Thursday, 24 September 2020
School Transport, Leaving Certificate 2020 and Reopening of Schools: Statements
We are delighted to have the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Foley, in the Chamber for the debate on this important and difficult issue. My nephew, Dylan, is chairman of the bus on the way to school in Réalt na Mara so he tells me all about the challenges relating to school transport in Kerry. I am sure the Minister will inform us about the issues beyond that. Will she proceed with her opening statement?
Go raibh maith agat, a Chathaoirligh. I will say at the outset that it is my first time in this august Chamber and I am honoured to be here. On the previous occasion, the House sat in the Dáil Chamber so I am honoured to be here.I am particularly happy to be here to provide Senators with some updates on a range of topics in the schools sector and also to hear their views. This session was initially scheduled to come just after the Government launched Resilience and Recovery 2020-2021: Plan for Living with Covid-19. That plan sets out the framework for restrictive measures and is a risk management strategy for the next six to nine months. It is designed to allow individuals, families, businesses and services to better understand, anticipate and prepare for the measures Government might introduce to stop an escalation of the transmission of Covid-19. In the context of the plan, I assure Senators that Government has been very clear that at all times the priority guiding the plan will be to keep our schools open, while keeping people safe and protecting the resilience of our economy and communities.
I have used every opportunity I have had to speak in the Houses to acknowledge the huge effort by school communities right across the country that has gone into ensuring our schools could reopen over the past four weeks. Government played its part in committing the necessary resources to the roadmap for reopening our schools. My Department worked with the education partners to develop detailed guidelines for schools to operate within and school communities worked incredibly hard and indeed generously at the local level to get schools reopened. The test, of course, will be how we keep our schools open but as I have said, the plan for living with Covid-19 will prioritise keeping schools open. That is a signal of the importance I and Government attach to ensuring our children and young people receive as close to what we used to call a normal education as possible in our schools. Again, I have previously said one size does not fit all and schools working with families will be working at a local level to address any particular concerns or challenges that emerge. There were challenges in the first days in some schools and this was always to be expected on the basis that we have approximately 4,000 schools in a range of shapes and sizes across the country. It is a testament to the work undertaken at school level by school communities that, in the main, we can refer to the reopening of our schools as having been successfully achieved. However, we cannot be complacent.
In preparing for the reopening of schools, we knew that most students and indeed their families and school staff would be looking forward to going back, reconnecting with school, with staff and friends and settling back into school work. Significant work has been undertaken at school level to ensure schools reopened safely and now stay open. The approach taken may look or feel different when compared between schools but this reflects the local circumstances in a given school. Schools are best placed to communicate the arrangements in their own schools directly to students and parents about matters such as start times, finish times, drop-offs, pick-ups and other logistical arrangements. However, all of these arrangements take account of the roadmap from Government and the extensive suite of supporting documentation made available by my Department. It will be necessary for all stakeholders or partners to reflect on experience over the initial period of schools being open and any further or evolving public health advice. The dedicated support phone line in my Department remains available to schools which may be experiencing any specific individual challenges. Parents, students and other stakeholders may continue to have questions about particular issues or circumstances including, for example, whether to send a child to school or what happens in a school if a child or staff member displays symptoms while in school. The HSE has published very clear guidance for parents on what to look out for in determining whether to send their child to school or not. In the guidance provided to schools, they have been advised to identify isolation spaces in their buildings where any suspected cases will be brought and also on what follow up steps are appropriate. Any further actions in a given school and circumstances will be taken based on the advice provided by the local public health advisers.
In an open letter on the reopening of schools, the acting Chief Medical Officer pointed out that "there are no zero risk options for reopening schools or indeed any other environment", but that international evidence shows that child-to-child and child-to-adult transmission of Covid-19 in schools is uncommon and that for the overwhelming majority of children who are diagnosed with Covid-19, their symptoms will be mild. Therefore, the aim is now to keep our schools open by ensuring that all appropriate public health measures, such as physical distancing, hand washing and respiratory hygiene, are implemented where appropriate.The Government has also published up-to-date information for parents on what to do if a child has symptoms of coronavirus, along with other commonly asked questions.
The reopening of schools has been a very important milestone for Irish children and society. The safety and well-being of staff, students and the whole school community has been of paramount importance in the Government's planning for school reopening. Pivotal to this has been schools' engagement with public health advice. My officials have been closely with officials from the Department of Health and the Office of the Chief Medical Officer, public health specialists and other key personnel from the HSE to support schools in this regard.
At the beginning of September, the HSE briefed all education stakeholders in relation to Covid-19. My Department continues regular engagement with the health authorities and the educational partners. All schools were provided with a HSE document - Schools Pathway for Covid-19, the Public Health approach - setting out the approach to managing isolated confirmed cases of Covid-19 within the school community and also the principles that will underpin the management of outbreaks or potential outbreaks and the aligned testing strategy within an educational facility.
It is important to note that the response to confirmed cases or outbreaks of Covid-19 in the community or in a school is the responsibility of, and will be led and managed by, public health HSE. All decisions as to appropriate actions following a confirmed case or outbreak will be made by their teams in the context of a full public health risk assessment procedure. Any actions to be taken by the school will be communicated directly by public health HSE. School management will be informed as and when such actions as exclusion of children or staff or partial or full closure are deemed necessary on public health grounds. If a school is not so informed, it has not been deemed necessary by public health.
We know that when cases are confirmed in the community and arising in households, this will be reflected in the school community. The procedures set out by public health specialists have been tested across the country as confirmed cases arise among staff and students or in their families or close contacts. We cannot eliminate this completely but we can provide as much information and support as possible for school leaders, staff and parents. We can provide funding and practical supports to schools to ensure they can access substitutes, appropriate personal protective equipment, PPE, and other health measures. We can make sure public health teams respond quickly and testing is prioritised for those close contacts within the school community of confirmed Covid-19 cases. My Department has received enormous co-operation from the health authorities in that respect and I sincerely acknowledge that. A public health specialist from the HSE attended stakeholder meetings at the beginning of the school year to describe the public health approach for stakeholders and to answer questions and address any concerns raised. Webinars and other resources have been developed by the HSE specifically to address issues raised by schools around the approach taken when cases are confirmed in the school community and such resources are being circulated as widely as possible. Information and guidance has been made available on gov.ie/backtoschooland I urge all members of the school community to make full use of those resources. Schools are being provided with out-of-hours contact email addresses so that they can raise issues and queries as they arise.
I would like to acknowledge in particular the principals of our schools. Due to the nature of their role and their access to the kind of information that public health specialists require as speedily as possible to prevent further transmission of infection in schools, they must of necessity play an active role in engaging with the public health teams. This may of course occur at the weekend, depending on when cases are confirmed. Any principal who has been called upon in this way has done their utmost to co-operate and support the public health specialists in any way that they can. We owe them an enormous debt of gratitude.
For our part, my Department also has continuing engagement with the public health authorities on a weekly basis to streamline procedures and information flows and ease the administrative burden on all concerned in both the education and health sectors. In the event of a positive case of Covid-19 being detected in a pupil or staff member of a school, the school setting is notified to the local HSE public health department for a public health risk assessment. This assessment includes identifying any close contacts of the positive case. This will vary from school to school according to a range of factors considered by medical specialists. Immediately following the public health risk assessment, the principal is advised by the public health team of any actions to be taken, including requesting parents to collect their children or advising staff to go home, restrict their movements and await a test appointment. Covid-19 test appointments are issued as a priority for school-based close contacts through a specific schools referral process within the HSE.At the point of testing, swabs for the school group are sent to the laboratory as a red-flagged batch to be processed as a priority on delivery to the laboratory. The swabs will also have a specific school reference number to allow batch reporting of results for the particular school setting.
During planning for school reopening, the stakeholders and I were in full agreement that reopening schools must be in accordance with HSE public health expert advice whose recommendations have been published and are kept continually under review as new evidence emerges. My Department has engaged extensively with stakeholders in developing the plans for reopening, including regular formal meetings, as well as informal contacts. The views of stakeholders have been taken into consideration at every stage of the process, including their emphasis on a public health-led approach to planning for school reopening. I am, however, aware that ASTI has indicated its intention to ballot its members for industrial action on a range of issues. My Department will continue to consult with stakeholders following the reopening so that we can address any remaining concerns of staff, students, parents and others and ensure schools remain open safely.
I know that Senators have a keen interest in school transport. My Department received updated health advice from NPHET on 18 August, the Tuesday before schools reopened, which impacted on the planned operation of post-primary school transport services. This advice stated that for secondary school students on school transport strict distancing should be ensured in line with that on public transport, along with the wearing of face coverings, and that primary school students should distance where possible. Government then decided that the arrangements made for the primary school transport scheme, including special educational needs, SEN, primary transport services, would proceed as planned when schools reopened with additional measures in place, such as preassigned seating and additional hygiene and cleaning measures, on these services. The Government also decided that the post-primary scheme, including SEN post-primary services, would commence operation when schools reopened with additional measures in place such as preassigned seating and additional hygiene and cleaning measures on services and with the rolling implementation of measures to provide physical distancing in line with those required on public transport, which is using 50% of passenger capacity on the post-primary services as required.
Every effort continues to be made to provide a safe transport service. However, if parents decide not to avail of transport services, they may request a refund on the cost of their ticket for the 2020-2021 school year. For those children who are eligible for transport under the terms of the post-primary school transport scheme and whose parents decide not to use post-primary transport for the 2020-2021 school year in light of the impact of most recent health advice, the Department will provide a grant to support them with the cost of private transport arrangements.
