Am I to take it that the appropriate time designated for Private Members' Business, one and a half hours, shall prevail this evening?
Private Members' Business. - Vocational Education Proposals: Motion.
Ninety minutes from now, by agreement.
Is that agreed? Agreed.
That Dáil Éireann, conscious of the particular attack on the vocational sector represented by the cuts inflicted on the sector at second and third level by the Minister for Education and the Government; noting in particular the increase in the pupil-teacher ratio, from a band of 17 — 19-1 to 20-1 in the vocational sector, and an increase from 19-1 to 20-1 in the community and comprehensive sector, with a reduction of 10 per cent in the number of teachers; nothing the threat to temporary teachers at second and third level; noting the suspension of the building programme, and the deferral of urgent extensions and refurbishment; noting further the proposals of the Minister and the Government to abolish or amalgamate some vocational education committees, calls for democratic and prior consultation before this specific proposal is published; conscious that the vocational sector is responsible for a disproportionate share of remedial teaching, special provision for the disadvantaged, and community related and second chance education; calls on the Minister and the Government to withdraw their proposals for cuts in the vocational sector so as to enable this sector of State education to survive and expand.
In moving this motion in the name of the Labour Party Deputies I would like, with your agreement and with the agreement of the House, to share some of my time, 12 to 15 minutes, if necessary, with the Leader of The Workers' Party, Deputy Tomás Mac Giolla, the representative of the Democratic Socialist Party, Deputy Jim Kemmy and the Independents, should they need such time as might be left over.
I am grateful to the Deputy for letting me know that. I presume that is satisfactory to the House? Agreed.
The purpose of this motion is to defend what semblance of equality remains in second level education. In moving the motion on behalf of the Labour Party I am very conscious that many may ask, is one concentrating on one specific threat?
Let me begin immediately by saying that the Labour Party's position in relation to the cuts in education was indicated very clearly when we gave our opinion on the motion noting the Estimates last June. We stated on that occasion that we thought the cuts in education were the ones which, together with the cuts in health, would impact most particularly on the disadvantaged sections of the community. Therefore we opposed all cuts in education. It was in this sense that we put down motions dealing with the cuts in every sector of education and took the position we did particularly in terms of the impact on primary education of Circular 20/87.
I am aware that at secondary level a new booklet has been prepared by the ASTI, "Post-Primary Education Cutbacks", which lists serious consequences for the cuts in education over a number of years, some continued and some now being more accentuated by the failure to make provisions. They point, for example, to cuts that will come about in terms of the shortening of the school cycle, larger classes, fewer subject options, cuts in the provision for minority subjects, remedial education, cutbacks in career guidance and counselling, in technical and scientific subjects, in science and equipment grants, in in-service training, the impact of fees and charges of an additional kind, particularly in relation to the repeat of the leaving certificate and so forth. I am very conscious of these matters and I will return to them in more detail perhaps on another occasion soon.
This motion on the Order Paper and expanded by events is one that has been placed in an atmosphere of some secrecy. I made a number of attempts to draw from the Minister for Education what precisely were her intentions in relation to vocational education as far back as last May. You, Sir, wrote to me on 5 May 1987 and I accepted your ruling. When I asked whether I could place a question asking the Minister to withdraw the directive relating to guidance teachers, remedial teachers and vice-principalships in both the secondary and vocational levels, you said it anticipated a debate on the budget. Again and again I asked the Minister, specifically in Question No. 82 of 11 June, what her proposals were in relation to the funds she might make available towards vocational education. I also asked about vocational preparation and training programmes and how they could survive in an atmosphere of cuts. In Question No. 177 of 23 June I asked the Minister the number of whole-time teaching equivalents allocated to each vocational education committee in the years 1986 and 1987. The Minister replied:
It would not be in accordance with normal practice to supply the information sought in respect of each vocational education committee.
I derived some cynical amusement from that because I remembered the Minister sitting on this side of the House and when the Minister of the day was asked a question by the then Deputy O'Rourke, she was quickly on her feet and said: "I want that information. It is outrageous that I cannot get it." The conversion of the seating arrangement has more than gone to the Minister's head.
