underfunding of the country's education system in a number of different areas. However, it must be pointed out that the data in the report were gathered before the budget of 2009 was announced and there have been massive cuts since this report was published. Post-primary schools still await their budget allocations for next term from the Department of Education and Science. In addition, schools have still not been told by the Government how many teachers they are to be allocated this year.

The words we heard today from the Minister are the right words. We must lend our support but we must put the recognition of the importance of education high on the agenda.

Photo of Ann OrmondeAnn Ormonde (Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I was pleased to listen to the Minister's contribution in which he set out his strategy and the role of education in driving the economy forward.

I will refer to some of the points made by the Minister. He said we must ensure Ireland is in the best possible position to benefit from the next wave of world economic growth. He covered areas of curriculum reform, which I welcome. He referred in particular to reform of the mathematics curriculum and how we can best prepare for the knowledge economy. One of the key areas will be the project maths programme which will reform the mathematics curriculum so that it will cope with the economy of the future.

He also referred to the quality of teaching, curriculum reform, school staffing and the quality of the teachers. He referred to the increase in the number of psychologists in the psychological service which will enable the service to deal with the problems in society due to the downturn. Many families with young children at school will face unemployment and the children will bear the impact. It is important to support the psychological service and the guidance counsellors in schools so that they can deal with the problems resulting from the downturn in the economy.

The Minister does not want education to work in isolation but rather to work in the context of the overall economy. This is his strategy and I welcome all those points. However, I would need two hours' speaking time to cover every aspect so I will concentrate on the area where there is a crisis — those who have been made redundant or are on short-time working. We must prepare courses with this group in mind. The vocational education committees and post-leaving certificate courses must be prepared to meet the new demands. The institutes of technology are also well placed to deal with that challenge. If we are to embrace a new concept of dealing with the modern knowledge economy or the information-based economy, we must revisit the Qualifications (Education and Training) Act 1999. We need to revisit FETAC and HETAC. These two bodies were set up in a time when we had a roaring economy, but it is time to tweak these bodies so they can facilitate people to go back into the workforce.

The framework for bringing people back into education and training was set up in 2001 and 2002. There is a plethora of organisations providing education and training. The list includes FÁS, Teagasc, Fáilte Ireland, the VECs, the institutes of technology, professional bodies, training companies and the bodies that train employees. In the middle of this are the employers who need clarity as to the meaning of the different qualifications. We must facilitate employees who wish to improve their qualifications and skills. We must revisit that area as a matter of urgency as it will help the transition back to the workplace.

We must examine existing qualifications and the relationship between universities and the institutes of technology. These institutes are well placed to address the upskilling necessary for the recovery of the economy as they have specialised expertise, the facilities, equipment and support services. Greater efficiencies are required. I refer to the OECD report of 2004 which recommended that the universities and the institutes of technology work more closely together. In many cases they offer similar courses and there is poor utilisation of teaching and capital resources. Co-operation is required in the area of science and engineering. Large expensive machinery and laboratories are not being optimally utilised. The universities and institutes are reluctant to share research and each treasures its own department. Joined-up thinking is needed.

I was pleased that the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Deputy Mary Coughlan, set up the Limerick group to deal with the Dell problem. This task force is to work with the unemployed and in conjunction with the university and the institutes of technology in the surrounding area. This is a concept which should be adopted throughout the country. Our strengths should be co-ordinated to facilitate the transition back to education in any of its forms.

The eligibility criteria for further and higher education need to be examined and the expansion of part-time further and higher education must be considered. There must be change in this area in light of the downturn in the economy. We must help the young and not so young, who are vulnerable at this time, back into education, upskilling or reskilling. There is much confusion about not being able to access opportunities in colleges and VECs. VECs are some of the best education bodies to deal with communities. They know the local economic scene and are very much in touch with local industries. While some may argue this is a parochial approach, it is one of the few ways to tackle this crisis. The transition from work to study needs to be streamlined. VECs, industry and training bodies, such as Teagasc and FÁS, must co-ordinate training programmes and avoid duplication.

I want Waterford Institute of Technology to be designated a university. Education contributes to prosperity and the south east requires strong economic regeneration. It must move from a traditional agriculture-based economy to a knowledge-based one. The Minister referred to this as the fourth level of education. Waterford Institute of Technology is in a position to move into that category. Designating it as a university will give status to Waterford and a new sense of pride to the south east.

I know the Minister is considering overhauls in the areas I have outlined. His fine speech gave all Members much to debate. With him in office, we will get the education system back on track and be ready when the upturn comes in the global economy.

Photo of Brendan RyanBrendan Ryan (Labour)
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These are difficult economic times in which we must prioritise spending and make hard decisions, where appropriate, to get the public finances in order and kick-start the economy. However, education spending must be ring-fenced. We must hold our nerve and understand it will be our well-educated young population who will lift us out of recession when the economic cycle begins to rise again, as it inevitably will.

The changes announced in the budget on class sizes were a mistake; they must not be increased. They are already the second highest in the EU. If we are prepared to invest billions of euro to bail out the banks, we must be able to invest a fraction of such amounts to maintain class-size position. Any increase in class sizes will diminish the learning experience of children for years. While I accept these are more difficult economic times, neither should children with disabilities and learning challenges be targeted in this abominable way.

The staffing schedules just published for primary schools will give effect to the cuts announced in the budget, putting hundreds of teachers out of work. This year many newly-trained teachers will not be able to get jobs. With the cost per unemployed person at €20,000 per person in social welfare contributions and lost tax income to the State, these education cuts create a false economy which is, at the same time, hurting the most vulnerable in society.

This week the Irish Independent highlighted another false economy in the education sector — the extent to which prefabs are being used in schools. In a debate in the House on 10 October 2007, I raised a specific instance of a school in Balbriggan. I stated:

50% of the school's pupils are taught in 12 prefabricated buildings despite there being adequate land in the parish's ownership around the school to extend the school properly. ... Prefabs cost approximately €1,000 per month to rent and present a constant worry to principals due to the possible outbreak of fire. It is a false economy and is not good enough for our children, as prefabs do not pass for proper school buildings.

Over a year later, more information on the costs of prefabs for schools has come to light. Up to €85 million was spent on prefabs and other temporary accommodation during 2008; the figure will grow further in 2009. Of that figure, €53 million was spent on rent. In the past eight years, €200 million was spent in the same way.

Commenting on this substandard education environment, John Carr, general secretary of the INTO, stated they are too hot in summer and too cold in winter, as has been confirmed to me by many school principals in north Dublin. There is the added worry for principals, staff and parents of these structures being possible fire hazards.

This week the Labour Party's spokesperson for education, Deputy Quinn, pointed out the cost of servicing a mortgage on a permanent building would be less than the cost of rent and maintenance of a prefab. This ongoing waste, with dead money going to pay rents and lack of ownership of assets, is unsustainable. This example of a false economy would be quickly identified in private business and micro-managed out of the system. The Department of Education and Science has been sitting on this accumulated waste for years and is now jeopardising our children's future with cuts in front line services. It is just not acceptable.

A spokesman for the Minister for Education and Science said the Government did not plan on curtailing spending. He stated, "it will continue to be necessary for prefabricated accommodation to be provided because competing priorities mean that it will not always be possible to have a permanent accommodation solution in such a short timeframe". However, the Balbriggan example I have given is not due to a short timeframe problem but to a long-term lack of focus in the Department on matters of such significant cost.

Addressing this problem can form part of a recovery strategy for the economy, as has been advocated by my party for some time. Up to 400 new schools are required, as are permanent replacements for prefabs. A high number of construction workers are unemployed, twiddling their thumbs every day, which costs the State €20,000 euro per annum in social welfare contributions and lost tax. Many of them can be put to useful work in building new schools which is investing in the future and helping lift the economy out of recession.

From all the soundings coming from the Government, plans seem afoot to re-introduce third level fees in some form. Labour is opposed to any such move for very good reasons. Education is the single most important investment any community can make in its future. Third level education transforms society, increasing the potential of every citizen to grow, develop and contribute. It enhances competitiveness and strengthens the economy. In most European countries, free or modest fees are the norm, because education at every level is considered an intrinsic part of the social citizenship model, deeply embedded in European society.

Free third level education has already increased third level participation by 40% since its introduction. We need to do more, not less. Charging for education hinders access. Loan schemes do not work and are neither just nor practical. Ireland lags behind most OECD countries in what it invests in education.