My Department has engaged with Bus Éireann to implement measures so that services that could operate from the start of the school year at 50% capacity did so and over the coming period all other post-primary transport services will be reorganised and additional services will be provided as required to allow for physical distancing. Bus Éireann has advised that in the region of 20% of a total of 2,100 mainstream post-primary services are in a position to operate at 50% capacity. This figure is subject to change as final tickets are allocated and consideration is taken of those parents who opt to seek a refund and-or avail of a grant from the Department to support the cost of their own transport arrangements for the 2020-2021 school year.
With regard to children on dedicated post-primary SEN services, more than 70% of these services are operating at 50% capacity. With regard to children who attend special schools and who may travel on services with children of mixed age groups, 54% of these services are operating at 50% capacity. Over the coming period, all other services will be reorganised and additional services will be provided as required to allow for physical distancing. In line with the mainstream post-primary services, parents who wish to avail of a grant instead of using transport have been offered the option to do so.
Bus Éireann recently invited applications from operators who wish to be considered for the provision of additional post-primary services that may be required. It is estimated that more than 1,600 additional buses and drivers will be required to deliver 50% capacity. To date, more than 140 applications from contractors have been received and evaluated. Bus Éireann is assessing the extra resources that may be required to assist in the areas of customer care, procurement and resources to implement the roll out of 50% capacity as required on post-primary services and the Department is reviewing its analysis in this regard. All children who are eligible for school transport and who applied and paid on time have been accommodated on school transport services for the 2020-2021 school year.
The school transport scheme family portal was temporarily closed for applications and payments on the 20 August 2020.This temporary closure was necessary to complete the work required to issue tickets to families who, at that time, remained due to be allocated a ticket for school transport services for the 2020-21 school year. The school transport scheme family portal reopened with effect from 7 September. Parents and guardians making an application or payment at this time for the 2020-21 school year are reminded that the closing date for payments for the 2020-21 school year was Tuesday, 4 August. While it is possible to submit a payment, payments made at this time are now late. Late applications and-or families who pay late are not guaranteed a seat and will only be allocated a seat if capacity is available once seats are allocated to those families who applied and paid on time for transport services for the 2020-21 school year.
Primary tickets will be allocated to those who apply or pay where capacity exists on routes. No tickets will issue to post-primary late applicants or payees until such time as routes are rolled out at 50% capacity for those who applied and paid by the deadline of 4 August. As routes are rolled out and if capacity is available, tickets will be allocated to those applicants. Although capacity issues are far more constrained in the post-primary scheme than was the case in 2019, the Department is keeping under review where significant numbers of concessionary applicants may exist, who paid on time and who are 4.8 km from their nearest school but are attending their second nearest school. However, the current priority is to facilitate 50% capacity on services for those who have been allocated and issued tickets. In the event of not securing a ticket where no capacity exists, or on cancellation, a full refund will be issued.
Turning to the leaving certificate class of 2020, more than 60,000 students received their calculated grades on 7 September and the CAO has issued its first round offers, with the second round offers issuing this week. Calculated grades were developed as a direct result of not being able to hold the conventional leaving certificate examinations. It was an agreed model, first mooted by students and developed with stakeholders. As Minister, I have been at pains to ensure that students are a priority and informed of all developments in the calculated grades process. That will continue.
The additional 5,000 plus places in higher education approved by the Government for the 2020-21 academic year meant that the CAO was able to make 78,950 first round offers on Friday, 11 September last, 6% higher than in 2019 while, overall, CAO applications were up only 0.6%. Some 80% of CAO applicants for level 8 courses got one of their top three choices this year, which is similar to the case in previous years. The calculated grades appeals process opened on Monday, 14 September. By the appeals closing date on Wednesday, 16 September, 12,292 students had appealed results in 33,677 grades. The calculated grades office will seek to process these appeals as quickly as possible.
The leaving certificate calculated grades model relied on a process of national standardisation to ensure that a consistent standard in results was applied in schools across the country. If this process did not occur, it would have led to unfairness to students across different schools and subjects and to very significant inflation of marks that would not be credible in a single year and which could do major harm by undermining the status of the leaving certificate. Students who remain dissatisfied after the appeals process can choose to sit the written leaving certificate examination in one or more subjects when they are held, commencing on 16 November. Registration for the leaving certificate written examinations to be held in November will open from Monday, 28 September, at 9 a.m. on the calculated grades student portal.
Candidates who had previously registered for the leaving certificate examinations which were postponed from last June can enter for the leaving certificate in any or all of their registered subjects. The written examinations will be run by the State Examinations Commission, which will oversee all arrangements. A circular outlining all relevant details will be provided to schools later this week. Examinations will be held across the schools network during evenings and weekends. The logistical details will be finalised by the State Examinations Commission when the numbers of candidates for the examinations are known. There will also be an opportunity for adult learners who were due to sit the junior cycle examinations in June to sit written examinations in November. These junior cycle examinations will also be offered to early school leavers who had been registered to sit the June examinations and who had left school after junior cycle 2020 and are not continuing in an educational pathway that would lead to formal certification.
A small number of students have taken legal action against the calculated grades process, with High Court proceedings in train in those cases. It would not be appropriate, therefore, to engage in discussion of those specific cases, but two cases have been ruled on which involved out-of-school learners. The State has given notice of its intention to appeal the first of those High Court rulings, and as the second judgment was given this morning we will consider its implications urgently. The appeal that has been lodged will in no way impact on the position of the student, who received his leaving certificate results under the calculated grades process on 7 September along with the other more than 60,000 leaving certificate students.The appeal is being taken on certain legal issues arising from the judgment.
The Government undertook to put the calculated grades process in place so that the leaving certificate class of 2020, who have already been through an unprecedented and difficult experience, would be able to proceed to the next stage of their lives. That was the Government's priority.
I assure Senators that I and the officials in my Department will continue to work hard across the range of challenges we continue to face in the school sector to ensure that we can keep our schools open, complete the leaving certificate appeals process, support the preparation of the 2021 examination students, and support students and school communities throughout the country as we have done through the challenges presented by Covid-19.
I welcome the Minister to the House. It is great to be in this wonderful room. To have the opportunity to speak twice today is a real honour.
I thank the Minister for the detailed update. She went through a lot of information. To make a general point about the reopening of schools, I know that there was great excitement. I kept hearing about all the kids who were excited for the first week back and thought every day was like a school tour day. That novelty might now be wearing off but the joy of parents is still there.
More than 1 million children have gone back to school and that was achieved through the public health guidelines and measures put in place by the Government. It is now a priority to stay vigilant. I pay tribute to some of the people in the background who we sometimes do not see, namely, the caretakers of schools who did great work throughout August, along with principals and teachers, to prepare the schools. They pulled things apart and put things together. It was like there was a MacGyver in every school.
I have spoken to many primary and secondary schools in my area, and many principals have paid tribute to the Department of Education and Skills helpline, which they said was supportive. They also acknowledged the Settling in - Slow Down to Catch Up guide for post-primary and secondary schools from the National Centre for Guidance in Education. It was an excellent guide targeted at career guidance teachers at post-primary level. I know that teachers in Garbally College in Ballinasloe found it useful for all teachers.
We are dealing with low levels of anxiety, as everybody is during the pandemic. It would be interesting to know a little more about the mental health supports for children at primary school level and how to help students, especially those with special needs, express themselves in a healthy way.
Some feedback I have received from secondary schools highlighted the challenges for teachers adapting to new layouts. Teachers would previously have been based in one classroom and the children would have moved around whereas now children are based in a classroom and the teachers are moving around. Issues around the lack of supervision have sometimes cropped up.
Staggered breaks appear to be working very well. One of the key issues at primary school level is something that I am sure the Minister is fully aware of, namely, the comparison of school sizes in Ireland with those in the EU. The Irish Timesof 8 September reported that the average class size in Irish primary schools is approximately 25 students and the EU average is 20. The Creagh primary school in Ballinasloe has 27, 28 or 29 children per class in fourth, fifth and sixth class. That is putting pressure on schools to achieve social distancing. I am interested to hear from the Minister what measures might be put in place for schools with very high numbers, particularly for the coming year.
The minor works scheme was a great support and many schools welcomed it immensely. However, it has been highlighted that more support for IT at primary and post-primary levels may be required. Many schools are not using lockers and, to avoid students carrying heavy schoolbags and all the rest of it, teachers are trying to do more and more things online. Homework is being given out online.
I also received feedback to the effect that a lot of primary schools have been doing well with videos and putting material online about how to encourage children and parents to know what it is like to return to school. I thank some of the local companies, entrepreneurs and enterprises who have been donating to local schools. One company donated hand sanitiser with friendly animal figures to encourage kids to do more hand sanitisation. Many community groups and volunteers have helped out in schools.
I acknowledge the work of the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, on special needs and inclusion. I have dealt with her an awful lot on request needs for special needs assistants for children with highly complex needs.I am sure I will be dealing with the Department of Education and Skills on the allocation of resource hours. There are primary schools in south Roscommon that do not have very many resource hours, compared with the number of students. There has been a large increase in the population over the last number of years, particularly in the area outside of Athlone.