In Question No. 178 of 23 June 1987 I asked the amount allocated to each vocational education committee in respect of (a) discretionary non-pay and (b) committed non-pay for the academic year 1987-88. She said:
Resources are allocated to vocational education committees on a calendar year basis, not on the basis of the academic year.
She went on to say the information was not available. Question No. 179 asked for further information. I have already referred to Questions Nos. 180 and 181. In reply to Question No. 182 she said it would not be normal practice to furnish the information requested in relation to individual schools. What was happening?
I used the word "secrecy" because the Minister was preparing to attack vocational education through stealth. She was setting up a situation where she would be able to shelter behind the vocational education committees, the chief executive officers and the heads of schools to whom she could direct the parents, teachers and pupils and say: "I do not make the decisions. I simply allocate the money." Let us call it what it is. It is an exercise in simple, unadulterated cowardice.
The main purpose of our motion seeks to defend vocational education. Let me make this point very clear. I could have added to this motion suggestions about where the money might be found from all kinds of taxation the majority of people in this House seem to want to oppose. There is a consensus in this House, I understand, that the wealthy should not pay taxes, that people who operate stud farms should not pay tax, that stallions fees should not be liable to tax, and so forth. It is a strong ideological position. I left all that out so that we could make a simple decision: are we in favour of defending the status quo in relation to a sector which is carrying more than its share of servicing the deprived, or are we not? There is no need to fudge the issue.
I want to indicate my attitude to the Fine Gael amendment to my motion. If they had said they were in favour of retaining the status quo in vocational education and that the central review committee, which can work under the Programme for National Recovery, would look at the issue of inequality, I would have accepted the amendment. Instead I am being asked to delete all the words in my motion that defend vocational education, that oppose the cuts, and to take refuge in the committee's work. I have described this publicly, and I put it now on the record, as asking me to accept a committee on capital punishment while executions on Death Row continue every minute. It is, in effect, a mask, a smokescreen for allowing the cuts to continue. I am not surprised, nor am I shocked, about this. I see it as part of the collusion between the two larger parties to defend their consensus on the economic issues at the cost of vocational education, those who benefit from it, those who work in it and those who support it.
Our motion is intended to prevent deepening inequalities in Irish society. Cuts have been proposed in the vocational sector and this is agreed by anybody who has ever served on a vocational committee. Vocational Education Committees are filled 80 per cent to 90 per cent by Progressive Democrats, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael members throughout the country. They have said to their committees, to parents and to children that they will defend vocational education. The time has come for them to choose between that commitment and a parliamentary subterfuge which would allow the cuts to continue.
As I said, the motion was worded initially to secure the widest possible consensus among Opposition parties and I welcome the support being given by the Deputies of the Left. It afforded an opportunity to all political parties concerned about the attack on the vocational sector, to stop these attacks in a united and positive manner.
The cuts in vocational education have been well documented for any Deputy who wants to read the facts, who wants to ascertain how they will impact. There is a figure from a Teachers' Union of Ireland survey that shows just under 700 posts being lost in the vocational sector and 200 in the community and comprehensive sectors. There will be losses in the regional colleges of both permanent and part-time posts and there will be losses of part-time posts at second level. Can the House imagine circumstances in which 10 per cent of the teaching staff in a sector of education is taken away with all the consequent losses in terms of jobs, of subject provision, in terms of the different links which had been built in second chance and community and special provision education? The cuts are being effected through an increase in the pupil teacher ratio from a band of 17 to 19: 1 to 20: 1 in the vocational sector and an increase from 19 : 1 to 20: 1 in the community and comprehensive sectors.
The Minister has also issued Circular 45 of 1987 which gives details of the cost savings in gross pay she expects to effect in the vocational sector — 1 per cent in 1987, 3 per cent in 1988. She has, of course, hastily thrown together a voluntary redundancy scheme which she — and I am afraid now, Fine Gael — will allow to continue while the position is reviewed. The effect of that will be to devastate vocational education.
I do not want to hear from the Minister any little pieces of, if you like, clever sophistry for which her Department is a good and reputable source, that we are really talking about levelling things up at this level of education. If she feels inclined to that poisoned well of logic, I would invite her to read the reports of the Economic and Social Research Institute, to look at those who have carried out research in the area, who have looked at which sector is in fact dealing with deprivation, who is carrying what proportion of the burden and so on.