The argument for fees is largely presented as a pragmatic resource priority issue. However, as in many cases of issues presented this way, it is about fundamental values. The current debate about the possible re-introduction of university fees has nothing to do with investment or improving access to third level education. Neither is it about providing better education at first and second level. It is simply a revenue raising device. Education is an investment in our society and economy that pays off massively. It must form the basis of Ireland's plan out of recession.

I welcome the planned creation of 51,000 training education places for the newly unemployed as announced by the Taoiseach on Tuesday. This is a small start but falls well short of meeting targets set out in the national skills strategy, debated in the House earlier in the year. This must be increased to a significant degree if we are to achieve the upskilling that will be so desperately required to create the kind of labour force necessary to lift us out of our current crisis. Concerns have been expressed since the announcement by the VEC sector last week that these places will be allocated solely to FÁS. I would welcome it if the Minister could provide some explanation with regard to the rationale being used in this regard.

Photo of Ned O'SullivanNed O'Sullivan (Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Devins. This is a timely debate and I am glad of the opportunity to participate in it.

As previous speakers indicated, these are difficult times globally and nationally. Every sector of the economy, including that relating to education, is suffering. Difficult decisions will have to be made by the Department of Education and Science and every other Department this year, next year and for the foreseeable future. However, the education sector is operating from a good base. The investment that has been made in education during the past ten years has created a platform that will allow us to absorb the blows that will rain down upon us in the coming years.

During the past decade investment in education trebled, the schools buildings programme increased fivefold and the school transport and primary capitation budgets trebled. If this had not happened, we would be in a much more difficult position as regards education and we would not be able to deal with the difficulties we face. The investment to which I refer brought about a 25% increase in the number of 17 to 19 year olds in higher education in the period 1998 to 2004. In addition, there was a major rise in the number of people from less well-off socio-economic groups pursuing higher education courses. A significant investment was also made with regard to the provision of education facilities for the disadvantaged and those with special needs. I am delighted the Minister, Deputy Batt O'Keeffe, indicated that this level of investment will continue because we must ensure that in times of recession, priority is always given to those with special needs. We must continue the good work that has been done during the past ten years or so.

There has also been a major improvement in the pupil-teacher ratio. I say this with some trepidation because it was disappointing to see the reversal of a long-established trend in the current allocations announced in the budget. We have been obliged to take a step back, a matter about which I, with a background in education, was particularly disappointed. For many teachers and educators, the pupil-teacher ratio is the priority. However, people are beginning to understand that nothing is sacred anymore. I hope that in the future we will be able to make savings and achieve economies in the area of education without a need to interfere further with the pupil-teacher ratio. That ratio is paramount, particularly at primary level. Investment in education at primary level must be everyone's priority. It certainly is my priority and I hope pupil-teacher ratios will remain as they now stand and that there will not be any further disimprovement in respect of them.

Many teachers become upset when they are informed about the pupil-teacher ratio in their schools. This is especially the case for mainstream teachers who must still deal with large numbers of students in their regular classes. There is a need to take into account the position of special needs teachers, those who teach Travellers etc. I hope that we will be able to sustain the figures in this regard in the future. In my view, however, the real pupil-teacher ratio relates to individual teachers and their mainstream classes. This is the yardstick that should be used when we are discussing matters of this nature.

People, particularly politicians, do not wish to offer ways of saving money. However, everyone should be prepared to arrive at ideas in this regard. We will not be able to continue to invest the same amounts of money in education that we did during the past decade. Where might savings be made or economies achieved? I made the case that I would have preferred the pupil-teacher ratio to remain — at the expense of the capital programme — at the level at which it stood prior to the budget. I put this argument forward at a meeting of the Fianna Fáil parliamentary party and I was lucky to get out the door in one piece. Every parish priest is in favour of his building programme and I received a number of irate letters from some in my county in that regard. While I accept that a balance must be struck, I stand over my assertion that the pupil-teacher ratio is more important than bricks and mortar.

Some 20 years ago, most towns would have had one or, at most, two primary schools. There would have been a national school for boys and probably a convent primary school. In the smaller towns, there would have been only one national school. Now, however, there are two or three national or primary schools in most towns. There may be a gaelscoil or a non-denominational school in these towns. Can we afford to continue with this duplication of educational provision? The Minister will be obliged to deal with this difficult question.

I refer to this matter in the context of having a local authority background and of being aware of the difficulties associated with very well-meaning pressure groups establishing schools in small portakabins at the side of the road. When such schools are set up, a traffic warden must be appointed and the road has to be upgraded. This is followed by pressure for a new school building on a greenfield site or for the building at the existing site to be improved. The Government makes this kind of infrastructural investment at a major cost.

There was nothing much wrong with the type of education provided at the national schools I attended in the 1950s and 1960s. If one took a straw poll, one would discover that many other people would support my view and would ask whether there is a need for all the specialised education with which children are being provided. As a result of what I have said, I probably will be inundated by representations from those in favour of non-denominational education. I have nothing against those individuals and I support the great work being done by the gaelscoileanna, but we must reconsider this issue in order to discover how the best value for money might be obtained.

At second level, the position is similar. In a particular town there might be a Christian Brothers' school, a convent school and a local community college, and each operates on the basis that the other two almost do not exist. I was delighted that the Minister established a review body to consider the provision of second level education in my area, north Kerry. The report of this review body, which was chaired by Mr. Frank Murray, who comes from the same town as me and who is an eminent educator, was recently submitted to the Minister. I hope this report will provide a blueprint in the context of examining how education in other areas might be rationalised. If schools can co-operate and, in certain instances, amalgamate, there would be a cost saving and probably an overall improvement in educational provision.

Duplication also occurs in the area of lifelong education in the context of the provision made by community colleges, VECs and FÁS. The Minister of State at the Department of Education and Science, Deputy Haughey, who has just entered the Chamber has done fantastic work in the areas of second-chance and lifelong education. The Minister, Deputy Batt O'Keeffe, visited my town, Listowel, last week — the Minister of State, Deputy Haughey, did so last year — to present awards to post-leaving certificate students and others. He was impressed by what occurred at the event to which I refer.

The courses in respect of which the awards to which I refer were presented were identified, in the first instance, by the principal of the local community college and his staff while working in conjunction with the local Leader group, North Kerry Together. Those involved identified the skills that were in short supply in the area and then developed the courses to be offered with that in mind. They also ensured that there would be a possibility for those who pursued such courses to move on to third level. This is an example of the various sectors in a community working together. If we are to continue to invest in lifelong education, why not concentrate our efforts on local VEC schools? Students would not need to travel and the buildings, teaching resources and expertise are in place. A clear distinction must be made between the valuable service provided by FÁS and what could be best provided in current school structures.

The Government should reconsider the cap on the number of places in PLC and VTOS courses, especially in new economy areas. Last year in County Kerry a significant number of additional students could have been taken if numbers had not been capped.

To turn to another of my hobby horses, do we need two awarding bodies, FETAC and HETAC? The country needs to make savings. In addition, leaving certificate courses should be reassessed. In this respect, the Minister has shown the way by introducing a project on mathematics.

The Roman statesman, Cato, hated the city of Carthage and used to conclude every speech with the words "Carthago delenda est", meaning "Carthage must be destroyed". He finally got his way. Since entering the Seanad, I have mentioned Drumclogh national school in every speech I have made. I appeal to the Minister to take action to ensure renovations proceed or work on badly needed new buildings commences.

Photo of Maurice CumminsMaurice Cummins (Fine Gael)
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I wish to share time with Senator Doherty.

I welcome the Minister of State. When Waterford Regional Technical College was upgraded to an institute of technology, the current Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Batt O'Keeffe, was one of the greatest critics and begrudgers and adopted a strictly parochial attitude. Things have moved on significantly over the years. The south-east region is still without a university and recent research publications by the Oireachtas indicate that Waterford and the south east have fewer people attending universities and attaining degrees than all other gateway cities and regions.

When will a decision be made on whether Waterford Institute of Technology will be upgraded to university status? A decision was expected months ago but the project has been stalled by the Government on numerous occasions. Report after report has been commissioned, yet the Government and its predecessor have failed to grasp the nettle, whether through political cowardice or a deliberate attempt to hold back the region from realising its true potential.

According to the Port report submitted to the Department, it is widely accepted internationally that the presence of a university in a region has a powerful effect on the cultural, social and economic performance of the region through such mechanisms as encouraging talented young people to stay in the region, facilitating the development of local businesses and attracting inward investment. If ever the south east, which has haemorrhaged jobs, needed such a boost, it is now. We also have problems in Waterford Glass and short-time working for more than 1,400 workers in Bausch & Lomb. What is preventing the Government from making the correct decision to grant university status to Waterford Institute of Technology? Such a move would give the region the stimulus needed to drive its economy and boost confidence.

