1999 Annual Report of the Comptroller and Auditor General and Appropriation Accounts.

Vote 26 - Office of the Minister for Education and Science.

Vote 27 - First Level Education.

Vote 28 - Second Level and Further Education.

Vote 29 - Third Level and Further Education.

Acting Chairman

I call on Mr. Dennehy to introduce his officials.

I am accompanied by Mr. Séamus McLoughlin, principal officer, Frank Wyse, principal officer, Séan Harkin, principal officer and Bláithín Dowling from the financial unit. Mr. Paddy Howard and Eugene O'Sullivan are from the Department of Finance.

Acting Chairman

Mr. Purcell will introduce the accounts. Paragraph 25 of the report of the Comptroller and Auditor General reads:

25. Schools IT 2000 Programme:

Background:

The Schools IT Programme:

In November 1997, the Government announced the establishment of a £250 million Scientific and Technological Education Investment Fund. Its purpose was to develop technology education at all levels ranging from primary schools to advanced research. Following the passing of the Scientific and Technological Education Investment Fund Act in December 1998, an additional £30 million of Exchequer funding was allocated specifically for research.

One area targeted for support was the Schools IT 2000 Project, which was designed to further the integration of information and communication technologies (ICTs) into first and second level education. The project was launched as a three year programme (1998-2000) to be administered by the Department of Education and Science (the Department) and was allocated £40 million of State funding. Additional commercial sponsorship of approximately £15 million was received from Eircom over this period.

The core objectives of the project are:

To put in place a permanent infrastructure to ensure that pupils in every school will have the opportunity to achieve computer literacy and to equip themselves to participate in the information society; to ensure that support is given to teachers to develop and renew professional skills which will enable them to use ICTs as part of the learning environment of the school; the formation of partnerships at school, local and regional levels involving teachers, parents, local communities, third level institutions and public and private sector organisations.

In November 1999, the Department allocated additional funding of £75 million to further develop the integration of ICTs in schools over the period 2000 to 2002.

National Centre for Technology in Education:

The Department delegated all aspects of implementation of the Schools IT 2000 Project to the National Centre for Technology in Education (NCTE) which was set up by the Minister for Education and Science (the Minister) for this purpose. NCTE, which is based in Dublin City University (DCU), provides advice and assistance to schools as they decide on their purchases of ICT equipment and materials and is charged with co-ordinating the special training programme under the scheme. Written guidelines, detailing the requirements and procedures attaching to the expenditure of public funds together with financial management and equipment procurement procedures, were issued to each primary and post-primary school. The NCTE also held 17 regional seminars for school principals at which all of the relevant requirements and procedures were explained. Grants are issued directly from the Department with the expenditure involved being administered by the IT Unit of the Department in co-operation with NCTE.

Audit Objectives:

The primary objectives of the audit of the Schools IT 2000 Project, which included an examination of a representative sample of primary and post-primary schools, were to evaluate the method chosen by the Department to channel the grants to schools; to examine the procedures in use in schools for the procurement of computer equipment and software and verify that appropriate public procurement procedures were applied; to confirm that equipment and software acquired with grant assistance is in place in schools, is properly maintained and controlled and is being used in an appropriate manner by pupils and staff; to establish that purchases made by schools comply with the specifications laid down by NCTE; to establish that the grants paid to schools under the programme were properly accounted for and used for the specified IT purposes.

Extent and scope of audit work carried out:

The audit comprised a review of departmental papers to assess the methods used by the Department in allocating the funds available across the schools population. Departmental statistics on enrolment numbers were used to verify the appropriate level of phase 1 and 2 project grant payments to schools. Visits were made to 20 schools in the Dublin-Louth area to review the systems used to procure IT equipment and software, to establish whether the purchases were within specifications laid down by NCTE and to verify the existence of the equipment and the extent to which it was being used. School principals were interviewed and the relevant school documents and inventory were examined. The records of NCTE, used to control and monitor the progress and effectiveness of the project, were also examined. Discussions also took place with relevant departmental officials (including the Department's Internal Auditor who had already carried out an operational audit on aspects of other areas of the Schools IT 2000 programme) and the Director of NCTE.

Audit Findings:

Allocation of Grants:

The principal options considered by the Department to assist schools in developing their ICT infrastructure were; central procurement and distribution of hardware and software to schools, or provision of block grant aid to schools to enable them to purchase equipment and services directly.

The grant aid option was selected for a number of reasons including the view that the feeling of local ownership where schools are empowered to determine their own needs outweighed the advantages that may be gained through economies of scale if open tendering was used.

Following a review of costing alternatives, the Department decided that the grant to be paid to schools under the programme should be related to school enrolments, subject to a minimum grant of £2,000.

Phase 1 - Grant allocation under the 1998 - 2000 programme:

Phase 1 of the project described in the Schools IT 2000 Project Framework Document of the Department as the Technology Integration Initiative commenced in May 1998. Grant aid was provided to all eligible primary and post-primary schools except further education colleges and schools not recognised for grant purposes under the free education scheme to support them in building up their basic IT infrastructure so that at a minimum each school would have Internet connectivity and access to at least two multimedia computer systems to support the integration of ICTs in teaching and learning. The majority of the grants of £13.09 million were disbursed to schools in May 1998 on the following basis: Ordinary primary and post-primary schools - a basic grant of £2000 plus £5 per pupil; Ordinary schools with one or more special classes - a further grant of £1,500 plus £20 for each special needs pupil. Special schools - a basic grant of £3,000 plus £20 per special needs pupil.

Phase 2 - Grants:

Further grant allocations of £9.77 million under the Technology Integration Initiative were announced by the Minister in November 1999 and focused on educational software, special needs, career guidance and staff support. Grants amounting to £7.86 million were disbursed in December 1999 under the following headings: equipment and Internet connectivity needs of the career guidance service in each eligible post-primary school; support for the integration of ICTs into teaching and learning in all eligible schools through purchase of educational software; supplementary hardware-software to support the ICT skills development programme for teachers being delivered through NCTE; provision and running costs for computerised school administration systems in post-primary schools.

Other ICT grant aid was provided for remedial and resource teacher service in primary schools, the needs of individual special needs pupils and for additional projects under the schools integration project.

NCTE monitoring of grants. Schools were required to acknowledge receipt of grant aid and prepare and submit to NCTE details of equipment purchased, written reports on how the grant was used, as well as a school's IT plan.

At the conclusion of the audit visits - May 2000 - 3,191, approx 78% of the 4,053 recipient schools had returned the acknowledged receipt of the phase 1 grant while 2,873, 70% had filed the additional information required. A reminder requesting the information in these returns had been issued to schools by NCTE in April 1999.

Notwithstanding this, the Department issued phase 2 grants to all eligible schools in December 1999. Only 1889 schools, 46% had acknowledged receipt of the phase 2 grants by 31 May 2000.

