Thursday, 6 October 2016
Action Plan for Education: Statements
I thank the Senators for having scheduled this debate. As they can imagine, I am very keen to put forward the case that education is absolutely pivotal to our future challenges. This Government has set two main challenges. I think we all see two main challenges. One is how to sustain the progress to reach full employment, which is very important if we are to be able to say that every person who wants to work will be able to have access to a job that will support his or her ambition. The second is our desire to ensure that we have a fair society, in particular that we break cycles of disadvantage. If one thinks about those two goals for any length of time and steps back from them, one will see that education is pivotal to both. We cannot have a sustainable full-employment economy without massive investment in the talent that will support it. I previously had the job of Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation and if one talks to any employer about the challenges they face now, it is, as they would describe it, a war for talent. They must also be drivers of innovation within their businesses. They must do things in a different way if they are to succeed in entering new markets. This is particularly so after the decision of the British people to exit the European Union, when we are now faced with the need to diversify and be innovative in our markets. We also need to be able to fill skills gaps as they emerge. We need to be able to support entrepreneurship. Two out of every three jobs come from companies within the first five years of their lives.
At the heart of an awful lot of the talent drive that fuels enterprise is the education system. Equally, if one considers the challenge of creating a fair society, anyone will see that the key to resolving cycles of disadvantage will be built around education. We have so often seen that in some schools, a teacher can predict that a certain child will not progress, that instead of progressing to higher education, a good job or an apprenticeship, he or she is destined for something different and will face into difficulties in his or her life. Education is the key that can break down those barriers and open up new opportunities. Education is the key that can help young people develop the personal resilience to deal with many of the stresses faced in later life. Education is the key to setting out pathways that allow people who perhaps did not succeed the first time around in their education to find their way back and through to traineeships, apprenticeships and so on.
Therefore, on both core objectives that we have set, education is the key. The challenge for me and others is to set out a strategic vision for the country that can win the support of our community for investment in education. That is exactly what the Action Plan for Education is all about. It has a strategic vision that, within ten years, we would become the best education service in Europe. That is a bold ambition but it is a realistic one, in my view, because across many areas, we are already very strong performers. Many rank our education system as it is among the first five or six in Europe. In areas such as literacy, we do very well but not quite so well in mathematics or science. We have the highest rate in Europe of enrolment in the so-called STEM subjects in our universities. We have the highest rate in Europe of participation in third level. We have one of the best performances in research and the capacity to turn our investment in research into genuine innovation that changes things. We are, therefore, strong in many dimensions but we are weak in many others. For example, lifelong learning is an area which we need to consider and in which we are weak. We are one of the laggards in Europe for making sure that people who are in work continually renew their skills.
We need to close the gap between disadvantaged schools and other schools but it is fair to say that the DEIS scheme has been very successful. The drop-out rate has fallen sharply. It was 32% just a few years ago, in 2001. It has now come down very significantly, despite all the difficulties, to just 18% and we need to sustain that progress. That is why we have created an Action Plan for Education. We also built on my experience in the enterprise. Education is a complex Department. It has many individual strategies, and it is very important to integrate those series of strategies around some shared goals that would apply at all levels - first, second, third and fourth levels - and would integrate the strategies to make sure we are implementing them appropriately, setting the right priorities to achieve the high goals.
The goals are ones that I hope will lend themselves to the Seanad. They are built around firstly reducing the level of disadvantage and making sure those who come to the education system with a disadvantage progress. That is measured in progression to third level or apprenticeship or traineeship, in a lower still drop-out rate and in improved relative standards in literacy and other tests compared to mainstream schools that are not in the disadvantaged programme.
The second goal concerns the enrichment of the learning experience for every pupil. Undoubtedly, everyone can recognise that as our environment becomes more complex, we need to respond with wider subject choice.It is important that we introduce coding in schools and adopt digital technology, not only to expose young people to its power but also to integrate it into teaching methodologies in order that it enlivens and enriches education and teaching methods. This is at the core of the junior certificate cycle.
We need to see a broadening of the types of skills that are recognised and valued in our education system to take the shackles off teaching and learning. We are too concentrated on the terminal examination which has been a deadening influence, particularly in some of the subjects that are important for the future, such as science. This is, appropriately, a very important second theme.
A third theme is focused on schools and ensuring we provide the supports to allow them to continuously improve. There is no doubt the key to success lies in the leadership and teaching methodologies that are applied by staff in schools and the culture that is developed. We need to invest more in building strong leadership. Initiatives are already emerging to strengthen the leadership capability of schools. This was part of the recent agreement reached between the Department and the Teachers' Union of Ireland, TUI, and Irish National Teachers' Organisation, INTO, to deliver improvements. There are many other ways in which we can support innovation in schools, including in terms of a capacity for self-evaluation and peer learning and mainstreaming what is working elsewhere.
The fourth stream we have set out is the need to build stronger links between education and the wider community. Visiting the north inner city of Dublin with the Taoiseach recently, it was clear that while children have a good and safe environment until 4 p.m., success within schools very much depends on what happens after school and what supports are available in the wider community when children go home from school. We need to find ways of building bridges with community supports such as clubs.
With regard to our desire to provide the skills and talent of the future, there is evidence to show that if students are given the opportunity to participate in a work placement during their study, they have 24% better outcomes in terms of employment and income. We must build much stronger bridges with employers. Some colleges make this a core element but it must be extended.
The relationship or partnership, if one likes, between parents and schools must be valued more. We are committed to developing a parents charter to allow this relationship to become more of a genuine partnership involving mutual respect on both sides.
As to the final element, as a national Department with a number of national agencies, we must also aspire to best international practice. We must examine whether the continuous professional development we offer teachers and our methods of inspection, support and innovation reflect international best practice. The national agencies face the challenge of ensuring they are creating the framework within which schools can achieve high levels of performance.
Criticisms have been made of the Department's approach, with some arguing that we should not set such high ambitions and that we should be content to be just good. I do not agree with that view. By saying we want to be the best in Europe, we change the conversation, the questions we ask of ourselves and our performance, whether in terms of children with a disadvantage or the range and richness of the learning environment we offer. We need to ask these questions if we are to be determined to be the stand-out, excellent choice.
The other question people have asked is what is the investment implication of the strategy. It is important to note that the strategy takes a three-year and ten-year perspective. It is not a budget plan, nor was it intended as such. It is a statement of ambition and direction. The pace with which we can implement some of the changes will depend on the additional incremental resources we can secure from year to year. However, it is equally important that our current allocation of €8.5 billion is spent to the best effect. We must examine many issues to ensure we are using all the resources allocated to us by the Houses of the Oireachtas to best effect as well as making the unanswerable case for new investment in various challenging areas, for example, special educational needs, educational disadvantage, higher education and apprenticeships. We have set out strong ambitions for the future in all these areas.
I thank Senators for initiating this debate. It is important that those of us who are interested in education - most of the Senators present have a particular knowledge, background or expertise in this field - spread the message more widely that if we want to fulfil the ambitions we have as a nation, be they economic, cultural or scientific in nature or an ambition to create a fair society, the decisions we make about our education service will be at the heart of achieving them. For these reasons, it is important to integrate this into a simple plan that one can see. This is a feature that will apply in this respect of the action plan, as it did when I had responsibilities elsewhere. There will be a fresh plan for 2017 and it will be built on the feedback from and experience of what we do in 2016. Similarly, the new plan in 2018 will be built on the experience in 2017. This approach will provide a vehicle for continually seeking to improve the instruments and policy choices we make, bearing in mind the views of the Oireachtas and education stakeholders.
I hope we, as a community, can get behind the effort to set education as one of our national priorities and ensure we make the right choices across all education sectors. We must have clear goals and commit to outcome reporting in order that the Oireachtas, as the funder of the strategy, will be able to determine whether we are living up to the outcomes we hoped to achieve in literacy progression and the roll-out of different programmes. We are happy to be held accountable against objective standards. Any investment in education, provided it is done right, will deliver the returns Members of the Oireachtas have a right to expect.
Ba mhaith liom fáilte mhór an chur roimh an Aire go dtí an Seanad inniu. While many of the measures to improve quality and innovational learning in education in this plan are welcome, the education sector in general is somewhat underwhelmed by its contents. The three-year strategy, while worthy in some respects, is not strong enough in many of the areas of education policy that require substantial reform. An action plan requires clear objectives, goals, dates and measures but also resources, as the Minister indicated. Many of the education proposals in the Fine Gael Party's election manifesto feature strongly in this plan, including linking funding to performance. Some measures will have regressive effects on schools with a higher intake of students from low income backgrounds. Many argue that they will also have regressive effects on schools and the education system in general.