I have been inundated with letters from people who work in the sector all over the country. Today a teacher rang up from a rural area in County Galway. He said to me: "The Minister has told me"— at least her departmental official said, let me correct myself immediately —"that I will be all right for equipment, that the £30 cannot be paid to pupils, or £300 a year per pupil." He said, "I can have equipment but there will be nobody in the classes." That is the kind of unthought-out consequence behind the proposals.
In addition, we must bear in mind that there is another dimension to all of this. In the vocational sector there has been a long history since John Marcus O'Sullivan introduced the Vocational Education Act, 1930, despite some prejudice and opposition. Poor Professor O'Sullivan, a former Minister for Education, had to give guarantees that boys and girls would be kept separate in the day and that there would not be night classes at all lest they meet after dark ——
They still meet.
—— and on it went. He gave other guarantees in relation to religious education. We have come a long way since that time. Those who worked in the vocational education sector transcended prejudices and obstacles of one kind or another to make a unique contribution to equality of access to education. I challenge anybody to tell me where in the motion they find a fact they can dispute in relation to that. That is not to say there are not secondary schools carrying the burden of deprivation to some degree or another. I am simply saying that the greater part of the burden is being carried by the vocational schools.
There was another element that was very important which was in relation to control. The vocational education sector represents, above all else, State education with a certain kind of democratic control represented through vocational education committees. It sits side-by-side with denominational education just beyond the practically heavily-dominated denominational private primary schools sector. That point has not gone unnoticed. It is interesting that it is at State education the heaviest burden of the cuts have been directed. I am not attributing any malign conspiracy theory to the Minister. I am simply saying she is continuing a trend but she is not absolved by pointing to cuts that took place between the years 1983 and 1987. As a teacher I hope she will get beyond such partisan points and will come to address the issue as to whether or not she agrees that this sector should have been left alone, should have been saved from the cuts she has suggested, as to whether she will withdraw her proposals for effecting cuts in this sector.
In relation to staff and courses, even in relation to making provision for the subjects being taught, did it not occur to the Minister, when she spoke of higher classes — and her Minister of State now beside her is responsible for buildings — that even in the most modern buildings provided, the physical space does not exist in some classrooms for the increased numbers about which she and he speak? Are those children to be out in the corridor while they are doing practical subjects? Where in Europe has this been tried out? Moving on from the buildings that are there to the buildings that will not be there, the fact is not only do the cuts mean larger classes, fewer teachers, subject choices for students being curtailed, length of weekly time of students' attendance being shortened, time devoted to individual subjects being curtailed and remedial education being affected: it will mean also that the building programme — except through the odd act of patronage — will not continue. Effectively the building programme will not proceed at all. Not only has the building programme been halted but projects which were at different stages have been frozen at the stage they had reached despite the continual assertion from within the Department of Education itself that such a planning exercise was independent of the provision of funding at final stage as to whether a project could go to contract.
The fact of the matter is the existence of prefab buildings will continue for students and their teachers. In addition, in relation to the cuts, the whole notion of any project going ahead is questionable. Let us take the Minister of State and I who share the same constituency; we are told that perhaps one project could proceed this year and that we will be lucky if a second goes forward in two years. But all of the rest can be told — the people in Properous in Kildare, those all around the country — to continue their existence in a physical setting which is intolerable by any European standard.
The vocational sector has been one that offered a comprehensive range of courses that bridged the gap between subjects of hand and brain. In the community and comprehensive sector many changes in curriculum were pioneered that led to the combination of scientific, technical, academic and practical subjects. These innovations are not only in danger, they simply cannot continue under the new arrangements suggested.
How can Members of this House, who are in any sense interested in equality, justify anything less than the withdrawal of the Minister's proposals? There is simply no justification on any moral grounds for other than support of this motion. Again I repeat: anything less than a withdrawal of the proposals will allow the cuts to continue with the kinds of consequences of which I have spoken. It is very clear that vocational education carries more than its burden of addressing the needs of the lower socio-economic groups, that bottom fifth of the population who consume on average half the amount of resources consumed by the top fifth of the population in total educational resources. They carry the burden of addressing the problem of deprivation in our society.