While Waterford is well served by Waterford Institute of Technology, the benefits that would accrue were it a university would awaken a region that has underperformed in comparison to other regions. This observation has been verified in a number of national reports.

I have received many representations from schools throughout the length and breadth of my constituency consistent with the concerns outlined by the Fine Gael Party spokesperson. One area I wish to address is the impact of cutbacks on vocational education committees. The VEC sector will lose some 322 teachers in 2009 due to changes in the pupil-teacher ratio. A further 98 posts will be lost arising from changes in disadvantaged status. The Department has introduced a system of equalisation payments to compensate voluntary secondary schools for the loss of service provided by VECs but has not explained the basis on which these payments will be made.

Overall the cuts will affect VECs in the following ways: grant reductions in excess of €2.8 million, the loss of 420 teachers, a 5% cut in adult and further education totalling €4.2 million, a 4% cut in youth work grants amounting to €2.75 million and a 3% cut in payroll amounting to €2.6 million. Waterford County Vocational Education Committee has outlined the severe impact these cuts will have in its functional area.

The removal of book grants will affect disadvantaged children. While DEIS schools will maintain their grants, disadvantaged children also attend other schools. The total loss to schools in County Waterford in respect of transition year, physics, the junior certificate school programme, leaving certificate applied, Traveller grants and book grants is approximately €80,000. The supervision and substitution cuts have already affected schools. The activity of students has been curtailed and principals are under much more pressure. The reduction in teacher numbers and its impact on curricular provision will have a severe effect on schools. Teachers will be demoralised, schools will be unable to offer the range of subjects they offered previously and students will suffer as a result.

For Waterford county VEC, which is relatively small, these cuts will reduce an overstretched budget by €350,000. Fundamentally, investment in education should increase in a period such as this. We cannot build enterprise without first having children who are educated. We cannot have research capacity without excellence in our schools. Investment should be made in new courses for the recently unemployed in order that they can upskill in line with the future skills strategy.

A large number of graduates have joined the dole queues. Teachers qualifying this year have a sense of hopelessness. The Government must rethink its strategy of cutbacks in education which will have devastating effects on the country when we eventually emerge from the current recession. It is a shame we will experience a brain drain as many of our well-educated graduates are forced to emigrate to secure employment. The policies adopted by the Government over the past ten years are partly responsible for this development. I was pleased to hear the Minister for Finance, Deputy Brian Lenihan, admit recently that some mistakes were made regarding the construction industry. His words are probably the nearest to an apology we are likely to have from the Government.

Photo of Pearse DohertyPearse Doherty (Sinn Fein)
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Gabhaim buíochas leis an Seanadóir Cummins as a chuid ama a roinnt liom.

Last Wednesday more than 20,000 students took to the streets of Dublin for the second time since December. Marches, protests, occupations and other activities have occurred across the State and have been met with hostility from those from whom answers are sought. Students marched in solidarity with teachers, nurses, public sector employees, those who have lost their jobs in recent months and others. They marched in protest against cutbacks not only in the third level sector but in primary and second level schools. They marched to the slogan of "No cutbacks, no fees, no Fianna Fáil TDs". While all this was taking place, the Minister was in a far-off land, at the taxpayers' expense, unable to hear the cries of 20,000 students outside the House.

The Government — Fianna Fáil and the Green Party — is solely responsible for one of the most chronically underfunded education sectors among OECD countries. The Minister made a fine speech on how investment in education will be crucial to pulling the State out of its current economic mess. Let us look behind the empty rhetoric and examine the Government's track record. The programme for Government includes a commitment to "implementing significant further improvements in the human and financial resources available to our schools". Since making this commitment, the Government has succeeded in making Ireland's primary school classes the most overcrowded in Europe, slashed funding for special needs education and abolished the free book scheme at primary level. At second level, it has abolished all grants towards physics, home economics, transition year, leaving certificate applied and more.

The Government made a commitment to "ensuring that the quality of buildings and equipment made available in all parts of the education system are significantly improved". Since making this commitment, it has failed to produce a transparent schools building programme. Boards of management, principals and teachers are completely in the dark with regard to school building applications and children still spend their school years in the most appalling conditions with no indication of whether or when they might get out of them. At the same time, the Government slashed the budget for primary school buildings in its most recent budget. The Government committed to making each element of the system more inclusive and responsive to the needs of marginalised groups. Since making this commitment, it has slashed funding for the Traveller capitation grant and for language support teachers for pupils for whom English is not a first language.

In 2007 the Government committed to developing third level institutions as world class leaders in research and development. Since making this commitment, it has impaired students' abilities even to attend third level colleges with the increase in the registration fee to €1,500. It has yet to indicate what its proposals are in regard to reintroducing fees but it has made it very clear that it is its position to do so.

I have outlined these points to highlight the pure hypocrisy and double-speak of this Government when it comes to education. All sides acknowledge the need to invest in education as part of a long-term economic strategy. However, the Government has failed to do this and instead has left in its wake a litany of cutbacks, unmanageable fees and an education sector ravaged by underinvestment.

While all this is going on and our public school students spend a wintry February in classrooms akin to a Dickens novel, three to a seat and unable to learn many modern school subjects owing to overcrowded classrooms, their parents' taxes fund the salaries of teachers in private fee paying schools to the tune of more than €90 million per year, almost the same amount being saved by this Government by increasing class sizes at primary and secondary levels.

The Department of Education and Science paid €3.9 million this year to Blackrock College, a private fee paying school. St. Andrews College, Belvedere College and Wesley College, all private fee paying schools, all received in excess of €3 million while public schools are crying out day after day for much needed investment to increase the standards in which they are forced to teach students. The Government knows well that many of these fee paying schools practice policies of exclusion and discrimination which affect children with special educational needs, Travellers and foreign nationals.

This Government is at a crossroads in terms of education. It needs to decide whether it wants to invest in the future of our children or rob them of that future. It needs to decide whether it wants to cherish all the children of the nation equally or only cherish those who can afford to pay. It needs to decide whether education is a right or a privilege. If it decides the former instead of the latter, then this Government needs to address fundamentally the impact the last budget has had on the education sector and take a new course of action.

Photo of Ivana BacikIvana Bacik (Independent)
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I welcome the Minister of State and the opportunity to speak on education, a subject on which I have very strong views and in which I have a strong interest. I should declare my interest as a lecturer in the law school in Trinity College and as somebody who is, therefore, very centrally involved in educating law students.

I will begin by saying something about the third level sector. I wish to congratulate Trinity College, my own institution, on being the first Irish university to make it into the top 50 third level institutions, as ranked by The Times Higher Education Supplement. It is a remarkable achievement given the relatively low levels of funding for the third level sector.

Previous speakers spoke about the need to ensure the third level and the fourth level — the postgraduate level — sectors play a significant role in upskilling people who now face unemployment as a result of the current economic situation. I agree that is a vital role for our universities to play. What are the Minister's plans to offer third level institutions the extra funding needed for them to play this vital role in helping to address the serious problems of unemployment which so many people in this country will face, not least among them our law graduates, the people I educate daily in Trinity College? That is a very important question on the funding of third level.

In the brief time I have I wish to focus on another issue entirely relating to the primary level and the secondary level sectors. Others spoke about the difficulties of underfunding, problems with class sizes, problems with school buildings and so on. These are enormous problems faced by primary school pupils and their parents every day. I offer some criticism of the Green Party in particular which came into office with a commitment to make education a key political priority and yet is now sitting by while class sizes increase and children with special needs are let down by cuts in funding. Those are really serious issues.

However, I wish to address a point which has not been highlighted so far in the debate, that is, the control by the churches, especially the Catholic Church, of education, in particular primary education. In the past I have written about the fact that of the more than 3,000 so-called national schools, 92% are owned and effectively run by the Roman Catholic Church, their patrons being the local Catholic bishops.

This afternoon I met parents from Wicklow whose identity is known to the Minister because they have been in contact with him a number of times about their difficulty. They do not want their child to receive a Catholic education but the only schools in their immediate vicinity in rural Wicklow are Catholic schools. The Catholic school to which they sent their child did not offer them the accommodation that is supposed to be offered to children under our Constitution when they are sent to a school which is not of their parents' faith. Article 44 of the Constitution provides that children should not be discriminated against where they are not of the religion of the particular school. There is a duty on schools to offer accommodation to pupils of a different religion. The problem is that in Catholic national schools, there is an integrated curriculum — a religious spirit and a spirit of religious instruction which pervades the entire day. It is very difficult for children who are non-Catholic and whose parents are non-Catholic to live with that system. What does the Minister propose to do about this problem?