In terms of school transport, many families must use private buses to access schools. I have received representations from councillors around the country about the difficulties in accessing a place using school transport. I appreciate the challenges and difficulties facing the Minister with 50% access, as she mentioned. I can only wait and hope that her Department will work with all of the stakeholders involved to increase access. Families have adapted by putting private buses in place and it is good to hear that parents can avail of a grant.
I congratulate the 60,000 students who completed the leaving certificate. I also congratulate their families. The extra allocation of over 2,200 places has helped to alleviate the pressure on points. There are over 35,000 places in further education with 19,000 places on the Skills to Compete programme and 2,300 places at postgraduate level, which was mentioned this morning. I cite all of that to highlight the fact that there are many ways for people to reach their career of choice. There are apprenticeships available in accountancy, auctioneering and so many different areas. Yesterday, about 2,500 CAO round 2 offers were issued to students and I wish them well. All of these people are now on their journeys of discovery and I encourage them to consider all methods and ways to reach their goals. I like a quote by W.B. Yeats that I discovered when I visited the website of Creagh National School: "education is not the filling of a pot but the lighting of a fire". I hope we can maintain the confidence of children returning to school. It is important that we deal with anxiety levels.
I welcome the Minister back to the Seanad. It is her first time to be in the actual Seanad Chamber because we were in the Dáil Chamber the last time we met her, when she had just published the roadmap for schools to reopen. I cannot even begin to think how daunting an experience the preparation of the roadmap must have been for the Minister, her office and her Department. It is a testament to her and those who support her that the return of 1 million children and their teachers to school has been an outstanding success. I also acknowledge all of the incredible work that is being done by school communities.
I am grateful to have another opportunity to discuss a number of key issues that affect the primary and secondary education sectors. I acknowledge that the Minister has consistently said that the reopening and continued opening of schools has been and continues to be the number one priority for her and the Government. I pay tribute to principals, school management, staff, caretakers and school secretaries around the country who were very committed to the reopening process from the start. The success of the last few months and weeks have vindicated that work. I had an opportunity to see at first hand some of the work that took place in the week or two before schools reopened. I am impressed by what the school communities achieved with the help of the Department, including the financial injection that was needed to make schools safe and secure. All of our thanks must go to the school communities because, as I mentioned when the Minister first met Senators, schools are the building blocks of society and democracy.
We all made sacrifices to battle Covid and make sure that schools could reopen, particularly in County Kildare. At that time a second set of restrictions had been initiated in the county. I was concerned that this could mean the reopening of schools in the county would be delayed. There was no sense that such a thing would happen and everybody rallied together to ensure all schools opened. The reopening of schools is a very significant achievement and a vital part of the move towards living with Covid-19.
The closure and subsequent reopening of schools has caused a number of logistical challenges that require the continued focus of the Minister and the Government.It is absolutely not the case that now the schools have reopened, we can move on to the next set of challenges. The challenges in question include those relating to the provision of school transport and calculated grades. There were additional difficulties with school transport this year as a result of existing issues within the school transport system, which were exacerbated by Covid-19, but the problem did not start there. There have been ongoing problems with school transport over the years, in particular in the months leading up to and following the reopening of schools.
Every year, we have approximately 120,000 children, including 14,000 with special needs, who rely on the school transport system. There are 11 dedicated local school transport offices throughout the country but despite the fact that 100 people work in those offices, parents regularly report that every year it is almost impossible to get a timely reply on their children's school bus situation. Problems with the portal seem to occur every year. Customers cannot correct inadvertent underpayments because the amount of money they owe is not listed as an option. The portal must be developed to facilitate such payments as it would save a significant amount of administration all round.
One of the problems I found in my constituency is one I am sure is replicated elsewhere. I refer to the fact that private bus companies cancelled a lot of routes leaving parents with no transport option for their children. I appreciate that they are private bus companies, as opposed to being run by the Department, but there must be some way the Department can address private bus routes too because when both parents in a home are working one has to take leave to ensure their children get to school, especially at present when children are not encouraged to share lifts. This is an issue that must be examined down the line.
School bus drivers should be given priority access to testing. The Minister said that school staff are being given priority access to testing but school bus drivers should be given similar access.
It is part of the programme for Government that the entire school transport scheme would be examined and evaluated. That is most important. The minimum requirement of 4.8 km is quite a distance. We must do that urgently in order to help facilitate families and students and also to ensure that we do not have bottlenecks at schools at both drop-off and collection points. I welcome the commitment in the programme for Government to seek better outcomes and to reduce car journeys. I look forward to engaging with the Minister on the issue.
It is very welcome that those in the class of 2020 have now received their leaving certificate results. The delivery of the results was a significant achievement both on the part of the teachers who provided the estimated marks for the first time and the departmental officials who delivered a workable alternative to traditional written exams. We have had concerns in particular concerning the grind colleges and some private schools. We do not want to see anybody being disadvantaged. I will finish now.
There is no clock so it was difficult to know how much time I had left. The issue is whether the Department's standardisation process was good enough to pick up trends at the level of individual schools. That is probably where the ranking came into play. I will leave it at that. The challenge for the Minister is to keep schools open and we must all work together to achieve that and to take all of the precautions that are part of the new normal in terms of hand hygiene, minimising contact, physical distancing and taking personal responsibility.
I welcome the Minister to the House. It is great to get to address her for a second time. It is a great opportunity to get to look at what has happened recently and to delve a little further into the reopening of our schools and other recent issues. I fear, however, that what we are now seeing in primary and secondary education are the chickens coming home to roost and all the issues Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil have been putting on the long finger for a couple of years.
Class sizes have been a consistent cause of concern for teachers, their unions and the Opposition in this House, and here we are now with class sizes affecting not just educational outcomes but also, possibly, medical outcomes. Teachers are genuinely concerned about their health and that of their immediate contacts. We heard again and again from Fianna Fáil when it was in opposition that class sizes were not acceptable, yet during the confidence and supply Government's time in office we saw nothing delivered. I hope we will see something delivered during the Minister's time in office.
There is a rumour going around that class sizes will potentially increase in budget 2021. A number of teachers and parents have contacted me about this. I hope the Minister will be able to put the rumour to bed because it is causing a lot of distress. It would be great if we could get clarity on this because I have heard from people who are deeply distressed about it. I hope the Minister will be able to make a commitment that class sizes will be in fact reduced in budget 2021.
There is also the failure to address pay disparity, which has now led one of the second level teachers' unions, the ASTI, to ballot for strike action as they face into the unknown teaching in the Covid pandemic. As anyone who has been an active trade union member will know, workers, especially essential workers such as teachers, do not ballot for strike action lightly. I therefore ask the Minister for Education and Skills to listen and not to take the concerns of 17,500 second level teachers lightly.
I also ask the Minister not to allow the issue of teaching post-Covid to be used as an eraser with which to remove other long-standing issues in education which her own party when in opposition, and then in government from the Opposition benches, told us had to be rectified. I am speaking specifically about the treatment of two vastly undervalued groups of workers within education, namely, SNAs and school secretaries. The pandemic has shone a very harsh light on the precarious nature of work in Ireland - in our retail sectors, our tourism industry and all across our tertiary economy - but what we have never really acknowledged is that precarious employment happens everywhere and happens to people directly employed in schools. The vast majority of Ireland's school secretaries work for poor pay, and some are denied the respect of the most basic of employment rights such as secure contracts, pension rights and even sick pay. This week we have had great discussion about sick pay and mandatory sick pay. My colleagues in the Dáil proposed the Labour Party Bill for sick pay for all. It is concerning, as I have said already in this House, to see that that will be kicked to touch for six months. Workers need sick pay now, during a global pandemic, not in six months' time. The school secretaries' campaign, supported by Fórsa, is for a guaranteed wage and security of work. This is not asking much; it is simply to acknowledge the roles these workers play as key administrators, supporters and staff in school. All those roles are valuable. I am sure the Minister, as a former teacher herself, will acknowledge this. I ask her to make it a priority in her term to formalise school secretaries' contracts and provide them with the entitlements and protections equivalent to grade 3 or grade 4 of the Department's pay scale, which is only appropriate.
Another key group of workers in schools who face precarity are our SNAs. This group of workers is deeply under-recognised and underappreciated. In the past few days I spoke to an SNA who said to me she felt as though SNAs were an afterthought when planning was done for primary and secondary schools. There is all the documentation for procedures to follow in our schools but, with all due respect, teachers and staff following good procedures do not necessarily change the reality of our schools. It is near impossible, and in some cases dangerous, for SNAs and teachers to remain 2 m away from students, so I ask the Minister to give that consideration.
This week with my Labour Party colleagues, Senator Bacik and Deputy Ó Ríordáin, I attended a meeting with Involve Autism, which is active in Dublin 6 and Dublin 6W and surrounds. We spoke about the appalling shortage of ASD classes in the area. Out of 30 primary schools in the area, just one had an ASD class. We also discussed the group's concerns about the section 37A process. That issue is not limited to this area; the shortage of ASD classes and the reluctance and reticence of schools to step up and take on ASD classes is massively problematic. It is a national issue that is causing incredible stress for families across Ireland. The legislation gives the Minister the power to open ASD classes directly. Is she willing to step in and ensure ASD provision for students across the country?
I hope the Minister will take some of these concerns into account. They are quite specific, I know. A wide range of issues have been discussed today, but these are concerns that are causing massive distress for students, our school secretaries and our SNAs and their classes. We have enormous class sizes.They simply have to go down in numbers. We cannot increase them any more. It is affecting our children's education and, as I said, class sizes are now not just affecting educational outcomes but could affect medical outcomes as well.
