Seanad debates

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

5:00 pm

Photo of Averil PowerAveril Power (Fianna Fail)
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I move:

That Seanad Éireann believes that:

— investing in education will be crucial to Ireland's economic recovery;

— prioritising resources at children from disadvantaged areas and those with special needs at an early stage is not only imperative from an equality perspective but also has the potential to deliver considerable cost savings to the State in the long-run;

— small schools are at the heart of rural communities and also play a vital role in fostering Irish-medium education and supporting minority faiths;

is deeply concerned that Budget 2012 contained a wide range of regressive cuts to education services, which included:

— the removal of teachers from, and a consequent increase in class sizes in, schools serving some of the most disadvantaged communities in the country;

— a significant reduction in supports for children with special needs;

— a major disimprovement in the staffing schedules for one, two, three and four teacher schools;

— an end to the provision of dedicated guidance counselling allocations to second level schools;

— a decrease in supports for third level students, including the complete removal of maintenance grants for new entrants to postgraduate courses in 2012/13;

acknowledges that savings must be made in current expenditure but believes that there is a fairer and more economically-strategic way to secure such savings; and calls on the Government to:

— reverse these short-sighted cuts in the interests of promoting equity of access to education and prioritising expenditure in areas likely to be of major benefit to our society and economy in the long-term.

Members on this side of the House appreciate fully the scale of the budgetary adjustment that must be achieved in the next few years. We know the gap between State income and expenditure must be narrowed and acknowledge that Ireland must meet very challenging targets under the terms of the EU-IMF programme and that the Government will have difficult decisions to make over the coming years. There are choices, however, as the troika made clear during its recent visit. Along with other colleagues from Fianna Fáil, I met the troika and specifically asked if the sort of education cuts delivered by the Government in December had been made at its request. The answer was an emphatic "No". Ireland must achieve its targets under the programme but it is up to the Government to decide where exactly cuts are to be made. The Government had options in the budget but regrettably it picked the most regressive ones.

By contrast with other budgets over the last three years, the distributive impact of the budget was extremely regressive. In other budgets, those who could afford it paid more overall. As the ESRI has pointed out, however, the most recent budget hit the poorest sectors of society as much, if not more, than the wealthiest. On the night of the budget, RTE's "Six-One News" highlighted how a family with a joint income of €150,000 would be down €1,200 as a result of budget changes while a family entirely dependent on social welfare would lose €1,070. Lone parents were singled out for particularly harsh treatment, as were those with disabilities.

In my view, however, the greatest damage was done in education. Under the mask of a budget that claimed to protect disadvantaged schools lay cuts that threaten to do untold damage to our poorest communities. Behind the spin about protecting frontline services and not reducing the pupil-teacher ratio lay the reality of an attack on our most vulnerable children. Schools serving the most disadvantaged areas in the country were singled out for increases of up to 50% in their class sizes. Supports for pupils with emotional and behavioural problems were axed and teaching resources for children with special needs in DEIS schools were also significantly reduced.

These cuts are not just incredibly socially regressive, they are also economically stupid. They will undo much of the progress that has been made in disadvantaged areas over the last ten years and ultimately will result in far greater costs to the State, not just in education but unfortunately also in social welfare, housing and, worst of all, in the Garda budget.

Just after the budget I highlighted in this House the example of Darndale national school, which has been benefitting up to now from classes of just 15 pupils. When the smoke had cleared from budget 2012, it became clear that the school stood to lose five of its 16 classroom teachers, or nearly one third, with class sizes set to rise by a shocking 50% in one fell swoop. The tragedy is that, as with many schools targeted for extra supports under previous initiatives, Darndale junior school has made incredible progress in recent years. With small classes and truly dedicated teachers, it has delivered a targeted literacy programme that has been held up by the Department as an example for others. For the first time, children from one of the poorest areas of the country are reading on a par with those from wealthier communities. This is an incredibly positive sign for an area that has, for too long, suffered from seemingly entrenched intergenerational social and economic disadvantage. This progress has been hard won and, unfortunately, it can be lost very easily.

Darndale junior school is just one example. Members from all sides of the House will have their own. Other schools in the Dublin 17 area have been getting positive results from extra resources, including those in Macroom and Priorswood and also Darndale senior national school. When I visited St. Laurence O'Toole's boys' school in Sherriff Street with my party leader and Councillor Mary Fitzpatrick, I saw the same effect, namely, the achievement of very positive, concrete results owing to extra resources. A national evaluation of the DEIS initiative, which was recently published, highlighted the positive impact of extra resources. It is a shame to put this in jeopardy.

The Minister has admitted he made mistakes in the budget. Labour Party backbenchers - I am not sure about those in Fine Gael - have been telling their local schools they feel their pain, have the ear of the Minister and have convinced him to see the error of his ways. They state there is nothing to be worried out. I have been on national television with people who have made the same claims, yet, two months after the budget, schools still do not know where they stand, nor do they know how they will be affected next September. The Minister has refused to answer with any precision questions tabled in the Dáil. He has refused to give details on individual schools that will be affected. From school principals in my area, I have learned that over 20 teachers will be lost in the Dublin 17 area, including Darndale, Priorswood and Macroom. The same picture is to be seen in Ballymun. I have no doubt this trend will be repeated in other deprived areas of the country, not just in inner-city Dublin, Limerick and Cork.

It seems clear that the Department did not carry out any cost-benefit analysis of the cuts. Did it weigh the short-term savings over the next couple of years against the long-term cost not just in education, but also in other areas? I appreciate fully that the cuts must be made but they should be fair and strategic. The cuts in respect of DEIS schools, in particular, fail on both grounds.

Schools serving disadvantaged areas are likely to lose out most as a result of changes to the supports for special needs pupils. The removal of support teachers for children with emotional and behavioural problems will have negative consequences not just for the children themselves, but also for their peers. Teachers will struggle to maintain order and a calm, positive learning environment in the classroom. Perhaps the Minister of State will outline the rationale behind the changes to the system for allocating learning support and resource teacher posts because I fail to see how he will achieve anything other than massive inconvenience for schools by not allowing them to combine posts from different allocations to have a permanent teacher. I have heard no rational explanation for the changes. Perhaps the Minister of State could fill us in today.

Guidance counsellor cuts will affect the most vulnerable or, to quote the ESRI, "young people from less advantaged backgrounds who are far more reliant on advice from their school in making post-school decisions and particularly decisions in relation to higher education entry". Such young people may have little or no history of higher education not only in their families, but also in their communities. Not only may they be baffled by the range of post-leaving certificate options open to them, they may also need to be convinced of the value of proceeding to higher education. In this regard, guidance counsellors have a major role to play in tackling early school leaving and encouraging young people from poorer areas to aim for the top and fulfil their potential. Most important, in the current environment, they also provide free, confidential, one-to-one counselling support to students. Many young people, unfortunately, must deal with a wide range of personal problems at their school, including bereavement and eating disorders, which we have discussed in the House, and also difficulties in coming to terms with sexual orientation. Others may be living with considerable problems in their homes, such as an alcoholic parent, marriage break-up or even physical and sexual abuse. For some, school may be the only safe space, and a guidance counsellor may be the only confidant. All teachers try their best to help their pupils and all would be like to extend a listening and supportive ear, but the reality is that the guidance counsellor is the only person in the school who has the hours and training to be able to support students with sensitive problems requiring counselling.

As with other cuts made in the education budget, the Government has tried to sell the cut to guidance counselling as a positive development. It stated it is giving schools flexibility in the use of their resources, but the reality, as everybody knows, is that schools will have to decide whether to provide counselling support or high-level maths, physics or other subjects. Unfortunately, the reality is that the guidance service is the service that will be lost.

My colleagues will touch on the impact on rural schools. As the motion highlights, schools are at the heart of rural communities. They constitute the fabric of localities all over the country and hold people together. Small schools are a vital lifeline, particularly for those of minority faiths. The impact of the cuts will be felt particularly in gaelscoileanna, which tend to be smaller schools.

The motion refers to the cuts affecting postgraduate students. It is not only deeply unfortunate and socially regressive but also economically foolish to be depriving some of our brightest young people of the opportunity to receive a postgraduate education at this time. It is not only invaluable to them but it is what the economy needs. If we are to get the country back on track, we need people with the highest possible educational attainments ready to take up job opportunities when the recession ends. I do not understand the economic rationale for what is occurring.

This side of the House accepts that cuts must be made.

Photo of Jimmy HarteJimmy Harte (Labour)
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The Senator does not accept it.

Photo of Averil PowerAveril Power (Fianna Fail)
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We agreed with the Minister's overall number in the budget. We put forward other options. We stated €40 million could be obtained from increasing the universal social charge for people earning over €115,000 but this proposal was not taken up. The Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government was able to magic up €20 million yesterday in the blink of an eye. The Government has admitted that the education cuts were not thought through. Now is not the time to rethink them and write letters to schools but the time to reverse the cuts and do the right thing, thereby protecting the future of communities, particularly the most vulnerable.

Photo of Darragh O'BrienDarragh O'Brien (Fianna Fail)
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I second the motion.

I ask the Members opposite to have a detailed read of the motion we have tabled. It is a very different one from that tabled in the Dáil. If the Senators read it, they will not be able to argue with what we are stating. We are not in any way castigating or criticising the Government. Senator Pat O'Neill may laugh all he wants but he should note that anyone who has gone to public meetings across this country, in Dublin and other cities or in any rural community, will know that this is a very serious issue. We are taking it very seriously in the motion. We are identifying very clearly what we and every citizen believes. They believe in the importance of education and of children who require special needs attention and not in undoing the good work that has been done by successive Governments over the past 15 years on the mainstreaming of children.

There are many issues that every Government must deal with. Every Government must make many difficult choices. There are many difficult choices that the previous Government made whose flaws were well articulated by the then Opposition, now the current Government. One was the increase in the pupil-teacher ratio under the last Government.

The Minister of State is welcome to the House but it is a pity that the Minister, Deputy Quinn, cannot be present. The latter is the man who initiated the review of DEIS schools. Many colleagues have raised this point. It is a pity the Minister is not present to answer the queries himself. In the amendment tabled to our motion, it is stated there is no increase in the average ratio of 28:1 for the allocation of classroom teachers at primary level. Having said that, the Minister of State knows 47% of all schools are affected by the changes proposed by the Government. Some 7% of schools in the country are affected by the changes the Minister of State has made, or the Government proposes to make.

To state that the pupil teacher ratio, PTR, is not affected in any way, shape or form is patently wrong. From our perspective, the savings that are apparently to be made amount to approximately €15 million in one calendar year. Is that the price we put on our children's education? I ask the Minister of State to think about this and show his independence on this matter. People have rightly described and criticised this policy of the Government.

The Government does not get everything right. One of the points about being in Government is realising when this happens, such as with the proposed cuts in disability benefit. That issue was first raised in this House. The Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Burton, did the right thing at the time and apologised, admitting the cut should not be made and that she would review the matter. The Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Quinn, has said he is reviewing the DEIS schools but there is no clarity yet, as my colleagues noted.

All Members are honoured to serve in a Parliament of a republic. Any true republic respects its minorities, it must do so. In the proposals laid down by the Government in the budget, 65% of all Church of Ireland schools in this country will be disproportionately affected by these cuts. That follows on from the increase in the PTR in fee-paying schools at secondary level, many of which are also Church of Ireland schools. There is such a thing as choice although for years there was not. Parents are entitled to choice. They are entitled to bring up and have their children educated according to their own ethos, or no ethos at all. I support that.

However, I do not support and feel very strongly about this absolute attack on Church of Ireland and minority faith schools in this country. However we dress it up, even though it may not have been intentional - I take it that it was not - that is what is happening. All Senators know that, from the representations they have received from schools throughout the country. Other colleagues will speak about Gaeltacht and rural schools which have been affected disproportionately. There are the gaelscoileanna, of which there are four in my constituency. I raised one of them in an Adjournment debate with the Minister of State last week.

I put it to my colleagues this is an opportunity for all of us in this House to make a decision as a group and state the proposed cuts, which would save €15 million in a year, are wrong. That is the essence of the motion tabled by the Fianna Fáil Senators. We drafted it in the best way possible because we tried not to be partisan and simply call it as it is, stating that we all prioritise education and want our children to be educated well. We want those of them who need more assistance in school, including children with special needs, not to lose resource teachers.