Senator Brendan Ryan referred to the problems in Balbriggan where Educate Together had to be invited to set up a special school because there were not enough places in the local schools. We saw schools discriminate quite legitimately on the basis of religion because they are allowed to do so under the Equal Status Act. This has led us to a segregated school system and one which is built on sectarian lines. It is not something over which we can stand in an Ireland which is increasingly pluralist and where the number who profess themselves to be of the Catholic faith is dwindling in every census. In the last census in 2006, 83% of persons aged 20 to 44 said they were Catholic, the age group most likely to be parents of school aged children, and yet 92% of our national schools are Catholic. There is a clear gap in provision for children whose parents are not Catholic, who may be of a minority religion or who may have no religion, and who do not wish their children to receive a Catholic education and yet who live in an area where the only national schools are Catholic schools.

We also live in a country in which the Educate Together school group, which has done incredible work accommodating children of no religion or of minority religions, finds itself with enormous waiting lists for its schools because there are now so many children whose parents wish them to receive a multi-denominational education.

The Minister should specify how he proposes to accommodate children whose parents do not wish them to receive a Catholic education and where their local national school offers this integrated curriculum. Will he address the difficulty raised by this Wicklow couple who have written to him a number of times and to a number of Members of this House and whose plight they asked me to raise specifically with him today?

6:00 pm

Photo of Shane RossShane Ross (Independent)
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I have never been able to understand why education is so readily and obviously chosen as a target for cuts when it comes to cut public expenditure. Of all Departments of State, I would have thought the Department of Education and Science was the one which did not need to be cut. It is the one Department about which there have been fewer allegations of waste than any other of which I am aware. There is very little evidence of it and certainly no proof of it. Yet, whenever cutbacks are needed, which is a periodical hazard and something Ministers for Education and Science have to do from time to time in recessionary periods, education becomes a prime target. I do not know why on earth that should be so. It is very fashionable to say education and health should not be cut. Let us cut back on health and the waste in the HSE. There is no problem there. We know that. We can cut the health budget in terms of the administration of the HSE but not the patients. We should not cut education.

The Minister of State should explain the rationale behind the decision. There are an amazing number of instances when the issue of education is raised on the Adjournment. It is no coincidence that the majority — I have not counted them — of the Adjournment matters raised in the House appear to be about education. The Minister of State will know this as he is in and out of this House every Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday hearing about problems with education, individual schools in difficulties and teachers having problems. The teachers' lobby, which is very welcome, is constantly coming to us and saying we must do something about this, that and the other in a particular school. There are more complaints from the education lobby about cuts and underfunding than from any other Department. It is no coincidence. The idea we should start cutting the budget when there is an obvious need for more funding seems absolutely absurd. I can talk to the Minister of State about places where one could cut the budget until the cows come home.

I would be interested to hear how he could justify why they are cutting back on pupil-teacher ratios, school buildings, computers in school and other areas when FÁS has not cut back more than approximately €10 million on a €1 billion budget. There could be education redeployment and its budget is somewhere one could immediately make slashing cuts, transfer that money straight into the education budget and look after the schools, but for some reason that cannot be done

I have been very privileged to meet a large number of teachers in recent months. There has been a dramatic change in many of the attitudes of the teaching profession in Ireland. The one thing which struck me, which I said when the Minister of State was in the House previously, about what it had to say was not about its pay or pension, which are now receiving so much prominence. Rather, it is worried about the cuts in education and the way that children, particularly at primary level, were not being looked after by the State in the way in which they should.

There is no excuse for finding education an easy target. Let us look at FÁS, training and all the things where there is a massive budget and enormous abuse, but not at schools where that does not exist and where pupils are so important. Let us also look at VECs and see if there is any wastage there. We should not look at schools, school buildings or child care. The attempts to attack the child care budget are absolutely reprehensible because, as I think the Minister of State will agree, at that age children are very vulnerable and perhaps have a more acute need for education than at third level. It is the area where education starts and is the fundamental area which such not be cut back.

I make a particular plea which I have made before and is a problem which may now be in abeyance. Various members of the Church of Ireland, from bishops to humble parishioners, have come to me and asked about grants for minority schools, in particular for Protestant schools. They have said they feel this is discrimination against an ethos which cannot really exist or flourish unless those grants continue to be paid. The decision of the Minister in October to cut back on those grants has left a community devastated because so few of these schools receive grants. Admittedly they are private schools, but so few of them receive grants they are now put in peril because many of the minority community have to travel long distances to get to those schools. If the grants are withdrawn, they will not be able to pay the fees and the schools will suffer.

I make a special plea to the Minister of State in the light of this particularly acute need and what Senator Bacik said about people of different ethos being looked after and cherished by the State that Protestant schools not feel they are losing their identity and ethos as a result of the cuts in education. It would be appalling if they were being used to stifle an identity which is still flourishing and is playing a tremendous role in the running and administration of this country.

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Fine Gael)
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Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit. I would like to start on a negative note. We have been waiting since 14 October for a debate on education in this House. The Minister of State lasted 28 minutes and I am glad he came back to hear what I have to say because it is important we have a healthy debate on education. I compliment Senator Healy Eames on her excellent speech and outstanding performance as spokesperson on education.

If I may enter a tone of bipartisanship, I was romanticised by Senator Keaveney's fine speech, and share many of its idea. However, here I part company with her and her colleagues because her party in Government is presiding over the dismantling of the education system. Senator Keaveney gave a great speech and I wish she had taught me music.

Photo of Cecilia KeaveneyCecilia Keaveney (Fianna Fail)
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Senator Buttimer is not dead yet.

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Fine Gael)
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Her colleague, the Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Batt O'Keeffe, is today presiding over the instilling of fear and angst in school managers, principals, teachers and parents who are under siege.

This debate takes place against the backdrop of the most serious economic recession this country has faced and we face many social challenges, such as rising unemployment and the credit crunch. We must give hope to young people. We must give them ambition and we can do that through education. Sadly, hope is being eliminated by bureaucratic decisions taken by politicians at the Cabinet table.

The task facing us is not to divide educationalists and put one sector against the other, which is happening at the moment. There is now competition for different places and moneys. The great majority of our teachers are wonderful people who give of their time freely for coaching and other duties outside the classroom in core curricular and non-curricular activities such as musicals, preparing debating teams and science competitions. I hope we do not take away that volunteerism from teachers which is being done in many ways.

I welcome the Minister of State back to the House and thank him for coming back because I was concerned he would give us only 28 minutes. I am glad he is back. It is important, as the Minister referred to in his speech, that we use education as the engine to reboot the economy. On the website of the Department of Education and Science it is stated that chief among the Minister's priorities is the promotion of inclusion. Senator Ross and I have referred on Adjournment debates to minority religions and we certainly need to look at that issue again.

If we are serious about education, I want to ask the Minister of State why 32 cutbacks were announced in the budget. These included, despite what he says, a real reduction in the schools building programme, a reduction in the number of teachers and language support teachers, a reduction in staffing levels for previously non-DEIS schools and an increase in the student registration fee.

I agree with Senator Keaveney. Age nought to six is the most pivotal part of a child's development. I say that as a teacher because by the time pupils enter second level it is too late or they are playing catch up all the time. It is important we prioritise those aged nought to six.

We on this side of the House share the Minister of State's view on maths and science. We need to see meaningful change because, according to recent reports, there is a dearth of maths and science graduates and that situation needs to be reversed. In 2000, 2,145 bachelor degrees in computing were awarded. It is projected that in 2010 the number will be 1,236. In 2002, 873 bachelor degrees in electrical engineering were awarded, while 389 are projected for 2010. As Deputy Brian Hayes said in late December, how can our economy recover and prosper when in an eight-year period there will be a 45% drop in the numbers of computing graduates and a 55% drop in electrical engineering graduates? Perhaps the Minister will address that question in his reply. In addition, we need to prioritise the awarding of postgraduate degrees.

I visit schools every week and find that morale in staffrooms across the country has never been lower; it is at rock bottom. Teaching staff are angry and worried about where it will stop.

I welcome the Minister's announcement on funding for the Star of the Sea primary school in Passage West. He did not invite all of us, but instead picked a coterie of people to attend. I pay tribute to those who led that campaign. They shamed the Government into delivering after so many years of promising to deliver. I pay tribute to the Minister for delivering, but it is a pity he is not still in Cork central because then Ballygarvin national school, St. Angela's and a few more would get the funding they deserve. Maybe the Minister can prioritise them with some of the schools in Cork north west before the year is out.