In March 2000, NCTE appointed a provider of consultancy services in information technology to compile a database of phase 1 - paid in May 1998 - returns from schools. Prior to this, the returns had not been monitored or checked for accuracy due to the pressure of other work in NCTE.

It is understood that NCTE intend to use their own in-house staff to input phase 2 returns. NCTE issued reminders to all non-compliant schools in May 2000.

There was no evidence that NCTE has used the purchases returns or schools' IT plans in evaluating that the objectives of the technology integration initiative were being met and that the procedures and specifications laid down for schools were being adhered to. The Accounting Officer stated that the NCTE did, however, issue a detailed questionnaire to all first and second level schools in May 2000 with a view to compiling a database on the current state of IT development in every school. This database is now up and running.

Results of audit visits to schools:

While the visits did not uncover any evidence of grants having been expended other than for the purpose given, of the 20 schools selected, 14 had not remitted phase 1 returns to NCTE. At the time of the visits, 8 of these schools had their returns prepared. The remaining 6 schools have not submitted completed returns.

- 6 schools had not returned schools IT plans.

- Price quotations for materials purchased under phase 1 grant was not available for inspection in five cases.

- 8 schools had not used the phase 2 grant received in December 1999 by April-May 2000.

- 4 schools could not provide evidence of competitive tendering for their disbursement of phase 2 grant.

- In 7 schools, no official inventory of equipment was being maintained.

In the case of one primary school, there was no expenditure of either phase 1 or phase 2 grants to May 2000 because there was no location available to site the equipment. The grant had been lodged to the school account. A computer room was under construction by May 2000 however.

A phase 1 grant of £7,850, paid to a post-primary school in the Dublin area, was incorrectly coded in the school's records and as a consequence remained unexpended until discovered on audit. The grant has since been expended.

A duplicate payment of a phase 2 grant for £10,823 was made by the Department in respect of the same school to two vocational education committees. The payments were made in December 1999 and March 2000. The error occurred because of a breakdown in departmental procedures for notifying a change in VEC responsibility for the school concerned. The Accounting Officer informed me that the payment issued in error has since been refunded by the relevant VEC and the Department has modified its procedures with a view to preventing any recurrence in the future.

Conclusions:

The allocation method chosen by the Department did not take account of the different levels of IT implementation in schools as a result of local activity.

The response of schools in making the required returns to NCTE in respect of phase 1 and 2 grant payments is unsatisfactory.

Failure of NCTE to ensure that returns were submitted and the limited analysis of returns, mean that confirmation was not available in all cases that the grants were duly received; proper procedures were applied in procuring IT goods and services; the grants were expended for the purpose given; the overall objective of the Technology Integration Initiative was being addressed.

Phase 2 grants were paid by the Department to all eligible schools despite the absence of evidence in a significant number of cases that the initial grant was properly accounted for and used appropriately.

The results of the audit visits to the 20 primary and post-primary schools give cause for concern and confirm the need for a more rigorous enforcement of the conditions applying to the grants. The Department and NCTE should be more pro-active in this area.

Mr. Purcell

Paragraph 25 refers to the schools IT programme established almost three years ago as part of a broader initiative to develop technology education at all levels, ranging from primary schools to advanced research. One of the main planks of the programme was the installation of multi-media computers with connectivity to the internet in all first and second level schools. Complementary support services and teacher training were provided to help get full value for the investment. Some £13 million was issued in all in May 1998 by way of cash grants to schools to enable them to purchase the computers. A further £7.8 million in total by way of grants was issued in December 1999, much of which was for additional equipment and software.

As a review of operational aspects of the programme had been undertaken by the Department's internal audit unit in the second half of 1999 I decided that my audit should concentrate on the control framework for the acquisition and use of the computers. To this end, we visited 20 schools to establish the position on the ground and the results are set out on page 69 of my report.

In summary, many of the schools had not made the requisite returns to the National Centre for Technology Education located in DCU which had been the responsibility of co-ordinating and monitoring the programme. Some schools did not comply with public procurement procedures in their purchases and in other schools there were delays in using the grants. In one case, a grant of £7,850 was not used because the school was not aware it had received a grant due to incorrect coding in the school's records. In another case we discovered that a grant of £10,823 had been paid twice to the same school.

The results of these on the spot visits convinced me that there was a need for more rigorous enforcement of the conditions applying to the grants and that the Department should be insistent on the national centre being more pro-active in this respect. I am glad to report there was evidence of some moves in the right direction on this in May 2000 which coincided with the completion of our audit field work.

Acting Chairman

Perhaps Mr. Dennehy will confine his opening statement to paragraph 25.

As the Comptroller and Auditor General outlined in his report, this very important initiative was launched in November 1997 with the aim of further developing the integration of information and communication technologies into Irish schools. I regard this project as an outstanding success and a tremendous amount of progress has been achieved in the area in a short few years.

Schools IT 2000 has been the subject of much positive comment, both nationally and internationally. Numerous international delegations, including ministerial delegations, have come from overseas to look at and be briefed on the approach taken in Ireland on the issue.

In 1997, when the initiative was originally launched, we were lagging significantly behind our European partners in this area. With the assistance at that stage of a very small dedicated team in the NCTE, we decided to address this deficit by supporting every school in making progress as quickly as possible. A partnership approach has been central to the successes achieved and the value to date of the contributions by our public and private sector partners amounts to over £22 million.

The main achievements to date have been an increase of 31,000 in the number of multimedia computers in schools since the start of the programme; the connection of every school to the Internet - this was done before the end of 1999; the provision to date of over 50,000 training places in a range of what were mainly introductory ICT training courses for teachers - 75% of all first and second level teachers have now received training in ICT and the funding of 78 innovative projects in 350 schools under what we described as the schools integration project - these are specialist projects at which we can look afterwards, if the committee wishes, and in which we have made huge progress. In addition, we have established our own national scoilnet web-site. This represents considerable progress by any standards and it would not have been achieved if we had not got on with the business of getting the computers into the schools and providing the necessary training.

Attention has been and will continue to be given to ensuring the grants issued to every school are properly accounted for by the return of the necessary records to the NCTE. This matter has been vigorously pursued by it, particularly over the past four or five months. The number of outstanding returns from the phase 1 grants audited by the Comptroller and Auditor General is now less than 9%. I understand from the NCTE that the rate of compliance is 91%. The NCTE is finalising a comprehensive database on the current state of IT development in every school. This will enable progress to be benchmarked against the results of a similar exercise undertaken at the start of the programme.