The action plan practically omits mention of the higher education funding crisis or concrete measures for improving access to third level education. The plan has five level goals covering learners, educators, the community, planning and support. While it is full of fine aspirations, concrete proposals for achieving them are absent.
Time constraints do not allow me the luxury of discussing each of the goals but I will briefly address several of them. While one of the stated objectives is to address educational disadvantage and improve outcomes for all students, there are few tangible commitments in the action plan to achieve this goal. One of the areas in need of attention is foreign languages. Only 7% of ten year olds learn a foreign language compared to 75% in the United Kingdom. Physical education across the education system is another area in need of attention. Ireland is rated third worst among European Union member states for physical education at primary level and seventh worst at second level.Right now we are rated third worst among all EU countries for primary level physical education and seventh worst for second level PE.
The objective should be to improve overall learning outcomes and wellbeing for children. We have serious concerns about the new, revised models being proposed for resources for children with special educational needs. Many believe that this reorganisation of the special educational resource model is really a further cut to special education. While it is welcome that the Government has come to realise the importance of speech and language therapy in education, this document really only pays lip service to it. Fianna Fáil has proposed a new model that would radically change early intervention services by putting early intervention teams on-site in preschools and primary schools, including speech and language therapy teams. The model proposed is based on the successful model that is already in existence, albeit on a pilot basis, in Tallaght.
The current situation and attitude to leadership in schools is deeply unfair. Principals of schools with fewer than 179 pupils teach on average 169 days per year, with only 20 days for fulfilling their administrative responsibilities, whereas principals in schools with more than 179 pupils do not teach at all. This is unfair on all schools, their principals and pupils. Just across the Border from County Monaghan principals get at least one day per week off for administrative duties. How can principals be expected to engage in strategic planning for their schools, while also carrying out their administrative responsibilities in just 20 days? The action plan does not reverse this situation.
Reducing class sizes at primary level, especially for children under nine, is a key issue. Approximately 125,000 or one in five primary school pupils are taught in super-sized classes of over 30 students. The proposals included in the plan would introduce punishing performance targets, remove teacher autonomy and further penalise schools in less advantaged areas. The system of standardised testing proposed displays a complete disregard for teachers and the public school system. The country deemed to have the most successful education system in the world is Finland but it is certainly not obsessed with testing. In fact, the complete opposite is the case but Finland trains all of its teachers to master's level.
The Government's approach to school divestment has simply not worked, with only six schools transferring patronage to date. Our policy approach has been to bring the issue forward in a constructive way. Divestment and increasing diversity in school patronage is essential and we will engage with all educational partners to energise this process rather than setting unrealistic goals and targets.
We must be more ambitious on apprenticeships and ask if 50,000 is enough. Gender balance in this area is abysmal and pitiful. While there has been an increase in the scope of skills and trades covered by apprenticeships, there are no new incentives for non-traditional businesses to get involved in new apprenticeships.
The plan to provide 50,000 new higher education places by 2021 is just not possible without significant increases in funding. Capital investment in higher education has been cut by a staggering 50% since 2011. Universities and institutes of technology, as we all know, are on the brink of financial collapse. In the entirety of this action plan I can only find two lines devoted to the crisis in higher level funding and the Cassells report.
The plan is far from perfect, but at least there is a plan. However, its lack of concrete proposals for attaining its goals is of concern. Certainly, its aim to provide the best education and training system in Europe is one to which we would all aspire.
I thank the Minister for his presence and for his attention. I would like to raise one issue with him, on which I would welcome his comments. I refer to the position of junior certificate students in ASTI-staffed schools who may lose 10% of the marks in their English exam this year, through no fault of their own. This threat needs to be withdrawn because it is causing stress for those students and their families. I ask the Minister to give a commitment to the Seanad today that he will ensure that this threat of punishment is withdrawn.
Thank you, Senator Gallagher. The Independent group is next on my list but as there is no-one here from that group, I now invite Senator Maria Byrne to speak. Before the Senator begins, I wish to remind Members that they should stick to the subject matter of the debate and refrain from raising questions on other issues.
I welcome the Minister to the House and commend him on his commitment to education. This action plan activates the commitments contained in the programme for a partnership Government. I welcome the fact that the action plan contains commitments to the monitoring of actions, with published timelines. Progress will be assessed each year.
Ireland is among the top five countries in Europe in several important spheres of education, including post-primary literacy, third level participation and the taking up of science, technology, engineering and maths, STEM, subjects at third level. I was delighted to attend the launch of a STEM programme recently, which involves a partnership between the University of Limerick, UL, and Johnson and Johnson, which is a major employer in the county. The programme aims to encourage more students to study STEM subjects and particularly to encourage female entrepreneurs to study engineering. Under the programme, students are guaranteed a work placement on graduation. The more we see of such initiatives, the better.
The OECD has found that education not only enables people to perform better in the labour market, but also helps to improve their overall health, promote active citizenship and contain violence. I welcome the inclusion of very important goals in the action plan. The focus is on breaking the cycle of disadvantage and ensuring that every person has the opportunity to reach his or her full potential. This also leads to creating sustainable, well-paid jobs and strong economic growth.
The action plan commits to the further rolling out of several initiatives which are already in place in a number of higher level institutes in Ireland. It aims, for example, to increase by one quarter the number of students undertaking a work placement or work project as part of their third-level qualification by 2021. I have served on the governing bodies of both UL and the Limerick Institute of Technology, LIT, and have seen first-hand the experience students attained during work placements, which helped them at college and in the workplace. Such placements are of benefit to both students and employers.
I welcome the emphasis in the plan on increasing the take up of gateway subjects such as physics, chemistry and higher level maths. This year's leaving certificate results show that almost 28%, or more than 15,000 students, opted to take the higher level maths paper and failure rates fell from 5% to 4.6%. The plan also aims to increase the opportunities for learning coding and computer science. In that regard, my local IT started a pilot scheme for primary school students on a Saturday morning which has proved very successful and very beneficial for the students. I welcome the fact that the Minister has included coding and computer science in this plan because these are two of the subjects of the future.
The implementation of a national access programme for higher education is pivotal to this plan. Its objective is to increase by seven points, or the equivalent of 30%, the proportion of students at risk of disadvantage who proceed to higher education.
A mandatory area of learning, entitled "Wellbeing", will be introduced in the junior cycle in 2017. Increasing subject choice for students is important for student motivation and engagement and for ensuring that curriculum development continues to respond to the changing needs of learners, society and the economy. The fact that the action plan will be reviewed each year means that stakeholders will have the opportunity to submit comments and recommendations.
An important goal is to improve the progress of learners at risk of educational disadvantage and learners with special educational needs. While there has been a significant improvement in the number of students from DEIS schools remaining at school until leaving certificate and in literacy and numeracy outcomes, achievement data shows that outcomes in such schools are still below the national norm.Since 2009, no school has been designated DEIS. Will the Minister consider this as part of the review he is taking? As part of the Europe 2020 strategy, Ireland aimed to reduce to 8% the percentage of 18 to 24 year olds with secondary education but not in further education or training. This target has now been exceeded with a current rate of 6.9%. The Department is due to publish and implement a new Action Plan for Education inclusion which will include a schools support programme, an assessment framework for resources allocation, as well as a monitoring and evaluation framework.
The Department of Education and Skills will pilot a new model for the allocation of teaching resources to support children with special educational needs in schools, an important measure. A new inclusion support service for schools will be developed, and there are continual improvements in the aims to help those delivering education services. Ireland is fortunate to attract high calibre people to the teaching profession and our teaching framework has a strong reputation internationally. From my local knowledge of Mary Immaculate College in Limerick, I am aware of the high standards which are in place. The Department of Education and Skills will increase investment in the professional development of teachers across the board. The fact professional development is encouraged at all levels is important. School leadership supports will be expanded with the new mentoring programme for newly appointed principals and a professional coaching service for serving principals. A new postgraduate qualification will be rolled out for aspiring school leaders.
Continual improvement in schools will be supported through a new quality framework for external inspection and school self-improvement. A planned programme of external evaluation will be rolled out across the schools sector with a range of new inspection models. Support is to be given to improving the quality of early years provision. The implementation of Aistear and Síolta, the Early Years curriculum and quality frameworks will be supported with training for mentors and trainers and upskilling for the workforce. I have witnessed the value of the Early Years programme in a pilot project run in a primary school in my local electoral area. I fully support the work of and the teachers in this programme.