I want this evening to address a particular appeal to all those from the other parties who are members of vocational education committees around the country. I appeal to them to be honourable and stand by the commitment they have made locally and not to take refuge in the degradation of Parliament that is involved in voting for a smoke-screen that allows to continue the very thing they gave commitments to stop. What little equality there is, as I said, is at stake.
There will be cuts in every area. There will be cuts in Galway city where I live of between ten and 12 posts. The vote tomorrow evening at 8.30 p.m. will be about that. There will be 30 or more posts lost in Galway county. People will vote for or against that. If one takes refuge in the first amendment which is, to put it in vulgar language, a readyup between the Government and the so-called main Opposition party, one is simply taking refuge in a committee that allow everything to roll on. The second amendment, to which I will give a more detailed response when I reply to the debate, is clever. It realises what I have said about the risks of a committee while the cuts roll on but it is not clear what is meant by the word "rationalise" in its first line. It refers to a reduction in the number of committees and a rigid imposition of the ratio, language which is ambiguous and with which I will deal later.
In relation to the proposal to abolish vocational education committees, I stated in the motion that what is at stake here is very simply a principle of democratic and prior consultation. In other words, one should not simply make proposals by way of edict, ministerial edict or departmental edict, but there should be consultation in advance and the motion calls for open and democratic consultation. We all have views on how representation at local level might be improved. Let us have an opportunity to make that contribution.
As I have said, the implications of the cuts will certainly take place in relation to the number of people who will be lost as teachers. They will be represented through the loss of courses and through the loss of materials also. I had a letter from a woodwork teacher who explained to me the difficulties of teaching woodwork classes using cardboard instead of wood. There are schools around the country who have difficulty maintaining adequate heat, any kind of maintenance and so forth. Maybe the intention in this atmosphere of rapid individualism and private provision is that the Minister and her Department are thinking of learning towards the vocational sector and saying to the parents involved, coming as many of them do from the socio-economic categories I have identified, that they could make a contribution to bail things out. No doubt the Minister of State who has responsibility for the national lottery might like to come around afterwards and tell them he is going to give some of it for wood for woodwork classes. We are at that level of Santa Claus nonsense in this country at present, at that departure from democratic accountability.
There are many other aspects to the cuts. I am particularly interested in hearing how the main Opposition party square their response that their amendment is structured within the spirit of the Tallaght speech so-called, with the statement by Deputy Dukes in that speech when he stated that equality was a major principle with him. I quote from his speech of 2 September 1987 when he said:
Where expenditure has a social objective, the accent must be put on achieving social justice and ensuring that expenditure is clearly and effectively channelled towards those most in need, even at the expense of those in lesser need and those who can provide for themselves.
The way to achieve that is to support the motion, not to amend it.
The fact is that the future threatens us in an atmosphere of individualism where we have witnessed changes in health provisions that have now established a diminished public health care and a faster private health care. We have taken overwhelmingly from working people in taxes and said to them there is something correct about a country in which 90 per cent of the people in Dáil Éireann support a situation where a person can have his hip replaced in four and a half weeks but another person must wait for four and a half years even though the person on the four and a half year waiting list is overwhelmingly the contributor to public taxation. We are now witnessing the same thing in education. In the end the destruction of inequality in education is about that kind of uncritical individualism and private provision.
We have come a long way since the thirties. During the past 58 years the vocational sector have built up a reputation for themselves and an impressive achievement in building egalitarianism against the tide of individualism. It is that which is now at stake. This motion is about equality; above all else, it is about that very principle. It simply states that what little equality we have and what gains have been painfully made are under attack. It calls on all the Members of Dáil Éireann not to allow it to happen. I ask them to support the motion as I move it on behalf of the Labour Party.
I want to thank Deputy Michael Higgins for allowing me some of his precious time to speak on this motion because I know how strongly he feels on the issue and how much more he has to say.
The Workers' Party totally support the motion put down by the Labour Party Deputies. As a member of the City of Dublin VEC for the past nine years I have had fair experience of the workings of the VEC system in the Dublin city area. I know the importance of it and the effect these cuts will have on it.