A national policy advisory and development committee has been put in place. This is conducting an independent evaluation of all aspects of schools IT 2000. In addition, I recently appointed a full-time principal officer in the Department with some staff to take overall responsibility for the Department's educational ICT development. Prior to this we had a principal officer in the Department who looked after IT generally. When schools IT 2000 was introduced initially, this obviously was tacked on as part of his duties. We now have a dedicated principal officer working on this matter in the last couple of months. I am convinced that this development will help to ensure accountability and value for money from the programme are further improved for the future.

While the progress made to date is extremely encouraging, much remains to be done in terms of broadening and deepening the level of ICT integration in our schools over the next few years. We have set ourselves the target of having every classroom in the State connected to the Internet with high speed access by the end of 2002. We will be further developing the equipment provision, teacher training and support aspects of the programme in tandem with this.

To try to ensure we have very tight procedures in place to ensure the moneys allocated to schools are spent for the purpose for which they are intended and schools keep proper accounts and make proper returns to the Department, I have set this as the first priority for the new principal officer who has taken over this area. In addition, additional staff has been recruited to the NCTE to enable it to place a heavy emphasis on this area as well as on the development of the programme. We are also using the ICT advisers whom we have appointed to every full-time educational centre in the country - 20 in all - who are travelling to the schools which have not yet made a return to ensure we have 100% compliance, if possible, in as short a period as we can. In future we will not be issuing grants to schools which have not made a return. We have informed the schools of this.

The NCTE is establishing a comprehensive database which should help us to secure immediate information on all schools. The national policy advisory and development committee which has been put in place is, with the help of outside consultants, conducting a very thorough analysis of all aspects of the schools IT 2000 programme.

I welcome the delegation. Mr. Dennehy spoke about the appointment of a new principal officer. When do you expect this appointment to be made and will you again briefly outline the advantages you expect to accrue from it?

The principal officer concerned has already taken up her position in the Department. She will be responsible within the Department for the entire schools IT 2000 programme as well as any educational aspects of IT within schools. One of our problems prior to this was that following a decision by the Minister in late 1997 to make a huge effort to get computers into schools we did not have a dedicated team of staff within the Department. While we put in place the National Centre for Technology in Education, we were asking officers who were already heavily involved in other work in the Department to work on this project also. I am convinced, therefore, that having a dedicated officer in place will make all the difference. In addition, over the last couple of months, I have had numerous meetings with the head of the National Centre for Technology in Education and his staff - since her appointment the principal officer has been part of this - to impress upon them the importance not alone of getting the computers in, providing training and having the programmes up and running, but also of ensuring schools comply with all the necessary paperwork requirements and so on.

Will the principal officer have at her disposal sufficient staff to implement her programme?

I am happy that she will. In addition, the number of staff at the NCTE has now been increased to 15 from an earlier number of seven. We also have 20 advisers in place in the full-time education centres. Initially when they commenced their work, I suppose because of the enormous task which faced them - we had to kickstart this project from a situation where there were so few computers in schools and so little work had been done in this area - this was the area on which they concentrated mainly. In addition, I have now set them the task of ensuring schools comply with the requirement to fill up papers and the various regulations relating to tendering and so on.

In view of the comments of the Comptroller and Auditor General about the need for rigorous enforcement, delays by schools and some schools being unaware that they had a grant, are you satisfied that all of these programmes are now more or less in the past?

I am. I would like to make a number of points. First, we very much welcome the Comptroller and Auditor General's audit. It has helped us to refocus. I had been interested in and concerned about this area prior to the Comptroller and Auditor General's involvement and had asked our own internal auditor to do an audit of this aspect of our operation in the Department. It is not that I was concerned that there was anything amiss or that funds were being misappropriated. I wanted to feel happy that we had proper control mechanisms in place. Following our internal auditor's report, we had already started to put some of our current procedures in place.

In regard to the school that did not know it had a grant, there is a particular set of circumstances which explains that. It was a post-primary school outside Dublin which, when it first got the money, wrongly coded what it was for. Subsequently, a new principal was appointed to the school, following whose appointment the money lay unexpended until it was noted during the audit. In relation to the VEC school that received the grant twice, that was due to an error in the Department when the school changed status from the City of Dublin VEC to the county. The Department did not move fast enough to record that. We issued the grant initially to the City of Dublin VEC. Then, following a request from the county VEC for a grant for the same school, we issued it again. Since then the grant issued in error has been returned. I have been guaranteed by our people in the VEC section that they have put controls in place to ensure that changes of status are immediately notified to us and properly recorded. I am as certain as one can be that this will not happen again.

Great strides have been made. It is a very comprehensive programme, and I understand that there can be hiccups. Having said that, it is our job to question things and to be positive in our criticisms. First I would like to know when the NCTE was set up.

It was set up about March 1998.

Who is the director.

The director is Jerome Morrissey. He was seconded from Ballyfermot Senior College because he was known to have expertise in this area. He would be regarded as one of the leading people in the country in schools IT-related activities and work. I compliment him on the enormous work he has done. In addition to the work I have listed, many booklets, guidelines and so on have been written for schools in the use of IT, the selection of software, particular types of computer and so on.

Obviously they have done a very good job on a global basis, but when one looks at the results of the audits of the Comp-troller and Auditor General of the 20 schools selected, 70% of the schools had not remitted phase one returns to NCTE, 30% had not returned schools IT plans and 40% had not used phase two grants, received in December 1999, by April or May 2000. This is a process which is changing every six months. To have money on hand and not to have bought computers four or five months later is a serious indictment of the administration of the project. I accept that at the beginning the project would have to be developed to get a global picture and bring everybody on board. However, the administration of it seems to have been totally up in the air. I understand that the principal officer is coming. However, what was the answer of the director to the results of the audit visits? What did he say when he heard these results? Was he flabbergasted?

Like all of us, he was concerned to ensure that we got the reports in from schools and so on. To begin with, I do not agree with the Deputy that the administration of this was up in the air. The NCTE and some of the officers in the Department put considerable effort into providing specifications and guidelines and ensuring that the best possible use would be made of the grants and so on. Quite a number of schools did not rush out on day one or even in the first three or four months to buy computers, for several reasons. First, this was very new for many of them. Many of the teachers had no training whatsoever. There was a certain fear of having a machine in the school that they could not use. Some schools, therefore, waited until they had received training - I know that from discussions with the NCTE director. Other schools were negotiating with local firms and local businesses so that instead of buying two or three computers they could buy seven or eight because they were getting supplementary funding from businesses. Other schools were trying to decide precisely what kind of computer they would buy and, again, this involved attending training programmes and so on. That the issue was so new to a number of schools explains the delay in some cases.

You say that a database is being developed on IT development in every school. When is it expected this will be completed so that it will be possible to see the change from the Luddite attitude of some teachers to a very proactive response to this?

It is my understanding that the job is almost complete. I have been told that before the end of the current year this database will be complete.

What do you expect the results to be? Are there any interim reports or anecdotal evidence that things have improved dramatically in this regard?