Will the Cathaoirleach indulge me for one moment? If one looks at what has been done to permanent learning support, one sees that instead of calculating on the basis of the number of pupils in the school, the basis is now the number of teachers. That concerns four-teacher schools and downwards. The Old Borough school in Swords, which I raised two weeks ago, is losing its full-time permanent learning support teacher. That is a Church of Ireland school but Gaeltacht schools are affected too, as well as small schools all over the country.

These measures are not right. I know my colleagues do not believe they are correct. I take it this may have been unintentional. I ask Senators to do the right thing, support this motion and send a message to the Minister for Education who cannot be present this evening.

Photo of Jim D'ArcyJim D'Arcy (Fine Gael)
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I move amendment No. 1:

To delete all words after ''Seanad Éireann'' and substitute the following:

''recognises the Government's approach to education expenditure which aims to provide for a quality primary and second level education system and to enable further education and training and higher education to make a full contribution to Ireland's development and recovery, consistent with overall prudent management of the Irish economy.

Acknowledges that:

- the Delivering Equality of Outcomes in Schools, DEIS, programme is delivered to 670 primary and 195 post-primary schools, and involves a range of supports which have been protected in budget 2012;

- DEIS urban band 1 primary schools will continue to have a lower pupil-teacher ratio than generally applies in primary schools, with an effective pupil-teacher ratio of 20:1 for junior classes, and 24:1 for senior classes;

- DEIS second level schools will benefit from a lower pupil teacher ratio of 18.25:1 from September 2012;

- over €158 million is being provided in additional resources and supports for primary and second level schools included in DEIS;

- there is no increase in the general average of 28:1 for the allocation of classroom teachers at primary level;

- the overall number of resource teachers and special needs assistants for children with special education needs have been maintained at current levels. In addition, existing resources are being used to streamline and update the General Allocation

Model, GAM, allocation for all schools;

- implementation of the literacy and numeracy strategy 2011-20 includes a commitment to support enhanced literacy and numeracy provision for students from socially, economically and educationally disadvantaged backgrounds;

- as part of the budget 2012 decisions, the number of pupils required to gain and retain a classroom teaching post in small primary schools will be gradually increased between September 2012 and September 2014;

- there are 3,200 primary schools across Ireland. Over two thirds of those schools have more than 86 pupils and have much higher average class sizes than the small primary schools;

- small schools receive much more favourable capitation and other grant payments due to the practice of minimum payments. For example, schools receive a minimum capitation payment based on a 60-pupil enrolment. This means that a school with 12 pupils receives the same capitation payment as a school with 60 pupils. Additionally, construction costs per pupil for capital projects are much higher in small schools than in larger schools;

- the existing staffing appeals process will be accessible to small schools that are due to lose a classroom post as a result of the budget measure but who are now projecting increased enrolments for September 2012 that would be sufficient to allow them to retain their existing classroom posts over the longer term;

- guidance is a whole school activity and, while changes are being made to the way in which guidance counsellors will be allocated in future, all post-primary schools will still be required to provide guidance support to their students;

- in relation to higher education the Government is:

- prioritising access to higher education by maintaining supports provided to undergraduate students while continuing to provide resources for a relatively wide number of students studying at post-graduate level;

- reforming the application, assessment and payment processes for student supports, ensuring a better level of customer service for all those who use the student grant system;

and acknowledges that the plans set out by Government in Budget 2012 form an important step in returning Ireland's economy to a sound footing and regaining our economic sovereignty.''.

I welcome this motion on education proposed by the Fianna Fáil Senators and agree that investing in education will be crucial to Ireland's economic recovery. Many good points were made in that motion. I am pleased that the Fianna Fáil Party agrees that savings must be made in current expenditure. Its motion states there is a fairer and more economically strategic way to secure such savings. Unfortunately, unless we consider the recent proposal of Sinn Féin to increase the universal social charge on middle to higher income earners, we need to save in every Department. In those circumstances it is self-evident that the motion fails. Therefore, we on the Government side have no option but to submit a counter motion which recognises the Government's approach to education expenditure and aims to provide for a quality primary and second level education system and enable further education and training and higher education to make a full contribution to Ireland's development and recovery, consistent with overall prudent management of the Irish economy.

I acknowledge the points on DEIS schools about which Senator Power spoke passionately. I agree with her that these schools should be supported. I congratulate the schools in Darndale and other areas that have worked so hard to bring up literacy levels, which is very important. The Senator mentioned the ESRI reports. In its last two economic reports regarding education, the ESRI stated that the most important feature of the education system is the quality of teaching and learning. It stated specifically - these are not my words - these were counted above classroom sizes. With the new programmes in the DEIS schools we must acknowledge it was the teachers, objectively and irrespective of class sizes, who made the contribution to the raising of the standards. DEIS schools retain massive resources, with €158 million being provided in additional resources.

I accept the point made by Senator O'Brien that whereas the 28:1 ratio is a constant in schools not classified as small, when two schools are put together there might be a slight variation in that ratio. However, the overall number of resource teachers and special needs assistants remains constant.

Senator Power suggested that the Minister of State should look again at putting together the general allocation model and low incidence special needs hours in schools. In four-teacher schools and mixed schools there might be 20 hours, and one pupil with low incidence special needs. That would provide for a full teacher. That is a helpful suggestion.

In the present economic circumstances something must be done. There is an increase in the enrolment thresholds for the allocation and retention of teachers in small primary schools. Although any increase is regrettable the Minister must save money. He is seeking to do this in an equitable way. In the current circumstances I would hope the other side would agree that 12 pupils for two teachers in two-teacher schools is a rather small ratio. The increase to 20 over three years, as proposed, is reasonable, as is the increase from 49 to 56 in three-teacher schools and from 81 to 86 in four-teacher schools. I would point out, however, that the four-teacher school is at the heart of the rural community. I taught in one for many years, moving between four, five and six-teachers schools. If in future years economic circumstances allow that might be one of the first measures to be looked at and tweaked downwards again, perhaps to 84 from 86.

This is not just an issue for the west. County Louth has only two large towns and its rural hinterland has many small schools. Some schools in the county may not have had 83 pupils enrolled in September 2011 but may have more the following year. I have referred their principals who contacted me about this to the appeals process. Senator Power requested full information on enrolments from the Minister. He will be issuing a circular on this matter in the next several weeks, which will be the bible for principals.

With increased numbers at third level, it is unfortunately not possible to grant aid postgraduate students from 2012. The alternative would be to introduce fees for undergraduates.

Photo of Averil PowerAveril Power (Fianna Fail)
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The alternative is the dole or emigration for somebody who cannot get a job.

Photo of Jim D'ArcyJim D'Arcy (Fine Gael)
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I am not going into the jobs initiative. That was not a particularly helpful intervention from Senator Power.

This motion proposes no alternatives. However, I always acknowledge, as I did yesterday, Fianna Fáil's education spokespersons' often constructive approach to education legislation and their helpful suggestions for amendments. The Government amendment to the motion acknowledges the plans set out by the Government in budget 2012 form an important step in returning Ireland's economy to a sound footing and regaining our economic sovereignty.

Photo of David NorrisDavid Norris (Independent)
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This is a very important motion and I commend Senator Power for her powerful contribution. I also commend her party colleague Senator Darragh O'Brien who made a passionate defence of Church of Ireland schools which will be particularly affected by this measure on small schools. I am particularly pleased he did so because if I had been the first speaker to raise this issue it might appear as if I were simply taking a sectarian interest. I personally believe education, in both North and South, should be non-denominational. My church does not agree and neither does the Roman Catholic Church but that is my view. It is important these schools as they exist require a degree of reasonable and just treatment.

My Fianna Fáil colleagues are correct that this Private Members' motion is not as severe as the one tabled in the Dáil. I understand why the Government feels it necessary to amend it, however, because there are certain small elements in the motion with which it cannot agree. For example, the motion states Seanad Éireann "is deeply concerned that budget 2012 contained a wide range of regressive cuts to education services". One can hardly expect a Government to accept the language of "regressive cuts" even if that is what one thinks. I know it is a ping-pong ball; if the Government were on this side of the House that is exactly what it would say.

We must, however, put the pupils and the welfare of the education system at the centre of the debate without resorting to point scoring. There are several provisions in the motion which could be examined between the Whips. I would prefer if there were not a vote on this later, not because I will not be in the House - I will be and I will vote later - but because we should be together on education.

It is true the intention to close small primary schools will particularly affect Gaeltachts, rural areas and Church of Ireland schools and those of other non-Roman Catholic communities. This will be a great pity. I accept we are in a difficult budgetary situation but education is the key to recovery. Primary education is the building block which is necessary for our country's recovery. It is a great shame the modern language in primary school initiative will be abolished. The phased increase in the pupil threshold for the allocation of classroom teachers in schools with fewer than 86 pupils will have a major impact on smaller schools. The Church of Ireland bishops will meet with the Minister for Education and Skills to express their concerns about the impact the last measure will have on their schools. I hope there will be a positive outcome from these representations.

I understand the difficulties the Government faces and that there will be an increase of 70,000 pupils in the next six years which will put the system under considerable strain. However, it must be remembered it is at primary school that the whole education process begins. The current pupil-teacher ratio allows for individual growth of a child's interest in the world and the growth of their skills. Up to 40% of primary schools are threatened by the budgetary measures but there has been no proper or convincing cost-benefit analysis. These cuts will affect front line services. Is it possible to streamline what are called back-office functions instead?

I have received a number of submissions not just from Church of Ireland schools but from rural areas on these measures. One person wrote to me that there is a general feeling the Government does not care about rural Ireland but instead is prepared to sacrifice our rich culture and historical heritage in favour of a yellow pack, "pile 'em high and sell 'em cheap" approach to education where the almighty dollar or euro takes precedence over the needs of the community. The writer feels their children are second-class citizens, just numbers and statistics to be moved around. I do not know to which party, if any, this person belongs. However, even to those who live in cities like me, many people are aware rural constituencies feel they are being sidelined. Rural areas have already seen a reduction in postal services, banking and policing.

I wish to have the matter of the effect of these measures on St. Patrick's Cathedral Choir School transmitted to the Minister for Education and Skills. It is the oldest school in the country, over 600 years old. In addition to a general education provision, its particular purpose is to help the cathedral's choir going. I must declare an interest as I attend service there every Sunday. Although it has a Church of Ireland ethos - a word about which I am hesitant as I am a secularist even though I am a believing Christian - membership of the school and of the choir is not limited to members of the Church of Ireland. Many of our best pupils and choristers are members of the Roman Catholic Church. It may well be seriously threatened by these measures. The choir is a unique institution being the only male cathedral choir with boys' and men's voices together. It is part of a tradition which would be a real pity of it were lost. I hope it can be treated sensibly.

Photo of James HeffernanJames Heffernan (Labour)
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I second the Government amendment to this Private Members' motion. Education is one of the core values and principles of the Labour Party and was one of the reasons I joined the party. To be debating spending reductions in education this evening is, therefore, difficult for me. I acknowledge the fantastic contribution that various Ministers have made to education. One of the most progressive Ministers for Education was my fellow Limerick man, Donogh O'Malley, but we should not forget the contribution made in more recent times by Niamh Bhreathnach. I do not doubt the current incumbent, Deputy Quinn, will be remembered as a progressive and reforming Minister. The Minister of State at the Department of Education and Skills, Deputy Cannon, is also doing a fine job.

I concur with the opening sentiments in the Opposition motion, which states that education will be crucial to our economic recovery. Unfortunately, education alone will not allow us to recover. Regardless of how Senator Darragh O'Brien tries to spin it, however, the remainder of the motion is a blatantly politically motivated stunt by a party that is grasping at straws.

Photo of Darragh O'BrienDarragh O'Brien (Fianna Fail)
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We have a better record in education than Senator Heffernan's party ever had.

Photo of James HeffernanJames Heffernan (Labour)
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Let us not go down that road. The Senator's party is grasping at straws and floundering. Every week we see a new stunt. A former Minister is proposing to go to jail for refusing to pay the septic tank charge. This is how the Fianna Fáil Members approach politics, especially on Private Members' time. Last year voters young and old, rural and urban, completely rejected them.

Photo of Darragh O'BrienDarragh O'Brien (Fianna Fail)
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We respect that.