The Department of Education and Skills will develop a partners and learners charter to give parents and students a strong voice at school level. The Government will legislate for school admissions to make enrolment easier for children and their parents. The Department will also establish 400 multidenominational and non-denominational schools to give greater choice. It has established a National Skills Council to drive the development of the regional skills fora for key infrastructure developments to address skills needs both nationally and regionally. More than 60,000 additional school places will be delivered by 2021 and in excess of 300 extensions to existing schools and 14 schools will be completed.
I welcome the Action Plan for Education. We have an excellent education system of which we can be proud. Current strategies, such as the 20-year strategy for the Irish language and the national skills strategy, help underpin our overall system of education. The programme recognises the need to adapt to changing needs and to increase skills in several key areas. It is important everyone is given the opportunity to reach their potential in every sphere of education and skills.
Sinn Féin welcomes the Minister’s aspirations to work towards a world class education system. However, this statement is meaningless without adequate investment. Before we talk about where we want our education system to be, we first need to talk about where the system is right now and how the Government has managed it so far.
The education system is a public service which Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil have decimated with severe cuts to vital services. Since 2012, there has been a 15% cut in resource hours allocated to children with special needs as well a 27.6% reduction in guidance counselling provision. Since 2008, we have seen a €13 million cut in the school transport budget while up to 2,000 staff have been taken out of third level education. Today, two thirds of primary school pupils are taught in classrooms of 25 pupils or more. More than 200 schools are using prefab classrooms to accommodate students. Fine Gael has left our education system in a complete mess. Fine Gael and the Labour Party made the decision to take away resources from the most disadvantaged in our society in respect of special needs and guidance counsellors. They even cut funding for school transport. What kind of equal education system is that?
We have read the Action Plan for Education. While the Minister talks of aspiring to having a world class education system, we do not see any evidence in the plan to rectify these injustices. There is a complete lack of ambition or vision in Fine Gael. For example, it has delayed the investment in ICT infrastructure for Wi-Fi, broadband, equipment and learning resources until 2018. What is the reason for this? It has set a target to increase access to third level in the lowest socioeconomic group to 30% by 2019. Does the Minister realise this is lower than the target set in 2008, which was 31%? Where is the political will in Fine Gael to deal with inequality in education? Why has it failed so far in six years to deal with the issue? Why has it not yet carried out a review of barriers facing lone parents in accessing education?
The review of the school transport system will not be available until 2018. The Minister said he will not have developed a policy on science, technology, engineering and maths until 2017. He also said he will not have started or completed a review on barriers to further education and training for disadvantaged students until next year. Up to 89% of schools are under the direct patronage of the Catholic Church. That is not good enough for a State which aspires to be a republic. We would like to see a departmental roadmap to achieve the goal of 400 multidenominational schools by 2030. We would like to see the Department of Education and Skills issue guidelines for all schools to follow to ensure children can opt out of faith formation, if that is their wish. We would like to see the end of the baptism barrier in school admissions.
These are serious inequalities in our society and the Minister has put all of them on the long finger. I do not understand his vision for the education system. Fine Gael, the Labour Party and Fianna Fáil have implemented successive budgets which continue to decimate and underinvest in education. I do not believe their policies will ever produce a world class education system that provides for every citizen in this Republic. Ireland is at a significant crossroads right now. We need to start thinking about creating a discourse around public investment. Education is a vital public service. The State has a responsibility to provide the best possible service it can, and it needs to be an equal service.
We need serious public investment in this sector and Sinn Féin is committed to carrying out such investment. The debate is changing and it needs to be presented clearly. Neoliberal right-wing politics has failed and bankrupted this country. While we on the left argue for progressive taxation to fund public services which will be universal for everyone, the parties on the right argue for cuts in taxes and further privatisation of essential services. Sinn Féin has published its alternative budget and in that document is our vision for the education system. This includes a total capital and current expenditure investment of €480 million. That would see a complete restoration of guidance counselling hours. It would also see an increase in resource teaching hours, the creation of 1,000 additional apprenticeship places. It would provide a €10 million fund for the replacement of prefabs and €30 million for investment in Wi-Fi networks for schools. That is our vision for our education system.
Next week, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil will publish their budget which will contain their vision for the education system.In that budget will be their vision for the education system. We do not yet know exactly what the specifics of that budget will be. However, we are all too familiar with the ideology on which it will be based and, therefore, we all understand that there will be no significant reform. What this country needs to do is get serious about public investment across the entire public sector, with education being a priority service. In our alternative budget, one can see that Sinn Féin is committed to such a vision.
I thank the Minister very much for his attention here today. To cut to the chase, I do not see in the strategy statement the ambition, commitment or passion for the full inclusion of children and people with disabilities or special needs. That is my assessment of it. The authors have chosen not to reference people with disabilities as a key priority, in spite of a commitment in the programme for Government to ratify the UN convention, or to reference or footnote Article 24 of that convention. The Minister is talking about having a high ambition but I do not know whether he could have a much higher ambition regarding children and young people with disabilities and special needs than to refer to Article 44 of the convention and use it as a standard bearer.
There is no setting out of the level of disadvantage among the children and families in order to underline the work and generate a sense of urgency in respect of it. Let me give some examples. A quarter of the children of Ireland have some form of disability. Children with disabilities are more likely to come from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds. This creates a double disadvantage because those with disabilities, based on their lower socio-economic status, are more likely to be at the bottom rung, to be placed in special schools settings or to be outside the mainstream setting.
In the first quarter of 2015, just 39% of the applications for an assessment of need were completed within the required timeframe. Many parents are forced to pay for private assessments to support applications for additional resources. Children of parents who cannot afford to pay for a private diagnosis are receiving fewer resource hours in their schools. Some 43% of people with disabilities have not progressed beyond primary education. That compares with 90% among others. This is an outline of some of the very hard facts. I am not making these up; they are coming from a range of reputable reports.
The strategy acknowledges that there are significant measures in the EPSEN Act, passed by these two Houses in 2004, that still have not been enacted or in respect of which the hold button has been pressed. Full implementation of the Act is necessary. Technology has fascinating potential to support students with disabilities in overcoming barriers. There are still key challenges to be addressed in this regard.
Bizarrely and surprisingly, there are repeated references in the report to children in one area of disability, an area that needs support. Why is this the case when there are no references to children with autism, Asperger's syndrome, Friedreich's ataxia, muscular dystrophy, epidermolysis bullosa, arthritis, spina bifida, hydrocephalus, mental health issues, deafness or other such conditions. If there is to be ambition, it ought to encompass all the children. The plan seems to have been to run down the road of picking one group. That really shows the flaws that are in the statement. I have no doubt that it is well meaning but it is flawed.
At the commencement of the debate, it was heartening to hear the Minister talk about the twin objectives, or Government challenges. One concerns employment. The Minister will certainly know from his last posting, in which he had responsibility in this area, that he did not hear too much about disabled people becoming redundant, for the very simple reason they were never in jobs. Therefore, education is an absolute pillar in allowing people to advance. Employment is key to that. It is critical that the education authorities get on with the job smartly. I refer to the question of having a fair society and breaking the cycle of disadvantage.
Why did the Minister not reference Article 24 the UN convention given that it is implied in the programme for Government? Did the Minister's officials take the opportunity to read and study it? Will the Department continually dance to that tune now? The Minister said he will be updating the strategy annually, so he has an opportunity to do as I propose.
I welcome the Minister and thank him for attending. The plan makes for very interesting reading. I will try to confine my remarks to the specific goals. I hope the Minister will respond on a couple of points under each goal. With regard to goals 1 and 2, on the questions of the learning experience and the progress of learners at risk, reference was made previously to the teacher-pupil ratio and the progress towards the European target of having 20 students per teacher. That is essential if we are serious about the learning experience in our schools and giving teachers the capacity to deliver fully.
The review of DEIS-designated schools is overdue. It is crucial. I regret, in the context of some of the inclusion issues talked about in the House, the discontinuation of the healthy-foods-for-all initiative. This was important in providing the additional supports that allowed some students to benefit fully from an educational experience.
I wish to highlight the case of a particular group of learners at risk, lone parents. Lone parents seeking to re-enter education face particular challenges, one being that our system is not designed to ensure their full participation and progression.
I would like the Minister to address the question of the education and training boards and their need to provide high-quality, part-time courses at suitable hours that allow for full inclusion. That the SUSI grant is not available for those in part-time education also disadvantages women and those who are parenting alone, be they men or women.