Things have improved dramatically. Our advisers in education centres have visited most schools. The ones they have yet to visit are probably the ones that have not yet made their returns. I understand things have improved dramatically. We also know, for example, that quite a lot of money has been raised locally, and we also want that kind of information. It is worth mentioning that at the beginning some schools were reluctant to return information on all their IT equipment. While we have made grants to schools, there were schools around the country that already had their own IT systems up and running, that had bought computers through a whole range of ways. These were a little reluctant to admit——

Their riches.

——lest we would not give them as big a grant as we give to other schools. That would have been an erroneous belief. I understand, anecdotally, that that is one of the reasons there was a certain reluctance in the beginning.

As Mr. Dennehy is aware, there are certain economically and socially deprived areas, including the south inner city area of Dublin. There are schools in Dublin South Central with clapped out computers which are not connected to the Internet while other schools on the outskirts of the constituency, which are typical of the ones he has mentioned, have the most up-to-date equipment that it totally networked with high speed Internet connectivity. There is a huge imbalance between the potential for children in Fatima Mansions, Dolphin's Barn, to get to the same level as some children in Terenure and Templeogue. There should be absolute equality of access and opportunity. How can the Department deliver that equality of access and opportunity to people who are living in areas that are more deprived than others?

As the Deputy knows, one of the primary schools near Fatima Mansions has made great strides recently. It is one of the Breaking the Cycle schools and in addition to some of the money we would have given it in the normal way, it is also investing some of its Breaking the Cycle money in this area as well. In relation to this particular project, there was no loading in favour of disadvantaged schools. That was a policy decision taken by the Minister at the time on the basis that we would get an even distribution to schools initially and then, in the further phases, we would examine how we could ensure that that which the Deputy hopes for would happen.

We are currently considering a whole range of policy options with the Minster in relation to the investment for the coming two years of the programme but some interesting information has come back from the NCTE survey findings - the Deputy asked if there were any preliminary survey findings. We asked them if disadvantaged schools were further disadvantaged as a result and, strangely enough, the findings indicated that both primary and post-primary disadvantaged schools have more computers than average. For instance, the average ratio in primary schools currently is one computer to 16 or 17 pupils and in the disadvantaged schools I understand it is down to 11. I am sorry, I am wrong in that. The national average for primary schools is 17.7 and it is down to 16.1 for disadvantaged schools - there was a similar difference in the case of post-primary. We believe that some of that is due to much better non-pay funding to schools that are designated as disadvantaged.

There are others that are disadvantaged but are not designated, but the designated schools receive quite a number of tranches of extra grants and schools that appear to be very well off are schools, for example, in the Breaking the Cycle project which have used some of their money, in addition to the dedicated grants they received, to purchase computer equipment. Some of those schools are extremely good at fundraising, so that may explain the reason. Having said that, however, there is a strong commitment in the Department and the Minster's commitment would be to ensure that we correct the imbalance and that we look after schools that are disadvantaged as best we can. We are looking at that now for the next tranche.

Another point about schools that are disadvantaged is that to a great extent the pupils of those schools often do not have the family background where they are encouraged to develop educationally to the same extent as children in more affluent areas. Is there some way the Department can ensure that not only are the computers in place in these schools but that the necessary assistance is provided, the same type of assistance that remedial teachers provide in these schools, and that they have extra IT people because it is possible that some of these pupils would need much more of a teacher's time than that which a child in another school might need. We must ensure that the manpower and the resources are there so that the children can benefit from the physical resources that are in place.

In relation to the schools that are designated as disadvantaged, there would be an additional number of staff within those schools. We are currently finalising, with the help of the Education Research Centre in Drumcondra, a totally new package to address disadvantage, particularly at primary school level, throughout the country. Rather than selecting schools and designating them as disadvantaged, we are looking at the pupils and trying to establish the number of disadvantaged pupils in a school. We are putting in place a system that will constantly update that information.

When we get the full picture from the NCTE survey before the end of the year, that will help us make decisions in this area. That is one of the reasons we have delayed somewhat the issue of another set of grants for the schools. In addition to that, the national policy advisory and development committee which has been put in place has been tasked with carrying out an independent evaluation of the entire schools IT operation. That is one of the areas I hope it is examining and later today I will be checking to ensure that is the case.

Will the Secretary General indicate if there has been any improvement in the overall financial control within the VEC sector? Those of us who have knowledge of that subject——

Deputy, I will deal with the Votes later but I would ask you to stay with paragraph 25 on the IT section. I will call you on the other aspect when we get to it.

I will wait because I am concerned about the other aspect.

Obviously it is good news that the technology is being rolled out. What percentage of schools have taken up the computers?

A total of 100% of schools have computers in place and 75% of teachers have received training.

How many hours training are we talking about?

I will have to check that. I understand it is 20 hours per teacher, over a period of weeks.

The idea is to involve children in education in the uptake of the new technologies, the Internet and computer skills, but there is no course on that in the schools, is that not the case? Technology is not a subject.

There is no dedicated subject of computer science but it is part of a whole range of other subjects. For example, I attended recently the launch of an innovative project involving one of the major computer firms based here in Dublin. It has put a package together that will assist teachers of any subject in the curriculum to use the computer to teach that subject more effectively and to research it using the Internet.

One element regarding computers in primary schools is that computers are used to assist teachers to teach a range of topics and the computer comes into its own, for example, in teaching children with a literacy difficulty or other special needs. A wide range of packages is available for children with special needs, which are used extensively by some teachers. Those packages are highly regarded and are used internationally.

Am I correct that it is not intended to introduce computer or technology studies in schools?

I cannot answer that question, as that depends on a ministerial decision at some stage in the future. We are in discussions with the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment as to the possibility of drawing up a formal programme on this area.

Is it proposed to conduct qualitative research or a survey of this programme in terms of the qualitative effects it may have had in improving technology or computer skills?

Part of the work of the National Policy Advisory and Development Committee consists of such an evaluation. We have asked it to conduct an independent evaluation of all aspects of the programme and to make recommendations on it to us. In addition to the wide range of expertise which members of the committee have in education and other areas, they will call on expert consultants to help them with this work.

A number of proposals have been put forward, which I welcome. Independent Newspapers put forward an incentive to bring computers into schools. Is the national effort to roll out computers and technology in schools integrated with the effort made by say a supermarket chain, such as Tesco, which ran an offer to supply computers to schools? Are such efforts integrated in terms of pointing those Greeks bearing gifts in the right direction?

They are. A key cornerstone of our approach has been partnership. By partnership I mean the involvement in schools of all types of business and industry. For example, from the beginning Eircom, one of our major partners, has worked closely with us in installing computers and Internet connections in schools. It has had a £15 million involvement in schools' IT during the past two years. In addition to Eircom, we have a range of other partners, including IBM, Intel, Sun Internet Systems, Dell, Kilkenny Information Age, Dundalk Endowment Funds, Siemens, Nixdorf - I could continue as there is a long list of companies. To date those companies collectively have contributed approximately £7 million to national ventures and ventures located in various parts of the country.