It is not the first time he has been mentioned in the Chamber. I welcome the Minister to the House. I, too, want to focus my contribution primarily on class sizes. We have some of the largest class sizes in Europe. The OECD average is 20 and, as was mentioned by a Fine Gael Senator, we have class sizes above 30. Way back in July Sinn Féin was suggesting emergency measures on the issue of class size and that we start tackling classes of 30 and over. This should not just happen in this budget, because the budget is approaching, and it should not happen in a pandemic. It should happen because it is the right thing to do. It is the best way to guarantee that schools can remain open. We need to see class sizes come down to the OECD average of 20. That would help schools maintain social distancing in a system in which classrooms are often small already. School facilities and buildings need to be looked at as well and there needs to be a capital programme and capital commitment for those struggling most with a lack of space.
I congratulate those students who have received offers on the second round of the CAO. I would like to ask for clarity on when appeals lodged against the initial results will be completed and made known to those students. On the issue of school transport, recent figures show that 23,000 fewer pupils accessed the school transport scheme for this academic year compared to last year. Some 97,000 pupils are currently accommodated on the school transport scheme including 26,200 on concessionary tickets. We are told that a total of 120,000 children were carried on the school transport bus scheme last year. Is the Minister absolutely sure that every pupil who applied for a place on a school bus was able to get one? How does she explain such a sharp decrease in the numbers if everyone who requested a seat got one? As with class sizes, let us not just go for a temporary measure. Let us solve the problem this year and make sure that in the future no parent has to worry about their child getting a seat on the bus. Single households may have several children at one school or children at various schools. This is where securing school transport becomes an annual nightmare. The fleet has to be dramatically increased to accommodate those thousands of children who are so far left without transport, so we need a plan for future years.
I request that the Minister speak with the Minister, Deputy Catherine Martin, about the Creative Schools programme. She may have seen the documentary. Creative Schools is the flagship strand of the Creative Ireland programme. I am a supporter of this incredible programme. It is massively important for children's mental health, for their development and future at work. I would love to see that programme rolled out to every school across the State. It would obviously cost a significant amount, between €5 million and €10 million according to my own sums. I ask the Minister to focus particularly on that if she is speaking with the Minister, Deputy Catherine Martin.
I welcome the Minister, Deputy Foley, to the Seanad Chamber. We are delighted to have her here. Since she has taken up the role she and her Department have really hit the ground running. There is no doubt that this is an area that has faced one of the biggest challenges. The massive challenge we have faced as a society has been to open back up. I will not say it was easy to lock everything down but what the Government has faced is this challenge of opening up gradually. We have all pulled together as a society.I would love to say that we have pulled together politically as strongly as we have as a society. The Government parties and the public are behind all of the work being done. The staff have done Trojan work in coming in throughout the summer to get their schools ready and to draw down the funding that was made available in the July stimulus. The challenges will be ongoing for staff. Special needs assistants, SNAs, in particular faced the challenge, potentially, of having vulnerable families themselves and being in close quarters with vulnerable children. I would like to see us put into place a long-term plan for SNAs that is different than that for the other staff members.
I have spoken to the Minister's Department on the issue of vulnerable families. I have been contacted, in particular by those who are on transplant waiting lists. Those waiting lists are not moving at the moment. There is someone within my own party who is waiting for his third transplant and is at home but still wants his children to have the school experience. However, there are others who may be lone parents and who are not willing to put their health on the line. We have to be more flexible and say that school is not for everyone at the moment and it is okay if a child is not going to school. I was delighted to hear from the Minister's Department and the head of schools that there is some flexibility around the number of days' absence, but we need to hear what that flexibility is and what it looks like. Are parents going to feel that the Department will come down hard on them if their child cannot go to school, not because the child is sick but because a parent, grandparent or someone close to them is sick?
On the issue of school transport, I can see the huge infrastructural challenges for us as a society. It is not a quick or easy fix. One thing that I do ask is that the Minister looks creatively at the issue. There are small projects and things that could be done to change things for people. For instance, a family from County Donegal contacted me about two schools, St. Eunan's College and Loreto Secondary School in Letterkenny, which had a private bus service. Like one of my colleagues mentioned earlier, the bus service was cancelled after 20 years. It had been run by Bus Éireann, but it moved into private ownership and the State did not have control over it. What I have been told is that it is less than a mile from a Local Link bus to the school, so if there were extensions of Local Link services, particularly in rural areas, that would help a lot of parents. It is not just the case that maybe both parents are working outside of the home, but that sometimes people plan their entire lives around the fact that they do not need a car because they have access to a bus service.
With regard to energy efficiency, schools have contacted me about the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland, SEAI, community energy efficiency programme. It has been difficult for local groups to administer this programme, and it needs matched funding. It would be ideal for schools to avail of this funding, but as the Minister is aware, they do not have the capital in place for the matched funding. Now that we have the funding for these capital programmes, let us put it into education. Not only will we be doing something for the environment, we will be lowering the costs of energy bills for schools and we can teach children about solar energy, wind turbines and about all of these things. It would be education in motion for them.
I thank the Minister for the briefings provided in relation to exams. There is a moment in time now where we have an opportunity as a country to look at exams, what they mean and what education should mean further down the road. What was put in place was the best we could do at the time, but we need to look to the future. Are we facing more inequality if we do not re-examine how we do the leaving certificate?
I thank the Acting Chairman.
I warmly welcome the Minister to the House and it is also my first chance to congratulate him on his role. Like others, I want to open by giving credit and paying tribute to all of those teachers, principals and parents who have been working extraordinarily hard over months to try to prepare for reopening schools in difficult circumstances and in going above and beyond the call of duty. There are also the cleaning and maintenance staff in schools and, crucially, the school secretaries. This is a clear moment for them. The case for school secretaries was strongly made in the last Oireachtas. They do such vital work and are the locus and exchange for information between parents, families and schools in many cases, and as the Minister can imagine, have been doing extraordinary work in this. They really need to be rewarded and recognised.
It is also very important that we look at SNAs. If we are valuing this work and calling it essential and are effectively asking everybody doing this work to take additional risk, we have to show that it is valued.
We then come to the question of staffing. Substitute teachers should not be in a situation where they do not know which school they may be in or when they might need to be there. We need to move to a situation where there are long-term contracts for additional staffing linked to specific schools. I suggest to the Minister that this is something that should be looked at and linked with the question that others have raised on class sizes. This year there certainly should be no classroom with more than 25 students in it. The OECD average is 20 and we know there are cases of 23, 24 and 28. Additional staff should be provided on contract and linked to specific schools for the year, which also means that there will be a little bit of reserve in the school if a teacher, or a number of teachers, for example, become sick or have to self-isolate. It is really important that we increase the capacity beyond the minimum class size numbers. Class size will be crucial. We need to go below what would be necessary so that we can deal with the additional issues that arise. The ASTI has raised many of its concerns but these are concerns right across the education system.
On class size, another things which would alleviate these pressures is to look at situations where there is additional physical capacity within a school. Perhaps there are additional rooms, meeting rooms that are not normally used or other spaces that can be considered. In those schools - it will not be every school - additional physical capacity plus an additional staff member would allow class sizes to reduced. That should be looked at.
Another issue, which was highlighted, was the use of outdoor classrooms and activities. Given that even since the roadmap was launched, the science on ventilation and on aerosol transmission has been making it very clear that it may be 18 or 20 times safer to have outdoor activities. We need a rethink. We know that individual schools such as St. Patrick’s in Wicklow and others have piloted that idea of having an outdoor classroom as an option. Let us look at how that might be supported and if capital resources are necessary they should be given to schools to make that an option.
An important issue raised by Senator Pauline O’Reilly is that a classroom situation may not be for everyone. At the moment for many people there seems to be a stark choice between home-schooling, which many parents know they are not qualified to do as it is not their skill area, and in-classroom teaching. We need to look at a remote and distance-learning option, which may involve occasional visits to a school with a large number of days taken up by remote and distance-learning, in situations where students are particularly vulnerable or may have a family member who is high-risk or vulnerable, and indeed where teachers may be in an at-risk category.
In the case which we know of in San Francisco in the United States, they have looked at setting up additional schools for a year which will be remote-learning schools, where students will have the option to return to their original school next year. Can the Minister to look at that?
On the leaving certificate, which is a really good example, I hope to engage with the Minister further to discuss equality and algorithms and how we might address that.That public duty regarding equality in the context of algorithms is important.
I recognise that there are additional places in many of the colleges but there are not enough in terms of the arts and many other sectors. We need to address the issue of those who sat the leaving certificate last year, particularly in the context of disciplines such as social care and the arts for which there are no additional places. We want to make sure that students have the option to fulfil whatever career path might be appropriate for them.
I will not get to speak on transport but would simply say that in addition to these schemes, in terms of getting to 50% capacity and doubling the number of spaces on the roads, can we look to investment in cycling safe zones, perhaps through the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection, and a grant for families on family income supplement that would allow them to purchase bicycles.
Can I point out to the Senators that almost all of them are not adhering to the five minutes they have been given. I said I would ring the bell when there are 30 seconds remaining. I hate crossing people but if we are to have a proper debate and allow every speaker in, I have to adjudicate and give fair play to everybody. That is what I will do while in the Chair. I ask all Members to co-operate and I thank them for doing so. I call Senator Gerard Craughwell, who has five minutes.