The first point I should like to make is that the cutbacks now being imposed by the Government on the vocational education system seem to be a clear breach of the spirit and letter of the Programme for National Recovery, a programme which was signed by the Government, trade unions and employers. That programme specifically said that the Government recognised the importance of the education system in the promotion of equity in society. No society needs equity more than this society. The programme said they recognised the importance of the education system and would ensure that in implementing whatever adjustments were necessary in that sector because of financial considerations the burden of adjustment would not fall on the disadvantaged. Of course, the sector of education which deals with the most disadvantaged children, the VEC system, has been singled out for particular attention by the Minister.
The cuts imposed on the VEC system will from next September result in a reduction of between 500 and 700 jobs in VEC schools in 1988. According to a survey done by the TUI, the cuts have already meant that 19 per cent of VEC schools have lost a subject at junior cycle and 43 per cent have lost one at senior cycle. Many VEC schools are now in the position where not alone can they not afford materials, as Deputy Higgins pointed out, but many are not even in the position to provide the minimum levels of heating required for workplaces under the Factories Acts.
The VEC system already has a far higher proportion of weak and remedial students and students from socially disadvantaged backgrounds. The unprecedented cutbacks now being imposed on the system can only increase the level of disadvantage. In addition, the increase in school transport charges and the improsition of fees for students repeating the leaving certificate examination will place many lower income families whose children are attending vocational schools at an even greater disadvantage. It will lead to more working-class children dropping out of the schools system earlier.
The reneging by Fianna Fáil on their commitment to build regional technical colleges in Blanchardstown, Tallaght and other areas will make third level education an ever more remote prospect for working-class children. Again, the Programme for National Recovery said that the Government would continue to foster and encourage the participation of the disadvantaged at all levels of education. The cutbacks have also meant that the inner city college here in Dublin is deferred again this year, 1988. Since 1982, the Government have cut the pupil-teacher ratio at second level several times and have indicated their intention to do so again now. The effect of these cuts is that this year there are of the order of 2,000 fewer teachers in the public sector of education than there would have been if teachers were still appointed on the basis used in 1982. The cuts proposed in 1988 will add a further 500 to 700 teachers to this number.
The reason that you cannot have the same pupil/teacher ratio in the VEC system as in the secondary school system is fairly simple, but does not seem to be understood by the Department of Education or the Minister. There is something more than just cutbacks on education generally involved in this attack on the VEC system. The Minister is being very badly advised on this within the Department of Education, and she should look seriously at the type of advice she is getting. You cannot have the same pupil/teacher ratio in the VEC system as in other secondary schools: ninety per cent of all the VEC school classes are practical classes — woodwork, metalwork and so forth where you must have a smaller pupil/teacher ratio for safety and instruction purposes, whereas less than 25 per cent of the secondary schools have practical classes. Secondly, the VEC system is non-selective in its pupils. That means that all are welcome, no matter how difficult they are, how disadvantaged, how remedial. Whether they are mildly mentally handicapped, or are disruptive due to problems in the home, or slow learners simply because of nutritional deficiency from the grinding poverty under which many of them are now living, no pupil is refused. All are accepted, whereas other secondary schools select their pupils and decide whom they will have. The vocational education system caters for a very wide range of pupils from the slowest to the brightest, right through the whole system of education. You cannot lay down a rule that that system of education will have the same pupil/teacher ratio as second level schools. Also, they are involved in many other areas of education such as in the prison service where you certainly are not going to have a 20:1 pupil/teacher ratio——
I would hope not.
——while you have a moving population, and the same applies to the teaching of travellers' children which the vocational system engages in. There is a whole range of other areas, for instance, adult literacy.
The Department of Education over the years provided remedial teachers on an ex-quota basis. According to the College of Education rules, these teachers should be given time to take small classes of very weak students and advance them in the basics of reading and mathematics. A Leas-Cheann Comhairle, I hope that you are watching the time, as Deputy Kemmy is due to speak, also.
Deputy, I return the compliment and say that I hope you are watching the time.
I do not know how much time is left.
If you were to give way now, Deputy Kemmy would have six minutes.
I shall take another minute. These teachers should be given time for meetings with parents, for diagnostic testing of the children, for liaising with other teachers and so forth. This is not happening for the majority of such teachers. In fact, remedial teachers are being put teaching general classes and the remedial problem is being overlooked due to lack of teachers.