Photo of James HeffernanJames Heffernan (Labour)
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Eleven months later they expect us to wave a magic wand.

Photo of Darragh O'BrienDarragh O'Brien (Fianna Fail)
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We respect the decision of the electorate.

Photo of James HeffernanJames Heffernan (Labour)
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The voters said they had enough of Fianna Fáil.

Photo of Feargal QuinnFeargal Quinn (Independent)
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I ask Senator Heffernan to address the Chair.

Photo of James HeffernanJames Heffernan (Labour)
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I apologise.

Photo of Darragh O'BrienDarragh O'Brien (Fianna Fail)
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The Labour Party made promises as well.

Photo of James HeffernanJames Heffernan (Labour)
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Shortly after the election, Fianna Fáil's leader in the other House pledged to act progressively and responsibly in opposition but unfortunately that has not happened. I understand the adversarial nature of politics but given our current position, we should be able to work together on some issues rather than introduce politically motivated motions. I remind the House that we would not be debating spending reductions if Fianna Fáil had been responsible in government instead of trying to hoodwink people with giveaway budgets during election years.

Photo of Darragh O'BrienDarragh O'Brien (Fianna Fail)
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Senator Heffernan could not describe our last three budgets as "giveaway budgets."

Photo of James HeffernanJames Heffernan (Labour)
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I recognise that some in government gave commitments prior to the election.

Photo of Brian Ó DomhnaillBrian Ó Domhnaill (Fianna Fail)
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Some 300 promises were made and broken by the Labour Party since the election. That is commitment. Do not lecture us.

Photo of Feargal QuinnFeargal Quinn (Independent)
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Senators should address the Chair.

Photo of Trevor Ó ClochartaighTrevor Ó Clochartaigh (Sinn Fein)
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The Minister, Deputy Quinn, gave a commitment that he would not increase third level fees.

Photo of James HeffernanJames Heffernan (Labour)
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The fact remains that the previous Government cost us our economy, our competitiveness and our reputation.

Photo of Darragh O'BrienDarragh O'Brien (Fianna Fail)
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Is there any chance the Senator will speak to the motion? He has not mentioned education since he got up on his feet.

Photo of James HeffernanJames Heffernan (Labour)
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Easy now, I did not interrupt other speakers. All the parties in this House have agreed to the debt reduction targets set out by the troika. We are certainly not happy with them but that is another story. We accept them and we must meet them. The Departments of Education and Skills, Social Protection and Health account for 70% of public expenditure. Spending has to be reduced. The Fianna Fáil motion acknowledges that savings have to be made in current expenditure but suggests there is a fairer and more economically strategic way to secure them. If the Members opposite can explain how we can close the gap of €17 billion without touching education, I am sure the Minister will be all ears.

Photo of Brian Ó DomhnaillBrian Ó Domhnaill (Fianna Fail)
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I wish to share one minute of my time with Senator Daly.

Ba mhaith liom fáilte a chur roimh an Aire Stáit. Níl a fhios agam cén áit a bhfuil an tAire Oideachais agus Scileanna, an Teachta Ruairí Quinn ach is mór an trua é nach bhfuil sé anseo. Ní raibh sé sa Dáil an tseachtain seo caite nuair a bhí díospóireacht á phlé ar an ábhar seo ach oiread. Bhí mé ag éisteacht leis an Seanadóir Heffernan agus chuir an méid a bhí le rá aige iontas mór orm, go háirithe nuair a ghlactar leis go raibh eolas ag na páirtithe atá sa Rialtas anois, Fine Gael agus Páirtí an Lucht Oibre, faoi na deacrachtaí roimh an toghchán deireannach. Rinne siad oiread gealltanas ag an am agus d'éirigh leo sa toghchán, ach níl na gealltanais sin comhlíonta acu anois. Tá na gealltanais sin briste.

Tá an rún seo á chur chun tosaigh ag Páirtí Fhianna Fáil mar go gcreideann muid ón ár gcroí amach go gcuirfidh na ciorruithe atá beartaithe ag an Rialtas i gcúrsaí oideachais, go háirithe iad siúd a bhaineann le scoileanna beaga - scoileanna le cúig oide nó níos lú, sin 47% de na scoileanna go léir sa Stát - isteach ar na scoileanna beaga, ar scoileanna Gaeltachta agus ar an Straitéis 20 Bliain don Ghaeilge. Tóg, mar shampla, na scoileanna Gaeltachta. Cuirfidh an cinneadh atá glactha ag an Rialtas isteach ar níos mó ná 70% de na scoileanna atá sa Ghaeltacht. Tugadh tacaíocht i gcónaí do na scoileanna Gaeltachta de bhrí go raibh siad chomh tábhachtach sin don Ghaeilge agus don Ghaeltacht, ach tá sé soiléir ón cinneadh atá déanta ag an Rialtas seo nach bhfuil siad sásta an tacaíocht céanna a thabhairt do na scoileanna Gaeltachta. Mar shampla, tá scoileanna á dhúnadh anois sa Stát. Fuair scoil i mo cheantar féin litir ón Aire Oideachais agus Scileanna ag rá go raibh an scoil sin le dúnadh.

This motion is political because the Government made a political decision to focus its attack on small schools. It made the decision prior to the publication of Department of Education and Skill's value-for-money review.

Photo of James HeffernanJames Heffernan (Labour)
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The review was initiated by Mary Coughlan.

Photo of Brian Ó DomhnaillBrian Ó Domhnaill (Fianna Fail)
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The Minister for Education and Skills made his decision in the absence of a report that would describe the outcome. To say this is not political is to hoodwink everyone because a Labour Party Minister made a political decision without reference to the findings of the aforementioned report. Why would a Minister ask principals to spend hours of their time compiling statistics for a report which he did not bother to consult when making a decision that will affect 47% of the primary schools in this State? It is a retrograde step which the anecdotal figures suggest will save €15 million per annum.

This raises questions about the promises that were made prior to the election by the parties now in government. Senators can blame whatever Government they want but when Fianna Fáil entered power in 1997, it reduced the retention figures for small schools from 24 to 12. Small schools were protected and investments were made in education.

Photo of Jimmy HarteJimmy Harte (Labour)
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The Galway tent took care of all that.

Photo of Brian Ó DomhnaillBrian Ó Domhnaill (Fianna Fail)
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It is easy to make cheap political points when one cannot defend the facts. At least 70 teachers in County Donegal will lose their jobs as a result of this decision.

Photo of Jimmy HarteJimmy Harte (Labour)
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That is not correct.

Photo of Brian Ó DomhnaillBrian Ó Domhnaill (Fianna Fail)
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That is the reason we are putting forward this motion. It will affect Protestant ethos schools as Senator Darragh O'Brien mentioned. Of the 30 schools under Protestant management in my county, 87% will be affected by this decision. It is affecting schools of Protestant ethos disproportionately negatively and is a retrograde decision. What is wrong with reducing the money going to private fee-paying schools in Dublin?

Photo of Trevor Ó ClochartaighTrevor Ó Clochartaigh (Sinn Fein)
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Hear, hear.

Photo of Brian Ó DomhnaillBrian Ó Domhnaill (Fianna Fail)
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That is a choice the Government could have made but chose not to because it is protecting schools in Dublin 4 and the plush areas of Dublin. Where is the Labour Party philosophy as enunciated before the general election to give more protection to the less well-off than to those who can drive to school in 2008 and 2010 Jeeps in a plush area of Dublin 4? Choices could have been made but the Labour Party chose not to make them. It chose to hit the small rural schools and forgot about the fee-paying schools. Why does the Government not take the €15 million from the fee-paying schools-----

Photo of Jim D'ArcyJim D'Arcy (Fine Gael)
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Where is Senator Norris now?

Photo of Brian Ó DomhnaillBrian Ó Domhnaill (Fianna Fail)
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----- and protect the smaller schools? I call on rural Senators of all parties to leave the party hat outside the door if they think this is not political and vote the right way to protect smaller schools in rural constituencies, protect teachers who have only got on the ladder of employment and protect the children we are supposed to serve.

Photo of Mark DalyMark Daly (Fianna Fail)
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I support my colleague. The Government is disproportionately attacking Gaeltacht schools, and Protestant and minority schools. When the Minister says that small rural schools of four teachers and fewer should consider amalgamation, it tells us where he is at. Schools in my area in Lauragh, Realt na Mara, Tahilla and Banawn will all be affected as will schools throughout rural areas. We are witnessing the Government closing down rural Ireland one school at a time. When a school is gone no family will move into that area and everybody in this Chamber knows that.

There seems to be a silence among organisations such as the IFA and the GAA. Why do they not come out and state publicly that they want to retain children in rural areas? If these schools are closed down, as the Minister has proposed by telling them that they should consider their future, then the very fabric of rural areas will disappear and this Government will be responsible for it. I believe many Members on the Government side do not want to be associated with the actions of this Minister. As my colleague has pointed out, he did not take any tough decisions affecting Dublin because he is from Dublin. He does not care about Senators who come from rural areas and know the consequences of what will happen in rural areas as a result of this action.

Photo of Fidelma Healy EamesFidelma Healy Eames (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister of State. I appreciate the words of Opposition Senators this evening. I want to talk about the child, the importance of the quality of the education experience and the importance of quality education outcomes. I know the Minister of State has heard me speak previously on this issue. I would have liked if the Minister, Deputy Quinn, had graced us with his presence this evening on this topic.

Photo of Darragh O'BrienDarragh O'Brien (Fianna Fail)
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Hear, hear.

Photo of Fidelma Healy EamesFidelma Healy Eames (Fine Gael)
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I do not want to score any political points here as the issue is too important. Education is the key investment not only in our children's future but also in our nation's future. Let us proceed with caution on all sides. Let us be really careful with the decisions we make. I support a number of aspects of the Government amendment. I welcome the review on DEIS urban schools. It is laudable that resource teachers and special needs assistants have been kept. I acknowledge that small schools receive more favourable capitation and there is an appeals mechanism, but we need information on that appeals process. When will it happen and will there be a particular form? Schools are crying out for those details now. The issue of career guidance needs attention.

I will offer some constructive feedback on small rural schools as the main focus of my contribution. I will give an honest appraisal based on having taught in rural and urban schools, supervised teachers in rural and urban schools, and worked in teacher education. I have three recommendations each of which carries a question. I ask the Minister, Deputy Quinn, to give small rural communities one year to come up with local solutions to plan their own education futures. I would be delighted if we could get agreement across the House on this issue tonight. At the moment these schools have not been given an opportunity to plan and the decisions were made based on last September's numbers. I am asking for just one year up to September of this year, which is only seven months away. That is so little to ask given that this is such a major decision for communities that will lose a teacher and go from two to one or from three to two because we know that a one-teacher school is not a sustainable unit into the future. Given that the babies born today will be in school in four years' time, the Minister should ask each school for a four-year plan to be submitted within one year. I ask Senators to imagine if we asked GAA clubs to amalgamate - there are more than 5,000 of them.

Photo of James HeffernanJames Heffernan (Labour)
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They are amalgamating already.

Photo of Fidelma Healy EamesFidelma Healy Eames (Fine Gael)
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I am pointing out that it is not an easy decision. There are big decisions to be taken on Church of Ireland schools and they also need a year. They need to be given the time to start the conversation to come up with a sustainable plan. It was not fair to apply the new retention numbers from last September - next September would be much more reasonable. I do not give out about the retention numbers, but simply ask for more time.

Leenane where the movie The Field was filmed is a beautiful village in Connemara and its school has 18 pupils. It needs time to plan and a serious conversation with the community is ongoing. That community is doing what it can to ensure it holds on to that village school. It is hard to imagine Leenane without a school. Tooreen national school is a four-teacher school with 78 pupils and is about to be reduced to three teachers. The community has the three and four year olds who were advised to stay at home. If they had gone to school it could have kept its fourth teacher but they did not know it would be an issue because of the retrospection.

Will the Minister honour good practice and best practice where it exists? Senator Jim D'Arcy asked not to split the learning support and the resource teacher where it is working well.

Photo of Trevor Ó ClochartaighTrevor Ó Clochartaigh (Sinn Fein)
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Hear, hear.