For many years I taught the leaving certificate applied course, which is one of the best and most innovative programmes ever introduced at second level. It kept people in school who might otherwise not have remained there. The cut in that budget is wrong; it should be accentuated rather than reduced. Senator Mullen spoke about measuring qualities and intelligence. The leaving certificate applied was experiential education at its best. It gave young people, who up to then had no sense of achievement in school, an opportunity to blossom and flourish. They left school with a holistic education, an award and a degree of confidence they would not have achieved through struggling with the leaving certificate exam. Life is not just about the leaving certificate and leaving certificate plus.

Senator Healy Eames referred to risking all at present and she is not far wrong because Ireland now ranks 34th among OECD countries in terms of education expenditure as a percentage of GDP. Only six other OECD countries have a worse pupil-teacher ratio than ours and only two, Greece and Slovakia, invest less in education than we do as a percentage of GDP. The Minister's party speaks a lot about our knowledge economy, but let us have investment in that sector rather than rhetoric.

Where is the Green Party for this debate tonight? That was the party which, prior to 2007, made a virtue out of what it was going to achieve in education when in government. I am sure the Minister may have read the Green Party's policy document, entitled 50 Steps to a Better Education System. However, the 50 steps have become 50 backsteps as the Green Party has become an irrelevant spoke in the wheel of a Government for whom education funding means cuts and more cuts, despite what the Minister says. What does Deputy Paul Gogarty have to say about the potential of education now, given his remarks in the other House and as Chairman of the Committee on Education and Science? I am sure the Minister knows that Deputy Gogarty is not out on the plinth defending the Government's policy. He has been very silent, as have the Green Party's Senators.

Education is about building relationships. The Minister should ask school principals how they are managing resources, given the cost of transport, energy and refuse collection. School managers are out fundraising for such services.

I welcome the Minister's decision to reverse the summer works scheme. He did a good job in accepting the Opposition's advice to restore that scheme. The Minister has put a gun to teachers' heads on the issue of supervision and substitution, however. He took a system that was working well and broke it, but he should not have done so. I visited a school in Deerpark last week where students had no games because the principal could not let teachers out. That is wrong. Education is not just about the classroom, it goes beyond that.

The Minister should not reintroduce third level fees. The abolition of such fees led to increased participation in third level education. Bringing back such fees, however, would prevent many students from attending college. We should not do that.

Photo of David NorrisDavid Norris (Independent)
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I welcome the Minister to the House. He is one of the bright spots in a Government which has become unsure and stumbling in confronting this extremely difficult situation. The Minister has dealt with matters under his aegis with decision and clarity. Not all the decisions are palatable and not all of them recommend themselves. One will have squawks and screeches from all over the place, which is understandable because there is virtue behind some of the complaints, but we are living in an exceptionally difficult situation. I have the greatest respect for my friend and colleague, Senator Buttimer, but as a graduate of Trinity College who lectured there for many years and is strongly supportive of student rights, I feel one cannot dismiss the idea of reintroducing some degree of payment for education, particularly at third level. I say this knowing that it is going to cost me votes. I have said it to student groups, including when I was asked to talk to them in Trinity College. The reason is perfectly simple: in a situation where there are very limited resources, if one wants to achieve social justice those resources are most appropriately directed and targeted at the most vulnerable sections who otherwise would not get to university at all. It will cause some pain to the middle classes but if we want a more equal society, that is what will happen. It will not be popular but it will certainly have to be considered.

I spoke to some of the student representatives but they did not really have a case. First, "free fees" as a statement is rubbish, it is illiterate. There are either fees or education is free — one cannot mix the two up and have free fees. Somebody is paying somewhere, and it is the taxpayer. I am proud to be a part of the Trinity access programme, which brings a small number of people in from disadvantaged areas, although it is not enough.

In a situation where fees are apparently abolished, the most marginalised people find it impossible to get access to university. For example, if they live 30 miles outside Dublin and are going to a city college, they will face the cost of transport, books and accommodation. It rules people out, but the Minister should be ruling people in. Everybody is suspicious because the real problem is the means test. In order to get the support of people like myself who are honourable, honest and will support the Minister, despite the electoral cost, the Minister must indicate his thinking on the means test. It has to be sufficiently high so that people are not caught on a kind of barbed wire of educational disadvantage. The Minister will have my support on fees and I will make that known to my voters and the university circles generally, whatever the cost, because I know that has to happen. We must examine this issue to see if we can make the situation fairer, more just and equitable while still being accessible.

It is very important that we continue to support third level education. The Provost of Trinity College is away, but I was in touch with him by e-mail and he has emphasised the necessity of continuing to promote research. However, he says we should not forget the linkage between research and the teaching commitment, the balance between the sciences and the humanities, the importance that access should be increased, greater activity and entrepreneurship.

I may be parochial in saying this, but I am very proud of all the Dublin universities. I am aware there has been some whispering about mergers and I would like to hear what the Minister has to say on that. I will read what he says later because I have to leave as soon as I make this short speech. The issue of mergers sent a shiver down our spines some time ago and I would like to know what is planned. If mergers are on the agenda, what is in place in that regard? It has been said that the Government feels that four or five universities in Dublin is too many. What is the thinking on this and what kind of rationalisation is involved? I believe all the universities in Dublin are good ones. I am very proud of Dublin City University, that great northside institution. Trinity College hovers on the brink, but never quite made it to the northside. However, it is a wonderful institution and is in the top 200 universities. We can be very proud of its success in the ratings, as we can be of UCD.

The areas of which we can be proud, which is what I think the Provost was getting at, are areas such as innovation, where we get value out of the universities. Universities are not just for chasing ideas, although that is important and must be continued. We must continue programmes in the arts, classics, architecture etc. However, I have just looked at some of the things that have happened in the past year or so through Trinity College. Researchers there developed a test for prediction and risk assessment in the early stages of Alzheimer's disease. That is wonderful. The development of this test also involved genetic work. The researchers have developed a new cerebrus spinal fluid that is used as a test for early Alzheimer's disease and which shows up the production of amyloid plaques on the brain that clog the neural circuits. This is an important advance that will affect people and may lead to the development of a drug to delay or stop onset of the disease. When we consider how the profits from Tysabri reactivated Elan, we can see how this test could lead to creating employment. An important series of discoveries have also been made with regard to coeliac disease, which is a disease where there is an intolerance in the intestine to gluten.

Development of such ideas does not just happen in Trinity College. Researchers at the Waterford Institute of Technology have come up with new ideas in terms of macular degeneration of the retina. I am interested in that because I suffer from it. To a certain extent, macular degeneration is the wearing out of the retina because of age, but a fair amount can be done for it. This is the kind of research that is important.

A psychosis research group in Trinity College has come up with valuable research on schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, what used to be called manic depression. It has done this by analysing the chromosomal structures and detecting particular characteristics in the brain. This is remarkable and will be of value to people who suffer from schizophrenia, a condition from which people all over the world suffer.

At our stage of life we all know people or friends who have died or had treatment for cancer. We have colleagues in this situation. A remarkable advance has been made in the understanding of the mechanism for cell suicide, the mechanism by which cells switch off and stop replicating. This has an implication for cancer patients, because cancer cells go the other way and go mad replicating. This will be very useful research.

I could go on about the removal of various grants in the VEC sector, but the Minister knows all about that. The removal of the book grant is serious because it hits the poorest. I urge the Minister to reconsider that.

I am aware Senator Ross made a passionate plea for Church of Ireland schools. Although I am expected to do the same, I will take a different direction. I would love to see my ethos continue. I go to St. Patrick's Cathedral every Sunday and I hope people continue to do that, but I do not believe a religious ethos should be passed on through the schools. A religious ethos is for parents to pass on to their children. Schools are for facts.

Photo of Fidelma Healy EamesFidelma Healy Eames (Fine Gael)
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They are for education.

Photo of David NorrisDavid Norris (Independent)
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Yes, for education. I would like to refer to the review by the UN Human Rights Committee which looked at this situation and said the integrated curriculum, or ethos, is discrimination: "The committee notes with concern that the vast majority of Ireland's primary schools are privately run denominational schools that have adopted a religious integrated curriculum thus depriving many parents and children who so wish to have access to secular primary education." I have read a long, scholarly legal article about how difficult it is to amend this situation without some kind of constitutional review.

I want to retain my little denomination, and the Roman Catholic Church and Jewish and Islamic religions. It really glorifies life that we have this richness and diversity. Therefore, I am not against denominational education. However, artificially propping up these things through schools, where sometimes the teachers do not believe in anything, disillusions the children. Let them go to church if their parents want them to have religious education and let the churches give it to them. Let the schools off the hook. We have preached this attitude for years to the people of Northern Ireland, where we said separate or segregated education was part of the problem. Why do we not address it here?