A recent major project in Dundalk involving IBM is considered very successful. Viviane Reding, the European Commissioner with responsibility for education among other areas, came over to view the project and wrote to the Minister stating that she considered it so innovative that she would draw to the attention of her European colleagues the success of this type of venture.

Approximately 1,700 schools have reported to us that they have raised approximately £2.5 million locally through sponsorship from firms in various locations. As I said in reply to a question put by Deputy Ardagh, there may be a good deal more happening. Sometimes schools are reluctant to indicate what they are doing in this area in case they may be penalised when grants are handed out. There has been a great national partnership effort in this area and it will develop further.

Many approaches from business and industry have been made to the Department and the Minister to become involved in this area. A Dublin business partnership group is currently talking to us about doing more work in this area and involving some of the supermarket chains.

Acting Chairman

One of our jobs is to establish the low points in situations, the things that have gone wrong. It would be wrong if we did not recognise that this is a massive scheme designed to put in place an excellent programme for the provision of IT facilities in all schools.

I thank the Comptroller and Auditor General for his report on it. I was particularly happy to hear the Secretary General's positive reaction to the Comptroller and Auditor General's report and also the Secretary General's acknowledgement of how useful it has been to the Department. I would like all Departments to develop a positive reaction to and good working relationship with the Comptroller and Auditor General.

There were shortcomings in this massive programme at the outset. Anecdotal evident is still being given of the reaction to and results of Donogh O'Malley's decisions quite a few years ago. If Mr. Purcell had been around at that time, we might still be evaluating some aspects of them. It is important the Comptroller and Auditor General and his staff carry out such audits, as we can learn from them. There has been a positive reaction in this case. It is essential the shortcomings in this programme are recognised and that action is taken to overcome them. This is an excellent programme that is working well.

Deputy Ardagh and others raised points about levelling out the delivery of the programme, but it was the correct decision to start with a basic strength across every school and move forward from there.

I want to raise at a later date the question of accountability, although not so much in this context. I received complaints from meals on wheels groups and others during the week about the demands placed by this committee. It is essential to ensure there is full accountability regarding schemes. If we need to introduce a waiver of schemes in that context, we can consider that. The exercise carried out by Mr. Dennehy's Department and by the Office of the Comptroller and Auditor General will be helpful in that regard. We will consider what is needed, the extent to which we will examine the costing of the scheme and so on. I thank the Secretary General for his contribution.

I wish to ask a question indirectly related to the computer programme. A considerable number of groups of parents throughout the country are concerned that the level of education is slipping, that the standard of reading, writing and mathematics is slipping at the same time that this excellent programme is being rolled out. I have an appointment to meet one such group in my constituency at the weekend. What is the Secretary General's reaction to such parental concern?

I would be concerned to ensure that does not happen and I would be equally concerned if I thought people thought it was happening. We address that area through whole school evaluation, our inspectorate and so on. I think the opposite will happen. I have a reasonably good knowledge of the type of software available to help children with literacy difficulties and other special needs. I hope that software will contribute to further strengthening the level and quality of education in schools. If any member wishes to draw to my attention a particular school, difficulty or area, we will have that examined.

Acting Chairman

I ask the Comptroller and Auditor General to comment on the remaining paragraphs before we discuss them.

Mr. Purcell

Paragraphs 26 and 27 are follow-ups to earlier matters referred to in previous years' reports. I will refer briefly to them. Paragraph 26 records the write off of almost £600,000 in outstanding supplementary local contributions which were due from school authorities towards the cost of capital works at national schools.

These contributions would have arisen when the final cost of a project exceeded the amount on which the original local contribution was based. Despite the efforts of the Department, the supplementary contributions proved difficult to collect. Since January 1999, the system has been changed and supplementary contributions will generally not arise in the future. In my opinion, the write off is fully justified.

Paragraph 27 also refers to amounts written off and this time the amount involved was £1.57 million in uncollected examination fees which had accrued over the years since 1984. The Department traditionally used second level schools to collect examination fees for students sitting the junior and leaving certificate examinations. This system was reasonably successful, but there was always a number of students who did not remit a fee. There was no proportionate sanction in such cases. Realistically, there was little chance of getting the fee once the student had sat the examination and obtained the results. The outstanding sum of £1.57 million should be viewed in that context and I regard the write off action as reasonable.

A new system has been brought into operation for the 2000 examinations. This involves the direct payment of fees by individual students through the banks. On the face of it, this system should improve the rate of collection. I think that is the case and I am sure the Accounting Officer will be glad to confirm that for the committee.

I will take the two paragraphs in order. In relation to the local contributions applying to building projects, as the Comptroller and Auditor General said, the supplementary local contribution became due for collection as a result of increases in the cost of primary building projects after the main local contribution was lodged. These increases could arise as a result, for example, of legitimate extras, variations in the contract or increases allowable under a price variation clause.

Down through the years contact was made with the school authorities concerned seeking the outstanding amounts. However, school boards are obviously understandably reluctant to ask parents to make further contributions when a school has been finished and they have already paid their local contributions. In many cases, it proved totally impossible to collect the money. Since then, a system has been put in place.

To put it in proportion, in the period 1982 to 1999, which is roughly the period involved - there may be a difference of a year or two - we spent in total £513 million on primary school projects. The write off of local contributions amounts to 0.11% of that total. The sum was relatively small. However, we would be concerned to ensure that there was no necessity for this type of write off. It was one of the reasons that prompted us to put a system in place.

The new system in place is that the contribution of new schools is 5%, capped at £50,000. For extensions and renovations, the contribution is 10%, capped at £25,000. In the case of special and disadvantaged schools, the contribution is 5%, capped at £10,000. As a result, as the Comptroller and Auditor General said, in general it should never be necessary again to have any kind of supplementary local contribution at the end.

Will Mr. Dennehy indicate whether there has been an improvement in the financial control of vocational education committees since the amalgamation of a number of vocational education committees from town to county?

Chairman, should I continue my statement?

Acting Chairman

Yes. We became slightly confused for a moment.

Does the Chairman want me to put all my questions now?

Acting Chairman

I will ask Mr. Dennehy to complete his statement first. We are dealing with the IT unit separately. The situation became slightly confused. I will ask Mr. Dennehy to make his full opening comments which would also cover that point.

Should I continue?

Acting Chairman

Can you include the other point?

Acting Chairman

We are dealing with paragraphs 25, 26 and 27 and the Votes.