Photo of Fidelma Healy EamesFidelma Healy Eames (Fine Gael)
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The schools in Leitir Móir, Leitir Calaidh and Tír an Fhia share one teacher and it works brilliantly. I have met the parents, the teachers and children with cerebral palsy and autism. It should not be split where it is working, but if it is not working, then do it. St. Andrew's school in Curragha near Ratoath had the same issue.

The Minister should also honour best practice when it comes to numeracy and literacy. If the legacy teacher, who is dedicated to early intervention and reading recovery, is taken away from the school in Carraroe which has 80% unemployment, I can guarantee that literacy scores will go down when now they are increasing.

Photo of Trevor Ó ClochartaighTrevor Ó Clochartaigh (Sinn Fein)
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Hear, hear.

6:00 pm

Photo of Fidelma Healy EamesFidelma Healy Eames (Fine Gael)
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I have grave concerns about Gaeltacht schools. We are about to publish a Bill on the Gaeltacht, but how will we resource that without the schools? We need to keep the teacher where we can. Rural schools are different from urban schools and should be treated differently - I have taught in both. The Minister of State knows as well as I do that rural schools are more interconnected with and reliant on the community, and are embedded in the community. The loss of a teacher in a rural school is more deeply felt than in an urban community. It is wrong to compare on enrolment only. I am glad the departmental officials are also present. This is a mistake that overlooks the added value of a rural education. I ask the Minister to consider these criteria when assessing the value of a rural school. While I accept that enrolment at and the financial position of the school need to be considered, we must also consider the quality of the education otherwise we will need to invest in these schools in the future. We also need to consider the value of that local school to the community.

I will finish with this example. I live in a place called Maree, Oranmore. There are 200 children there now. In the mid-1980s when Garrett FitzGerald was in power there was a two- or three-teacher school there. Had he brought in this policy then there might be no school in our community now. I call on the Minister to ensure that in ten or 15 years time when we are well off again, please God, let us not have no young people in certain parts of rural Ireland. Population follows schools and the evidence is there to show it. Let us not socially engineer a solution that could erode vibrant rural communities.

Photo of Trevor Ó ClochartaighTrevor Ó Clochartaigh (Sinn Fein)
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Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit. Ní hé seo an chéad uair dúinn na hábhair seo a phlé agus ní bheidh sé an uair dheireanach. Tacaím le cuid mhaith den mhéid a dúirt an Seanadóir Healy Eames maidir leis na scoileanna beaga i gConamara. Ní aontaím le gach rud a dúirt sí. Is ionsaí ar scoileanna beaga tuaithe agus Gaeltachta é an athrú seo sa pholasaí. Níl pobal na Gaeltachta sásta glacadh leis. Baineann an chéad ceist atá agam leis an value for money audit. I question the whole idea of the value for money audit. How can a review be done before we have seen the value for money audit? Is a value for money audit really how we should approach this issue? What about a value for children, VFC, or value for community audit instead? The point made by Senator Fidelma Healy Eames is correct. A school is a good deal more than a place where there are X number of bums on seats and we should recognise as much. We should have waited for the value for money audit because international best practice shows that smaller schools give value for money.

Let us consider the results coming from Gaeltacht schools in particular. It has been proven that the standard of mathematics and English in these schools is higher than the national average. This shows that these schools give a better education. Gaeltacht schools are being particularly targeted because they have had preferential pupil teacher ratios which we call on the Minister to retain. Up to now, there has been a ratio of four teachers for every 76 pupils. This is because is it a good deal more difficult to teach in a Gaeltacht school because of the lack of teaching resources. I call on the Minister not to throw this out the window because he would automatically put Gaeltacht schools at a disadvantage.

I call on the Minister to clarify the situation in respect of DEIS programme schools. The Minister stated he would carry out a review of the programme. When and how quickly will this take place? A deadline is coming at us down the tracks. This became apparent when the DEIS rural co-ordinator posts were taken by the last Government and the teachers whose jobs are in jeopardy have something called "the panel" looming over them. If they do not put their names on the panel they will be out of work in September. Will the Minister of State clarify for the Seanad when the panel will be announced this year? Can it be delayed until a decision is made on the DEIS programme schools and the legacy posts in particular? Once a teacher's name goes on the panel they are out the door and the battle is lost.

Senator Healy Eames referred to a scoil in An Cheathrú Rua, my local school, with regard to legacy posts. One legacy post is being taken away there. That legacy post is there for a reason. During the 1980s there was considerable unemployment and social disadvantage in the area. The possibility of children going to third level education was less likely because of the traditional educational attainments of their parents and their parents before them. Legacy posts were brought in and the number was increased. This made a considerable difference and now we see a far greater cohort of children from these areas going to third level education. However, if one takes away the legacy posts, one takes away this opportunity. This is our major issue with these cutbacks.

The Government will create a two-tier education system once more whereby the people who have money in their pockets and who are able to pay for extra help will do better in school and college. They will be able to do the Masters degrees that people on lower incomes cannot do because postgraduate grants have been cut. Forced amalgamation is under way as well. Instead of a process of collaboration and discussion around what type of amalgamation is practical, amalgamation is taking place by default. Numbers are being forced downwards so that schools have no opportunity to accept amalgamation because people take their children out of the smaller, one-teacher schools in particular. We need a proper debate on amalgamation and the use of retrospective figures from last September is not the way to go about it.

These cutbacks will result in transport issues as well. The Minister has already increased the cost of rural transport for schools and there is no proper transport network available. This will affect the numeracy and literacy that has improved so much in these schools. Millions of euro have been invested in many rural schools in recent years. In some cases the rooms in some of these schools in Ceantar na nOileán or in An Cheathrú Rua or other places in Gaeltacht areas are physically not big enough to facilitate a move from a four-teacher to a three-teacher class. There is not enough space for the number of pupils in these classes. The proposed idea of splitting classes between schools, whereby there would be naoínáin bheaga up to rang a haon in one school and rang a dó to rang a sé in another school, mooted by some members of Government parties is ludicrous. Parents will be crossing over each other to bring their small children to one school and then older children to another school and then going back again to collect them. These are the type of ludicrous plans being put forward which show that these people really do not understand the nature of living in a rural community.

The complex curricula especially in Irish language schools makes it particularly difficult. Several other cuts have been introduced but other options were available. An end has been put to the Gaeltacht grants for ábhair oidí, the teachers who teach as Gaeilge in primary schools. There have been cuts in capitation and in Gaeltacht scholarships and there have been cuts in non-adjacent grants and grants for post-graduates. The amount of money being saved is limited.

Senator D'Arcy referred to the budgetary proposals of Sinn Féin. He should have read all of them. If we had taken the €0.25 billion from the €1.25 billion that we paid to the bondholders, it would have given us €250 million.

Photo of Jim D'ArcyJim D'Arcy (Fine Gael)
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I did not criticise them.

Photo of Trevor Ó ClochartaighTrevor Ó Clochartaigh (Sinn Fein)
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I did not say Senator D'Arcy criticised them. I said "He should have read all of them". Had we taken that €250 million and put it into education there would be no need for any of these cuts. These were the decisions the Government should have taken rather than paying off bondholders and gamblers, etc. It should have invested in our future and our children instead to ensure we have a top-class education system.

Photo of Jimmy HarteJimmy Harte (Labour)
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As a former student of psychology I have read a good deal of Piaget. There is an expression of Piaget's to the effect that only education is capable of saving our societies from possible collapse, whether violent, or gradual. That was written in 1934 by the French educational psychologist. Perhaps those in the Fianna Fáil Party should have read that five, six, seven or 12 years ago when they compromised the future of all the children of this country. The importance of education of children is singular. It is remarkable for Opposition Senators to come in here tonight and say that what they would have done is different. What they did to the economy was wrong. What they did to education was wrong.

Photo of Darragh O'BrienDarragh O'Brien (Fianna Fail)
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What Senator Harte is doing now is wrong and he knows it.

Photo of Thomas ByrneThomas Byrne (Fianna Fail)
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What about the Senator's comments in The Sunday Times?

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Cathaoirleach of Seanad; Fine Gael)
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Senator Harte without interruption.

Photo of Jimmy HarteJimmy Harte (Labour)
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I am now in a position-----

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Cathaoirleach of Seanad; Fine Gael)
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Through the Chair, Senator Harte.

Photo of Jimmy HarteJimmy Harte (Labour)
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I am now in a position to explain to the people in Donegal why cuts are inevitable.

Photo of Thomas ByrneThomas Byrne (Fianna Fail)
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The Senator says one thing in The Sunday Times and another-----

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Cathaoirleach of Seanad; Fine Gael)
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The Senator without interruption.

Photo of Jimmy HarteJimmy Harte (Labour)
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I am fighting for my local rural school in Donegal to get the best deal for it. We have been in talks with the Minister and his officials. An appeals procedure is in place and we hope this will be done in a practical and fair way. The retrospection has been in place for years. Those in Fianna Fáil had ample time to do that and they did not do it. They should take the blame instead of throwing the blame across at the new Government following eight or ten months in office.

Photo of Darragh O'BrienDarragh O'Brien (Fianna Fail)
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These are the Government's decisions now. They are no one else's decisions.

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Cathaoirleach of Seanad; Fine Gael)
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Senator Harte without interruption.

Photo of Darragh O'BrienDarragh O'Brien (Fianna Fail)
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He keeps peddling that nonsense and he has been here for one year.

Photo of Jimmy HarteJimmy Harte (Labour)
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It is not nonsense. If one looks through-----

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Cathaoirleach of Seanad; Fine Gael)
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Senator Harte, do not invite crossfire. Speak through the Chair please.

Photo of Jimmy HarteJimmy Harte (Labour)
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I am immune from crossfire. It is nothing new to me.

Photo of Brian Ó DomhnaillBrian Ó Domhnaill (Fianna Fail)
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Senator Harte will get caught in it eventually.

Photo of Jimmy HarteJimmy Harte (Labour)
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Senator Ó Domhnaill has been subject to a good deal of crossfire and he has deserved it.

Photo of Darragh O'BrienDarragh O'Brien (Fianna Fail)
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Senator Harte need not worry: we know all about crossfire as well.

Photo of Jimmy HarteJimmy Harte (Labour)
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It may sound like a cliché but the Minister, Deputy Quinn, has been handed a poisoned chalice. We are in a position whereby we are fighting for rural schools, DEIS programme schools, secondary schools and, ultimately, for the pupils. My daughter is eight years old and I have to explain to her that if there are cuts to the school it has to be done because of the financial situation in the country. When everything else runs out, Senator Ó Clochartaigh throws out the bondholder argument.

Photo of Trevor Ó ClochartaighTrevor Ó Clochartaigh (Sinn Fein)
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Absolutely not.

Photo of Jimmy HarteJimmy Harte (Labour)
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He does.

Photo of Trevor Ó ClochartaighTrevor Ó Clochartaigh (Sinn Fein)
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The hedge funds got it 60% right.

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Cathaoirleach of Seanad; Fine Gael)
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Senator Harte, without interruption please.

Photo of Jimmy HarteJimmy Harte (Labour)
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I agree with Fianna Fáil on the importance of rural schools in this country. No disrespect, but Sinn Féin has told us it is closing schools in Northern Ireland. The Minister there, John O'Dowd, closed-----

Photo of Trevor Ó ClochartaighTrevor Ó Clochartaigh (Sinn Fein)
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The Minister cut the budget-----

Photo of Jimmy HarteJimmy Harte (Labour)
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The Minister did not cut any budget. The difference is that two rural schools closed in County Armagh. The Minister, John O'Dowd, said:

In recent years, however, both schools have suffered from declining enrolments with only 10 children enrolled ... in Aghavilly and only 16 enrolled ... in Keady. I have therefore decided to close the schools, as I am confident that the children's educational needs can now be best met at alternative schools within the area.

He did not mention budgets, but was talking about the size of the schools. Therefore, the Deputy should not be blaming a budget.

Photo of Trevor Ó ClochartaighTrevor Ó Clochartaigh (Sinn Fein)
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After a consultation process on six principles, he dumped the education boards. I am sure Fianna Fáil would have taken the religious considerations into consideration. The Senator should do his homework.

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Cathaoirleach of Seanad; Fine Gael)
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Senator Harte, without interruption.

Photo of Jimmy HarteJimmy Harte (Labour)
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The point is that it seems Sinn Féin is justified in closing rural schools in Armagh, but once over the Border - in Louth, Monaghan or Donegal - it turns around and has a totally different attitude to education.