I have had correspondence from parents who are secular. I think they are atheists, but I am not certain of that. Those parents want a particular kind of education for their children but cannot get it. They are being forced to send their children to religious schools. They were horrified at Christmas when the children came home, after the parents had been promised by the school they would not receive religious education, singing Christmas carols. While I would not lose much sleep over that, it was deemed offensive by those parents. They found it impossible to get any context which was not religious. This is something we need to look at.

In this context, I want the Minister to take back one message to his colleagues in Cabinet. I want them to look at the situation involving the Ferns and Cloyne reports and ask themselves who are the worst equipped people to be given absolute responsibility over children. There was a systematic structural concealment of considerable levels of severe sexual child abuse and molestation, yet because of the way in which the equality legislation was drafted, all the churches — not singling out the Roman Catholic church — have an exemption from the operation of that legislation. This allows them, theoretically — I do not think they have done it yet or would have the gall to do it — to dismiss a teacher because of his or her sexual orientation, regardless of character. These are the people whose authority has been impugned because of their known, stated, recorded behaviour as in these reports. Despite this, their track record and the number of convictions, these people could say to somebody like me, "You are not fit to be a teacher."

This was said in my regard, to the Provost, in a letter from a parent approximately 30 years ago. I was giving a series of lectures on European comic fiction in the English tradition. I explained to the class of final year students — grown up people — that it was impossible to understand the way in which the novelist E. M. Forster dealt with character, plot, situation etc. unless one understood his ambiguous attitude towards his own sexuality. A parent wrote to the Provost saying I should be dismissed, not because I was a lousy teacher, but because I was a good teacher and might have an impact as a role model. I would hope so, because there was none for me. I was not changed by my teacher role models. As far as I know, my teachers were all heterosexual, but it did not rub off on me.

I urge the Minister to take this issue to Cabinet. He should ask Cabinet, in light of the objective evidence — not just the evidence of an old ranter like me — whether it is any longer appropriate that the church, which has shown such abandonment of its responsibility to children, should be allowed to be the only institution in the State that is not covered by equality legislation. I urge him to put this question to the Cabinet. Say, "That old nut-case, Norris, in the Seanad, was on about this" and ask it to look at the evidence.

Photo of Nicky McFaddenNicky McFadden (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister to the House and thank him for being here and for his indulgence. I know he is very busy. My slant on this is with regard to social and family affairs, which is my brief. I am concerned about children in poverty and 76,000 children in this country are in poverty. Education is a proven route out of poverty. However, for children in poor families full participation in school is a luxury which they cannot afford. One of my colleagues, Senator Pearse Doherty, alluded to this when he asked whether it is a right or a privilege. I believe education is a right.

Many poor and unfortunate children feel excluded from the system which is not able to meet their needs. A truly inclusive and responsive education system is required to lift the poorest and the most marginalised children out of poverty. I am sorry to state that the recent budget and the cutbacks in education will only further affect the voiceless in our economy, especially the most vulnerable, namely, our children. I know the Minister will agree they are our greatest asset, our future and what will lift this economy in years to come.

Some 5,000 young people leave school annually without having done their leaving certificate, one in ten leaves school with serious literacy problems and one in nine lives in consistent poverty, goes to school without a proper breakfast, does not have a warm coat and is cold. How can one learn if one has all these problems?

Photo of Fidelma Healy EamesFidelma Healy Eames (Fine Gael)
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Hear, hear.

Photo of Nicky McFaddenNicky McFadden (Fine Gael)
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I acknowledge warmly the goodness among services such as the Society of St. Vincent de Paul and community groups, and the funding from the Department of Education and Science to provide breakfast and warmth before school for these children. This is a very good initiative and I call on the Minister to continue to fund it.

Colleagues have referred to the sad phenomenon of the removal of the book grant in non-DEIS schools. This is a big retrograde step. My children went to school in the 1980s when we had no money and I know how expensive schoolbooks were. We had no rental schemes. Is there any way the Minister can reconsider the book grant scheme? It is an area in which further investment can be made without costing a huge amount of money.

My colleague, Senator Healy Eames, referred to the fact that transition year will probably be done away with because it cannot be funded. The Minister has an incredulous look on his face but I am aware of outings which were cancelled because substitute teachers could not get involved and because of a lack of funding for foreign trips or extracurricular activities which were being done heretofore. Will the Minister comment on this? I look forward to hearing what he has to say.

The halving of child benefit for 18 year olds will affect children in poverty. It will be removed altogether between next year and 2010. I am aware of many youngsters who did badly in their first leaving certificate and repeated it. They had the benefit of their parents being able to support them by using the child benefit. This is also the case for first year students in college. I keep harping back to the fact that people with no money will be the hardest hit and the only way to get out of poverty is through a good education. It is a fundamental right.

I do not agree with Senator Norris with regard to fees. Even the €1,500 registration fee will hit youngsters very hard. These are youngsters who try to work weekends to make extra money so they can fund themselves. A recent Bank of Ireland survey commissioned by the Union of Students of Ireland found that it costs €38,000 for a four-year degree course. This is in terms of how things stand, including receipt of the grant. If fees are reintroduced it will cost €70,000. One would want to get a great job to be able to afford to pay back €70,000, particularly with all the other issues which must be discussed.

Senator Norris asked for an equitable scheme and a way to introduce a means test that would be equitable. However, we all know — and with my hand on my heart I know — people who are able to dodge giving an honest means test. Will the Minister enlighten the House as to how he might be able to have an equitable means test?

Last week, I attended a very good awards ceremony at a local community service for youngsters who left school early. They were able to participate in levels of FETAC and complete their leaving certificate and computer studies. All of this has been funded by FÁS and the concern now is that because FÁS is doing so well in looking after and helping to upskill the people who have lost their jobs, there is no room for these poverty stricken youngsters to move up after their two years in the community workshop and go to FÁS because the agency cannot take on any more people.

Where will those who leave school early and who get a chance in these community sheltered workshops, many of whom have serious mental health issues, go? What will happen to them? We will have more of these youngsters leaving school early with no qualifications whatsoever. Much work has been done by these agencies and the Minister knows full well that some of the youngsters have entered third level education and have a chance. Will the Minister comment on this evolving issue? There is room for the probation and welfare service, the Health Service Executive and mental health services to get involved with children and young people who drop out of school early to ensure they still have a chance of having a good education.

I am very familiar with the area of special needs assistants because I am aware of children who have benefitted from them. It has been a very good scheme. However, I do not believe that special needs assistants have been trained to be able to deal with some of the behavioural disabilities of the children with whom they work. In some instances, they sit at the back of the class and it seems their job and role is to keep the child quiet. This is a terrible indictment and a waste of money and resources.

Photo of Fidelma Healy EamesFidelma Healy Eames (Fine Gael)
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Hear, hear.

Photo of Nicky McFaddenNicky McFadden (Fine Gael)
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The money could be better spent. Will the Minister consider behavioural training for special needs assistants to help the children in their care reach their full potential?

I have strong views on funding of Protestant schools. There is an excellent school in Mullingar, namely, Wilson's Hospital School. Very negative aspersions were cast on these schools on "Today with Pat Kenny" such as that they have swimming pools and all sorts of facilities. I resent this. I am aware that the young people who attend Wilson's Hospital School are pressed to the pin of their collar to make ends meet just like in every other school. I inquired whether the school had a swimming pool and was told that it does but it is to meet its fire regulation commitments so it can have enough water on site to be able to put out a fire if necessary. That is an absolute taboo.

Consider the fact that Irish children are being disadvantaged because of the increase in the pupil-teacher ratio. I am very concerned about our children and our teachers. A significant number of teachers will qualify this year without jobs, yet there are 430 unqualified teachers in classrooms. Will the Minister state why that is the case? The buck stops with him. He is in control, he pays the money and he can change the circumstances that obtain.

I commend the Minister on the summer works scheme and thank him for reintroducing it. It is very worthwhile.

My son attended the National Maritime College of Ireland in Cork, which is a fine example of how public private partnerships can work. I thank the Minister warmly for allowing Athlone Community College to enter a public private partnership and I ask him to use this facility in respect of many more schools.