In the secondary school area there is a surplus of some hundreds of teachers and certainly these teachers should be redeployed rather than have cutbacks in the vocational system. Why this problem should be made worse at the same time as taxpayers' money is being used to support education for the privileged in selective fee-paying schools is hard to understand. The number of teachers in these schools roughly accords with the numbers to be cut from second level schools. If there must be cuts, let them be made on those who can afford them. Let those salaries be met by fee increases and not by a reduction in the remedial service to the disadvantaged.
I must remind Deputy Kemmy that he has five minutes.
Unfortunately, when I get up to speak in this House time is always a very precious and rare commodity. I have had to learn to practice some economy, to use a bad pun in this context, so I shall adhere to my normal procedure in that respect. Like Deputy Mac Giolla, I am very grateful to Deputy Michael Higgins for his generous gesture in affording me time to speak here tonight. It is not the first time that he has given me some of his precious time. There are not many Deputies who would do so and I have listened to the most dreadful ráméis. Speakers have been rambling on for hours and saying nothing. When it comes to popular issues such as this, time is very precious.
There is an obligation on the State — I suppose the cliché is, devolved on the Government of the day — to provide the means of giving all our children the best possible education. This is the ideal but the reality in practice is often very different. Those of us who move around the country can see how the children are suffering. The same case has been put forward here tonight as was put forward late last year regarding the proposed cuts in primary education. The same arguments are being trotted out tonight against the proposed cuts in vocational education but these will do far more damage in that sector than in any other sector, as was said by Deputies Higgins and Mac Giolla. It is the children from deprived, disadvantaged and poorer homes and backgrounds who suffer. They are vulnerable, not being in a position to overcome these cutbacks.
I have heard a lot said in this House in recent years about the need for educational reform. Every Minister coming to the office speaks about that need. However, I see very little evidence of it. You could not call cutbacks and the proposed changes educational reform. I am not against the concept of educational reform. It is a good concept if it is a thorough exercise, instead of a cosmetic one. If we are going to have educational reform, let us go about it in an efficient, professional and scientific way. Let us take all branches, levels and types of education into account. We are not getting this type of approach. Instead, we are getting a very crude, clumsy, insensitive and unscientific exercise of chopping and lopping at the most vulnerable and weak sections of our community. I see very little evidence of any kind of equality of treatment or social justice in the Government's attitude. The Government abolished, or substantially reduced the numbers of, career guidance teachers and remedial teachers and it is the children who pay the price for these cuts, through the quality of their education being diminished.
Let us not be dishonest and call what is happening here educational reform; it is the opposite. Unfortunately, Government propaganda has been effective in many areas. I see principals of schools and colleges throughout the country, and teachers as well, being conditioned to accept these cutbacks. Many have already made arrangements to deal with the effects of these cutbacks. Many have already set plans in motion to cope with reduced numbers of teachers and classes in schools and colleges. Two weeks ago, I went to the Moylish regional technical college, Limerick, after a memo had been sent out by the principal spelling out the future of brick laying, plastering and stone cutting courses. Limerick has been the home of training this century in all those areas but those courses are now in jeopardy. Even though the building industry is in the doldrums, it is wrong to turn our backs on our heritage in this respect. In more recent times, we have shown a very flexible approach by going into the wider areas of Tipperary, Clare and even the Midlands, to bring students in to keep those courses going.
It behoves the Minister to pay attention to what has been said in this debate. It is very easy to look on this exercise as a means to saving money but we are talking about young people who are trying to claw their way into the world of training and employment. This is not a time for cutbacks, it is a time for maintaining and improving existing courses. The quality of education at that level is vitally important not just for the building and engineering industries but for the country as a whole, because we are depending on our children to build up this country, to provide full employment and to make it a better place in which to live. By cutting remedial and career guidance teachers, we are doing the very opposite.
I should like to thank the three speakers for the very constructive contributions they made, although I disagree with some of their remarks. Any politician, irrespective of what party he comes from, has to complain about cuts in essential services such as education. Probably two of the most telling statements that Deputy Higgins made were that we should leave this sector alone and that this motion is about equality. I should like to deal with those two issues in the context of what all three speakers said.
