Seanad debates

Tuesday, 27 April 2010

2:30 pm

Photo of Joe O'TooleJoe O'Toole (Independent)
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I thank the Minister of State for attending the House to deal with this issue on behalf of the Tánaiste and Minister for Education and Science, with whom I have discussed it, as well as with her predecessor, Deputy Batt O'Keeffe. It concerns the system that operates when a school needs a teacher to cover for an absent teacher. A teacher may be absent for a variety of valid reasons, including illness or attendance at a course. In a small number of areas a primary school supply panel has been created. Only 60 teachers in the whole country are involved. However, the decision taken by the Government to abolish the supply panel is having a negative impact. At a time when we are trying to adopt a positive approach to how the Government views education, the support structures in place are hugely important. I accept there is a need to cut back on costs everywhere, but that is not what we are talking about in this instance. However, the Minister needs to review the decision to abolish the supply panel. She should investigate ways by which a more cost-effective or cost-neutral supply panel could be created. In this regard, the decision to abolish the supply panel should be and could be suspended for one year. Let the hare sit on it.

This is a major issue, particularly in the Dublin area, which is of critical importance in the discussions on the Croke Park agreement. While it might seem like small beer in the Department of Education and Science, it is sending a completely negative signal at a crucially sensitive time. I ask the Minister to respect and recognise this, as I am sure she must. This decision should not be proceeded with now, if at all, certainly not at this time.

I propose a different way of dealing with the matter. Instead of abolishing the supply panel, the Minister should examine how it works and suspend for one year a decision on its abolition. It should be determined whether the scheme could be made cost neutral. This is a fair offer which I have discussed with the INTO. I have spoken to its general secretary, Ms Sheila Nunan, about the issue and she is very supportive of what I have proposed. I have also discussed it with the new Minister for Community, Equality and Gaeltacht Affairs, Deputy Carey. There are a number of supply panels in his constituency. Having been a teacher in one of the schools in question, he fully understands the situation and completely supports what I am proposing as a good, sensible and positive idea.

If a review were to be undertaken by the education partners - management, teachers, parents and the Department - they could examine how they might deal with the issue which the former Minister, Deputy Batt O'Keeffe, examined. The last time I discussed it with him he said he had come to the conclusion that only 60% of the available teaching resources were being used all the time. I hope the Minister of State will not say this. From my experience, I cannot contradict this, but what I am being told is not at one with that viewpoint. If the Department has come to the conclusion that only 60% of resources are being used, the Minister could do one of two things for the next 12 months. She could increase the number of schools covered by the same number of teachers by 40% to provide 100% cover, if that is seen as fair, or she could reduce the number of schools being covered by the supply panel in order that requirements are met. If the Department believes the available resources are not being used to the full, although that is not my information, let us look at the matter and prove the information to each other. There is nowhere to hide on this matter - it is either right or wrong. I am not saying for one minute that the Department is being dishonest in this regard, but if it believes this and teachers believe otherwise, let us find out what the facts are. We could then adjust the number of schools or the number of teachers to meet demand. It would also show goodwill. In addition, it would show in recessionary times that while we have to cut back, we would not lose structures. Structures should not be dispensed with, seeing that, according to the Government, we have turned the corner. If we have done so, we will at some stage have to rebuild these processes and support structures. We do not need to throw the baby out with the bath water. If something needs to be changed, let us change it. If something needs to be more productive and the Department is stating it is not meeting its requirements, let us adjust it in order that the Department meets its needs. We should use our imagination in this regard.

I know the Department will not accept this, but I think the Department of Finance said, "Cut some money out of this," and the Department of Education and Science jumped, as it always jumps to the tune of the Department of Finance. Let us examine this issue in a practical, educational and pragmatic way. The way to deal with it is by negotiation. There are different points of view, but everyone agrees it is a good idea to have teachers available for schools which need them. It should be remembered that the schools covered by the supply panels tend to be mainly DÉIS schools. The problem with such schools in disadvantaged areas is that they are always the ones which encounter most difficulty in finding temporary or substitute teachers because people tend to go to schools where there are fewer problems, less pressure and reduced tension. Everybody agrees that the scheme was a good idea.