The Minister is very welcome. I congratulate her on her elevation. First things first. I have in front of me two series of questions that were sent to her Department, the first on 20 August and the second on 9 September. To date, I have not received answers in respect of any of them. They were raised on behalf of parents, principals, boards of management and teachers and it is not good enough that I was not able to get answers in time. Having said that, I offer the Minister my congratulations on getting the leaving certificate results delivered. College places are now beginning to be sorted out. I am aware that some court cases are currently in progress but, ultimately, the Minister - and her predecessor - managed to do something we would have thought impossible not terribly long ago.
The first issue that needs to be addressed is that relating to the occupational health company, Medmark, which looks after our teachers. It is not acceptable that a teacher who is referred to Medmark because of an underlying condition gets a letter stating that he or she is suffering from a high-risk illness but that it is not a very high-risk illness - without defining the difference between the two - and then passing it to the board of management to decide whether he or she should be taken back into his or her school. If the teacher is not taken back into the school, he or she is told to go to his or her GP. The latter will put the person on sick leave and, under sick pay rules, he or she will be taken off the payroll, as the Minister and I both know, within a six-month period. That is not good enough.
The second issue I wish to raise relates to the wearing of masks by children in secondary schools. Some children, particularly those with disabilities - including learning disabilities - are simply not suited to wearing masks. We have to have an alternative. We also have to have a situation where those children who are wearing masks for the full day at school get breaks out of the school to give them a chance to take off their masks during the day. Some children cannot wear face masks and we have to include a proviso that they can wear visors or something else.
Children who suffer from learning disabilities such as dyslexia or any of the other conditions who cannot tolerate a situation where they cannot see someone's face are not able to avail of one-to-one teaching because they cannot move through their schools. We have to find a solution to that also. Parents are contacting me about children with various disabilities who should have individual learning programmes set up for them but who do not have individual learning and are forced to sit in classes in which they have no interest. As a teacher, the Minister will know that it is detrimental to their learning to have them sit in on classes in which they are not interested. I cannot understand how we expect children to engage in physical education while wearing masks.
We have the situation where a child in a school presents with a high temperature, the principal takes all the necessary steps to put the child into isolation, the child is sent home and subsequently diagnosed with Covid-19.Two different stories are coming out, one from the Department of Education and Skills and one from the HSE. Should all the siblings be sent home at the same time as the child? The HSE says "Yes"; the Department of Education and Skills says "No". That is my information at the moment, unless the position has changed. What about the children who rely on school transport to get to and from school? How do we get them home? Do we ask principals to put themselves at risk and drive them home? That is simply not good enough.
Senator Higgins mentioned homeschooling and schooling for children whose parents have underlying conditions or they themselves have underlying conditions. Why is the Minister expecting the schools to lay on e-learning or blended learning systems for those children? Teachers have enough to do already. Why will the Department not set up a learning portal for each of the national school and secondary school subjects, and allow students to do what they did during the initial lockdown when RTÉ laid on classes and have classes laid on? It only takes one teacher to be able to deal with an e-learning portal for the entire country in first class in national school, with another for second class, another teacher for third class, etc. Instead of expecting schools to do the job that should be done on a national level, we must start looking after the children themselves and living up to our responsibility to deliver an educational process.
If a child is sent home on a Friday, the diagnosis may not be confirmed until the Monday or Tuesday of the following week. Is that fair to the teachers involved? Should teachers not be immediately told that this child has been sent home or has been kept home because they are a suspected Covid-19 case?
I have many other things I would like to say. I am quite happy to give the Minister the four or five pages of questions I have submitted to the Department and which have remained unanswered in order to try to get answers for those people who asked the questions of me. It is simply not good enough. While a great job has been done on Covid-19, all Ministers need to speak with one voice, giving the same answers to the same questions.
The Minister is very welcome. I congratulate her on the reopening of schools, which was a mammoth task. Things are not perfect, but in the main it is positive that our children are back at school, back with their friends, and are working well in the bubbles and pods. I know my children are very happy with the rules. They are so happy to be back with their teachers, their routine and their learning. It is a pleasure to send happy children out to school every day.
I congratulate and thank all our teachers, SNAs and other school staff who have worked incredibly hard and who continue to do so. Like us all, they are fearful that a case of Covid will come into their school. There have been such cases and this is not a failure. This is the situation we are in and there should be no Covid shaming in schools of teachers or children. There have been many personal sacrifices by many teachers and school staff to reopen our schools and to keep them happy, fun and safe places for our children.
I have one point of contention in the context of some schools having to close classrooms and losing teacher numbers. This has resulted in larger class sizes. I have written to the Minister on numerous occasions and have received comprehensive responses about three schools in my area, but it has not helped the situation. Rampark school, Dulargy and St. Patrick's in Monasterboice were just within the threshold to keep their teaching numbers. I will use Rampark school in the north of County Louth as my example. It is a fantastic school that has to cram classes in together. It has a classroom sitting empty while it is struggling and failing to deal with social distancing. It took all the advice and pulled out all the furniture possible. It made an appeal through the independent process and was denied. It is struggling. The solution is one teacher. I urge the Minister to show flexibility in this matter and look at such situations across the country. I know resources are tight but these are spectacular times. We have a Government commitment to reduce class sizes. I hope this represents an opportunity to do so.
I also want to discuss the annual difficulties with school transport. Every year we have a mess. The Minister has inherited this problem or tradition.Some buses take some children on concession tickets, and there is an unfair lottery system that penalises some parents at several points. I am aware that the Minister has a comprehensive answer about social distancing on post-primary school transport but does she have a date as to when this matter will be taken care of? In my local area, there are 48 pupils crammed into several buses and there is no social distancing. Their parents and the teachers are very concerned. There is very careful social distancing within the school but not on the school transport.
With regard to the school transport system in general, cost efficiencies are possible. Money is being lost. I ask the Minister to fast-track a review of the entire concession tender system and process of the school transport scheme this year and to be ready for next year's school term. We are aware of how many children will be travelling to each school every year. In fact, we can estimate this several years in advance. We have great private bus operators and great Bus Éireann drivers all over the country. The private operators have suffered incredibly over the past few months. Efficiencies can be achieved to the benefit of these businesses. It will save the State money in the long run but also bring business to private bus operators. We need to think creatively about this.
One of my local private bus operators is getting €8 per day to clean six buses. That is €1.30 per bus and it must pay for both equipment and time. This is wrong and should be examined. I hope the Minister takes my points into consideration.
I thank the Minister for her time today and for her efforts over the past few months. I am aware that she is in demand so I will have to give her a whistle-stop tour of the issues affecting Dublin West.
What can be done about the removal of the sibling-first admission policy in primary schools which has been undertaken by the archdiocese in Dublin? I realise this relates only to schools that are oversubscribed but it affects a significant number of schools in Dublin 15, which has one of the most dense populations in the country. Parents who are already struggling to strike a work-life balance cannot be commuting to two, three or four different schools every morning. The patron is showing a distinct lack of understanding of the realities of family life.
A DEIS primary school in my area made an appeal because it is losing two out of its 15 teachers this year, despite its number of pupils for September 2020 being at the mark where it should lose only one. After an arduous appeal process, which I know about because I was involved, the school did not hear directly from the Department of Education and Skills about the retention decision. It heard second hand. This left it disappointed, disillusioned and short-staffed in a year in which schools need flexibility to cope with Covid-19.
This brings me to the survey of pupils to determine teacher numbers next year. I believe the deadline is 30 September. There needs to be flexibility this year for schools on the verge of losing teachers. Some schools have reported to me that not all the children have been able to return to school yet because of self-isolation or international travel restrictions.
On the issue of personal protective equipment, some suppliers delivered very well but some did not. What mechanisms are in place to deal with the companies that did not deliver? Personal protective equipment is not just required for school reopenings.
There has been a problem with prefabs for growing populations and overcrowding in schools in Dublin 15. Is the Minister aware of this? I am sure the issue must be arising in other areas. There was a Covid-19 planning suspension, as the Minister knows, but surely, then, preparations could have been made to deal with delays on the other side in respect of supply, especially when social distancing was always going to require more school accommodation. The Department was aware of the schools that had made applications, yet there does not seem to have been a sufficiently urgent approach to securing the prefabs as soon as possible.Pupils have been refused school bus transport from Lucan, where there are no school places for them, to a new school in Luttrellstown, which has space. If they cannot get the school bus their parents cannot drop them by car to access the only school places available to them in the vicinity of their home. Surely common sense must prevail over bureaucracy.
The grades of 16% of students were less than predicted by teachers and the majority of these came from fee paying schools. Will the Minister explain this discrepancy and how it came about? All children, and they are children, are entitled to fair treatment regardless of the choices their parents have made for their education. In choosing for their education, some of these parents have taken the decision to forgo the things we might associate with a privileged life to pay for school fees. Many have ordinary jobs with average wages. The decision to send a child to a fee paying school might be for all sorts of reasons. I was disappointed to read in the media about these children being branded entitled or privileged. I seek clarity on their behalf.
I thank Senator Currie, who was inside the time. The next three speakers are Senators Sharon Keogan, Malcolm Byrne and Mary Seery Kearney. I apologise to Senator Byrne. At the time I told him he would be next the Independent slot was not filled but Senator Keogan is here and I am sure Senator Byrne will understand.