Following the completion of the audit of the 1994 accounts by the Comptroller and Auditor General, it was brought to the attention of the Department that the VEC accounts as presented could not be relied on to give a complete and accurate representation of the underlying financial position. As a result, we put a number of new procedures in place and carried out a major revision of accounting requirements and the move towards income and expenditure accounts with a balance sheet.

A very significant step in standardising VEC reporting and obtaining a more complete picture of the financial status of vocational education committees was taken in respect of the 1995 accounts when the statutory V15 accounts format was revised and a comprehensive system of working papers, schedules and summaries was introduced by the Department in consultation with the Comptroller and Auditor General and the vocational education committees. Clarification was also provided on a comprehensive basis on the steps necessary to calculate the end year financial position for vocational education committees. That, for example, would include assets and liabilities at 31 December on an accrual basis.

Explanatory notes provided to the vocational education committees included commentaries on aspects of mainstream expenditure and receipts, the theory and practice of programme balancing and a glossary of terms and steps to be followed when they were completing their annual financial statements. Very comprehensive guidance on the new approach to accounting in the VEC sector and the underlying concept was set out in a manual, The Preparation of Annual Financial Statements of the VEC. Again, that was prepared in consultation with the relevant parties and issued to all vocational education committees in 1998.

The manual assists in the preparation of the V15 by stating and explaining the relevant rules, giving worked examples of particular features, and by outlining an overall procedure to be followed. This was followed up by four regional seminars that were organised by the IVEA for VEC administrative staff in October 1998. The seminars were given by Department personnel and facilitators from within the VEC sector.

Further assistance to vocational education committees on an ongoing and individual basis through meetings and a telephone help line are being provided by the Department. These guidelines are being kept under review by the Department with a view to continued refinement and amendment as appropriate in the light of difficulties encountered in the sector and following consultations with the vocational education committees and the staff of the Comptroller and Auditor General.

These revisions to the accounting and management practices of vocational education committees have, in our view, without question, improved financial management in the VEC sector and the quality of information available to the Department. The Department is committed to supporting and upgrading the modification of VEC management and financial information systems and financial assistance is being given to vocational education committees towards the enhancement and upgrading of, for example, their computer based accounting systems. The effect of those changes is that the statutory accounts for 1995 and since reflect the financial position of vocational education committees more fully than in previous years.

In addition, the procedure for the publication of the accounts of vocational education committees are set out in the 1931 VEC regulations. The Comptroller and Auditor General Act introduced new requirements and amended the earlier regulations. Now the new procedures are in place, the Comptroller and Auditor submits copies of the accounts together with his certificate and reports to both the VEC and the Minister. The Minister then lays the copies of the documents before each House of the Oireachtas and the Department notifies the VEC when this procedure has been completed. Only at that stage may the accounts be presented to the VEC and published.

In accordance with the commitment to change management in the VEC sector, a review of the functions and the organisational and administrative staffing structures in the vocational education committees is being undertaken in the current year. This review is being undertaken in co-operation with the managerial authority for the sector, the IVEA and Impact, the representative staff union.

In accordance with the need to strengthen the internal audit accounting and management functions and systems in vocational education committees, the Department, in co-operation with the IVEA and with assistance from the Comptroller and Auditor General's office, has established a VEC support service unit. The key responsibilities of the unit will be to provide advice and support to vocational education committees on the development and implementation of appropriate administrative and financial management systems within each VEC to enable them to carry on their affairs in an efficient and cost-effective manner and to comply with Department and other regulatory requirements. This unit will provide an internal audit service to vocational education committees in accordance with best practice and will carry out EU audits as they may be required under the Cascade agreement signed by the vocational education committees with the Department of Education and Science. The internal auditor reports through the chief executive officer to the VEC outlining significant actual or potential weaknesses in the system.

A number of control procedures are in place in the Department relating to prudent financial management in the VEC sector, for example, the annual schemes. The vocational education committees are statutorily obliged to operate their schemes within the approved financial schemes and within any other limits imposed by the Minister. The annual scheme letter sets out expenditure limits and directs vocational education committees to ensure that proper budgetary control mechanisms are in place to enable expenditure to be planned and monitored and to prevent unauthorised limits being exceeded. Expenditure budgets are approved under the headings pay and non-pay. There is also a range of other issues. In addition, the Department funds the vocational education committees on a quarterly basis in advance and monthly for the last four months of the year. It also responds to funding difficulties encountered by an individual VEC. The Minister may also specify policy in relation to certain matters.

A chartered accountant has been retained by the Department to advise the Department and the vocational education committees on the upgrading of the accounting formats used by vocational education committees and the development of a financial control and reporting system in the Department for the VEC sector, having regard to the relevant legislation and the requirements of the Comptroller and Auditor General. The key tasks of the accountant who works with us in the Department include developing the format, content and accounting policies for annual financial statements, developing monthly management reports which incorporate the same accounting policies as the annual financial statements, developing periodic monitoring reports for departmental purposes, managing the transition to income and expenditure accounting, developing a system for reporting by programme activity and developing budgetary and forecasting procedures for vocational education committees to inform the Department of their plans and needs prior to the start of the budget year so the Department can allocate funds while taking into account the plans and needs of the vocational education committees and also to enable vocational education committees to reforecast in the light of the allocation received.

Every VEC must prepare an annual account on an agreed format. The layout and content of the annual accounts has been radically extended and adapted in recent years to reflect the change of activities now undertaken and the intricate nature of a VEC's finances and to facilitate financial reporting on a programme basis and the calculation of the year end financial position. There are also monthly financial reports, including bank reconciliation statements under the various programme headings, which are now submitted by vocational education committees. The format of these reports has recently been updated and refined as required.

The Department also holds regular meetings with chief executive officers to discuss the issues of funding and staffing which may be causing difficulties. The Department is committed to continuing to monitor closely all the arrangements put in place in consultation with the IVEA and the vocational education committees.

Mr. Dennehy must have been anticipating that question.

ActingChairman

I hope the Deputy will not ask too many such questions.

We can give the document to the Deputy if he so wishes.

Many people in the Department are aware of my views on the vocational education committees. I congratulate Mr. Dennehy on preparing the manual which I hope will be implemented. I have no doubt there are many loose procedures in the VEC sector. I made many public statements about the fact that vocational education committees were operating separate accounts. They were collecting money from parents and pupils and lodging it in separate accounts. I raised this issue when Niamh Bhreathnach was the Minister for Education. Will that policy change under the criteria laid out in the manual? It was the signatories to the separate accounts, not the Department, who had control of them.

I will have that matter pursued.

Will that instruction be given to the vocational education committees?

It has been given to them.

Mr. Dennehy mentioned staff. It is a well known fact that the appointment of staff in the VEC sector is done on a political basis. This often means that the best qualified people do not get the job. Appointments are made by the VEC which is packed politically depending on which political organisation has a majority of local authority members on it. I am not pointing the finger at any particular political group. However, I am concerned about the quality of the people selected. On many occasions the selection is made before the interviews take place and people are told which way to vote. I am not sure if that is within the Department's remit but the Secretary General mentioned staffing. I and many other responsible politicians are concerned about the quality of people in the VEC who are political appointees rather than being appointed for their ability.