The Government needs to reduce costs and there are several ways of doing it. It could throw the baby out with the bathwater and get rid of the whole scheme, which is a bad idea and would not be a great saving as teachers doing the job currently would have to be reabsorbed into the system. They would not be sacked but have redeployment rights as part of their contract. Therefore, it is not as if the Government would save 60 jobs. The teachers would come into the system another way and the job they were doing previously would be covered by substitutes taken on board for a day or a week or two weeks, etc. Rather than do that, the Minister should adjust the system by changing either the number of schools or teachers to better meet the demand. She should do that in consultation with the education partners - the management, the parents, the teachers and the Department. We need to come to a deal on this.

Let us be conscious of the sensitive times we are in. People are looking for every reason to show their distrust of Government and to show it does not care about issues of education and health. I am not asking the Minister to do anything hugely significant in terms of savings to the economy, but I am saying she should hold off and review what is being done, establish the facts and adjust to meet the needs.

Photo of Conor LenihanConor Lenihan (Minister of State, Department of Education and Science; Minister of State, Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources; Minister of State, Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment; Dublin South West, Fianna Fail)
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I am taking this matter on behalf of my colleague, the Tánaiste and Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Mary Coughlan. I thank the Senator for raising the issue and will be glad to outline the general position on the supply teacher scheme at primary level.

The supply teacher scheme was initially set up at primary level more than 15 years ago at a time when schools had difficulty getting substitute teachers. The supply scheme operates on the basis of an additional full-time teacher being allocated to a school to cover certified sick leave absences in that school and a cluster of neighbouring schools. If the teacher is not required on a given day to cover sick leave absences, he or she generally assists with other work in the school such as administrative duties. There are 60 posts allocated to the scheme.

A value for money review of the supply teacher scheme was published in July 2006. The Senator may not like to hear this but the review found that approximately 60% of these teachers' time was used to cover sick leave absences, with the balance spent on various other school duties. This reflects the unpredictable nature of sick leave absences. While there are benefits for schools in having these full-time teachers, it is considered more cost-effective to use the normal substitution arrangements that apply to all other schools to cover sick leave absences instead of having a cohort of full-time teachers on call all the time in these schools to cover sick leave absences that may or may not arise.

I do not have to outline for Senators the current economic, fiscal and budgetary challenges facing the State. Addressing those challenges requires decisions that, if resources were more readily available, we would prefer not to have to take. In that context, it has been decided to discontinue the supply teacher scheme from the start of the 2010-2011 school year. It is expected that this will save €400,000 in 2010 and €1.1 million in a full year. The teachers concerned will be redeployed in accordance with the existing redeployment arrangements to other schools that have vacancies. I thank the Senator once again for raising this matter.

Photo of Joe O'TooleJoe O'Toole (Independent)
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I regret the fact the Minister has not moved one bit since we last discussed this issue. We are dealing with the most disadvantaged schools in many cases. The supply panel presents teachers who are qualified, experienced and vetted at a time when that is important. Withdrawing the scheme is regressive in a way that lacks planning and vision. I cannot understand the figures or how this saves €1.1 million. I cannot work that out and will come back to the issue. I cannot see how it could possibly do that. The teachers provide cover in the schools in question, but those schools will now have to put in substitute teachers and pay them daily.

The removal of the scheme is regrettable, sends out a wrong signal and gives the impression the Government does not care. I suggested a way of dealing with the issue and suggested it should be done in a cost neutral way, saving, for example, 50% or 40% of the cost. The Minister of State has not quite said that the scheme is only approximately 60% effective, but that is what he inferred. I suggest that if that is the case, we should save on 40% of the cost but keep the structure. The change should be cost neutral. How can the Department of Finance argue against running the scheme on a cost neutral basis? We should consider what needs to be saved and save it. I regret that has not been done. I urge the Minister of State to take my suggestion back to the Minister and ask her to reconsider the situation and put the plans to abolish the scheme on hold until we establish all the facts.