Seanad debates

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

6:00 am

Photo of Fidelma Healy EamesFidelma Healy Eames (Fine Gael)
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To sum up in regard to the VEC issue, we are very disappointed. It is clear no thought went into it and it is a half-baked approach to restructuring. Listening to how it was managed, it seems as if the Department just added up the money to ensure every VEC cost approximately €50 million to run. That is very disappointing because this should be about an education service. I appeal to the Minister of State to consider the scaling down of which I spoke.

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Fine Gael)
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The Senator should speak on the Adjournment.

Photo of Fidelma Healy EamesFidelma Healy Eames (Fine Gael)
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The matter I have tabled refers to school chairs. While this might seem trivial, I have some good news in that it will not cost a penny but will save many people's backs from future pain. Is the Department of Health and Children aware of the long-term damage to children's backs and overall posture caused by backward-sloping school chairs that are used as standard practice in all Irish schools today? A number of years ago, I wrote a book entitled Switching On For Learning, one of the chapters of which concerned good posture, the Alexander technique and how backward-sloping school chairs are affecting children's posture. As the Minister of State knows, children spend years of their lives sitting on such chairs.

One can do a test to assess a chair. If a pen is put on a chair and it rolls backward, it is a poor chair. If the pen sits still, the chair is fine.

According to a recent report by the National Back Pain Association in the UK, backward-sloping school chairs are a primary cause of back problems in later life. According to CureResearch, 87,563 people in Ireland suffer from back pain. A vast amount is being spent on treatment, loss in productivity, absenteeism and sick pay. We are not proposing to change all the school furniture but to change the legislation to make all school chairs flat in future. This will cost the Government nothing because I propose that as school chairs wear out, they would be replaced with those that are flat and good for the back. This will save billions of euro in health care costs and will produce a healthier population with better posture in the future. It is important to state that this measure is cost neutral. It will cost nothing because I suggest it should be introduced over time.

The Minister of State should listen to the following for a ludicrous situation. Mr. Richard Brennan, who helps people with posture problems through the Alexander technique, was told by the Department of Education and Science in Tullamore in 2002 that legislation stated that all schools chairs must slope backwards by at least 4° as it is a safety factor when the chairs are being stacked. Why should the stacking of school chairs be more important than the damage to young people's backs?

To outline some facts in this regard, chronic back pain is costing each sufferer in Ireland €6,000 to €10,000 a year when loss of earnings, hospital fees and bills for other medical treatments and supports are added up. The calculations were part of a two-year study by the Centre for Pain Research at NUI Galway, which found one in three adults contacted through general practitioner surgeries suffered chronic pain and had been in pain for an average of seven and a half years. Back pain was the most common cause in people up to age 65, in other words, younger people. People with higher levels of pain had on average four hospital stays, eight outpatient appointments and nine GP visits per year, and also required home help, specialist equipment and other supports later in life, which, combined with loss of work, put the cost of their condition at approximately €9,564 per person per year. That is the position. I request that the Minister of State, Deputy Haughey, inform the Tánaiste and Minister for Education and Skills and the Minister for Health and Children of the fact that we could prevent much of the damage done to young people's backs by replacing sloping school chairs with flat backed chairs.

Photo of Seán HaugheySeán Haughey (Minister of State, Department of Education and Science; Minister of State, Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment; Dublin North Central, Fianna Fail)
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I am taking this matter on behalf of the Tánaiste and Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Mary Coughlan. I thank the Senator for raising it because it gives me an opportunity to outline to the House the Government's strategy for capital investment in education projects, including investment in furniture and equipment in primary and post-primary schools and, in particular, the Department's requirements in respect of the specifications and standards which must be met with regard to the supply of furniture and equipment to all schools.

Modernising facilities, including furniture and equipment, in our existing building stock as well as the requirement to respond to emerging needs in areas of rapid population growth is a significant challenge. The Government has shown a consistent determination to improve the condition of school buildings and to ensure the appropriate facilities are in place to enable the implementation of a broad and balanced curriculum.

In 2009 the Department spent in excess of €17.7 million on the provision of furniture and equipment in primary and post-primary schools. This investment was used to provide furniture and equipment in new schools and classrooms that opened during 2009 and also to provide replacement furniture and equipment in existing schools and classrooms. To date in 2010, the Department has paid out grants totalling in excess of €8.1 million in respect of furniture and equipment.

The general position is that where the provision of school furniture and equipment is being grant aided by the Department, all furniture and equipment supplied must comply with the Department's specifications. A copy of these specifications is available on the Department's website. The specifications to which I refer state that all furniture must be durable and safe for school use and must comply fully with the specifications as set out by the Department, all furniture must comply fully with European -EN - standards, both established and developing, all furniture being proposed by suppliers must be accompanied by documentation of sufficient detail to allow for full evaluation by schools, and any supply must include a completed and signed certificate of compliance with all relevant standards. The Department's specifications for chairs require that they should conform to the Irish and European standard, which is IS EN 1729 - furniture, tables and chairs for educational institutions. This is a recent standard dating from 2006 and it would not be appropriate to use a specification in conflict with it.

Before placing contracts for school furniture, it is open to school management authorities to request furniture suppliers to submit prototypes or samples of proposed furniture to the National Standards Authority of Ireland for performance testing. Schools are advised that the workmanship, finish, etc. must in all cases be equal to the standard of the prototypes or samples provided for testing and all furniture not manufactured strictly in accordance with this condition is to be rejected. Schools are also advised, in the Department's furniture specifications, that careful consideration should be given at the time of ordering to the size range of furniture required. With regard to chairs and tables, there are eight different size marks, 0-7, which are colour coded, as defined in IS EN 1729. Broadly speaking the furniture size required by a student is related to his or her stature, with perhaps the most appropriate parameter being the popliteal height. For someone seated, this is the distance from the underside of the foot to the underside of the thigh at the knee.

The health and safety of pupils is in the first instance a matter for each board of management. This includes ensuring school furniture, including school chairs, complies with the Department's specification as well as the appropriate Irish and European standards. School management authorities are advised to carry out regular health and safety audits of their school buildings, including the furniture and equipment they contain. Where items are found not to be in compliance with Department specifications or health and safety guidelines, it is open to school authorities to apply for funding to replace these items.

I again thank the Senator for giving me the opportunity to outline the current position regarding supply of furniture and equipment to schools.

Photo of Fidelma Healy EamesFidelma Healy Eames (Fine Gael)
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Who informs the standard, IS EN 1729, to which the Minister of State refers? Does it relate to sloping chairs? If so, how can we change the practice that obtains?

Photo of Seán HaugheySeán Haughey (Minister of State, Department of Education and Science; Minister of State, Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment; Dublin North Central, Fianna Fail)
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I am not in possession of the particular detail the Senator requires. She has raised a very interesting issue and I will investigate it further on her behalf.

Photo of Fidelma Healy EamesFidelma Healy Eames (Fine Gael)
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I would appreciate that, especially in the context of preventing damage to children's backs.