Photo of Trevor Ó ClochartaighTrevor Ó Clochartaigh (Sinn Fein)
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Senator Harte should realise that the British system is a completely different education system.

Photo of Jimmy HarteJimmy Harte (Labour)
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No rural schools are being forced to close in Donegal. I make this point for the benefit of the Fianna Fáil Members as well as Sinn Féin. I agree with much of what is in the Fianna Fáil motion. However, we are in a position where there is an inevitability with regard to what will happen. I would love us to be in the position in which Fianna Fáil was ten years ago when it had a surplus budget. We do not have that luxury today, though we wish we had. Senator Power suggested that €40 million could be got from the universal social charge. However, when an argument is made for funding for health services, will she say again there is €40 million to be got from that charge? We cannot just argue that €40 million can be taken from the universal charge for education this week and then next week put the same argument for it to be put someplace else. We cannot just set aside €40 million for education and then forget about health. It is not as simple as that, although we wish it were.

Photo of Darragh O'BrienDarragh O'Brien (Fianna Fail)
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Why not? We ring-fence disability in education. We can do it.

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Cathaoirleach of Seanad; Fine Gael)
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Senator Harte, without interruption please.

Photo of Jimmy HarteJimmy Harte (Labour)
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I commend and support the amendment to the motion. Perhaps in five or ten years time we will look back and say the Government did the best it could at the time for the future of our children. That is our concern. As Jean Piaget said, the importance of education cannot be overlooked. I welcome the Minister to the House and look forward to his response. We are in a difficult position and I as a parent know that, as does everybody else here. However, we must work together on this.

Photo of Marc MacSharryMarc MacSharry (Fianna Fail)
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I join with others in welcoming the Minister to the House. While we are afforded many opportunities to score political points and to have a go at each other about various issues, I do not intend to use my few minutes today to do that. There are not many people in the Visitors Gallery, just as was the case last week for the motion on this issue in the Dáil, where the media refused to cover such an important issue, concerning rural schools in particular. Many teachers, parents and children throughout the country are watching this debate online.

If people want to consider the performance of the previous Government or consider various aspects of past policy, they are entitled to do that. However, I want to speak specifically on the issue facing rural communities throughout the country. I do not doubt that Senator Harte feels passionate about this issue. I read the article in The Sunday Times in which he was fighting for his local schools in the same way as Senators Byrne, O'Brien or myself will try and fight for those in our areas. However, what I will say follows on from what our Sinn Féin colleague has said. Let us forget value for money and terms like "systemic importance" that we use so often. I used such terms my self when on the Government side of the House, particularly with regard to the banks. We should focus on the most important issue.

Rather than bounce my comments off colleagues on the other side, I appeal to the Minister of State to use his good offices to ensure that the Minister for Education and Skills sees sense on this issue. What we are talking about here is about saving €15 million. What will that mean? By 2014, saving that amount will mean that the teacher can expect to have 28 students in the classroom, from junior infants up to second class, and be expected to impart a complex curriculum with authority to all of those students and to be able to say with a straight face to Government that he or she is providing an equal opportunity to all of those students. That is rubbish.

All of us will have been lobbied throughout all the constituencies on this issue and I have been attending public meetings on it as I am sure have many others. Increasingly, what comes across at these meetings, apart from the genuine concerns for children, is the concern for rural Ireland. Where in the scheme of things is rural Ireland seen as important? Are we constantly going to look at the statistics and decide because the population is higher in one place, the other part of the country no longer matters? A parent from Cloonacool in County Sligo who rang me today commented that the rural school is the last gel to keep a community together. What value do we put on that? Do Fine Gael and the Labour Party feel that the value of holding the rural community together is just €15 million? While I disagree with him on many issues, Deputy Pearse Doherty gave an analogy of our contribution to the European space programme being approximately €15 million. Senator Averil Power provided a clear outline of how savings of up to €40 million or more could be found in the context of other choices.

At a public meeting which I attended in Curry, County Sligo, at which the Minister of State, Deputy Perry, represented the Government, he vowed to fight these cuts tooth and nail. However, he voted against the motion in the Dáil last week. A senior Labour Party member, such as the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy Pat Rabbitte, goes to see the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Ruairí Quinn, and we instantaneously get a review of the DEIS schools, but is the opinion or weight of Fine Gael Minister of State, Deputy Perry, any less in the context of the rural communities of Ireland? It seems so. If the Minister of State wants to show me the books, I will, using my relatively limited business experience as an elected Member of this House on the industrial and commercial panel for ten years, find him €15 million by 7 p.m., the end of this debate, which will allow him cut the necessary amounts of money to ensure the education budget remains intact. More than that, this will ensure the longevity and continuity of the rural communities of Ireland and, not least, maintain the building blocks in educating the children, which will contribute - as pointed out in the amendment - to the economic recovery for which the country yearns.

There is no way decent hard-working Ministers like the Minister of State sat down and presided over this cut and said it was logical. This cut is penny wise and pound foolish. Nobody with a level of human spirit, much less business acumen, could stand over this cut and say it makes sense. This is not about political point scoring. I will take the Pepsi challenge on an economic debate all day long on those issues if necessary. However, we are playing this season's game now, not last season's game and we must assess the play of the players during the current game. The Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy Rabbitte, succeeded in getting a review for the DEIS schools - which I welcome - which had proposed savings of up to €70 million. The rural schools issue makes a mere €15 million in savings. For the many people living in rural Ireland and for the many people like me with young children living there who want to see their children educated in rural and regional Ireland, I ask the Minister of State to please throw us a bone. Let him go to his parliamentary party and say that the Government is getting it wrong. The €15 million can be found elsewhere. I believe, as a member of the Opposition, in the collective ability of those on the Government side to make that case. Take control of the issue. I know what it is like to have to argue on behalf of a parliamentary party when it is part of a Government. It is not easy but it is possible.

I ask those opposite to vote for this motion this evening and go back to the parliamentary party meetings to ask to find that €15 million elsewhere. It can be found. The people of Ireland will thank the Government parties collectively if they do so, and we can leave the political points scoring to other issues. For the children of rural Ireland, let common sense prevail, for God's sake.

Photo of Ciarán CannonCiarán Cannon (Galway East, Fine Gael)
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I thank everybody for their contributions to the debate, passionate and heartfelt as they were. It is important to set out the context for this debate and the budgetary pressures we are under. We cannot ignore the reality that we are relying on funding being provided through the EU and IMF programme for the provision of our day-to-day public services. Nobody else will lend us the money we require to keep our public services on track and at this point, most unfortunately, taxpayers from other EU countries are reaching into their pockets to help us pay the salaries of teachers and special needs assistants across our school system.

There was mention earlier of political responsibility and a bipartisan approach. That would require all of us to be brutally honest about the difficulties in which we find ourselves. To continuously suggest, as the Opposition has done this evening, that there are less unsavoury options to be availed of is not honest and is, conversely, very dishonest.

Photo of Marc MacSharryMarc MacSharry (Fianna Fail)
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Give us the books.

Photo of Ciarán CannonCiarán Cannon (Galway East, Fine Gael)
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The idea that Senator MacSharry would be able to waltz into the Department of Education and Skills tomorrow morning and find savings that have somehow escaped the scrutiny of officials who have worked in the Department for ten or 15 years does not stand up. He has argued that we should forget value for money but I argue that doing so has led us to our current position.

Photo of Marc MacSharryMarc MacSharry (Fianna Fail)
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What about value for children?

Photo of Ciarán CannonCiarán Cannon (Galway East, Fine Gael)
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There is an argument that €15 million is a paltry amount but it is not. This echoes the comments of a former Minister, Noel Dempsey, not long after the e-voting debacle when he described €60 million as not a lot of money either.

A third of all public sector employees in this State work in the education sector, so it has never been possible to completely exempt staffing levels in education from the Government's need to reduce expenditure. We should bear in mind that we achieved savings this year of approximately €76 million and we must do the same next year, with approximately €100 million the year after. By the end of this process of us getting our finances back on track, every savings option available to us will be fully explored and utilised.

We must cope with 70,000 new children coming into our system and I am thankful for the great news of our increasing population. I was in another country recently which is facing the opposite challenge, and it must look to import workers from abroad. In the first quarter of last year we had the highest birth rate since records began in the 1960s. Nevertheless, we must face the challenge of finding schools for 70,000 new children in the system and creating teaching posts to fill them.

Despite demographic and financial pressures, the Government has shielded, to the greatest extent possible, front line services in schools. There has been no increase of the mainstream staffing schedule general average of 28:1 for the allocation of classroom teachers at primary level. We have protected and maintained the overall number of special needs assistants and resource teachers at current levels. We would prefer not to have to reduce teacher numbers at all but it is clear that we have, as best we can, shielded front line services in schools at a time when the Government is seeking to make significant reductions in public sector numbers in other areas.

On prioritising the disadvantaged, the Government will continue to target supports for schools with the most concentrated levels of educational disadvantage through DEIS over and above other schools. Approximately €700 million continues to be provided for tackling educational disadvantage across the education spectrum from pre-school to further and higher education, which includes schemes such as school completion programme and the disadvantaged youth programme, now under the Department of Children and Youth Affairs, and the school meals programme, which is under the Department of Social Protection. DEIS post-primary schools will be targeted for additional support through an improved staffing schedule of 18.25:1, which is a 0.75 point improvement compared to the existing standard of 19:1 that applies in post-primary schools that do not charge fees, or compared to the 21:1 ratio that will apply as a result of the budgetary change in fee-charging schools.

The DEIS action plan, implemented in 2005, represented a significant advance in dealing with educational disadvantage as it was the first comprehensive initiative in this area developed by drawing, in a co-ordinated fashion, on appropriate data sources to provide indicators of disadvantage which provided the basis for the identification of schools for inclusion in a suite of integrated supports under the programme. The Department provides enhanced staffing levels to the DEIS band 1 schools that are aimed at ensuring they operate to lower class sizes and it seems to get lost sometimes in the debate that they will always continue to have this enhanced staffing level.

The Minister announced in the House in January that the Department is to report to him on the impact of the specific budget measure to withdraw legacy posts under some older schemes on DEIS band 1 and band 2 primary schools. This report is nearing completion and the Minister will then consider it in the context of the staffing allocations due to issue to all schools. He has also made clear to the House that any changes made will have to be compensated for by alternative reductions in expenditure on primary education. This highlights that there are no easy solutions and savings which may be rowed back must be found in other parts of the education budget. The Minister is also anxious to ensure that whatever emerges from the report will be implemented on a systematic and transparent basis across the schools concerned.

With regard to small schools, an argument has been put forward that the people making these decisions around the Cabinet table have no knowledge of what it is like to live and be educated in rural Ireland but nothing could be further from the truth. The Taoiseach attended and taught in a small rural school, as did the Tánaiste and I. I attended a two-teacher rural school in a place called Kiltullagh in County Galway. My mother taught in that school for 42 years and there were 47 or 48 pupils between the two teachers. My mother taught across four different class settings and I would argue she did a very good job, as would most of my student colleagues. There is much to be said for the unique educational experience one can gain from a multi-classroom environment, and there is very interesting research in this respect showing that older students can share in the teaching process and in imparting knowledge to younger student colleagues.

We are not setting out to close rural schools and I do not know how many times I must say that these measures will not result in the closure of rural schools. There will be no forced amalgamation of rural schools and any amalgamation will come at the behest and with the agreement of the local community. It is important to be clear that the only change for small schools is that average class sizes will no longer be as advantageous as they have been in the past due to the phased increases in the pupil thresholds in the staffing schedule. Senator Healy Eames spoke earlier about Leenane national school and said there were 18 or 19 pupils in the school, so two teachers teaching nine children each is not a fair or valuable use of a resource that is expensive to provide. It is expensive to train and pay our teachers. The current pupil-teacher ratio dictates a teacher standing in front of six pupils, which is still possible in a two-teacher school but it is not a good use of that valuable and scarce resource.

Photo of Marc MacSharryMarc MacSharry (Fianna Fail)
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We could cut the electricity in rural Ireland while we are at it as I am sure it is expensive.

Photo of Thomas ByrneThomas Byrne (Fianna Fail)
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I also heard in the debate that the nearest school to Leenane is about 20 miles away.