Photo of Paudie CoffeyPaudie Coffey (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister and the debate on his very important portfolio, education. We should never underestimate the potential of education for children and adults, and I am sure the Minister does not do so. I will not quote reports but will refer to real-life experiences I have had as a pupil and a parent. I am chairperson of a board of management of a national school and am a former member of a VEC. I am sure the Minister, having been a public representative for many years, has experience in this field also. I hope he has listened to many of the points made by colleagues in the Seanad today. They reflect the reality on the ground with regard to education and educational facilities.

I am the parent of a five year old child in a class of 34. This is not the largest class in the school. There are 36 pupils in the junior infants' class, which is a disgrace in this day and age. One must acknowledge the efforts of the teaching staff and the principal who try, with their limited resources and building, to provide for the children as best they can. The Minister, having been a lecturer, will know that a class of 36 junior infants does not involve education but crowd control. It is a baby-sitting service. Teachers, when they enter a classroom of 36 infants at 9.20 a.m., should be able to give those children direct attention. Many Members have referred to the formative years between zero and six.

The pupil-teacher ratio is a disgrace. I am not just blaming the Minister but successive Governments. However, the Minister, unlike Members on this side of the House and many on the other, has an opportunity to do something about it. He has responsibility on which he can deliver.

I am disappointed with the cutbacks in primary education, which effectively reduce resources for primary schools. Boards of management and parents' associations throughout the country are fundraising voluntarily to help their schools. They depend on the Minister to invest the necessary resources in those schools.

A resource teacher in my constituency is teaching out of a staffroom, which is neither fair to the pupil she is teaching nor to herself. The school has applied to the Department for an additional classroom, or even a prefab, but the application was refused. What message is this sending to parents and pupils? We are claiming to be investing in education, yet these circumstances are arising throughout the country.

I have been a Member of this House for only a short time but I have heard numerous Adjournment debates and county and city council motions that concerned people appealing to the Department for information on their postilion regarding the schools building programme. Schools are operating out of prefabs, sometimes dilapidated and sometimes in good condition, but they do not know where they stand with regard to the programme because there is no transparency. There is no accountability with regard to the need for buildings. It is always a question of who has the best connections with the local Minister or Member of the Dáil, or who has the best connections within the Department. This is not how a Department of Education and Science should be running its business. We should have a fully transparent system such that people and schools are allocated resources based on need. Thus, all members of the public, including public representatives, could see where they stand. That this is not the case points to the abject failure of our education system.

Holy Cross school in Tramore is spending €214,000 per annum on prefabs, and that is only to rent them. It is dead money. If it were given the green light to build, for which it applied many years ago, that would not be the case. Let us make the necessary investment and create employment through the capital investment programme, about which the Minister spoke. Let us stop throwing money down the drain.

The Minister is giving his ear to the Government side but not to this side. I am stating the reality in the Waterford constituency, which is adjacent to the Minister's county, as he is well aware.

Photo of Cecilia KeaveneyCecilia Keaveney (Fianna Fail)
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I was supporting the Senator's point.

Photo of Paudie CoffeyPaudie Coffey (Fine Gael)
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That is okay but I want attention because I have the floor.

The gaelscoil in Tramore is fully prefabricated. The staff are doing great work introducing the Irish language to an area in which it has never been before. The board of management, staff and parents are very frustrated because there is no progress. Even if there were accountability and transparency and the school were told where it stands regarding the schools building programme, irrespective of whether building will occur in five years, it would appreciate it. It has been given no word and has not been afforded that respect by the Department. The Minister needs to work on this.

Many public representatives have been lobbied over the cutbacks to the VEC system. I was a member of a VEC for a number of years and was educated through the VEC system, for which I have a lot to be thankful. The VECs are very much involved in communities and have been supported in the past by the Department of Education and Science. They reached into communities that had been neglected previously. Not wanting to sound too negative, I must acknowledge that the VECs have done wonderful work down the years throughout the country. There are serious concerns over how the latest cutbacks will affect their work. I know for a fact that the VECs, their staff and boards of management are demoralised by the cutbacks that have been announced.

The best way to create employment and stimulate confidence in an economy is to engage in productive investment. What better way to have productive investment than to invest in our children and our schools? We should invest not just in buildings but in children's education for the future. It is disgraceful to have cutbacks in this area and I certainly do not support them. I am sure Members on the Government side do not do so either.

It would be remiss of me not to mention Waterford Institute of Technology, which has proven to be a leader in its field. It offers very far-ranging degrees and the lecture staff are very highly thought of. The college applied for university status some time ago and was promised by the Minister's predecessors and himself that a decision would be made soon. Will the Minister put people out of their misery and tell them what he and his Department are thinking? Waterford is the only gateway city in the country that does not have a university. We are exporting our students in that they are going to other regions and abroad to be educated. They are not coming back and the statistics are there to prove it. The south-east region has a strong economic argument for a university because of its high dependency on manufacturing and its higher-than-average unemployment figures.

The Waterford Institute of Technology steps up to the mark in every category the Minister cares to mention. It is a university in all but name but is not being acknowledged and recognised as such by the Government. Has the Minister a date on which he will decide on the college's application? The people of Waterford and the south east have waited long enough and need a university in that region.

Photo of Batt O'KeeffeBatt O'Keeffe (Minister, Department of Education and Science; Cork North West, Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the debate and I thank Members for the constructive manner in which it was conducted. I am delighted that Senator Norris, a very able, astute and sensible Senator is a strong advocate for education and I enjoyed his contribution. In the limited time available to me, I will respond to questions asked but I wish also to refer to the financial situation and the difficulties the Government faces.

The Government has an absolute commitment to education, which is clear from its track record over the past decade. It has provided substantial additional resources, including an extra 15,000 teachers in primary and post-primary schools, supports for children with special needs, social inclusion measures and a substantial schools building programme. A lot has changed in the past year and the foremost imperative is that we stabilise the public finances. It is only by doing so that we can shelter the gains made and put ourselves in the position of being able to make improvements in the future.

The 2009 budget measures mean that the Department of Education and Science was one of just three Departments that has an increased budget for 2009 but it still required tough decisions to be taken to manage within the funding available. The financial situation has, unfortunately, deteriorated further since the budget. The Government took decisive action last week in order to deliver further reductions in public expenditure this year. Those measures have been introduced in the national interest and to protect future prosperity regardless of the implications for political popularity in opinion polls. As the Taoiseach has pointed out, the country is funding close to one third of current spending, including pay, by borrowing and that is not sustainable. Any rational person would agree that we cannot repeat the mistakes that were made by borrowing for everyday spending.

The Government is dealing with the immediate financial difficulties we now face. It has also set out a roadmap for our return to economic prosperity. Education is central to the Government's framework for economic renewal. The Government is sustaining a substantial capital programme and has prioritised investment in the schools capital programme with the reallocation of an additional €75 million this year. That brings the total allocation for school buildings to €656 million, which is an unprecedented level of expenditure.

A Cabinet sub-committee has been established to look at options to maximise upskilling and reskilling opportunities for people who have lost their jobs. I am working closely with my ministerial colleagues to examine a range of policy options. Our strategic investment in Ireland's research and development capacity provides a core economic foundation as we seek to weather current difficulties and to ensure a return to sustainable future growth.

A commitment has been demonstrated to prioritising investment in education in difficult economic circumstances. Sound and responsible government means acting carefully in a measured and balanced way when there is global economic uncertainty. Difficult choices have to be made but they are in the long-term interest of the country and will ultimately enable us to build again on the significant improvements we have made in recent years.

I wish to deal with issues raised by Senators. It is important that I respond to some of the issues raised by Senator Healy Eames. One of the points she made was that the Government was putting buildings before people. I do not agree with her that this is what we are doing. I thought that my building programme would sustain 3,500 jobs. The chairman of the OPW reckoned that my building programme alone this year would sustain up to 7,000 jobs. I see economists——

Photo of Fidelma Healy EamesFidelma Healy Eames (Fine Gael)
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This is not about construction, it is about children learning.

Photo of Batt O'KeeffeBatt O'Keeffe (Minister, Department of Education and Science; Cork North West, Fianna Fail)
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The Senator should hold on a minute.

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Fine Gael)
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The Minister should be allowed to speak without interruption.

Photo of Fidelma Healy EamesFidelma Healy Eames (Fine Gael)
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I can debate the issue with the Minister.

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Fine Gael)
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The Senator should allow the Minister to speak without interruption.

Photo of Batt O'KeeffeBatt O'Keeffe (Minister, Department of Education and Science; Cork North West, Fianna Fail)
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I hear people talk about the conditions in schools and the difficulty within classrooms, yet what we are trying to do with the building programme is twofold. We are creating a situation in which young people can be educated better, where there is a better learning environment and there can be better learning outcomes overall. That is the whole purpose of the exercise.