On goal 3, on helping those delivering education services to improve continually, I wish to highlight two areas. The first concerns the higher education report in respect of gender equality. How will we make sure the recommendations are really mainstreamed and that those in education are not only progressing but also given an opportunity to progress? It is vital that this be followed through and that the recommendations be reflected in the plan. We must see real links, for example, to funding and the Athena SWAN achievement.
Progression is crucial where younger teachers are concerned. If we are asking teachers, including younger teachers, to improve continuously, we need to ensure they are given the opportunity to do so by looking to the INTO recommendations on the restoration of pay and ensuring middle-management positions and recognition for post-holders are high on the agenda. Pay and progression must go hand in hand and there should be two-way progress.
The key issue of concern for me is goal 4. Under goal 4, it is important that we assert ourselves very clearly. The UN Human Rights Committee and the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child have spoken previously about the problem of baptism as a barrier to admissions. I would welcome a clear ministerial assertion that schools are not religious institutions but educational establishments, funded by the State in order to fulfil its obligation.
It is important to assert that, especially in light of the constitutional considerations. Schools should not be property to be transferred to trusts to be administered. They are, in fact, an administration of a duty of the State. That has to take primacy. In that regard, I call for a roadmap on the delivery of the 400 multi-denominational and non-denominational schools and also the inclusion of Gaelscoileanna. Those who choose to be educated in Irish must also have the right to be educated in a place that reflects their-----
I apologise. I will be just 30 seconds more. It is my final point.
The roadmap, the baptism barrier and the legislation have been mentioned. My key final point is one that Senator Ruane would make if she were here so, in a way, I am using the time she will not be using. If we want a vibrant research community, we need to invest in public research and higher education funding must be restored. We need to make sure we are taking full advantage of the Brexit opportunities by investing in higher education, including community focused public research.
I welcome the Minister. In his previous ministry, he pioneered the concept of the action plan and its constant monitoring. It achieved a great outcome in the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation and the rate of unemployment currently stands at under 8%, down from a high of 15.2%. It was a phenomenal success there and I have no doubt the same model, with a different set of criteria and a different methodology, will also work in this instance. To use the biblical adage, "By their fruits you shall know them". The Minister has a record of delivery and I have no doubt he will deliver again.
The Minister was correct in stating that education is critical to creating a fair society, giving people quality of life and creating a vibrant economy. We all understand that, so I do not propose to spend five minutes going through how it works.
It is not specifically under the remit of the Minister's Department, but the recent announcement of the second year of free early childhood education is very critical to childhood development because such development begins at a very young age. That is a great help to creating equality and will assist in the context of what happens in primary school. It is a welcome development. I am a greater believer in early childhood education.
It is important in the upcoming budget that we continue to reduce class sizes. I have no doubt the Minister will fight for this. The reduction of class size at primary level is critical to good outcomes. All research suggests that there is a link between class size and performance. Research also suggests that interventions are needed at a younger age to create equality of opportunity. Reducing class sizes is critical.
Continuous professional development of our excellent and outstanding, professional teachers is necessary. They are the first to say they need continuous professional development and because they are good and committed, they benefit from it. There was a loss to schools during the recession. We are not here today to analyse the causes of that recession or its history, only to say there was a loss of positions of leadership and responsibility in schools. They need to be rebalanced as do the capitation fees for students, which were cut by 30% during the recession. That needs readjustment. They are practical areas that will serve to achieve the Minister's higher objective.
The Minister is correct that a key priority is to reduce disadvantage. He is also correct to cite the DEIS school programme as having achieved a lower dropout rate, down to 18% from 32%.
I wish to refer to a matter which falls outside the Minister's remit but in respect of which he will have a moral authority in Cabinet. It is the simple, basic and practical thing of the school meals programme. As a former teacher, a parent and somebody who lives and interacts with people on a daily basis, practical common sense tells me that the school meals programme is very important in many areas. It is very important that children get a wholesome diet. The Acting Chairman, Senator O'Mahony, was an educator for many years. He might agree that it is critical for children to have a proper diet and good food. One of the best teachers I ever taught with said to me one time that if a child has a good night's sleep and proper food they will learn. It is a basic common-sense thing but it is necessary. The school meals programme should be maintained and extended to include a lunch as well as a breakfast because sadly children do not always have a proper diet. I mentioned sleep and there should be potential for the home-school liaison teachers to look at that and work with parents. Proper sleep is critical to the development of children and young adults. That is an issue which could be examined.
I wish to address one matter of which the Minister is acutely aware. It is an issue that affects males and females, but predominantly males, between the ages of 15 and 18. A cohort of those tends to opt out of academia, underperform and lose interest. If they are in school under duress from their parents and because of societal pressure, they are only physically present. More could be done there and perhaps apprenticeship will come into play. Will the Minister respond to that? I am thinking of the concept of apprenticeships extending into other areas such as insurance. Wider links with industry might achieve something. Will the Minister respond to my point on those young men? Academia does not seem to work for them and yet they have every right to be in school. They have great potential and they lose heart.
I agree with the Minister that lifelong learning should be a privilege and opportunity for all of us. It is an exciting thing to do so we should do it. In that context, post-leaving certificate institutions have a potential to be used for lifelong learning opportunities. I will strike a parochial note with my final point. We did much in the capital area under the previous administration and a lot was achieved in my constituency in terms of capital. We have one particular capital need for the new education campus in Cavan town; the excellent post-leaving certificate institute there is included in the capital programme. Senator Gallagher will support me on this. I would like to see it built in the term of this Government.
I welcome the Minister. It is incredibly apt that just before I rose to my feet students from a primary school arrived into the Gallery. I presume they are from a primary school so I wish them a very happy trip to the Houses of the Oireachtas and hope they learn loads. If they have any questions for the Minister they should be sure to pass them along to me and I will get them in before the end. The Minister is here to make sure the students get their homework done properly every night.
I appreciate the Minister's presence here. I want to be as constructive as possible. The Minister has published an action plan for education which is to be commended. We need to have a roadmap for where we want to be and what we want to achieve. Education is something that many people in Ireland feel very strongly about. When one travels around the world and visits other jurisdictions to see what they are doing in education, sometimes the statements they make or the ambition they have can strike a chord because perhaps such ambition is missing in Ireland. I spent some time in West Dunbartonshire in Glasgow visiting a very disadvantaged community. They speak of wanting the absolute eradication of illiteracy. The total eradication of illiteracy is their motivation and ambition. Would it not be wonderful if in Ireland the national obsession in our education system was the total eradication of illiteracy? One in three children leaving disadvantaged schools has basic reading problems and about 17.9% of our adult population is functionally illiterate. We have an issue with literacy. The previous Government did a huge amount to try to address that. The people of Finland will state that the thing which underpins their education philosophy is equality. It is not a principle of one party or another or of the left or the right, it is what they have collectively agreed. They have decided that equality in the education system is what is best for all children. They all accept it. The problem with Ireland is that we do not really have a word or phrase that underpins our education philosophy. I do not believe we do. In Ireland we have a publicly funded education system that is not a State education system because we outsource it to schools, boards of management and patron bodies. What inevitably happens is that competition gets into the mix and the system perpetuates inequality.We separate children on the basis of religion. We separate children on the basis of gender. Where else in society do we believe it is acceptable to separate children on the basis of gender at the age of four years? Is it any surprise that gender stereotypes evolve in society when children in so many schools are separated on the basis of gender? It is probably more of an urban than a rural phenomenon. The construct of our education system allows this to happen.
Only last week, the Ombudsman for Children asked for the relationship between the State and the education system to be re-evaluated. It is time for us to set out a roadmap, in conjunction with the Minister's Action Plan for Education, to lance the boil of the constitutional impediment to a genuine State education system. When we try to engage in issues relating to school books or transport or trying to bring about an education system like that of Northern Ireland, representatives of the Department of Education and Skills almost faint at the suggestion that we would have actual day-to-day engagement and a role in managing the day-to-day affairs of schools. They are horrified by the idea. The Action Plan for Education is unlike any other action plan for education in Europe because we have a constitutional impediment to a day-to-day involvement in the running of schools. This goes back to religious and baptism issues and all the rest of it. In the full light of day in a modern republic, this set-up appears to be absolutely crazy. I tried successfully to amend section 37 of the Employment Equality Act. What was that about? It was about trying to ensure that LGBT teachers, divorced teachers or unmarried and cohabiting teachers would not be discriminated against by their schools. I could only amend the legislation. I could not get it repealed completely because of the constitutional reality in terms of where we stand in the education system.
