Seanad debates

Tuesday, 10 July 2018

10:30 am

Photo of Jennifer Murnane O'ConnorJennifer Murnane O'Connor (Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context

I echo my colleague's comments. It is very disappointing that the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Bruton, is not here today. Three extremely important Commencement matters this morning are about education issues. The Minister should be here. I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Catherine Byrne, for being here but the Minister should be here. I put forward another education issue on Commencement matters last week and it was answered by the Minister of State, Deputy English, who is the Minister of State with responsibility for housing. I was very disappointed. I am aware that it is not the fault of the Minister of State, but it is unfair. The Minister should address our Commencement matters. I will make this known to the Minister when I see him.

Ireland has long prided itself on its terrific education system. We rely too heavily, however, on an entire network of support that is not acknowledged. I wish to ask the Minister of State about the cuts to the capitation grant. In a written answer to my Dáil colleague, Deputy Jack Chambers, in March the Minister said: "I recognise the need to improve capitation funding for schools having regard to the reductions that were necessary over recent years ... restoring capitation funding as resources permit is one of the actions included in the Action Plan for Education."

There are great schools in Ireland with great school principals, great teachers and great students. Right now we are putting huge pressure on parents to keep the lights on in some schools. It is just not good enough given that parents are already paying taxes for this very reason. It is unacceptable that parents are, effectively, paying extra taxes in this regard.

The capitation grant is supposed to cover the overall cost of running a school but in reality it does not. While it costs the same amount of money to run a large primary school as a second level school, the rate of pay for one is almost three times of the other. The primary schools are losing out unless the parents reach deep into their pockets. Some schools are very lucky to have amazing fundraising committees but some schools have parents stressed out about voluntary contributions that they really cannot afford. While we spin the idea of free education if one was to ask any parent he or she will tell one that education in Ireland is far from free.

Principals in primary schools are calling for the capitation to be restored to its pre-cut level of €200 annually per child. I support this call. There are more than 500,000 children enrolled in 3,000 primary schools in Ireland. Many of these schools are small with over 50% of them having four or fewer teachers. According to the chief inspector's report on schools, Government spending per pupil has fallen by 15% since 2010 and Ireland is now spending less per primary pupil than the EU or OECD average. Of the 28 countries in the EU there are only five countries that spend less than Ireland on primary and pre-primary school age children, with Romania and Bulgaria being two examples.

According to a recent report by Grant Thornton the capitation grant now covers an average of only 52% of the running cost of a school. Last year, parents and local communities paid at least €46 million to support their local schools, which works out at an average of €14,000 per primary school or €82 per primary school pupil. This is for so-called free education. This payment is a stealth tax on parents.

I call on the Minister of State to ask the Minister to make a pledge to restore the capitation grant, by means of a phased structure or otherwise, and to relieve schools of the worry about maintenance and the minor works grant paid every year as a non-discretionary payment by the Government.

I applaud the Minister for Education and Skills for admitting that he would like to see a situation where education is 100% funded by the State, as he said in the media recently when this issue came up. The Minister also said there has always been a little tradition of the locals helping out. That this is not acceptable anymore. We have a massive problem in the second level school system whereby some schools are due to open on the Minister's watch with fixtures, fittings and furniture for which subcontractors have not been paid. I have already spoken to the Minister about this issue.

At some point we need to invest in children and give the taxpayers the investment they all deserve. Our children deserve our full commitment to give them all the best chance, not just the children with wealthy parents and machine-like fundraising committees.

Can the Minister of State, Deputy Byrne, indicate if the Minister for Education and Skills will put an increase in capitation funding high on the priority list in the budget? I expect to see an increase because it is so important. I am disappointed that the Minister for Education and Skills is not in the House to answer these matters this morning.

Photo of Denis O'DonovanDenis O'Donovan (Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context

It is important to note that Senator Murnane O'Connor's points were raised by a number of others also. While not being in any way disparaging to anyone, I suggest that the Senators take it up on the Order of Business so the Leader can raise it.

Photo of Jennifer Murnane O'ConnorJennifer Murnane O'Connor (Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context

Absolutely.