Photo of Ciarán CannonCiarán Cannon (Galway East, Fine Gael)
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Even when all of the phased increases are implemented, the threshold for a second teacher at 20 pupils will still be significantly lower than the minimum of 28 pupils that was required for the appointment of the second teacher in rural schools prior to the late 1990s. School communities should have no reason to feel that there will be a forced closure of their local school, and no school closes because it loses a teacher but rather schools close because of a loss of pupils. Small primary schools that have had to face closure in recent years are those that are no longer viable due to falling enrolments. We now have 3,300 primary schools across the country when at one time we had more than 6,000 schools. The enrolment in these small schools had typically fallen below a total of eight pupils for two consecutive school years. This Government recognises that small schools are an important part of the social fabric of rural communities, and will continue to be a feature of our education landscape. This does not mean, however, that small schools can stand still or never have their staffing levels changed to something that is more affordable and sustainable in these very difficult and challenging times.

Senator Healy Eames suggested that a number of schools were taken aback and surprised by the proposed loss of posts as a result of the budget measure. Schools have very little time to prepare for the increased pupil-teacher ratio. The Department is considering how it will deal with schools that are facing that challenge and will allow schools that can show an upwards trend in enrolments for the next number of years, although they face losing a teacher because of their current numbers, to make their case. We are putting in place an appeals process for small rural schools to make a case to retain their teacher. The full details of the appeals process will be set out in the Department's forthcoming circular on the staffing arrangements for the 2012-2013 school year and will be issued in the next two to three weeks.

In special education we have managed to maintain the overall number of special needs assistants, SNAs, and resource teachers at current levels. We are very conscious that the staffing allocation for many schools under the general allocation model, GAM, has not been updated since it was first introduced in 2005. As part of the reforms to the teacher allocation process, it will now be updated and simplified from September 2012 for all schools through a redistribution of the existing resources. The combined resources available for the general allocation model, GAM, and language support - currently 4,700 posts - will be used to create a single simplified allocation process to cover the general allocation model for learning and language support. Schools will have autonomy on how to deploy the resource between language support and learning support depending on their specific needs and any clustering arrangements between schools will be managed at local school level. The new arrangements also provide for additional permanent teaching posts to be given to schools with high concentration of pupils that require language support. Further additional temporary English language support will also be provided, as necessary, to schools that will have high concentrations of pupils that require English as an additional language support in the 2012-13 school year. These allocations will be made on the basis of appeals by any of these schools to the staffing appeals board.

On supports for pupils with low incidence special needs we are putting in place a network of about 2,450 full-time resource posts in over 1,600 base schools throughout the country that will be allocated on a permanent basis. This builds on the interim arrangements that operated in 2011 but in a more structured and transparent manner. The teachers in these full-time resource posts will undertake NCSE approved low incidence resource hours in the base schools or in neighbouring schools. Schools are typically notified of their NCSE approved resource hours in the late spring-early summer period but also throughout the school year. Through his or her role in allocating resources the local SENO will have an oversight role in relation to the sharing arrangements between schools so that they can operate as efficiently as possible and any time loss due to travel between schools can be kept to a minimum. This is an issue that principals in rural school raise time and time again. Schools that are unable to access their NCSE approved resource hours from this network of full-time resource posts will be allocated mainly part-time temporary posts. The overall objective of the reforms is to enable the teacher allocation process to operate more smoothly and efficiently within the new climate of fixed ceilings on teacher numbers and to facilitate redeployment and recruitment. They also reflect a commitment in the programme for Government to provide schools with greater autonomy over how resources are used. The Department will be working with schools and the relevant education partners to ensure that the new arrangements operate as efficiently as possible and minimise any time lost due to travel between schools.

The motion refers to the arrangements for the provision of guidance to second level schools. As part of budget measures guidance posts at post-primary level will no longer be allocated to any post-primary school on an ex-quota basis. Until now, a specific resource was provided to all second level schools for guidance in addition to the standard teacher allocation. Broadly this equated to an additional allocation of about one teacher for every 500 pupils. By bringing about the budget reduction in the number of second level teachers in this way we can maintain the main staffing allocation at 19:1 for schools generally and allow schools discretion in balancing what they allocate for guidance against all other competing demands. I have already alluded to the fact that all 195 DEIS second level schools are sheltered with the introduction of a new more favourable staffing schedule of 18.25:1 for DEIS schools. This means that the DEIS schools will be better positioned to manage the changes in guidance provision within their increased standard staffing allocation. The departmental circular which is due to issue shortly will make clear that while the change provides schools with greater autonomy over the use of resources they cannot ignore the statutory obligations under the Education Act. Section 9 of the Education Act 1998 sets out a wide range of functions for schools of which section 9 (c) relating to guidance is but one. The Minister has not changed the Act and has no plans to change it.

School principals are being given greater autonomy over resources in line with the stated intention in the programme for Government to do just that. This is a change to how resources are allocated to schools not a policy decision to terminate guidance provision as some may choose to present it.

In higher education, the Government's priority is to preserve access to undergraduate higher education courses despite the difficult circumstances in our public finances. As a result, no changes were made to the eligibility criteria for undergraduate students in the recent budget. It is also worth emphasising that 41% of all undergraduate students currently receive a grant and pay no student contributions. Nevertheless, in the context of the necessary but difficult expenditure reduction measures announced in budget 2012, new students entering postgraduate courses from the 2012-2013 academic year onwards will not be entitled to any maintenance payment under the student grant scheme. Existing postgraduate students will not be affected. Those students who meet the qualifying conditions for the special rate of grant will be eligible to have their post-graduate tuition fees paid up to the maximum fee limit under the student grant scheme. In access terms, the requirement to pay a fee is considered to be a greater obstacle to entry than lack of maintenance support at postgraduate level. This is why the Government opted to maintain the fee payment ahead of maintenance payments for postgraduate students. In addition, a further limited number of students who would previously have qualified under the standard grant thresholds will qualify to have a €2,000 contribution made towards the costs of their fees. It is estimated this will help an additional 4,000 postgraduate students. This will require a new income threshold for this payment which will be lower than the existing standard grant threshold. The income threshold for this level of grant is currently being determined in the context of the formulation of the student grant scheme for the 2012-13 academic year. In addition to these supports, the student assistance fund will continue to be made available through the access offices of third-level institutions to assist students in exceptional financial need. Tax relief is also available on postgraduate tuition fees. While it is regrettable that any changes need to be made to student support, the Government believes that this approach will continue to provide resources for a relatively wide number of post-graduate students and allow us to maintain the high level of supports provided to undergraduate students.

On reforms to the grants system at third level, plans are well under way to replace the 66 existing student grant awarding bodies with one single grant awarding authority. The Minister has appointed the City of Dublin VEC to operate the centralised authority commencing operation for all new grant applicants for the 2012-2013 academic year and implementation arrangements are well advanced for this purpose. It is intended therefore that the new grant awarding authority will accept all new student grant applications from the 2012-13 academic year onwards. The existing 66 grant awarding bodies will continue to deal with the renewal of applications for their existing grant-holders for the duration of their current courses. This will wind down the involvement of the existing grant awarding bodies in the student grants function over a three to four year period. The Government regards this is a positive example of genuine public sector reform. I believe it will ensure a better level of customer service for all those who use the student grant system.

At a time of great strain in our public finances we have to ensure that the very valuable but limited resources available to the education system are used in the best way possible. The Government is trying, as best as possible to protect front line services in the education sector at a time of rapidly rising enrolments in our schools. It is also trying to advance other reforms including giving increased control to schools over how they use resources. The Croke Park agreement has at its heart a fundamental trade off across the entire public sector. In return for commitments not to cut their pay public servants including teachers undertook to continue to deliver public services with reduced numbers by being flexible and adaptable. It is in all our interests that we make the best use of our available resources to achieve the best possible educational outcomes for our students.

Photo of Paschal MooneyPaschal Mooney (Fianna Fail)
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I am grateful to the Minister of State for elaborating on the motion, as amended, by the Fianna Fáil group. I could not help but remark to my colleague that if we were on the other side of House, we would probably be making the same argument. I do not mean any disrespect to those who work full-time in the Department of Education and Skills. It is inevitable - it always happens - that when one proposes a motion, an amendment is tabled. That is the way politics works. I would like to pick up on the theme that was developed by Senator MacSharry. I was amazed to hear Senators on the other side of the House express shock and horror about speeches that are political in nature. This is a political Chamber. I do not want to refer to a newspaper report about one of our esteemed colleagues who seems-----

Photo of Denis LandyDenis Landy (Labour)
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The Senator should not refer to it if he does not want to.

Photo of Paschal MooneyPaschal Mooney (Fianna Fail)
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-----on the basis of media reports-----

Photo of Denis LandyDenis Landy (Labour)
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He should not do something he does not want to do.

Photo of Paschal MooneyPaschal Mooney (Fianna Fail)
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I want to do it in order to put it on the record of the House.

Photo of Denis LandyDenis Landy (Labour)
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I would not like the Senator to have to do something against his will.

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Cathaoirleach of Seanad; Fine Gael)
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Senator Mooney, without interruption.

Photo of Paschal MooneyPaschal Mooney (Fianna Fail)
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If Senator Landy wants me to be absolutely correct about the comment that was made to a Government Senator-----

Photo of John WhelanJohn Whelan (Labour)
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One of the Senator's colleagues said this was not political.

Photo of Paschal MooneyPaschal Mooney (Fianna Fail)
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I have obviously touched a sensitive nerve here. The comment I am going to make, which was often made to us when we were on the Government side, is "Look in the mirror - you are in government now, boys and girls". The Senators opposite have to face up to that particular reality.

Photo of Jim D'ArcyJim D'Arcy (Fine Gael)
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The Senator should calm down.

Photo of Paschal MooneyPaschal Mooney (Fianna Fail)
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When they do that, they will also have to learn a lesson that we learned. Certain sacred cows have to be treated with great sensitivity in this country. One of them is the whole question of rural Ireland in its entirety. There is absolutely no doubt now in the minds of the people. I heard a Senator referring to the mandate the Government received a year ago. If there was an election in the morning, I wonder if the mandate would be as overwhelming. I know it is a hypothetical question. It will not happen.

Photo of John WhelanJohn Whelan (Labour)
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It would be the same result for Fianna Fáil.

Photo of Paschal MooneyPaschal Mooney (Fianna Fail)
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The Senators opposite should be comfortable for the moment and enjoy their time in power. I remind them that public opinion has a strange way of coming back to bite one on the legs. On what is happening with rural schools and the whole rural issue, I saw it happening with the mistake and the debacle over the medical card issue, which was the most incompetent political decision any Government could make.

Photo of Denis LandyDenis Landy (Labour)
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I applaud the Senator for admitting his Government made a mistake.

Photo of John WhelanJohn Whelan (Labour)
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Just one.

Photo of Paschal MooneyPaschal Mooney (Fianna Fail)
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All I am saying is that the same thing seems to be happening in relation to the policies that are being pursued by this Government. This is one of the latest in a series of decisions that are seen as inherently anti-rural.

Photo of Jim D'ArcyJim D'Arcy (Fine Gael)
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Sinn Féin is decommissioning schools in the North.

Photo of Trevor Ó ClochartaighTrevor Ó Clochartaigh (Sinn Fein)
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If the Senator wants to debate the North some day, I can put him right.

Photo of Paschal MooneyPaschal Mooney (Fianna Fail)
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I would like to refer to a particular coincidence. One of the e-mails I received came from-----

Photo of Trevor Ó ClochartaighTrevor Ó Clochartaigh (Sinn Fein)
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We can explain it to him.

Photo of Paschal MooneyPaschal Mooney (Fianna Fail)
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I will not respond to any of this noise that is going on beside me. I will plough ahead in the best interests of debate.

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Cathaoirleach of Seanad; Fine Gael)
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I thank the Senator.

Photo of Paschal MooneyPaschal Mooney (Fianna Fail)
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As I said earlier, it is obvious that I have struck a rather sensitive nerve somewhere. My grandfather, God rest him, came from the small community of Kilteevan in County Roscommon. By a strange coincidence, one of the schools that will be affected by this measure will be Kilteevan national school. There are still some Mooneys in the area. I received an e-mail from a cousin of mine who told me that the local school is one of the schools at risk of losing a teacher in the future if the Government continues to target rural schools. My cousin made the point that such schools are at the heart of the rural community. She said they give children a sense of local identity and the meaning of community spirit. She argued that it is inexcusable that such unique characteristics of rural Ireland are under threat. Kilteevan national school opened in 1897. My grandmother and my grandfather were educated there. My cousin's children are pupils there.