The 1995 Hart and Risley study proved how a three year old from a welfare-dependent family had one third of the oral language capacity of a three year old from a professional family. The Minister was in the north inner city recently. He quite rightly said that the relationship between the school and wider community is paramount and he is correct. We cannot achieve everything in the school system. Children do not live in schools. However, the reality is that we need far more certainty around the ABC programme. The Minister was in Darndale recently celebrating the programme. It was great to see him there. We have rolled out 13 such programmes throughout the State. They work with schools and the wider community to tackle acute areas of disadvantage. We need more certainty from the Minister in this regard. Obviously, he has a role in working with the Department of Children and Youth Affairs in that regard.
The issue of special needs assistants, SNAs, in the education system is central. A report was compiled by Senator Mary Moran last year relating to the role of SNAs. It highlighted the uncertainty they face, the nature of their career path and the fact they should be an essential part of the education system, rather than their role being chopped and changed from year to year as budgetary priorities go up and down.
The issue of teacher diversity must be addressed. A teacher is capable of being a powerful role model. How are we addressing the issue of getting more working class children into teaching roles? How are we addressing the issue of getting more Traveller children into teaching roles? How are we working on the issue of getting more children from ethnically diverse backgrounds into teaching roles? How powerful would it be for the average Irish primary school to have a teacher from the Traveller community, a disadvantaged background or an eastern European background? This does not happen often and there are many and varied reasons for this, but can we engage with the teacher training colleges to determine how we can improve the situation given that it is such a powerful role?
It is a question of the ambition we have for the society we are trying to construct. It is not simply about producing economic units. I realise the Minister has come from the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation. I appreciate the Minister's mindset has had to be recast over the summer months. The purpose is not simply to become an economic unit. That is not the point of education. The point of education is to believe and understand the beauty of poetry, language, music, dance, sport and the whole basis for why we are alive. That is what education is all about. These things are more profound than simply becoming an economic unit. I wish that type of ambition was written throughout the Action Plan for Education with a view towards the goal of empowering young people to be the best that they can possibly be. We need to focus more on equality as being fundamental to our educational vision and try harder to lance the boil within the Constitution. This is something we have to grasp. Why not say that we want to eradicate illiteracy totally in society? If the Minister does that, the Labour Party will support him in that regard.
I welcome the Minister to the House. I thank him for this positive report. The Minister has set out his five key goals. He has set out his objectives. He has set out timelines, a brave thing for any Minister to do. I was talking to the Minister with responsibility for housing, Deputy Simon Coveney, about the first quarter, the second quarter and the third quarter. I put it to him that we were heading into the fourth quarter but 32 objectives from the third quarter were not yet delivered by the Minister. It is a brave Minister who sets out his stall and timelines for delivery, but the Minister has done so and that is to be commended. I have no doubt about the Minister's extraordinary commitment to education. Moreover, I like the that he has an enterprising mind and is someone who has always promoted enterprise. I am pleased to see the greater synergy between enterprise and education and the effects of good education in terms of enterprise, people being better educated, participating in the workforce and the economic benefits of all of that. I see that peppered through the sentences and objectives of the document and I commend the Minister on that.
We are a republic. We need an education system that respects the true principles of a republic. I say that as someone who comes from the Church of Ireland tradition. I am critical of the Church of Ireland - I have no difficulty in saying as much - and the anomalies in this regard. I have seen too many Church of Ireland churches throughout Ireland who have fought tooth and nail to resist anyone outside their denomination coming to their schools on the basis of the Church of Ireland ethos. We have seen it in health but we still have it in education. This is something that I expected the Minister to address. Many people expected the Minister to crack this kernel. We cannot have an education system that segregates people. We had too much of it in Northern Ireland. No religion or faith or faith-based consideration should be relevant when it comes to entrance to a State school. I draw a distinction between a State school and a paying school. There are other issues about finance and how the State finances a private or fee-paying school. There should be no grounds for any discrimination relating to religion or absence of religion in State primary schools. This is the greatest single challenge for any Minister and for the State.
There is a Gaelscoil down the road from where I live. I am horrified even to share this with the House but someone told me recently that he put his children in the Gaelscoil because there would be no Nigerian children there. Many of these immigrants who have come to the country are struggling to learn English. That is a shocking, horrific and horrible statement for anyone to make. There are no catchment areas. There are people who live next door to the Gaelscoil near me but who cannot get access to it. They are told there is no catchment for Gaelscoileanna. This is a community school, but people living next door cannot get access, yet people from ten and 15 miles away can come to this school for various reasons. That is unacceptable on the watch of any Minister for Education and Skills.
We should not insist on segregation on the basis of gender for people in our State primary school system. It should not be tolerated. It should be a clear objective that it cannot happen any longer. We have to untangle the State system. We spoken about patronage and how in excess of 80% of patronage is under the Catholic Church. I have nothing against the Catholic Church. No religious group should be dominant. I want Muslims, believers, non-believers, Catholics, Anglicans and whoever to be able to go to their community school, local school or State school. I want us to allow them to nourish, grow and befriend each other in their communities. That is a major task. I will leave that thought with the Minister.
I wish to discuss education in prisons. I have been on the board of a number of prisons and I am familiar with the educational process. Traditionally, the vocational education committees operated schools in prisons.When the summer holidays come, suddenly the education programme stops. We are told the VECs cannot work in the summer yet the prisoners are there for three or four years. That is an unsatisfactory situation and I would like the Minister to look at the issue of the education of young people in prisons. This is about their futures but they are spending two or three years incarcerated in prison without the benefit of any education for three months in the summer.
The plans for apprenticeships and training are very good but to tie them into the rebuilding Ireland programme we will need to plan from now into the future in those areas. Many people leave school at 14 or 15 and are marginalised through no fault of their own. They cannot engage in education and emotionally cannot connect because they have been damaged by circumstances beyond their control. What are we doing for these people? We need to accommodate them and offer them other forms of training. Many do not even have the academic qualifications to get onto apprenticeships. They have the barest numeracy and literacy skills but they come to my office saying they want training. Surely they are entitled to training and should be assisted in finding it. I want more emphasis on training and assisting people. We are all learning and education is an ongoing process.
This is a good policy and I am not here to knock it. The Minister has set down his plan, vision, objectives and timelines and I hope they go well for him. As politicians, our job is to review them next year and the year after and ask the Minister how he has delivered. If he has not delivered we have to ask why. It is a two-way process and I agree with him about scripts. I am not in the business of writing scripts but I passionately believe in education and in giving people opportunities.
I urge the Minister to support those in prison and those who feel left alone. It is not that they do not have any capacity or ability but they need assistance and support in the form of really imaginative training and apprenticeship schemes. We need to bring everyone along so that they can also enjoy success because everyone has a right to develop and maximise their potential. I do not doubt the Minister's commitment but I would like him to focus on the issues I have raised.
I acknowledge the contributions of Members but I was wondering whether the Minister had done anything at all in his first 100 days in office and whether, given some of the commentary, he was just occupying the seat. Like Senator Boyhan, I have no script but I have been a passionate educator for 16 years, like the Acting Chairman. The Minister has come into the Department with a clear roadmap and plan.
Let us look at from where we have come. As this debate is taking place today, our live register has fallen below 300,000 and unemployment is falling to below 8%. There are 2 million people working, for the first time in eight years. That gives this Minister the opportunity to work on retraining, upskilling and educating people, something in which I passionately believe. One of the greatest joys of my teaching career was when I saw people going back to education or into further education, or those who did not sit the leaving certificate doing the applied leaving certificate and being able to have a career.
Let us have a real debate about education. If we follow the mantra of some, we will throw all the money in the world into it and will end up with nothing. We have an action plan for education which prioritises earlier intervention and deals with how we can change our curriculum to invest in the child. I agree with Senator Ó Ríordáin that education is not about leaving certificate results or whether one gets into college. It is not about the bullet points in the Minister's action plan. It is about the ability of a person to become immersed in drama, music or sport or to do a job-shadow programme in which they work with people with disabilities. We have come through huge cuts in funding for education but, in the North, Sinn Féin is closing schools down and cutting their budgets. They should not come down to lecture us about what is happening here while, in the North, they do the opposite.
The fundamental goal of the action plan is about education providing an opportunity. As Maslow said, it is about reaching self-actualisation, whether it is the student who gets into Trinity College with full marks or students who complete the leaving certificate applied and goes back to an apprenticeship so that they can do the job of a mechanic, the job they love. Education is about us being held to account. I welcome the ambition in the plan and I know from the Minister's previous roles that the targets, goals and milestones are there so that he can meet them. I also welcome the fact that it is a living document. It is open to change. We have heard some very good ideas today and I wish to acknowledge the presence in the Visitors Gallery of Michael Barron, who is involved in Equate Ireland, the equality in education group which campaigns for reconfiguring our schools to deliver diversity in education.