Acting Chairman

Perhaps we could draw the attention of the Secretary General to that point for future reference.

Are there any plans to change that process?

I can offer hope in so far as we are in the final stages of finalising a new VEC Bill with the assistance of the Attorney General's office. We hope that Bill will be published within the next couple of months or earlier. In addition to what is already in the Bill, there will be opportunities for amendments to be introduced as the Bill moves through the Houses of the Oireachtas.

This is definitely my morning. What legal costs have been incurred in the area of special educational needs? There seems to be a pattern in the Estimates. Now that we know what the problems are, why can we not solve them? What is happening? Why do these special educational needs cases keep cropping up whereby we have to go to court and pay legal costs?

There are a whole range of issues including, for example, where we carry our own insurance for VEC schools. Would I be right in assuming that what the Deputy is talking about is where individual parents sue the State——

That is right.

in relation to autism cases or others that are currently before the courts?

Since 1998, huge strides have been made concerning the area of special needs. Children with special needs are now automatically entitled to a range of services, including a 6:1 pupil-teacher ratio and special assistance in the classrooms. However, there have been a number of cases, including a high profile one recently concerning a judgment on an autistic child. We are very concerned, as is the Minister, to put structures in place to ensure that this will not happen in future. A number of cases are currently before the courts and we are following up on them to see what can be done to meet the needs of parents. For example, we have set up a high-powered task force on autism, which is one of the main areas causing concern at the moment. This task force is being supplemented by international experts. We also have a dedicated group of people with expertise in this area coming over from the United States to help us.

The problem concerning quite a number of these children is that intervention does not begin early enough, when they have been diagnosed. Only last week, the Minister announced that he was putting in place a national pre-school service for these children, particularly those with autism. Under that scheme, a range of services will be put in place for such children who will start school at three years of age rather than at four or five years of age as at present.

For some time within our Department we have not had quite the level of expertise we should have concerning specialist areas, such as autism. We have now set in train a process to recruit into the Department literally the best international expert we can find to assist us in developing this area. The Department also has a national psychological service, which we describe as a national educational psychological service because the majority of those working in it are educational rather than clinical psychologists. We are in the process of recruiting a clinical psychologist with expertise in autism, ADD and ADHD. We are, therefore, making a major effort to ensure that such cases will not arise in future.

Vote 28G relates to local authorities' superannuation schemes. I would like to ask a general question relating to local authorities' involvement with Mr. Dennehy's Department in the VEC sector. Do you feel that a more efficient way could be found for dealing with payments under those headings? In other words, could such payments involving local authorities be brought under the Department's umbrella or that of the VEC itself, rather than having a local authority and the VEC dealing with the same funding arrangements for the VEC sector?

I have just been given a note that may help with this matter. It concerns the transfer of responsibility, and states that:

In the course of the discussions under the PCW, it was agreed with the unions that the Department of Education and Science would assume operational responsibility for pensions for vocational teachers from the Department of the Environment. From September 1998, responsibility for the regulation of the teachers' superannuation scheme was transferred by means of Statutory Instrument.

We are working on assuming operational responsibility for pensions, and some of the other areas have already been transferred. Discussions have also taken place concerning the transfer of responsibility for pension payments from the local authorities to the vocational education committees and institutes of technology. It is anticipated that the necessary arrangements will be agreed shortly.

I am glad to hear that because I have been arguing for it for a long time. This is definitely my morning. As regards certain capital building projects, in my constituency one new college was sanctioned nearly five years ago, yet work on it has not commenced. I have raised the matter in the Dáil on a number of occasions. I am not being parochial but I want to provide an example of what is occurring in many constituencies. I see that the Chairman is nodding. Four and a half years down the road that college project is still at the design stage. If that happened in the private sector, heads would roll. There must be something seriously wrong if it takes four and a half years to get a simple VEC college to design stage. The net effect of this matter, as far as this committee is concerned, is a substantial additional cost to the State and the taxpayer because the cost of the project has probably risen by 50% since it was sanctioned. Yet, the Department is telling us that there have been problems with the design.

Obviously, I cannot comment on the individual case because I do not have information on it here. However, I will gladly revert to you on this issue and we can examine it.

It was on the Order Paper last week.

Generally, I would not deal with individual cases but I certainly will pursue it. The rate of progress from the very beginning to construction stage can take quite a long time, but it usually does not take anything like four and a half years. Normally, we are talking about 18 months to two years, maximum, from the time it is originally planned to build a school to opening it. A range of factors is involved, including architectural planning, the volume of projects being dealt with by design teams, obtaining planning permission, fire and safety regulations, site purchase and the quality of the site. A need must be established for the new building. Even though, over the years, capital investment in schools has increased enormously, nonetheless one of the issues we have to examine is whether there is a need for the school.

I am making some general points at this stage. There is very little delay where we are concerned relating to the lack of funding for buildings, but other reasons could be involved. For example, in the second level sector alone, in 1997 £38 million was expended on post-primary buildings. This year the provision is £112 million. I will certainly look at that individual case, Deputy.

Thank you very much. I timed that well.

Acting Chairman

If you get that premises built you will really have scored highly today. You will go off the chart.

Under the heading of budget systems for the institutes of technology, it states that a review has been initiated with a view to preparing proposals on the concept of unit cost or an alternative suitable formula based concept. I ask for a more detailed explanation as it seems vague.

I understand it is a detailed analysis by faculty to establish precisely how much it costs each faculty to pay their lecturers, supplementary staff or whatever. I can come back with a more detailed response to the committee if it so wishes.

Thank you.

Acting Chairman

I welcome the decision to write off 15 years' of unpaid examination fees. I have a bit of a phobia about this. While looking for continued responsibility and so on, carrying baggage like this has helped to destroy the accounting system in local government and nationally. I particularly welcome the Comptroller and Auditor General's comment that it was a logical decision. I appreciate you are moving to a new system of funding. As has often been said here, nobody in the private sector would consider carrying unpaid debts like that, so I welcome the decision.

I have two policy questions. When there is a high percentage above or below an amount, our antennas tend to go up. On Vote 26, B8, grant-in-aid for general expenses for youth organisations and other expenditure in relation to youth activities, we spent only one third of that funding. Does that relate in any way to the capital building and equipment costs of special schools for children in care, which is topical at the moment? Why was only one third of that money spent?

This programme is totally drug-related. It does not include capitals. There were two reasons for the savings. First, the projects and services were not approved for funding from the young people's facilities and services fund until very late in the spring of 1999. The background to this is that development groups were set up in each of the 13 local task force areas to develop locally integrated facility and service plans. My understanding is that it took quite a long time for most of these groups to draw up their plans. This is the main reason.