Photo of John GilroyJohn Gilroy (Labour)
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It is a pity that Senator Mooney and his colleagues did not reflect on this before they destroyed the country.

Photo of Paschal MooneyPaschal Mooney (Fianna Fail)
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My cousin asked me to support the school authorities at Kilteevan national school and other schools when they protest about these measures. She went on to say that as the school has 52 pupils, it is okay for this September, but it could be in big trouble the following year. The plaque over the school says that it was built in 1897. It has survived previous recessions and two world wars, so it will not give in yet.

Photo of John GilroyJohn Gilroy (Labour)
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It might survive the actions of three Fianna Fáil Governments.

Photo of Paschal MooneyPaschal Mooney (Fianna Fail)
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They are still there.

Photo of Jim D'ArcyJim D'Arcy (Fine Gael)
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Senator Mooney forgot to mention the War of Independence.

Photo of Paschal MooneyPaschal Mooney (Fianna Fail)
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It stayed there during the Fianna Fáil Administration. It was actually built on. As one of my colleagues said earlier, Senators can carp all they like about the inequalities and inefficiencies of Fianna Fáil Administrations, but the people of this country recognise the manner in which the Fianna Fáil Governments of the last ten years, in particular, supported rural Ireland, rural schools, the education system in general and the capital programme. I do not think it can be questioned at all.

Photo of John WhelanJohn Whelan (Labour)
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Why did 12,000 people protest about education cuts outside the gates of this House in 2009?

Photo of Paschal MooneyPaschal Mooney (Fianna Fail)
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I would ask the question-----

Photo of John WhelanJohn Whelan (Labour)
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I want an answer.

Photo of Paschal MooneyPaschal Mooney (Fianna Fail)
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My understanding is that there were twice as many people protesting on the streets in recent weeks about this Government's proposals. Nothing changes in that regard. All I am saying is that the Government has hit a sacred cow. My colleagues have made the case for their motion. The Government will have the GAA on its back. When rural schools start to close, the GAA will start to lose teams.

Photo of Jim D'ArcyJim D'Arcy (Fine Gael)
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The Senator does not need to worry about the GAA. We will be all right there. He does not need to worry about that now.

Photo of Paschal MooneyPaschal Mooney (Fianna Fail)
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I have seen it happening in my own part of the country. If the school goes, the community goes. If the community goes, the people go and then there is nothing left. All of these things have to be considered. Senator MacSharry made the case eloquently that this is being done for the sake of €15 million. The Minister has said that nobody in the Department could come up with a saving of €15 million.

Photo of John WhelanJohn Whelan (Labour)
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Fianna Fáil wasted that every week when it was in government.

Photo of Paschal MooneyPaschal Mooney (Fianna Fail)
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Our spokesperson on education has outlined where the savings can be made. I repeat that the Government has opened a can of worms of enormous proportions. It will come back to bite it on the feet or the legs again. Although everyone on this side of the House has sympathy for the Government as it faces serious economic difficulties and challenges and tries to find money, we feel that the education sector should not be touched to the extent that it is being touched. It is not in the best interests of the children of this country and the future generations we all talk about.

Photo of Denis LandyDenis Landy (Labour)
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There are lots of Mooneys around, by all accounts. It is sometimes true that if one says something often enough, people will believe it. Contrary to what Senator Mooney suggested, we are not closing any schools. We are not closing any schools. We are not closing any schools. I have said it three times.

Photo of Brian Ó DomhnaillBrian Ó Domhnaill (Fianna Fail)
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The Senator is making it worse.

Photo of Denis LandyDenis Landy (Labour)
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That equates to the number of times Senator Mooney referred to the closure of schools in his contribution. Perhaps we are level at the moment.

Senator MacSharry wants to look at the books. His party had the books for 14 years. It wrecked this country. The Senator wants us to allow him to have another look at the books. It makes us laugh. When the late Séamus Brennan drew up a Green Paper for Fianna Fáil, he said we should move towards four-teacher schools as the ideal norm for rural Ireland. We are hearing crocodile tears from Senators Byrne and Mooney and others. We are trying to implement changes that have been forced on us by their Fianna Fáil colleagues. That is the reality of where we are in this country at this time.

Fianna Fáil seems to think it has some kind of grip on, or ownership of, rural Ireland. I would like to inform my Fianna Fáil colleagues that I served for eight years as the secretary of the parents' council of a rural three-teacher school. I served on the board of management of the school for four years. I led a campaign to convince the former Fianna Fáil Minister, Noel Dempsey, to sanction the construction of an extension to the school. My son and 40 other children were using an outside toilet until the Minister listened to our protests, which were aimed at securing normal human dignity for our children. Therefore, I do not need to be lectured about what we are doing with this country's education system. When Fianna Fáil had the money, it destroyed the country. It did not develop this education system when it had an opportunity to do so. My former Labour Party colleague, Senator Ó Clochartaigh-----

Photo of Trevor Ó ClochartaighTrevor Ó Clochartaigh (Sinn Fein)
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I left the Labour Party because I have principles.

Photo of Thomas ByrneThomas Byrne (Fianna Fail)
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When the Minister of State, Deputy Cannon, was a member of the Progressive Democrats, he supported our Governments through thick and thin.

Photo of Denis LandyDenis Landy (Labour)
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Senator Ó Clochartaigh is from Galway, although I am sure he was in Northern Ireland on a few occasions after he left the Labour Party.

Photo of Trevor Ó ClochartaighTrevor Ó Clochartaigh (Sinn Fein)
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More so than Senator Landy.

Photo of Denis LandyDenis Landy (Labour)
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The Sinn Féin Minister for Education in Northern Ireland, Mr. John O'Dowd, proclaimed that he wanted to close all schools in Northern Ireland with fewer than 500 pupils. Senator Ó Clochartaigh has come to the House today to tell us how to organise our educational system in the South of Ireland. I rest my case.

Photo of Trevor Ó ClochartaighTrevor Ó Clochartaigh (Sinn Fein)
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Senator Landy should know it is a completely different system.

Photo of Denis LandyDenis Landy (Labour)
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I would like to ask the Minister of State two questions.

Photo of Trevor Ó ClochartaighTrevor Ó Clochartaigh (Sinn Fein)
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They have school meals, special education and youth counselling in the North.

Photo of Denis LandyDenis Landy (Labour)
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I commend the Minister of State on his approach to the subject tonight. He has made a reasonable contribution, in the context of where we are. I welcome the decision to provide for an appeals process. This is an unprecedented year. I mentioned my involvement in Newtown Upper national school in Faugheen near Carrick-on-Suir. The school had the required numbers on 13 September last year but will, as a result of the change, be one pupil short of the threshold. The appeals system requires more resources, in other words, more posts will have to be held until the appeals system has processed such cases. I appeal to the Minister of State to raise this matter in his discussions with the Minister for Education and Skills.

Many schools have a full post for resource and learning support. I ask that the Minister combine resource teaching and learning support in one post. Eliminating travel and subsistence for teachers who are required to travel between schools would secure savings for the State. The two steps I have proposed will help address the difficult position we are in. I thank the Minister of State for coming before the House.

Photo of Thomas ByrneThomas Byrne (Fianna Fail)
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I am pleased to speak to the motion and discuss the track record of the Fianna Fáil-Progressive Democrats Government, of which the Minister of State, Deputy Cannon, was part for most of his political career, in providing education, in particular, as Senator Mooney noted, the capital education programme.

On the one hand, my party has been criticised for tabling this motion while, on the other, every speaker on the Government side has made a special plea for local schools. Senator Landy, for example, referred to an appeals system. Based on the details he provided, such a system would not benefit his local school. He would be better telling that to people in his locality. The same applies in Raphoe. Unless enrolments in the Senators' local schools increase significantly next year, the appeals system will not lead anywhere.

It is shameful that Senator Harte, who was delighted to have his photograph taken for TheSunday Times, refuses to support one of the most non-political Private Members' motions to come before the House. The text does not make any criticism of the Government but merely states the facts. The Senators opposite have all stated the facts in the media but do not have the courage of their convictions in the House. The message sent to rural schools on "Six-one" on the day of the budget was that they must consider amalgamation. Pupils, teachers and parents watching the programme at home wondered what the Government meant at the time. Now that the proverbial has hit the fan, Government Members tell Opposition Senators that we must not say the Government is closing schools.

Photo of John GilroyJohn Gilroy (Labour)
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The Senator should be honest.

Photo of Thomas ByrneThomas Byrne (Fianna Fail)
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Speaking on "Six-one" on the day of the public expenditure statements, namely, the Monday preceding the Budget Statement, the Minister stated he would ask schools to consider amalgamation. Those were his words and maybe different meanings could be drawn from them but what is the message they convey to schools? The Government has decided, on the basis that it did not receive many votes from a certain sector, that it is all right to target this sector for savings because it is a constituency that votes for Fianna Fáil.

Photo of Martin ConwayMartin Conway (Fine Gael)
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That is a cynical statement.

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Cathaoirleach of Seanad; Fine Gael)
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Please allow Senator Byrne to continue without interruption.

Photo of Thomas ByrneThomas Byrne (Fianna Fail)
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In County Meath, it was votes from this constituency that made the difference between the Labour Party winning a seat and not winning a seat.

A Senator:

What about stag hunting?

Photo of Thomas ByrneThomas Byrne (Fianna Fail)
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With all due respect to stag hunters, I am much more concerned about the issue of education in rural areas. My party will continue to hold the Government to account on its promises on stag hunting.

Government Senators have not had the courage of their convictions on the issue of guidance counsellors, about which all of them have complained. We do not believe the promised review of DEIS schools will be a proper review as we have not been given any commitments on the issue.

On the issue of learning support and the general allocation of resource teachers and resource hours, an entirely new system is about to be introduced which is causing considerable disquiet in schools. Many of them have contacted me on the issue, including the principal of Gaelscoil na Rithe in Dunshaughlin where two posts will be filled by seven people, not all of whom will be able to comply with the ethos of the school. Although they are all good people, not all of them will be fluent Irish speakers. The school principal cannot understand how the new system, which arises from a division of responsibility between the Department and the National Council for Special Education, will save money. Not only will it not achieve savings, it will cause considerable upset and disquiet in schools. I ask the Minister to ascertain whether the proposals on the general allocation, which will be made shortly if they have not been made already, will save money or cause unnecessary problems for schools. As schools discover what is being proposed, they are becoming upset and worried and contacting local public representatives.

We must stand up for small schools. As the House heard, parents in Leenane must drive 20 miles to bring their children to school. I am aware of a case in another area where parents must drive 45 miles to reach the nearest Church of Ireland school. It is pointless to argue about the unfairness of a low pupil-teacher ratio because such arguments do not take account of the distances pupils must travel to school or the fact that teachers in the schools in question must teach several classes and still achieve good results for their pupils. Nor does it take into account the traditions of local areas and the issue of parental choice. The Minister of State may be surprised to learn that there are 25 schools with four teachers or fewer in County Meath and a further 25 schools with 100 pupils or fewer, all of which will be affected by the Government's proposal. These schools are fearful and do not accept the guff from the Government that it does not have options. That is nonsense.

Photo of Martin ConwayMartin Conway (Fine Gael)
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What options are available?

Photo of Thomas ByrneThomas Byrne (Fianna Fail)
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When my party was in government, an Administration supported by the then Deputy Cannon, we introduced broad based cuts. This Government has targeted a particular sector because it believes it will not be noticed in the electoral scheme of things. That is a shameful way to plan educational policy and reveals a complete absence of strategy. The decision it has taken is based on what it believes it can get away with. The saving of €15 million comes at a price in terms of life in rural Ireland, the Irish language and minority faiths. Those are the areas that are being affected for the sake of €15 million. The Government believes it has got away with it but what will it do next year and in subsequent years when it will have to hammer everybody by introducing broad based cuts?

Photo of Pat O'NeillPat O'Neill (Fine Gael)
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Why is that?