There are questions about the ethos of schools and there have been controversies about who can get in and who cannot. We recently had an unedifying situation of students from the Traveller community being refused entry to schools. That cannot be allowed to continue. We must make our education accessible and remove the barriers to education. Recently, I was in St. Paul's special needs school in Cork, which is trying to make life better for children with disability and another in Greenmount in Cork, where they have a plan to change how they deliver music and maths. We need to get the fundamentals right. If we get the fundamentals right and encourage and reward enterprising schools, we will have an education system that is better for all of us.
I wish to appeal to the Minister regarding the ASTI. As a former member and shop steward I hope we can reach an accommodation. It is imperative for the sake of the children, the teachers and our school system. I know he has made a huge effort but I ask the Minister, and the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Paschal Donohoe, to make one final effort to reach a compromise. Our education system and the plans the Minister has for it will go nowhere without all partners being involved. I appeal to the ASTI to enter into negotiations in a meaningful way. Let us put the megaphone diplomacy to one side and get down to talking again because our education system needs it. This is a plan with ambition, and it is a vision. It needs resources and money but let us make the child the centre of education and give our professionals due reward in terms of the pay, remuneration and conditions, in the form of the pupil-teacher ratio, that they need.
To say the Minister is doing nothing and has no plan or vision is unfair. Anyone reading Fintan O'Toole in The Irish Timesrecently would believe the plan was conceived out of thin air but it is a good plan and needs to be supported.
I welcome the opportunity to discuss the plan for future education. Not unlike the previous speaker, I am glad there is a plan. I could stand up here and tear the plan to shreds, as others might tear it in a different way.We are all passionate about education and all by-products of the education system. It is the one sector of the community in which every individual in society will take part. I do not want to talk about funding and will not get involved in the blame game, but there is a necessity for funding and investment in the education sector. The problems therein and the process to achieve the best outcomes are investment related. I take the philosophical route. When we talk about funding for the health service, we say the money should follow the patient. In education the money should follow the student. One glove does not fit all in meeting the needs of this or any other society.
We get carried away on the positioning of the education system on international league tables. Equally, we get carried away in trying to position schools and educational institutions on internal league tables. The part of the plan about which I would be fearful is the angle towards providing monetary compensation based on performance. That is a dangerous route to take in any education system. In medium-sized and larger towns with more than one school it will result in cherry-picking where certain schools will opt for the students who will get the best results to move up the league tables. We will then end up with the opposite scenario in the other schools at the bottom of the line.
I want to mention a sector of students who tend to be left out; in the debate on the budget they will be called the squeezed middle. There is always a major push for students with special needs, but when it comes to performance, results and league tables, the emphasis is on the high achievers. Those in the squeezed middle who may not have special needs and not do as well academically as those at the top do not get a mention; sometimes they are the also-rans. It is important that we consider everybody within the education system. For a particular student to get 250 points can be an enormous achievement, but there will not be a word about it. All the talk will be about the student who got 600 or 650 points. On the points system, we talk about employment and progression to third level. We take the personal aspect out of it. We talk about producing students to fill jobs available, but there is too much emphasis on this aspect. We have to think about the person. Education is about the development of self, irrespective of where one ends up when one leaves the education system. One will still be a human being and a member of society. We get carried away in talking about economics and employment prospects and forget about the individual.
I welcome the relationship between SOLAS and the education and training boards as there was a disconnect between training and education. I am glad that gap has been bridged because it will help in meeting employment prospects in the future.
This may sound philosophical, but all of the changes and proposals are necessary. Some may need tweaking; therefore, it is welcome that they will be reviewed on an annual basis. However, I would like somebody to grasp the nettle and come back with a model that will start at national school, or even in preschool, with a view to bringing a generation to third level. We should make the necessary changes, with an input from all sectors of society, to the second and third level sectors as we move along, but we appear to want to change everything at once. That does not work when teachers and students are half way through a system, a problem arises and we try to change it mid-stream. It may be a ten to 15 year project, but it is worth considering that we start at foundation level with a model to take someone through all the levels without trying to tweak it on a daily basis while they are still in the process of their education.
Sílim go bhfuil an t-ádh ar an Aire go bhfuil an Cathaoirleach Gníomhach sa gcathaoir mar, nuair a chonaic mé é ag labhairt mar uachtarán ar an TUI, bhí go leor le rá aige. Tá míle fáilte roimh an Aire.
I welcome the opportunity to discuss education issues. We spoke to the Minister at the committee meeting the other day and received a very good briefing from departmental officials yesterday. My colleague has given a broad overview of Sinn Féin's approach to the action plan, but I want to draw the Minister's attention to a number of specific issues on which I would like to receive a response.
I have said on a number of occasions that I welcome the work which has been done on an Irish language policy. We are just waiting for the policy to be published and implemented. I understand this is imminent, but how imminent is imminent? We have a serious issue in that regard. It may be clear from the discussions we had yesterday that one of the issues concerning the Irish language is the quality of teaching and the fact that the standard of teachers teaching Irish is diminishing rapidly. That goes back to the language being taught in schools and at third level. The 20-year Irish language strategy states there should be a full-time Irish language teacher training college, which might help to deal with some of the issues. That matter must be re-examined in the context of the strategy, but we have an issue with the standard of Irish being taught by teachers.
I commend the work of An Chomhairle um Oideachas Gaeltachta & Gaelscolaíochta, COG. It is doing fantastic work, but it is under-funded and under-resourced. Anything that could be done to support its work would be a great help.
When I teased out the issue of Irish language teachers, I stated the problem was not specific to them. I understand there is an issue with science and home economics teachers, as well as the teachers of some other subjects. There are issues to do with teacher training and the capacity of teachers to teach a subject. The Minister might outline in more detail his plans to address these issues.
I take issue with the point made by Senator Victor Boylan about Gaelscoileanna. The Gaelscoileanna of which I am aware are diverse and, in many cases, multi-lingual. There may be a specific example here and there of a school that is being exclusive and I agree with the Senator that this should not happen. I am sure Gaelscoileanna would agree also. However, the broader issue is that the demand for places in Gaelscoileanna is not being met by the number of Gaelscoileanna being established. My understanding from the statistics provided is that approximately 23% of parents wish to send their children to a Gaelscoil but because of the current patronage model, only 6% are being granted their wish. To a certain extent, there is a need for a decoupling of the Gaelscoil issue from the patronage issue because there is no reason an Educate Together or a multi-denominational school could not also be a Gaelscoil. It could have a dual function and might address some of the issues validly raised by Members such as Senator Victor Boylan.
The other issue about which all of us were asked during the summer was school transport. There is a real need to build more flexibility into the school transport scheme. We have seen ludicrous examples of rules being implemented which resulted in children being sent from their own parishes, away from where they play football, to attend a school outside it because the bus stop was 200 metres closer. I am sure the Minister is aware of many other examples and it points to the need for a review of the scheme.
On third level education, I am told by practitioners, specifically teachers of practical subjects, that they are so strapped for funds they do not have money to buy materials to teach students. I understand this is happening in the institutes of technology, in particular. They would have had an advantage initially in teaching practical subjects in training students for industry to a certain extent, but I am told the students now coming through are not gaining the practical experience they need. Also, overcrowding is chronic in some colleges and institutes of technology.
Senator Jerry Buttimer talked about the unemployment rate decreasing, but one of the issues, particularly at third level, is the precarious contracts offered. It is also an issue at second level.They are going from school to school and from contract to contract-----
-----not having a very certain career path. That is something that has to be addressed.
What is the Minister’s vision for rural schools? We need to have a plan. At a recent committee meeting, we heard that the Department does not have figures for how many schools in rural areas do not have multipurpose or PE rooms. If the Department does not have the numbers for how many schools do not have a PE hall, how can it have a plan for how many it will build and when it will address the issues. It is easy to bring in a curriculum but without the facilities, it is impossible to deliver on that curriculum.
We need to address the issue of island schools and particularly primary schools with one teacher. It is not possible to have a one-size-fits-all scenario when it comes to island schools.
DEIS needs to be reviewed and expanded. We find more areas where there are issues of social isolation, etc., and DEIS needs to be re-evaluated, so that more children who need to be in a DEIS school get there.