I thank the Minister for coming to the House today and I am glad I get to speak to her. I compliment her on the wonderful job she has done to date. She has been an excellent communicator and I look forward to seeing how she will take on the role as Minister for Education and Skills.
I do not normally come in here with a parochial hat but this time I have done so. This morning when I arrived in my office I had 35 letters from children in St. Patrick's national school in Ardcath. The 36 pupils in fifth and sixth class in that school are in one classroom. I do not know what they will do. The board of management sought another teacher for the school but was refused. The school has a spare room. If we are trying to adhere to social distancing and to create safe environments for our children in which to be educated I ask the Minister to please see what she can do. I am sure there are other schools throughout the country in the same position.
There is another issue I would like the Minister to look into. It is happening in my area and I am sure it is happening in many other areas where Senators and Deputies work. Young children are not going back to school because they are afraid. In recent weeks I had to get a child psychologist into the local hall to give private counselling sessions to young children. They cannot get anything from the child and adult mental health services because nothing is available for them. I do not know what the Minister can do to address this. At present, four children go on a Tuesday evening to get counselling to try to ease their fears or whatever worries or anxieties they have. I am sure there are other children throughout the country who are feeling this. Is it possible for schools to have a counsellor appointed to them? I know it is a very big ask but if we can solve the issues they have at this stage perhaps down the line bigger issues will not manifest.
These are the issues I wanted to bring to the attention of the Minister. I wish her good luck in her portfolio and I thank her for her time.
I thank Senator Keogan, who was very much inside the time. I am looking at a sheet of paper that lists 11 speakers and the Minister must speak again at 4.20 p.m. I ask people that if they do not need the five minutes not to use up all the time and we will try to get all speakers in. I want to be fair to everybody.
I thank the Minister for coming to the House. One of the hallmarks since she has become Minister is that she is somebody who is willing to listen and engage with all of the stakeholders in the sector. She certainly has been willing to engage with teachers and boards of management. I particularly compliment her on being willing to engage with students. She has actively engaged with the Irish Second-Level Students Union.I would encourage the Minister to continue to do that.
I would also ask that a very clear process of engagement with stakeholders would be put in place, as I know has been the case elsewhere. If counties or areas move into different levels of lockdown due to further outbreaks of Covid there should be constant communication around this issue. Senator O'Loughlin referred to the experience in Kildare. When people know what is going on, they are able to work within the restrictions.
A number of colleagues raised the issue of class sizes. It was unfortunate that when Senator Hoey spoke she decided to politicise the issue. She seems to forget that the Minister, Deputy Foley, was the first Fianna Fáil Minister in this Department in a decade. There were two Labour Party Ministers in the interim. The two most significant growth levels in pupil-teacher ratios happened under those Ministers.
I am glad that there is a commitment in the programme for Government to look at reducing class sizes. The evidence is also quite clear that in DEIS schools if there are targeted reductions, particularly in infant classes in primary schools and so on, that tends to have better longer-term educational outcomes. The work of the Educational Research Centre in DCU would indicate that. I ask that we reduce class sizes for the younger classes in disadvantaged primary schools as a priority.
I also agree with Senator Warfield on the creative schools programme and the importance of creativity and design. That should be highlighted.
Senator Higgins raised the question of algorithmic decision-making in the leaving certificate results. I would share some of her concerns. I would like the Minister to outline for the students who are due to do the leaving certificate in 2021 what may happen. We are dealing with unknown unknowns in many ways, but it is important that they continue to be informed.
I was glad that the historical record of schools was not taken into account in the algorithm that was used to determine the results for this year. That was the correct approach. However, there was some grade inflation which affected the leaving certificate class of 2019. I am still concerned about how we could facilitate students who sat the leaving certificate in 2019 and what impact the decisions made this year will have on those sitting the leaving certificate in 2021.
School transport is a bugbear for nearly every Deputy, Senator, councillor and elected representative. I am sure the Minister knows this is the case. I would echo the comments of others on the issue of private buses. M and F Leonard Coaches in north Wexford brings a number of students from north Wexford villages to Carnew in County Wicklow. It cannot operate because of the 50% capacity requirement as it is not financially viable to do so. We also have to take into account private bus services that have to step in to fill the need.
There is a clear commitment in the programme for Government for a review of the school transport scheme. The school transport model that we have dates back to 1960s. Everybody knows there are major problems with it. I ask that the Minister give a very clear commitment that the review would start within the next few months. I know we are in very difficult times and it may be difficult to resolve the issue by next summer because of Covid, but we should at least be prepared. I ask the Minister to give a commitment on that.
There are many other broader policy issues that I would like to raise, but I will focus on two. Digital resources are an issue. Schools should have access to the necessary IT equipment, but we should be constantly upskilling our teachers so that they are able to communicate with students digitally, as Senator Craughwell mentioned.
On the teaching of languages, I would support the in the introduction of the primary languages initiatives. The Minister knows there is a major shortage of language teachers at secondary level. This has to be a priority, particularly in terms of Ireland's role in an increasingly globalised world. As a policy issue, the Minister should consider re-emphasising the primary initiative. I would also like the Minister to outline what is happening with regards to ensuring a greater roll out of language teachers at second level.
I want to begin by congratulating the Minister on the enormous success that school reopening has been for her and her Department.I thank the principals, parents, boards of management, teachers, SNAs, school staff, ancillary staff and students who have made this a great success.
I want to address the Minister on the topic of the algorithm and the prejudice relating to schools with a large number of high achievers. The process of calculated grades was designed to ensure that the teacher's judgment was central to the process. In fact, great care was taken to protect the position of teachers so that they felt able to give their professional estimation and were able to make decisions unencumbered by any outside influence, and that was right. The calculated grade system had three elements to it. The final element was removed following the scenes in the UK and the prejudice that was evident there, particularly regarding schools in disadvantaged areas. I am delighted with the way this has worked out and that schools in the constituency in which I live, Dublin South-Central, benefited and realised great achievements.
There are also schools with large numbers of high achievers and they have come out at the wrong end of this. The standardisation algorithm was applied to take into account a teacher's estimated marks and the ranking of the relevant student in his or her class. However, if a student was ranked at level ten in a class with a normal spectrum of achievement, and, indeed, non-achievement, compared with a class with a large number of high achievers, the person who was ranked at ten in that class was going to be prejudiced when the standardisation algorithm was applied.
Schools with disproportionate numbers of high achievers and have been disproportionately downgraded. The application of the algorithm has meant that a student in a high-performing school who got a mark of 95 was much more likely to be downgraded to a H2 than someone in a school with a normal spectrum of achievement who got the same mark. In some instances, students in high-performing schools were downgraded for no reason other than they happened to be in classes with extremely capable peers. This brought about devastation when it came CAO offers. When one combines that with the points inflation that naturally arose out of this situation, it is apparent that we have doubled the hardship they have had to endure.
These students have worked extremely hard. It is unfair that they are deemed entitled or privileged. They are people who had ambitions and who had a reasonable expectation of what was ahead of them when they got their leaving certificate results and their CAO offers. Now, however, they find that the blunt instrument of standardisation has completely prejudiced their hard work. While many students have been lucky and have scraped through and got their first choice, others have been left out in the cold and find themselves with their sixth or seventh choice. This year, for the students who have suffered the most the suffering continues because they are now in the appeals process. The Minister has, to be fair and with due respect to her, reached out to them the most.
I appeal to the Minister to in some way consider making the appeals process a little bit more than a clerical exercise and rectifying the wrong that has been done to high-achieving students. We still have time to do that and it needs to take account of the past history of the student and the teacher's opinion of his or her estimated grade. The process needs to allow for the setting aside of that ranking because that has been the key instrument in bringing about prejudice. We can alleviate that hardship on students who just happened to be in a class with a number of very high achievers. It is not a sufficient backstop for students to be permitted to sit the exams in November as an alternative when the college year will be lost to them. It is not a satisfactory appeal process as a consequence because it is disproportionate hardship. I am aware that would not be the Minister's intention.
I absolutely appreciate that the decisions this year were made in an unprecedented context and have had an unintended consequence. However, if it is within the Minister's gift to rectify what has happened and bring about some redress within the process - such as by looking at the history of those particular individual students - then I appeal to her to exercise her discretion.
I thank the Senator for her co-operation. I am looking at a list of eight Senators who want to contribute and I am anxious that everybody gets his or her say. I suggest that Senators cut their contributions to three minutes.It may not seem fair but in order that all Members get a crack of the whip and that the Minister be allowed ample time to respond, I ask you all to co-operate with me. I am not going to rule on it. I am asking for you to co-operate with me, and if Members can fit their contributions into three minutes, I would really appreciate it.
I will be very brief because I just have one or two points to raise. The first is on the leaving certificate and how well we did with it. Looking at what some commentators in the media and some Opposition politicians were saying back in August, they were willing the Minister to fail. They were not giving us a chance. They were saying the leaving certificate would be exactly like the exam results in the UK, that it would be a mess. We absolutely sailed through it thanks to the Minster and her hard work. I do not believe she was given proper credit for how well it went.