Photo of Denis O'DonovanDenis O'Donovan (Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context

I am only the referee.

Photo of Denis O'DonovanDenis O'Donovan (Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context

In some instances, it would be more appropriate that the line Minister was present, but we cannot blame the Minister of State, Deputy Catherine Byrne, for being here today. She is just the messenger.

Photo of Catherine ByrneCatherine Byrne (Dublin South Central, Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context

Do not shoot the messenger.

Photo of Denis O'DonovanDenis O'Donovan (Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context

The Minister of State will not be shot in this Chamber.

Photo of Catherine ByrneCatherine Byrne (Dublin South Central, Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context

The Minister thanks Senator Murnane O'Connor for raising the important issue of schools funding. Unfortunately I am here on behalf of the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Bruton, and I do not have any information as to where he is.

The Department of Education and Skills is very conscious of the need to improve capitation funding for schools having regard to the reductions that were necessary since 2011. Restoring capitation funding as resources permit is one of the actions included in the action plan for education and the Government remains committed to achieving this. We must, however, be prudent in the context of ongoing budgetary pressures and prioritise where it is not possible to do everything that we would like to do in the education sector in any one year. Schools must also take responsibility for achieving value for money and for managing their finances responsibly.To assist schools in this regard, the services of the financial service support unit are being rolled out to the primary and the community and comprehensive sectors on a phased basis. This will be an important source of advice and support for schools on financial governance matters. In addition, the Department established the schools procurement unit in 2014 as a central resource to provide guidance to primary and post-primary schools on procurement-related issues. Budget 2018 marked the second year of major reinvestment in the education sector, as we continue to implement the Action Plan for Education, which has the central aim to make the Irish education and training service the best in Europe within a decade.

In 2018, the budget for the Department of Education and Skills increased by €554 million to more than €10 billion. In the last two budgets, provision was made for 6,000 extra teachers, 3,000 extra special needs assistants and more than 3,000 new middle management posts. Extra supports were also provided to 110 schools in disadvantaged areas which will benefit 20,000 students, and to build nearly 20,000 extra school places a year. That is the priority this Government puts on education. These resources were allocated to improve the learning experience right across the sector, with a particular focus on children with special educational needs.

Improvements have been made in the restoration of grant funding that is used by schools to fund the salaries of ancillary staff to enable schools to implement the arbitration salary increase for grant-funded school secretaries and caretakers and to implement the restoration of salary for cleaners arising from the unwinding of the financial emergency measures in the public interest, FEMPI, legislation. The cost of restoring the standard capitation grant to all schools at primary and post-primary level is estimated at some €35 million. However, as I indicated, in considering future investment it will not be possible to satisfy all of the demands placed on the education system at one time. It is therefore important to focus on the top priorities. It is the Minister's hope that funding, while limited in nature, will continue to be made available over the next few years to invest in our schools and to add to the significant progress already made on implementing the Action Plan for Education.

Photo of Jennifer Murnane O'ConnorJennifer Murnane O'Connor (Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context

I thank the Minister of State for addressing me this morning but I am very disappointed with the Minister's reply. I welcome the fact that we are building up schools with extra services but there will be no increase in the capitation grant and I am very disappointed for primary school principals who have been fighting hard for this. I ask the Minister of State to relay to the Minister for Education and Skills that I will fight this with all school principals throughout Ireland. We need an increase to the capitation grant for primary schoolchildren. It is a priority for me and I will address the Minister on the issue.

Photo of Catherine ByrneCatherine Byrne (Dublin South Central, Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context

I thank the Senator. I understand the difficulty around capitation grants because I regularly deal with the issue in the context of my local schools. I will bring the concerns of the Senator to the Minister and ask him to reply to her. I do not know if an increase in capitation will be in the budget, to be honest.

Photo of Denis O'DonovanDenis O'Donovan (Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context

The Minister of State might also convey to the Minister that Senator Murnane O'Connor does not give up easily.

Photo of Jennifer Murnane O'ConnorJennifer Murnane O'Connor (Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context

That is for sure.