I have done a lot of work on gender equality in third level in NUIG. It is a problem and is not getting any better. It is not just in the teaching grades but also in the administration and other grades. We need to address it. As Michael Barron is in the Gallery, I want to support the comments and policy of Equate Ireland.
I look forward to further engagement with the Minister through the committee and other fora.
I welcome the Minister, Deputy Bruton, to the Chamber. He pioneered the action plan with the Action Plan for Jobs. As a way of a Department doing business, it was revolutionary at the time. He is bringing that same methodology to the Department of Education and Skills. It is slightly different in that the Action Plan for Jobs in the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation was very much commercially driven. Education is driven on the basis of education and social issues but nevertheless the mechanics are still worthwhile.
In my area of Limerick, parents have two issues at primary level. The first is class size, particularly at the lower end. Many school principals effectively factor in that junior infants, senior infants and first class are of a lower number. That would be very worthwhile and it is something we need to look at.
The second element that is coming up is the issue of physical education and obesity at a very young age. We need to seriously consider having PE as a subject at primary level. We need to plan for it. It would yield major benefits. It needs to be considered alongside diet. A growing number of children have diabetes, which is a modern feature that is alarming.
At secondary level, there are issues with the school transport system in Limerick. Much of the system is based on out-dated structures and locations of schools. People are qualifying for school transport based on a school that people in that area might have attended 20 years ago. That has evolved over time and, in some cases, the schools have closed. I know a review is under way. We need to consider the dynamic of the parishes where people are living, the schools they normally attend and the clubs they play for. We need to have an integrated model. I very much welcome that.
On third level, I attended UL, which pioneered work experience and co-operative education. The then president, Ed Walsh, modelled it on the Northeastern University in Boston that had pioneered co-operative education. It made students very employable. In most third level institutions, work experience and co-operative education is factored into most courses but not in all. We need to look at the issue. All third level courses should have some element of work experience or other practical input - be that for a BA in English or for accountancy. It would yield benefit.
We looked at apprenticeship schemes again here. They became unfashionable. People here need to see it as an educational career route, as it is regarded in Germany.
I raise a local issue that I have already discussed with the Minister - the two new secondary schools for Mungret and the greater Castletroy area. The process to appoint a patron is under way. When does the Minister expect decisions to be made? The school in Mungret is to be opened in September 2017 and the school is already holding open nights. The school in the greater Castletroy area is to be opened in September 2018. What is the status of that process? When will announcements be made? It is of huge concern to students and their parents living in the Mungret area and the greater Castletroy area.
I thank the 12 Senators who took part in the debate. They made some very interesting contributions. I was somewhat puzzled by Senator Gallagher saying he saw some regressive effect on disadvantaged learners. One of our objectives in the plan was to increase the performance and the focus on disadvantaged learners. One of the features of the resource model, with which he seems to be uneasy, is that it puts a much greater emphasis on disadvantaged children because it ties the provision of teaching much more closely with the educational need of the individual child. That is one of the features of the resource model. While people can argue about it, it has been piloted with considerable success.
I take the Senator’s point about not having languages in primary schools. A pilot carried out a few years ago was not extended owing to financial pressure and other reasons. In secondary schools, there is a high participation and approximately 80% of students take a language at leaving certificate but we do not achieve high language competence, which indicates that something is falling through the cracks. Many students do languages at third level and do the Erasmus programme but we still do not achieve. We are working on a language strategy to try to address some of those issues.
It is not true to say that we have ignored higher level. We have the same ambition for higher level as we do for the others - to improve the learning and teaching, to see more disadvantaged children coming through higher education and to see better connections into the community and into enterprises. We are bringing the Cassels report to the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Education and Skills where we hope everyone will take a view as to how we fund third level education. It puts up the fundamental choices there. Peter Cassels has taken a 15-year perspective. We need an honest debate on how we fund it. Some people might say they do not like any of his proposals but if we do not have any of them, we cannot fulfil our ambition. I am interested in engaging in that debate and hopefully together we can frame a longer-term perspective.
I do not agree with the Senator that we should abandon the junior certificate award model that has been the basis of teaching in recent years in English and now moving into science and business. It has three strands. It has the conventional exam, to which 90% is allocated; a student written project, again tested independently by the examination board for which there is 10%; and a junior certificate achievement certification of the range of things the pupil did within the different curricula headings. That is a very good model. Unfortunately, the ASTI has decided it will not engage with it but that is the model of the junior certificate that is in place.I ask the Senators as well as others to appeal to the ASTI. We have asked it to suspend its directive in respect of English and to allow that to go ahead and for the pupils to be able to do that. The new junior certificate is the way to go. I went out to Adamstown to see the new science, business and coding. That is happening in schools which are adopting the new junior certificate and it is revolutionary. It is a much better model for teaching and learning. It has been good for the teachers and for the students. We need to stick with the approach that has been put in place and not seek to unravel it simply because there has been some pressure. I do not agree with that.
Senator Maria Byrne raised the issue of new schools coming into the DEIS programme. That will be a feature of the plan that we hope to produce by the end of the year. It will introduce a metric model that is much more independent and based on statistical rather than on random returns that principals had to put together. This will be based on Central Statistics Office data from the census. It will be a robust model and will give those that have not been able to participate since 2009 a chance to do so. I welcome Senator's emphasis on preschool level. We are trying, through Aistear and Síolta, to bring forward a good curriculum and standards. Returning to what Senator Paul Daly said, it is very much at that earlier point that we have to intervene if we want to shape our education system.
Senator Gavan started off excellently and I thought we were going to have a real engagement about where our education system could go but he seemed to then turn to a prepared script that went back into a very partisan model of discussion. I like a good debate in this House and I would give the following advice. I am a former Member of this House and there is much more open debate in it and, to some degree, Members leave their party tags behind them and try to engage. That is one of the reasons I like coming to the Seanad because it engages at that level in terms of identifying what the problems are and how they can be solved. Some of the what the Senator's scriptwriter wrote for him is simply untrue. We have increased the number of resource teachers by 41% since 2011, which represents a huge investment. We have also increased the number of special needs assistants, SNAs, by 22%, which represents huge investment going into special education. We are making a big effort to meet what Senator Dolan called for in terms of improving the outcomes for and investment in children with special educational needs.
We have already increased the number of apprenticeships by 2,000 and our plan is to have another 4,000. We want not only to work in the traditional apprenticeships area but to move from the existing 27 up to 100, bringing in, as we did last week in Sligo, the first of the new model in insurance. There is a huge role for apprenticeships and I am very committed to it. We have lacked in our model in Ireland a stream for training and apprenticeship that would be of equal status with higher education. That has been a huge gap in our model. Germany and other European countries have a much stronger stream of apprenticeships with routes into further education in that if one wants to do a degree afterwards, one can. I visited Liebherr, a German company, in Killarney and it made the point, which I thought was very revealing, that more of its intake as apprentices reach high executive positions and high pay than their intake of graduates. It is an interesting revelation. If we get the model right, it has a very fulfilling outcome and very often will bring in people who otherwise would not have got to third level.
I do not agree with Senator Dolan that there is not an ambition in the strategy for special education. The second goal outlined in it refers to children with special educational needs and children at a disadvantage. Addressing provision for that area is a core goal of this strategy. We are investing in this area. I will be looking to see better indicators of outcomes for children with a disability to see that we are doing it in the best possible way. As we move to roll out the new resource teaching model, it will involve more investment but I believe it is a better model. It is the whole school model, it does not solely focus on a special need assessment of a child and is not time-resourced. It puts an obligation on the whole school to accommodate the child with special educational needs and it also gets away from the point the Senator rightly made in his comments, that some parents do not have the same access to get an assessment. We have become too reliant on these assessments and we need to move to a different model. That is what this new model, designed under the leadership of Mr. Eamon Stack of the National Council for Special Education, will do, and it is being piloted. The pilot project has had widespread support, notwithstanding some of the concerns that Senator Gallagher expressed. Change will not always be welcomed by everyone but this new model is the right way to go and I hope we can do that. I would like to see more capacity to understand the impact in this area and progression to jobs and other ways to progress, as the Senator mentioned. We need to put more work into understanding that impact.
I take the point the Senator raised regarding whether there is an omission with respect to the UN convention, to which we are committed. I was looked at it online and I do not believe there is anything we are seeking to do that in any way would be in contradiction of it, or that we have missed out on something, but we will look at it to make sure that there is not.