I will be very brief on my second point. I am from Dundalk and live ten minutes from the Border with Northern Ireland. If there is Covid in a school in the South, the HSE notifies the school which is then able to put in place the procedures it needs to put in place. One of the problems we have in the Border region relates to children who live in the North but attend school in the South. This situation can arise between Derry and Buncrana, Aughnacloy and Monaghan or Dundalk and Newry. For example, I know a family in Crossmaglen whose children go to school only ten minutes away in north County Louth. The family in Crossmaglen had an elder sibling attending university in Northern Ireland who tested positive for Covid-19. What are the processes and procedures for the NHS in Northern Ireland to alert family members who attend school here in Ireland, as well as the HSE, when a positive Covid case exists there? Those individuals need to be notified properly and have the same procedures we do here. What is happening at the moment, in essence, is we are leaving it to the families or parents to alert the school in the South themselves. We need to tease out the procedure of what is there between North and South. If a person is living in the North and a Covid-positive case is identified in their household by the NHS, what procedure does the NHS follow to let us in the South know about it?
Before I finish, a Chathaoriligh, I must say that, as a new Member of this House, I find it so rude when Members speak for more than five, six, seven or eight minutes and take time away from the rest of us towards the end of debates. We are all professional politicians and if Members cannot speak sufficiently within the allocated five minutes, then something is seriously wrong.
I will not be taking the full five minutes. I welcome the Minister and thank her for holding a Zoom meeting for Oireachtas Members from County Kildare while we were in lockdown. All the Members appreciated the time she took from a very busy schedule to answer a lot of questions for parents and students alike, so I thank her very much for that.
I thank also the entire school community for the way they have handled the reopening. It is my experience that from principals to teachers, SNAs, school secretaries, caretakers and of course pupils, co-operation has been excellent. Where issues have arisen they have been dealt with speedily and professionally.
I raise, as others have done, the issue of the leaving certificate class of 2021. They are now back at school, having lost more than five months of direct teaching. Will the Minister confirm whether her Department has set up any ways of dealing with these young students as they begin their final year of secondary school? Has the curriculum they will sit changed in any way to reflect the unprecedented times they will face? I have been contacted by a large number of students from this cohort and by their parents, and indeed my own child is now in this leaving certificate class. There is a lot of worry among the school population as well about what may happen if schools are forced to close again because of the pandemic. The Minister might reassure everyone in this year that should this happen, her Department has a plan for it and will put it in place, as well as a plan to deal with the leaving certificate exam of 2021.
On school transport, I am getting a lot of queries about private bus drivers retiring after some great years of service. I appreciate that they are private services but they play a vital part in supporting school transport overall. This is causing a lot of problems with replacing school runs, especially in the rural communities I come from. Perhaps this is something the Minister and her Department can investigate. As part of the topic of school transport, I raise the issue of those who are over 70 and cannot continue working as bus drivers. Given the need to employ additional bus drivers, surely we are losing out on a large pool of capable people who could solve many of the problems that are being experienced. These same drivers are continuing to work, fully insured, with private operators and I ask the Minister to urge her Department to review this important resource of more than capable people.
I encourage the Minister and her Department to proceed with much-needed construction plans for schools in the area where I live. These schools include St. Paul's in Monasterevin, which is hoped to go into construction by the end of the year and is a school that the community of Monasterevin is waiting more than 15 years for; the provision of a new school at the Curragh, County Kildare, where I understand the Minister and her Department have identified a site; and not forgetting Coláiste Íosagáin in Portarlington in respect of which I am told the Minister has received a stage 1 report.
I welcome the Minister to the House. It is a great honour to be in a position to work with her. I have known her for a very long time and I am delighted that she is in this Department and particularly at the considerable successes she has had in her short time there. Like others, I feel a debt of gratitude for the way the Minister has handled interactions with politicians, the public and schools and the way she has been able to get people back to school and address the issues surrounding the leaving cert. Her capacity to work with teachers, who are also owed a significant debt of gratitude, bodes well for the future, notwithstanding the normal fractures and fissures that happen from time to time. I will speak on a couple of issues and we will have more time to discuss matters in the future.
The leaving cert has been a success overall, but it has been difficult for some and it would be wrong to suggest it is just the high achievers who have had difficulties. There are people with average results who have also seen their results downgraded. Maybe they have not been as vocal and maybe that is due to the schools or the backgrounds they come from but I have had contact with parents and students from many of the more average schools who have seen their grades downgraded. Some are accepting of it and some are upset but overall it has been a successful outcome.
I have had a number of students in touch who are considering taking the written paper in November and they are now led to believe that whatever result they get from that will override the predicted grade. The Minister is shaking her head, which seems to suggest - and I hope is the case - that they can pick whichever result is the greater at the end of that process. That will shorten my speech even further and I declare that a result. I thank the Minister for making me very popular in many houses, including my own.
There is an issue with school transport in County Clare which has been going on for a while. It relates to the village of Quin and the desire to have a school bus to the secondary school at Tulla. There is an issue around distances but I think if the Department looks at it again, it will establish that it is the appropriate distance and there should be a full-time bus from Quin to the village of Tulla as it is the closest school. There has been a good deal of correspondence with the Department over the past number of years but I hope common sense will prevail and the Minister will bring fresh thinking to that matter on which I will follow up with her again. I will respect the Chair's decision to try to shorten this as much as possible.
I thank the Leas-Chathaoirleach. Senator Dooley has delivered for Clare and his own home on that.
I will be brief as we are caught for time. I congratulate the Minister on the opening of schools and the process she went through to make that a success and I wish her well in that.
I have two issues to raise and they have been spoken about by most Senators today.I echo Senator Wall's very practical suggestion to the current crisis within school transport in terms of the over 70s being given the opportunity to drive school buses. It is very practical and it would be easy to do. The situation needs to be resolved and this could play some role in solving it.
As stated earlier by Senator Malcolm Byrne, the school transport scheme dates back to 1960s. I echo his suggestion in terms of reviewing it and putting in place a new process. Every public representative in this country has issues this time of year in terms of school transport and it is difficult to get any sort of successful conclusion to them. Changing the system and improving and updating it to a model more suitable to 2020 would be welcome.
In terms of leaving certificate results, like other Senators, I have received numerous telephone calls from people who feel very aggrieved at the downgrading in schools that would traditionally be high achievers. We made the case a number of months ago that everything we were going to do in terms of the leaving certificate was to try to make it as similar as every other leaving certificate that went before it. Although the decision that was made a number of weeks before the leaving certificate was well-intended, it changed the structure in terms of how leaving certificate results were delivered this year in comparison with every other year. People who have been in what are traditionally known as high achieving schools or classrooms have suffered predominantly in that regard. The narrative around this is that these are people who are privileged and so on. That is not the case. There may be a high cost in terms of attending these schools but those who attend are not privileged people by any means. Rather, they are people who make the decision that education is very important for them and they feel that a certain school in a particular area might be important in that regard. I know of a number of people who are devastated over downgrading on four or five subjects. One person, who I know very well, got over 530 points but did not get one offer in the first round on ten choices. That is really upsetting. He was as conservative as he could be in terms of the results he got but it is really upsetting for him and for many others.
In terms of school openings, the Minister has done really well and I wish her well on it.
I welcome the Minister to the Chamber. Like others, I take this opportunity to pay tribute to her, school principals, teachers and departmental officials for getting our schools opened.
I would like to comment on a number of issues, the first of which is the students who sat the leaving certificate in 2019, deferred going to college that year and did not get any offers this year owing to the inflation in points. Is it proposed to put in place any provision for the leaving certificate students of 2020 who defer going to college until next year? Please God, we will have a leaving certificate examination next year and points will drop back to the levels they were at previously such that they will not be at a disadvantage if they do not take up a place this year? I ask that that issue be examined.
Second, the school transport system needs to be overhauled. I cannot understand why applications for school transport must be made in April but people do not find out until mid-August if they have been successful in securing a place. We have do our business better. Parents and students left without transport should be made aware of their situation a lot earlier. I agree with the sentiments expressed by Senators Ahearn and Wall in regard to the over 70s. My family operates a bus company. A number of its drivers are over 70 years of age and the company is struggling to get drivers to fulfil school contracts owing to the rules in that regard.
I would like to also raise a couple of local issues in regard to schools in my area. I would welcome an update on an emergency works scheme application for Scoil Samhthann, Ballinalee, Longford, and an update on an additional school application from St. Mel's College in Longford, my own alma materof over 500 pupils, which has submitted an application for an upgrade of the old school, which is the former diocesan college building. I am aware that a number of schools have received funding in recent times for upgrade works on buildings so that additional classrooms could be put in place. I ask that the latter application be prioritised. As I said, it is an application for an upgrade to the existing old school building on the campus.Perhaps I could get a reply on that. I have also been contacted by a number of teachers to highlight the key issues with regard to budget 2021 and class sizes. I will forward that information to the Minister and I ask that it be considered.
Finally, I take this opportunity to highlight the provision of occupational therapy and speech therapy in the school system. The programme for Government proposes to implement a successful trial that was carried out about 18 months ago on bringing that into the school setting rather than a clinical setting. The availability of the services at the school age scene is quite minimal, with long waiting lists. I am aware of this from personal circumstances. I ask that this be prioritised. I have raised it with the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, and I look forward to seeing it implemented in the short term.
I pay tribute to the Minister, the Department, principals, teachers, caretakers, office staff, cleaning staff and boards of management across the school system who have done Trojan work to get the system back up and running, and continue to do so.