Photo of Thomas ByrneThomas Byrne (Fianna Fail)
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While the Government may have got away with it politically this year, those who are affected by these cuts will not forget. The Government's projections are being lowered and worse cuts will be required. While I wish it luck in this respect, it must be as fair as possible. Its members should not say one thing in the media and another in the House.

7:00 pm

Photo of Tom ShehanTom Shehan (Fine Gael)
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The Minister of State, Deputy Cannon, and Minister of Education and Skills, Deputy Quinn, do not want to introduce cuts but must do so because savings have to be made. Pay and pensions account for 80% of the overall education budget, with the remaining 20% allocated to run education services. As pay and pensions are protected by the Croke Park agreement, only 20% of the budget is available for cuts. I ask Senators to suggest where expenditure can be reduced to secure the necessary savings.

I appeared on a radio programme last Saturday when Senator Daly suggested that charging the same price for diesel throughout the country, including for agricultural purposes, would secure the savings required. I am afraid that is not the case.

As I noted, pay and pensions account for 80% of the budget. Speaking at a public meeting recently, I told the 300 people present that I did not come to tell them what they wanted to hear and that they may not want to hear what I had to tell them. If the €300 million being paid in increments to the public sector were on the table for negotiation, cuts would not be needed. However, no one is willing to put that issue on the table. The decisions the Government has taken are the consequence of decisions taken by a previous Government. Under the Croke Park agreement, public sector workers decided they would work with fewer staff rather than for less money. This was the choice that had to be made and they chose the former option.

The proposed measures must be implemented on a case by case basis to take account of schools such as the school to which Senator Byrne referred where parents must drive 45 miles to bring their children to school. On the other hand, my parish has seven national schools, namely, one eight teacher school, two four teacher schools and four two teacher schools. As a public representative I cannot stand over this because it is not sustainable.

I went to a public meeting attended by 300 people and told them I could not tell them what they wanted to hear. They did not want to hear what I had to tell them. Probably two of those schools will close while the other two will be amalgamated. The parents have already decided because they pass these two-teacher schools and go to the four-teacher and eight-teacher schools.

Photo of Paschal MooneyPaschal Mooney (Fianna Fail)
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Is Senator Sheahan listening to his colleague about no closures?

(Interruptions).

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Cathaoirleach of Seanad; Fine Gael)
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Senator Sheahan, without interruption.

Photo of Tom ShehanTom Shehan (Fine Gael)
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I am stating what I have seen in my parish where parents pass the two-teacher schools and bring their children to the four-teacher and eight-teacher schools for greater inclusion, team games, sports and the quality of the education they receive. That is what people have told me and I am relaying it to the House.

As I said, the Minister does not want to do this but savings must be made. These savings must be extracted from 20% of the budget, which is unfortunate. However, we must ask why the Minister must do this.

Photo of Averil PowerAveril Power (Fianna Fail)
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As I said, Members on all sides appreciate cuts must be made. All of my colleagues made that point in their contributions but those cuts should be fair and strategic. The changes the Government chose to deliver in education failed miserably on both counts. As I said, the Minister acknowledged the Government made mistakes, in particular in regard to DEIS. It is time it undid those mistakes - not review them or reshape them but reverse them.

Let there be no doubt among Members on all sides that short term savings in education will cost the State much more in the long run. In the current economic environment in which we are looking at where to prioritise expenditure, we must be smart and think about the longer term impact and how it will affect our prospects for recovery. From a social point of view, everyone only gets one childhood. The Minister should not deprive children in the most disadvantaged areas in this country of the only chance they have of getting a fair start in life. He should not tear the heart of our rural communities and force young people to go on the dole or emigrate instead of availing of the opportunity of a post graduate education. Those are the stark choice before us.

There is a fairer way. As I said, if the universal social charge had been increased only for those earning more than €115,000, it would have secured €40 million. Not one speaker opposite told me why that was not done, including the Minister.

Photo of Jim D'ArcyJim D'Arcy (Fine Gael)
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I did.

Photo of Pat O'NeillPat O'Neill (Fine Gael)
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Senator D'Arcy did. The Senator was not listening.

Photo of Averil PowerAveril Power (Fianna Fail)
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He did not say why it was not done.

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Cathaoirleach of Seanad; Fine Gael)
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Senator Power, without interruption.

Photo of Jim D'ArcyJim D'Arcy (Fine Gael)
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I said there had to be a balance between Departments.

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Cathaoirleach of Seanad; Fine Gael)
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Senator Power, without interruption.

Photo of Averil PowerAveril Power (Fianna Fail)
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Okay. Perhaps the Senator believes there are good reasons for not increasing the universal social charge for those earning more than €115,000 but I do not. The wealthiest people in this country should pay the most during our current difficulties and those who are most vulnerable should be protected.

(Interruptions).

Photo of Pat O'NeillPat O'Neill (Fine Gael)
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Where did we get the universal social charge? We changed it.

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Cathaoirleach of Seanad; Fine Gael)
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Senator Power, without interruption.

Photo of Averil PowerAveril Power (Fianna Fail)
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Senator O'Neill's good friend, the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Hogan, was able to find €20 million yesterday for the septic tank registration.

Photo of Pat O'NeillPat O'Neill (Fine Gael)
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That money was never collected, so it is not a saving.

Photo of Averil PowerAveril Power (Fianna Fail)
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The children from our most disadvantaged areas deserve the same ingenuity the Minister, Deputy Hogan, was able to bring to the septic tank issue.

Photo of Brian Ó DomhnaillBrian Ó Domhnaill (Fianna Fail)
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Phil the fiver.

Photo of Averil PowerAveril Power (Fianna Fail)
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We should look for a sensible way to look after children from the most disadvantaged areas who will be affected for the rest of their lives by these cuts. We should look at this with the same ingenuity I respectfully acknowledged the Minister brought to the septic tank issue.

Photo of Pat O'NeillPat O'Neill (Fine Gael)
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On a point of order, the water services legislation stated "up to €50". It did not state-----

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Cathaoirleach of Seanad; Fine Gael)
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Senator O'Neill, that is not a point of order.

Photo of Pat O'NeillPat O'Neill (Fine Gael)
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It is a point of order.

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Cathaoirleach of Seanad; Fine Gael)
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Senator Power, without interruption.

Photo of Averil PowerAveril Power (Fianna Fail)
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The Minister was in the House-----

Photo of Pat O'NeillPat O'Neill (Fine Gael)
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I wanted to correct the record.

Photo of Averil PowerAveril Power (Fianna Fail)
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-----for more than 20 hours of debate on septic tanks and during all of that time insisted that the €50 had to be paid. Somehow, between when it was last debated in this House and-----

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Cathaoirleach of Seanad; Fine Gael)
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Senator Power, we are on education.

Photo of Averil PowerAveril Power (Fianna Fail)
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-----yesterday, he managed to find €20 million. I congratulate the Minister on being able to find a sensible outcome to that issue.

(Interruptions).

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Cathaoirleach of Seanad; Fine Gael)
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Senator Power, without interruption.

Photo of Jim D'ArcyJim D'Arcy (Fine Gael)
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I am enjoying listening to Senator Power give us the Sinn Féin policies.

Photo of Martin ConwayMartin Conway (Fine Gael)
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She is not speaking to the motion.

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Cathaoirleach of Seanad; Fine Gael)
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Senator Power, without interruption.

Photo of Darragh O'BrienDarragh O'Brien (Fianna Fail)
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I think our speaker should be afforded some protection.

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Cathaoirleach of Seanad; Fine Gael)
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Senator Power, without interruption.

Photo of Averil PowerAveril Power (Fianna Fail)
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I am not only responding to the last point of order but I am responding to requests made by several-----

Photo of Martin ConwayMartin Conway (Fine Gael)
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On a point of order, it is now 7.05 p.m. Two hours have elapsed. It is time the Cathaoirleach put the question.

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Cathaoirleach of Seanad; Fine Gael)
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Can Senator Power conclude without interruption?

Photo of Brian Ó DomhnaillBrian Ó Domhnaill (Fianna Fail)
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The Senator does not want to hear the truth.

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Cathaoirleach of Seanad; Fine Gael)
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Can Senator Power conclude without interruption?

Photo of Averil PowerAveril Power (Fianna Fail)
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I was responding to requests by Members to explain where we would find the money and why we believe there is a fairer way. That was my answer.

Photo of Jim D'ArcyJim D'Arcy (Fine Gael)
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It is gone septic. We should be finished by now.

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Cathaoirleach of Seanad; Fine Gael)
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Can we have respect for the Senator? She has the right to reply for five minutes.

Photo of Averil PowerAveril Power (Fianna Fail)
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I genuinely accept that voting against our motion will be difficult for Members opposite and I understand that is why they are shouting at me to divert from the motion and the debate we have had. I appreciate it is difficult for them to go back to their areas to sell this and stand over these cuts. I ask those Members to reflect on the impact the cuts will have, in particular on the most disadvantaged communities. Even if they vote against the motion, will they implore the Minister to look again at this to ensure the review he announced in regard to DEIS is real and meaningful and is not just a PR exercise, at the impact on those rural schools which will be hardest hit and at post graduate grants. I appreciate that for political reasons those opposite will not support the motion but I ask them to ask the Minister to think again because they are all genuine people and care about this.

Photo of Jimmy HarteJimmy Harte (Labour)
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What about the builders who still have a lot of money?

Amendment put:

The Seanad Divided:

For the motion: 30 (Ivana Bacik, Paul Bradford, Terry Brennan, Colm Burke, Deirdre Clune, Eamonn Coghlan, Paul Coghlan, Michael Comiskey, Martin Conway, Maurice Cummins, Jim D'Arcy, Michael D'Arcy, John Gilroy, Jimmy Harte, Aideen Hayden, Fidelma Healy Eames, James Heffernan, Imelda Henry, Lorraine Higgins, Caít Keane, John Kelly, Denis Landy, Maire Maloney, Mary Moran, Tony Mulcahy, Michael Mullins, Marie Louise O'Donnell, Pat O'Neill, Tom Shehan, John Whelan)

Against the motion: 18 (Thomas Byrne, David Cullinane, Mark Daly, Terry Leyden, Marc MacSharry, Paschal Mooney, Rónán Mullen, David Norris, Trevor Ó Clochartaigh, Brian Ó Domhnaill, Labhrás Ó Murchú, Darragh O'Brien, Ned O'Sullivan, Averil Power, Kathryn Reilly, Jillian van Turnhout, Jim Walsh, Diarmuid Wilson)

Tellers: Tá, Senators Ivana Bacik and Paul Coghlan; Níl, Senators Averil Power and Diarmuid Wilson.

Amendment declared carried.

Question put: "That the motion, as amended, be agreed to."

The Seanad divided by electronic means.

Photo of Diarmuid WilsonDiarmuid Wilson (Fianna Fail)
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Under Standing Order 62(3)(b), I request that the division be taken again other than by electronic means.

Question put: "That the motion, as amended, be agreed to."

The Seanad Divided:

For the motion: 30 (Ivana Bacik, Paul Bradford, Terry Brennan, Colm Burke, Deirdre Clune, Eamonn Coghlan, Paul Coghlan, Michael Comiskey, Martin Conway, Maurice Cummins, Jim D'Arcy, Michael D'Arcy, John Gilroy, Jimmy Harte, Aideen Hayden, Fidelma Healy Eames, James Heffernan, Imelda Henry, Lorraine Higgins, Caít Keane, John Kelly, Denis Landy, Maire Maloney, Mary Moran, Tony Mulcahy, Michael Mullins, Marie Louise O'Donnell, Pat O'Neill, Tom Shehan, John Whelan)

Against the motion: 18 (Thomas Byrne, David Cullinane, Mark Daly, Terry Leyden, Marc MacSharry, Paschal Mooney, Rónán Mullen, David Norris, Trevor Ó Clochartaigh, Brian Ó Domhnaill, Labhrás Ó Murchú, Mary Ann O'Brien, Ned O'Sullivan, Averil Power, Kathryn Reilly, Jillian van Turnhout, Jim Walsh, Diarmuid Wilson)

Tellers: Tá, Senators Ivana Bacik and Paul Coghlan; Níl, Senators Averil Power and Diarmuid Wilson.

Question declared carried.

Photo of Tom ShehanTom Shehan (Fine Gael)
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When is it proposed to sit again?

Photo of Maurice CumminsMaurice Cummins (Fine Gael)
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Ar 10.30 maidin amárach.