Second, none of the funding earmarked for the children at risk programme included in the YPFSF, the young people's facilities and services fund, was drawn down by this Department in 1999 as the Department of Health and Children, which is responsible for the programme, apparently secured a supplementary. The main reason is that there was a slow take-up of the fund in that year because of the amount of time it took local organisations to plan and prepare their programmes.

Acting Chairman

Is there a carry over of that? Does that fund go to local authorities? Is it dispersed by local authorities?

By the vocational education committees. There is a carryover of the fund.

Acting Chairman

So it will not go back to the coffers.

Acting Chairman

It is essential we use that.

Absolutely. It is a multi-annual programme, Chairman.

Acting Chairman

That is good. On special schools for children at risk - I am not sure exactly how they are described - I think there has been an under-spend there. I mention also the comments made in the court in the past few days. We seem to have spent only half of Vote 27, K2, capital building and equipment costs of special schools for children in care. In light ofJustice Kelly's comments, is there any relationship there?

This is capital - there was no saving on current in these. It has to do with the cost of a number of items - say, the cost of new vehicles for some special schools - but mainly the cost of equipment in respect of the design for the new remand and assessment units in Finglas, the new unit in Trinity House and access improvements at the Lusk campus. The purpose of this provision was to meet the costs of capital expenses for the five residential schools for young offenders. There is a number of issues there. It required very specialist people to design and plan these. The generality of architects, I understand, would not have the expertise because some of these would be high secure units. It took some time to get the necessary expertise in place and get the planning done for these.

While the Department of Education and Science is aiming to develop a range of new places for young offenders and children who would be in conflict with the law, we have, generally speaking, reasonably adequate provisions in place at present. Some of the difficulties arise where there is not clarity as to whether the person should be in a health care facility or in one of the young offenders centres and whether the child or the young person is out of control, as they are described, or whether they have offended.

A lot of work is under way at the moment on planning a major development in all five young offender centres. As I said, the reason for the significant saving there was that, unfortunately, we could not get design teams in place as quickly as we originally anticipated.

Acting Chairman

Like every other public representative and member of the public, I am concerned about some of the comments. I would be particularly concerned if my constituency colleague was locked up and I had to go to visit him in Limerick or some such place. I appreciate there is an overlap with the Department of Health and Children, the Department of Justice, Equality an Law Reform and the Department of Education and Science. It is a bit like education for children with special needs. It took us a long time and court decisions to decide who was responsible in this area. I presume we cannot lock up someone who is under 16 years of age. Where does one go between school and prison?

We can lock up 16 year olds and, indeed, we do in Trinity House and Oberstown. We have both remand centres and the main high security unit in Trinity House in Lusk. In the particular case in question, the case in court yesterday, my understanding is that we, in the Department of Education and Science, have no responsibility for this case. The individual is 17 years of age and it is a matter for the health board and the Department of Health and Children or the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform. I understand from a statement the Minister of State made that the Department of Health and Children and the health board are putting a system in place to ensure that young person is catered for.

Acting Chairman

On those who are locked up, I presume that is only after they have been sentenced.

Absolutely.

Acting Chairman

I refer to persons at risk. While this may relate to the Department of Health and Children primarily, can a person identified as being at risk be detained without a court order?

My understanding is that they cannot be. The people we look after are either on remand or are convicted by a court. Others who are at risk and who have not offended or who are not on remand are catered for by the health boards and the Department of Health and Children.

Acting Chairman

While this does not relate to your Department, I presume there is no way they could be locked up or detained without a court order even if they are at risk? Do you need a court order?

I would not expect so - I do not know for certain. My view is that they would not be locked up.

Acting Chairman

I presume this is the departmental approach, but it is something people cannot tolerate. It is very easy for somebody to make a decision that a facility must be provided. It is a question of civil rights and the ability to lock up a person. The Mental Health Bill, which is concerned with preventing people from being locked up, is under consideration.

The Children Bill, sponsored by the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, also involves our Department and the Department of Health and Children. It seeks to ensure that there is wide-ranging intervention and sanctions before attempts are made to deprive people of their liberty or rights. It is very enlightened and I understand it is to be debated again by the House very shortly.

Acting Chairman

Is there any facility to discuss what should be done with members of the Judiciary or is it appropriate to ask for their advice?

I understand it happens from time to time. Perhaps we should again look closely at the idea of taking advice on this area from the Attorney General and the Chief State Solicitor. At assistant secretary level a high powered group has been established involving the Departments of Health and Children, Justice, Equality and Law Reform, and Education and Science. We were remiss in the past in that we did not liaise sufficiently closely. We allowed things to slide, which may not have happened had there been a joint approach. There is a dedicated Minister of State with responsibility for children and all three Departments work very closely with her. Things are improving considerably.

Acting Chairman

Last week we heard from the Department of Finance about the strategic management initiative. It was indicated that there would be a lot of interaction. You and other Secretaries General have a job to do, as has the Minister. I hope we learnt a lesson from dealing with children with special needs. That was forced on us. I also hope we do not have to go through years of trauma with this topic before we can resolve it. There is a need for liaison.

There is close liaison in this area and in others. Some of it is a result of the strategic management initiative. I wish to make a correction in case I slightly misled you. The new drugs programme includes current as well as capital expenditure. I may have said it involves capital expenditure only.

Acting Chairman

There was a suggestion that oral examinations would be held during theEaster break. How is that progressing? How are the facilities for expelled students progressing?

We established a working group to look at the examinations question. One of the issues the group is looking at is running the oral and practical examinations during break time from school. There are pros and cons to it, as there are with running them at any other time of the year. I am not completely sure about what way we will operate it, but it is an important consideration. There are difficulties in withdrawing teachers and pupils from schools during class time and thereby shortening the school year. This is a cause of concern to many people and it has been raised with us. The group looking at this involves all the partners, including parents.

Acting Chairman

Concern was expressed about expelled students.

I hope the new education welfare boards, to be put in place following the passing of the Education Welfare Bill, will transform this area. We are in the process of establishing an interim education welfare board pending the establishment of a statutory one and are appointing welfare officers. Some of the inspectors in the Department are dedicated almost full time to pursuing individual cases when they come to our attention. It is something to which we would accord high priority.

Acting Chairman

On behalf of the committee I thank you, Mr. Dennehy, and your officials. I also thank Mr. Howard and Mr. O'Sullivan from the Department of Finance. I ask members to note Votes 26, 27, 28 and 29 on the Appropriation Accounts. Is the agenda for the meeting on Thursday, 26 October - Vote 40, Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs, 1999, Appropriation Accounts - agreed? Agreed.

The witnesses withdrew.

The committee adjourned at 12.50 p.m.