I wish to raise two issues. I am not sure if the Minister referred to the first one in her opening remarks, but it relates to schoolbags. In fact, one of my colleagues mentioned the issue. The guidance issued from the Department encouraged schools to declutter classrooms and free up spaces. I appreciate that and the constraints that exist, but it is having a negative impact. It has been raised extensively by parents in Waterford because students are obliged to bring books into and out of the school. A circular was issued by the Department 15 years ago in 2005 regarding the weight of schoolbags and recommended that the weight should not be more than 10% of a pupil's body weight. However, the calls to my office refer to students carrying bags that weigh well in excess of 50% of their body weight and the negative impacts that may have on their future development and on back issues in the future. I can suggest a solution to it, given that there are base classrooms now for students. While I appreciate that we do not wish to clutter them, if students could leave their books in their base classroom, where possible, and use online e-books at home for their homework, it would remove much of the problem. I understand that the Minister cannot go into the nitty-gritty of each school, but some guidance from the Department in that regard would be useful.
I also wish to refer to school transport, which many of my colleagues have raised. The Minister said that primary tickets will be allocated to those who apply and pay where capacity exists on routes. I raised such an instance in the Seanad last Friday. It is a family with three children who have been accessing school transport for the last number of years. There are four places on the school bus and it passes their front gate, yet there appears to be no joined-up thinking to point out that there is space on the bus to give them access. Perhaps there could be a clearing house where such issues could be brought to the Department. I suggest that the Minister take that on board. I thank her for her time.
I welcome the Minister. It is great to have her here. I wish to refer to two issues. One is school transport, which has been raised by many Members. The upper age limit of 70 years for drivers must be examined because there is a major shortage of drivers. They are still doing private work and their not working on school work is a big issue. The Department also needs to do some work with regard to Bus Éireann, which is the principal operator of school transport services. Bus Éireann works with private operators as well and there is a conflict at times because sometimes private operators work against Bus Éireann on other routes.A body of work needs to be done. There are four buses in a private yard in Skibbereen at the moment with 2019 and 2020 registration plates. For some reason, we cannot get them on the road to provide after-school transportation. Conflicts such as that need to be looked at. It is a considerable issue because school transportation services are only running at 50% capacity at the moment. I appeal to the Minister to work with Bus Éireann to see whether we can move away from those blockages.
Autism spectrum disorder, ASD, units and the manner in which they have been rolled out in primary schools throughout the country have been an amazing success. The integration of those units has been powerful and has worked well with communities. That said, we need to engage more with secondary level institutions and colleges to ensure we follow through. We have a great primary network at the moment but I am not sure the secondary network is as strong. I know of a school that has been looking for an ASD unit for the past four years but has been refused. It is an unusual scenario that a secondary school is being refused because the policy in the Department does not support the school to have an ASD unit. It is a fee-paying school and that is why it has been refused. It does not fulfil the required criteria and there is no policy within the Department that it can satisfy. The school has offered to waive the fee for all children who would attend that unit if it were to be set up. Bandon Grammar School is the school in question. It has done the right thing by putting its hand up and asking for a unit. The school authorities believe it is appropriate because there is a need for such a unit within the community. It is a Church of Ireland school and covers a cohort in west Cork. I ask the Minister to look into that because they are working on a matter of principle about inclusivity when seeking the classrooms they require.
Like many other Members, I pay tribute to the Minister for the way she has handled her brief. It has certainly been a baptism of fire but her silence and work behind the scenes have been incredible. I want to give her a clear message from the parents and teachers from my region. We all know that we have challenges but they really appreciate and are proud of what the Minister has done. I have been told to bring that message to the Minister. I think education is in good hands. I thank all Members, across party lines, for appreciating the work that the Minister has done.
We need an overhaul of the school transport system. There is a commitment in the programme for Government to review it. We need a radical shake-up in that system, and the Minister is the person who can do it.
I made contact with the Minister a number of weeks ago on the following point. Where a private bus has pulled out and where CIÉ or Bus Éireann are not providing services, there are community buses available which are parked up at the moment. They were paid for by the taxpayer down through the years. Communities are willing to take on those roles if they get the go-ahead to operate in any areas with a difficulty. I suggest we look at that if we have a problem anywhere in the country because it makes perfect sense to use those vehicles. They are small minibuses with a capacity for 18 people. We cannot bring 18 passengers at the moment but they are safe and modern buses. That is a good idea.
I welcome the Minister's engagement with students, as Senator Byrne mentioned. That is important, particularly with second and third level students. I welcome the fact that the Minister is doing that.
I wish to put on the record that a number of teachers have contacted me about class sizes in primary schools. I know it is a challenge. The Minister is focused on one area at the moment and I appreciate the work she is doing there.
Next year's leaving certificate students have lost out and some of them are quite concerned. Seeing that no conclusion to the Covid-19 pandemic is coming any time soon, I am sure the Minister will take that on board and see how we can help them out. I thank the Minister.
My opening remarks afforded me the opportunity to set out again the commitment of this Government, and indeed of my Department, to the education of our schoolgoing students, their families, schools and communities. The Senators will know that I have listened not just today but since my appointment to what colleague public representatives like them have to say because their wisdom and experience is an incredible resource. They also bring a proactive positive approach to tackling the issues that exist within the educational sector. I compliment Senators on what they bring to the table and I appreciate the earnest and sincere way in which issues were raised. I am committed to working with them on an ongoing basis. I appreciate that I do not have enough time to reply to everything that has been raised here today. If Senators want to raise specific matters with me then I shall make myself available on another occasion and on an ongoing basis.
Each appearance before the House is an opportunity for me, as Minister, to listen to what Senators have to say and understand the issues that concern the communities they represent. I was firmly of the view that we needed to see children return to school as they had lost enough since schools closed in March. Our schools have reopened and while they may not be exactly the same as they were before they are familiar places. They are the best places for our children to learn in the broadest sense from their teachers, peers, the experience of being together and from the structures, routines and supports that schools can give them going forward.
I am very much aware that schools are rooted in local communities. In order for schools to remain open their communities must play their role in following the public health advice. Yes, it will be challenging to keep schools open over the coming weeks but huge resilience and initiative have been shown across society since March. We all have a role to play and we will continue to have a role to play going forward.
The reopening of schools has been a major logistical undertaking, which I appreciate has been a much used phrase over the last while. Some people have expressed concerns about whether there was enough time to prepare, can we keep going, will additional staff be available and what might happen if there is an outbreak of the virus. All of these issues have been addressed as they arose within schools. There will be an increasing number of issues as time passes but we will deal with each issue as it arises. I acknowledge the collaborative spirit demonstrated by the representative bodies and school communities right from the beginning when the schools closed in March to the present day. We will all work together so that challenges we face will be resolved together.
Today, Senators raised many issues and there was a huge commonality in terms of their comments on school transport. The provision is not without its challenges. As I said in my opening remarks, on the Tuesday prior to the reopening of schools we were issued with the public health guidelines that sought a 50% capacity in second level schools and for everyone to wear masks. We were happy to abide by the guidelines and we are attempting to do all of that on a roll-out basis. Everything in the roadmap is underpinned by public health advice. We continue to work with the advice and respect same. That has caused difficulties on the ground and Senators have been generous enough to acknowledge there have been ongoing difficulties with school transport over a long number of years. We are currently working through the advice to have 50% capacity. Everyone who was eligible and paid on time received a ticket this year. Where there was extra capacity, there was concessionary availability and that was availed of. We are currently working at 50% capacity. If and when there is additional capacity the additional places will, without reservation, be made available.
As I said in my opening remarks, Bus Éireann has advertised to recruit additional buses. I am talking about in the region of 1,600 buses thus 1,600 drivers are required. I appreciate the point made here about facilitating people over 70 years but, unfortunately, that is not within my gift. We are steadily, quickly and safely working through all of this, which is very important. The Senators mentioned private buses. Again, it is not within my gift to resolve the matter as private buses are the responsibility of another Department.
Reference was made to October returns. Some students will be hesitant to return to school.Issues of well-being and the supports available were also raised. We were very clear about additional well-being supports within schools. As the schools reopened, an individual, class-based and whole-school approach was taken. I have been in other forums where it has been acknowledged that there has been very positive engagement with all the SPHE resources that have been made available in this regard. Notwithstanding that, I appreciate there are individual cases, and I invite those cases to engage with the school community because the community is very positive in acknowledging that students and parents might have concerns.
That brings me on to the issue of the October returns. There is a view that some students might not be in place in time for the returns. I acknowledge that this might be an issue for allocation going forward. All I can say at the moment is that I am aware of the issue. We are taking a well-being approach to the return of students to school and we will have to be cognisant of the issue as we evaluate the October returns when they come back.
Some Senators raised digital resources, ICT and so on in schools. I very much acknowledge that this is hugely important. Over the past three years more than €160 million has been made available in this regard. From March, April and May we were looking at the inclusion of €50 million for the provision of resources within schools to meet those needs on the ground, whether laptops or whatever else. There will be additional funding in that regard amounting to tens of millions of euro in the coming weeks in the context of the budget. That is what we are aiming for.
Lots of other issues were raised. Creative Ireland was mentioned by two Senators. From personal experience, I am a great fan of it. I absolutely value it and appreciate that it falls, as was outlined, into the category of mental well-being support within schools. Funding for it will come within budgetary constraints, but I wish to put on the record that I know its value and the value of the arts within the school community.
A whole variety of other issues were raised. We will continue to work through those issues and challenges. Equally, however, it would be remiss of me to conclude without saying we need to reflect on all that has been achieved as well over recent weeks. Some 4,000 schools have reopened and 1 million children have returned to school along with 100,000 staff. That is the result of the magnificent collaborative partnership approach from the beginning to the very end.