Senator Alice-Mary Higgins raised the DEIS review. We hope to have that by the end of the year. As Senator Maria Byrne said, it will examine schools that have been excluded. It will also consider if there are better models, if we can have different approaches, if we can support leadership within the DEIS schools, if we can look at clusters working together to do things and if we can build greater links into the wider community. We may have to pursue it by way of pilot projects and testing to see what works and what does not work, rather than taking a big bang approach and everything being resolved. The DEIS programme is very much like a cliff, one is either on it or one falls off the edge and is completely out. We want to soften that cliff relating to need. The resource model, if it goes through, will be a very significant player in terms of helping children in disadvantaged schools and children who are in the education system.
A report on lone parents is in preparation. It is recognised that there is an issue there. The publication of that report has been delayed through extra work that has to be done but it is progressing. I take the Senator Higgins's point that gender progression should be a key part of our higher education strategy. I thought it was and I have to check that but I thought in the context of the framework of performance we have that one of elements is progression and gender progression in particular, as well as the areas of disadvantage and disabilities are a part of that. If it is not, we will certainly look at that. Only this morning I launched an initiative with I Wish, a Cork based organisation originally, which is now going to be run nationwide. Cork always teaches us things. It is an initiative to encourage transition year, TY, girls to take up science, technology, engineering and mathematics, STEM, opportunities, which is a huge issue if we want to see more women crack the global challenges that we face. There is encouragement to participate.
Senator Higgins raised the pay for newly qualified teachers. I am delighted that we secured an agreement with the INTO and TUI on that front. It is a progressive move. Senator Buttimer asked if we can reach an agreement with the ASTI. My door is open for its members to get a similar deal that would resolve these issues but they have unilaterally decided to withdraw Croke Park hours and they have also now decided to ballot for industrial action. I would like to see it set aside that withdrawal of Croke Park hours and get what are real genuine improvements for its members, namely, the substitution payment, the payment for newly qualified teachers, flexibility on Croke Park hours and greater flexibility on getting permanency, which is something all young teachers have rightly felt need for progress on.
Senator Joe O'Reilly and others raised the importance of leadership and middle management, which was a big victim in the crash years. I would like to see that rebuilt, and it is part of the agreement with the TUI and the INTO, but we need to look at a middle management structure for a decade's time, what it would look like, what skills it would involve, what functions would be done and what leadership model should occur in the schools. It is not simply about returning to the posts and so on that we had in the past but designing a good quality leadership structure within our schools.
School meals are important. Senator O'Reilly raised the issue of young people at risk who may become alienated from the school culture and if we can we bring them back to it.I hope the junior certificate will engender less alienation because it is more practical but I also believe, as does Senator Reilly, that we need a bigger range of options to give people a second chance and to allow them to come back in. There are a number of programmes out there like Youthreach, VTOS and the community training centres and they can merge into traineeships and apprenticeships, but we must be very alert. It is not a case of one chance and all the doors close, which has been too big a part of our model for many years. There is a greater understanding of that.
Senator Ó Ríordáin has very big ambitions. I am criticised for having the modest ambition to be the best in Europe. The Senator has big ambitions to eliminate illiteracy. From my time in education in the past, I know that this has proved very difficult. Every country in the world struggles with people with low levels of literacy but we need to steadily improve and that is what I am doing. It is a bit like the Kerry man - if one wants to achieve some of these things, one would not start out from here. Unfortunately, in practical terms, I must start with what I find.
The same is true of his ambition in respect of patronage. One could argue that a republic should have no patrons, be they denominational or non-denominational, but the reality is that we have a patronage model. Not only that, but we have a Constitution that protects the rights of those patrons to run those schools and disallows the State from discriminating between them.
The baptism barrier is being addressed in the other House. The Labour Party has introduced a Bill that would look at the possibility of confining a denomination's right to its own catchment area, which would mean that while a denominational school could favour children within a parish - one would have to define what that is - it could not go outside the parish. That Bill has passed Second Stage and will go to Committee Stage. There will be issues about whether it is compatible with constitutional provisions.
There is a broad sense that this would be fair even among people who value faith-based education. It is a complicated area. Senator Boyhan is admirably passionate about what an education system should look like in a republic but we have a Constitution that must be respected, particularly by a Minister who is responsible for upholding it. There are issues about how we expand choice while respecting the constitutional provisions and the many patrons who put a huge amount of work into managing their schools in a fair way. I know there are real problems in over-subscribed schools but many schools have a legal obligation to take everyone and do so. A school that is not over-subscribed cannot reject anyone. That will be in the law as we pass the admissions Bill. There is a genuine problem with some over-subscribed schools.
I take Senator Boyhan's point about education in prison. I confess I do not know enough about that to be able to respond to him. I share his passion for the expansion of apprenticeships and traineeships. Senator Ó Clochartaigh raised the possibility that perhaps we should look afresh at the Gaelscoil model and that they do lose out too much in terms of patronage. He hinted at units within schools that would offer all-Irish instruction. I know that has been acceptable in some areas, but not all.
In response to Senator Buttimer, one never comes to the Seanad without learning something. Self-actualisation is a new theme but I am sure I will use it again and without attribution to its source. Senator Paul Daly made an interesting contribution. I certainly do not believe in turning out people who can make widgets. People may say I am neoliberal or that I have been working with the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation for too long, but that is certainly not my view of the world. Increasingly, enterprise does not value widget makers. It values creativity, the ability to challenge and work in teams and innovation. Ironically, there is a convergence of what employers and the education system want to produce but I do not think they will ever coincide. We must value an education that provides people with much broader values, skills and appreciation. Nonetheless, one of the things we must do is equip young people to progress and do useful work, be it in public, private or whatever sector they choose to end up in. This must be a part of it.
I also take the point that we should not just focus on the high performers. That is not my intention and I would be very keen to look at low performers in particular because that is an important part of confronting disadvantage. I also wish to look at the median or mean - I should know the difference. We need to not just look at top performance. To be fair, I do not think that is the approach.
The Senator is right to highlight a concern about reliance on league tables. At the same time, we must have evidence-based policy. We must benchmark ourselves against something. While I agree that everything that gets measured is not always everything we want to achieve, at the same time, we must do our best to see whether investment in a particular area is delivering and making us better than other countries that are doing similar things in similar areas and possibly getting better results. That is why setting ourselves against the benchmark of best practice is important in any area. However, we should not become obsessed with league tables, particularly league tables that are often very narrow and that are, let us be blunt about it, put together for commercial reasons. The people who put together league tables are often selling services. They can make people at the bottom feel that they need to get a consultant in.
I take the point that we need to start earlier if we want to break the cycle of disadvantage. That is what was important about that ABC programme in Darndale, Tallaght and a number of other places. It deals with the mother of the child before the child is even born and looks at things like nutrition, discipline, homework, attitudes to education and books in the home. It deals with the fact that at the age of three, a child might already be way behind and tries to address that.
In response to Senator Ó Clochartaigh, hopefully, the Irish language policy will be out within a reasonable period. I think it is coming to a conclusion. I have already dealt with the issue of patronage. In response to Senator O'Donnell, nine schools have gone out. We are very conscious that September 2017 is the start date so a decision will be made within weeks. PE will be a leaving certificate subject. Well-being in the junior cycle will involve encouraging people to look after themselves. I would love to be in a position to builds more PE halls but they have definitely been squeezed given the shortage of resources. We are catering for 20,000 additional pupils every year so it is very important that we have school places and they have been the priority. I agree with the Senator regarding work experience as part of degrees. It has a huge impact and is at the core of the apprenticeship model. UL and DCU, which came out of the same stable, value that and others need to catch up with them.
School transport is difficult. The trouble is that one rule book is all we have and we must apply it in 5,000 or 6,000 different parishes and villages. No matter how we design it, we will have people who are discommoded. Nearness to school is the criteria and I suppose it is fair and objective.It is under review. I find it hard to see how it can be resolved to everyone's satisfaction. We spend €175 million on it. We are not deliberately trying to cut people off or frustrate them, but there is a limited pot and the children who are absolutely eligible must get priority.
I thank the Seanad for its contribution. This is not a perfect document. It cannot be because it does not have all the resources. I would love to be able to tell my colleague, the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, to give me all of this money. I hope that in a year's time I will have a stronger case to obtain more money than we received this year and keep aggressively moving on. If we deliver the ambition we have for this, it will be seen that the investment made in our education system is realising results through delivering a fairer, more equal and balanced society and allowing entrepreneurship and enterprise success in many walks of life to be delivered. I hope I am putting myself in a position to win the argument for more resources for the education system, but to win it we must do this type of very systematic planning and delivery. I thank those who support this model.
I look forward to returning to the Seanad. The Acting Chairman, Senator Craughwell, did not get a chance to speak.