Seanad debates

Thursday, 9 February 2012

3:00 pm

Photo of Trevor Ó ClochartaighTrevor Ó Clochartaigh (Sinn Fein)
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Ta céad fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit arís. Tá mé thar a bheith buíoch de faoi theacht isteach le freagra a thabhairt ar an gceist atá árdaithe agam anocht. Baineann an cheist leis an maoiniú a bhí ar fáil dos na hábhair oidí atá ins na coláistí oiliúna agus a bhéas ag múineadh inár gcuid bunscoileanna amach anseo.

Mar chuid de gach cúrsa bunmhúinteoireachta - agus brisfidh mé isteach i mBéarla i gcionn nóiméad chomh maith - caithfidh na daoine atá ag freastal ar an gcúrsa tréimhse trí seachtainí a chaitheamh san nGaeltacht le feabhas a chur ar a gcuid Gaeilge agus le heolas a chur ar shaol agus ar chultúr na Gaeltachta. Tá an maoiniú le haghaidh sin gearrtha dos na coláistí ag an Aire. Tá mé ag iarraidh fáil amach an bhfuil sé fós mar bhunriachtanas don chéim go gcaithfeadh na mic léinn an chuid seo den chúrsa a dhéanamh. Ma tá, cé tá chun íoc as?

I am raising the issue of primary school teachers who, when doing their training courses, have to spend three weeks in the Gaeltacht to improve their Irish and become knowledgeable about its culture and lifestyle. The Minister recently announced there has been a cut in the budget to allow them to do that. I am seeking clarification from him on this issue because it is still a prerequisite for teaching degrees that students have to do this part of the course. Who is going to pay for that? If students have to pay for it, it is estimated it will cost €750 per student, which is an extra cost to student teachers.

I echo some of the Minister's words. He mentioned that we need to look at things from a qualitative point of view, and not just at the metrics. This is an issue where we need to do that. There is a 20 year strategy for the Irish language which all parties in these Houses accepted and are fully supportive of. It was developed under the previous Government. It has been taken on board by the new Government and we have been told over and over again that the Minister for the Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht is fully supportive of and intends to implement the strategy.

This decision completely contravenes the ethos and word of the strategy and flies completely in its face. The 20 year strategy for the Irish language recommends that student teachers should follow a defined programme of language teaching in the Gaeltacht and that the tuition time and attendance of student teachers who attend such courses should be increased.

It also flies in the face of best practice, as outlined by the Teaching Council, in its new guidelines published for the teacher training colleges. One of its recommendations is that programmes should provide for an extended and re-conceptualised Gaeltacht residency which will now form part of the overall programme and be under the direct jurisdiction of the teacher education providers.

The strategy the Government told us it is fully supportive of and the Teaching Council recommends is that not only should these courses be kept but that they should be increased and improved. The funding has been pulled. I appreciate we are in straitened economic times but this is a very shortsighted cutback. People like Éamonn Mac Niallais, spokesperson for Guth na Gaeltachta, have said that the long-term effects of this shortsighted decision will cost the State even more money to put right when future teachers no longer have the standard of Irish to teach the language in our schools.

There is grave concern out there. The comprehensive study of the Irish language in the Gaeltacht, which was done in 2007 under the auspices of NUIG, indicated the language would die if we did not address at as a matter of urgency within 20 years.

One of the major issues was education. A sub-committee is implementing the 20 year strategy. It comprises members from the Department of Education and Skills and the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht. They are supposed to be looking at these issues. Did they discuss this issue before the cutback was made? This is a metric which does not consider the qualitative nature of the course, even taking on board the principles and policy of the Government.

This is also very important from a Gaeltacht perspective. It is an important industry which provides income for mná na tí who keep students and run the courses at a very economical rate. I ask the Minister of State to reply and reconsider the decision, and convey our concerns to the Minister, Deputy Quinn.

Photo of Seán SherlockSeán Sherlock (Cork East, Labour)
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Iarraim ar an tSeanadóir mo leithscéal a ghabháil toisc nach bhfuil Gaeilge líofa agam. B'fhearr liom leanúint i mBéarla, lena thoil.

This House is aware that, in the context of budget 2012 and the need for the State to achieve economic independence in the coming years, difficult choices had to be made to achieve savings. To this end, in 2011 all Departments carried out a comprehensive review of expenditure on all budgets and programmes, and proposals to achieve savings were put to Government. As one of the largest spending Departments, this was also the case in regard to expenditure on education.

In making these difficult decisions, priority was given to protecting resources for front line services as far as possible in the coming years. For example, the general average of 28:1 for the allocation of classroom teachers at primary level has been maintained and the overall number of special needs assistants and resource teachers will be maintained at current levels.

However, savings had to be made, even against a background of the expected increase in the school going population in the coming years. One such decision was the abolition, for new students, of the grant currently paid for student teachers' three week placement in Gaeltacht summer colleges. Currently, satisfactory attendance at an Irish language course in the Gaeltacht is a compulsory element of the primary initial teacher education, ITE, courses.

In respect of students in the State-funded colleges of education, the Department pays a grant of €637 per student directly to the Gaeltacht summer colleges per three week course. This is an annual cost of over €700,000, representing moneys that would have to be found elsewhere within the education budget. The removal of the grant means students will be liable for the cost.

We would all prefer if this choice did not have to be made. It has to be viewed in the context of the prevailing requirement to reduce costs and achieve efficiencies where possible. This move brings the primary ITE courses more into line with a number of other types of degree programmes, such as language degrees, where students are required to bear the costs of additional special requirements themselves. For example, there are modern languages degrees where a stay in a foreign country might be required.

Senator Ó Clochartaigh might wish to note ITE courses are being reconfigured in line with the recommendations of the Department's literacy and numeracy strategy and the Teaching Council's policy on teacher education, and the need to ensure that all primary teachers are competent and confident in their use of the Irish language, especially given its importance in the primary school curriculum. To this end, we are looking at raising the bar in regard to the Irish leaving certificate entry requirement for teacher education, but the quality of engagement during the Gaeltacht placement also needs to be of a high standard and be more focused on the outcomes required for our teachers.

Photo of Trevor Ó ClochartaighTrevor Ó Clochartaigh (Sinn Fein)
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I take it from the answer the requirement to do the three week placement will remain in place and students will have to cover the costs. There needs to be some form of recognition that there are many students from lower socioeconomic groups who will not be in a position to pay for courses, which would exclude them from the possibility of being able to complete their courses. The Minister should reconsider putting the funding is back in place. In the overall context of the Department, this does not involve massive funding.

If that is not possible, there should be some form of funding available for people who cannot afford it, are in a position of hardship or come from very low income backgrounds. Such people should be helped in terms of funding for these courses in order that there is a fair playing field for all people across the spectrum from all parts of society. We should not create an elitist situation where if one has the money, one can get a teaching degree but if one does not one cannot. I fear that could happen.

Photo of Seán SherlockSeán Sherlock (Cork East, Labour)
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The Senator's point is fair. I wish I was in a position to be able to tell him we can reverse this decision but we cannot. Some 80% of the budget relates to pay. There are commitments under Croke Park. I have to be honest and straight with the Senator. The decision has been made with regard to this budget line. However, the IT courses will be reconfigured in line with the recommendations. It is the case that the money is not there. I do not want to plámás the Senator or give him the usual political platitudes but I must be straight with him and tell him that the money is not there.

Photo of Trevor Ó ClochartaighTrevor Ó Clochartaigh (Sinn Fein)
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We could get into a debate about that but we do not have enough time on this occasion.

Photo of Averil PowerAveril Power (Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Minister of State for dealing with all four Adjournment matters.