Photo of Fidelma Healy EamesFidelma Healy Eames (Fine Gael)
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What about the children who are losing their book allowance?

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Fine Gael)
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The Minister has only five minutes to conclude.

Photo of Fidelma Healy EamesFidelma Healy Eames (Fine Gael)
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Will the Minister answer a specific question?

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Fine Gael)
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Senator, the Minister has only five minutes to conclude.

Photo of Fidelma Healy EamesFidelma Healy Eames (Fine Gael)
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The Minister is very decent. Will he answer whether——

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Fine Gael)
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Senator, please allow the Minister to conclude without interruption.

Photo of Batt O'KeeffeBatt O'Keeffe (Minister, Department of Education and Science; Cork North West, Fianna Fail)
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I will deal with the programme for international student achievement, PISA, surveys. Irish 15 year olds have consistently achieved among the highest scores of countries surveyed in literacy. In 2006 we were sixth overall and we were second only to Finland in the European Union. Irish student achievements in science in 2006 were significantly above the OECD average——

Photo of Fidelma Healy EamesFidelma Healy Eames (Fine Gael)
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Not significantly.

Photo of Ann OrmondeAnn Ormonde (Fianna Fail)
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The Senator should stop interrupting.

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Fine Gael)
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Allow the Minister to speak.

Photo of Batt O'KeeffeBatt O'Keeffe (Minister, Department of Education and Science; Cork North West, Fianna Fail)
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——and their scores in mathematics was at the OECD average. They outperformed students in OECD and European countries where class sizes are lower than in Ireland. It is important that we make that point.

I wish also to deal with unqualified teachers because it is an important issue. The House will be aware that at one point there were approximately 600 such teachers. It is my Department's policy that unqualified personnel should only be employed in exceptional circumstances and when all avenues for recruiting qualified personnel have been exhausted. Unqualified personnel should therefore only be employed for short periods pending the recruitment of fully qualified teachers. I am in the course of sending out a letter again to boards of management pointing that out to them.

Photo of Ann OrmondeAnn Ormonde (Fianna Fail)
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Well done.

Photo of Batt O'KeeffeBatt O'Keeffe (Minister, Department of Education and Science; Cork North West, Fianna Fail)
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When teachers graduate from training colleges this year it is important for boards of management to realise that it is the policy of the Department of Education and Science that only in exceptional circumstances should they recruit unqualified teachers.

Anybody who reads the report of the Comptroller and Auditor General would say that in terms of disadvantage we should focus funding on real disadvantage. We set up an independent group to look around the country to identify what schools require to be designated under the DEIS scheme. That independent group indicated that 900 primary and post-primary schools should be included in the DEIS programme. I have ensured that all of those schools receive additional financial and other resources and I have indicated to them the need to focus and target the resources on disadvantage. The range of programmes and supports in those schools is extraordinary. There are school completion programmes and home liaison, and they work closely with the NEWB to support children in crisis.

Photo of Fidelma Healy EamesFidelma Healy Eames (Fine Gael)
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It is the non-DEIS schools that is the issue.

7:00 pm

Photo of Batt O'KeeffeBatt O'Keeffe (Minister, Department of Education and Science; Cork North West, Fianna Fail)
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When I became Minister for Education and Science I saw there was a plethora of grant schemes. I saw also the Comptroller and Auditor General's report that said the Minister should be more focused in the way grants are allocated. It was suggested that one grant system for a school would be more appropriate as that would remove the bureaucracy in the school and in the Department. However, the priority in one school may be different to the priority in another school. Now the schools have discretion as to where they focus. In order to sustain that system I put in place an additional €20 million this year for capitation in order to allow schools to designate the areas of greatest need as they saw it.

I encourage schools to set up book loan schemes to ensure that children with difficulties have access to a school books. The area of class size was mentioned. The Government has provided 15,000 extra teachers in the past ten years, 7,000 of whom were allocated to the primary sector in 2002. I took up office in May and, in July, the Government found that the tax take would fall short by €3 billion. We took an action in July and the Government said it would not interfere with teachers or SNAs and we did not do so. However, the difficulty was when we returned in September, we were €6 billion short. My budget breaks down as 80% for teacher and SNA pay and pensions and 20% for everything else. I had no choice. The Government requested a 3% overall budget reduction in each Department, and a 3% cutback on the 20% portion of my budget represented a 12% reduction. I could not go back in there again and if I applied the 3% reduction to the teacher allocation, I would have taken 2,500 teachers out of the system. The system could not take that and I did not favour that. I examined the most appropriate avenue that would not interfere with the learning outcome and that would have the least impact on the number of teachers taken out of the system. I will be proved right when the teaching allocations are sent out later this year that the net impact will be 200 teachers taken out at primary level and 200 at second level.

The quality of the teacher is more important than the number of pupils in the classroom.

Photo of Fidelma Healy EamesFidelma Healy Eames (Fine Gael)
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Yes, if the Minister had invested in the teachers.

Photo of Batt O'KeeffeBatt O'Keeffe (Minister, Department of Education and Science; Cork North West, Fianna Fail)
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That is why it must be ensured in-service training is provided for all teachers in order to ensure the quality of teaching.

I refer to the substitution issue, which is important. With regard to costings, the substitution scheme was demand-led and it was becoming unsustainable. Prior to 2003, no supervision or substitution scheme was in place. The scheme was introduced in 2003 and it cost €37 million. However, when I took up office the cost of the scheme was €250 million. That was unsustainable and it could not continue to expand at that rate. I had to call a halt and, thankfully, I decided I would take a step back when I was contacted by representatives of the management bodies who indicated that if I made certain funding available between January and June, the schools would manage within the realms of that. At the same time, they agreed to a total review of the scheme during that period. The process has commenced and I am hopeful that, at the end of the day, the full review will result in a system under which each school will have a budget within which it will live and we will move away from the demand-led system because it cannot be controlled.

The provision of prefabs is an important issue. The Labour Party is trying to make a big issue out of it but it is misrepresenting the position. Many prefabs provided to schools nowadays are of outstanding quality.

Photo of Fidelma Healy EamesFidelma Healy Eames (Fine Gael)
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Not the wet ones.

Photo of Batt O'KeeffeBatt O'Keeffe (Minister, Department of Education and Science; Cork North West, Fianna Fail)
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A number of prefabs are old and need to be replaced or refurbished but only 5.5% of total investment in schools relates to prefabs. When I took up office, I thought we should move away from using prefabs and I introduced another scheme for boards of management. If a board of management erects a permanent structure, I will allocate €120,000 for a classroom rather than a prefab. Thankfully, the scheme is working well and people are adapting to it, which is welcome. I will ensure the number of prefabs is reduced as much as possible but, for instance, in developing areas, it was not possible in the past to anticipate the growth in the local population and when a school cannot be built in time, prefabs must be provided to get the school up and running. I have asked my officials to indicate to a school as soon as they can that it will be provided with a prefab as this will give the school authorities time to apply for planning permission and add on to their building.

Senators Ross, Norris and others referred to the Protestant school issue. I sought an opinion from the Attorney General, which stated the system in operation was inequitable and unconstitutional. Protestant schools have a grants system, which is not available to private Catholic schools and if a case had been taken, that would have been found unconstitutional. I had a responsibility to ensure what whatever grant system was provided, it had to be constitutional. I, therefore, met the Protestant bishops at their behest and we agreed on a system of arbitration and an examination of the overall system down the line. The Protestant bloc grant amounts to €6.25 million in the current school year and this payment covers capitation, tuition and boarding grants. This equates to €600 per pupil compared to a capitation grant of €345 per pupil in all other second level schools. Those schools receive a much greater amount than all the other schools receive in capitation. I am not being unfair to them and I have addressed the reality. I have provided for the grant to the Protestant schools to be maintained at the current level. The arrangements, for minority schools, therefore, reflect the importance the Government attaches to ensuring students can attend schools that reflect their denominational ethos.

Many other issues were raised but I will address them on another occasion. I am glad to have had the opportunity to participate in the debate. I am sorry it took so long for me to come to the House because I hold it in the highest respect. I was a Member for a number of years and it contributes greatly to democracy. I am more than willing at all times to attend the House.

Photo of Fidelma Healy EamesFidelma Healy Eames (Fine Gael)
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We will have the Minister back soon.

Photo of Pat MoylanPat Moylan (Fianna Fail)
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When is it proposed to sit again?

Photo of Cecilia KeaveneyCecilia Keaveney (Fianna Fail)
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Ar 10.30 a.m. maidin amárach.