One must take the Government's Policy in regard to education in the context of their overall policy in running the country. Deputy Higgins knows well that this sector cannot be left alone. This is about the tenth time that Deputy Higgins has called on us in the House to leave this sector alone although, on each occasion, he was talking about a different sector. There will not be much equality if we continue to leave every sector alone, as Deputy Higgins would like us to do.
I cannot see how there can be more equality by cutting that sector.
Equality will go out the window if we continue to borrow an extra £2 billion every year to pay for the services provided. There will not be equality if three, four or five years down the road we will not be able to pay the salaries of the vocational education teachers or indeed the salaries of secondary teachers. The Minister and I, as teachers, are the first to acknowledge that any cut in education is not good but we are forced into a situation in which there is no choice. We must make the necessary cuts if we are to get the country out of the problems it faces and to keep it from falling into much more serious trouble, which would lead to less equality in the years ahead.
Why not tax the wealthy?
We must look at the Government's policy on vocational education in the context of their overall policy in regard to the many other sectors in which expenditure cuts must be made. Education, as one of the bigger spending areas, cannot remain immune from cuts and, consequently, it is idle nonsense for Deputy Higgins to shout across the floor that we should leave this sector alone, especially when, next week, he will tell us to leave some other sector alone.
The Government left the wealthy alone.
We did not——
You will have to leave the Aire Stáit alone.
The poor Aire Stáit.
If Deputy Higgins wants to take up any sector with me, I am quite prepared to debate it with him. We are dealing with one sector tonight and I am taking it in the context of a number of other proposals which Deputy Higgins made in the House.
Deputy Higgins used the analogy of Santa Claus in regard to the national lottery funds. At least there is something in our bag but, with Deputy Higgins's Santa Claus, there is not even a bottom in the bag. He should stop fooling people by calling for continued heavy expenditure.
At least I made my speeches in the Dáil and I did not hand out cheques at private functions.
The Deputy knows, better than anybody else, that there is not even a bottom in the bag from which he says we should find more money.
It is relevant, in the context of the motions before the House this evening, to trace in outline the development of the vocational education system. Following the report of the Commission on Technical Education which was established in 1926 "to inquire into and advise upon the system of Technical Education in Saorstát Éireann in relation to the requirements of Trade and Industry" the Vocational Education Act was passed in July 1930. The main purpose of the VECs was to provide a system of continuation and technical education in their administrative areas.
In all, 38 VECs were established and the Act placed the administration of the vocational system of education in the hands of locally elected committees which would be subject to the overall control of the Minister for Education. The flexibility and adaptability inherent in the 1930 Act has enabled the VECs to be in a position to meet every challenge put to them in the intervening half century by a country which in that time has evolved into a modern industrial and increasingly urbanised nation. The VECs have been in a position to decide what courses and facilities were required at local level and to provide a wide variety of courses to meet changing needs. Because of the close links between the schools and local communities and the knowledge and concern of VEC members, special needs were readily identified and met with a speedy and efficient response. The VECs have also made a lasting contribution to the development of apprentice education and the provision of adult education courses. They are, of course, the main providers of adult education programmes. A Fianna Fáil Government in 1980 had the foresight to sanction 50 adult education officers for the VECs to enable them to further expand the wide variety of adult education courses and to meet new perceived needs in that area.
In the sixties, following the OECD report on "Investment in Education", VEC schools were enabled to provide the full senior cycle programme in their schools, again by a Fianna Fáil Minister, the late George Colley. This led to a fairly radical change in the curriculum in vocational schools and to a reduction in the differences between vocational schools and other second-level schools.
I reject the view expressed by Deputy Mac Giolla about the alleged selectivity in regard to secondary schools. That may be so in some secondary schools but, by and large, no selectivity exists and pupils now have an opportunity to choose between a vocational or secondary education system. Indeed, I would quote the following extract from the previous Government's Green Paper, "Partners in Education":
The development of the Irish post-primary system over the last twenty years has led to the creation of a number of different types of schools all of which are seeking to provide essentially the same education service to the same public. Up to the mid-nineteen-sixties the voluntary secondary schools provided services at post-primary level which were different in character and emphasis from each other. Since then this distinction has largely disappeared ...
It appears that some members are not familiar with that.
This, therefore, represented acceptance of the point I have just made, that the curriculum followed by the various post-primary schools is very much the same. It follows logically, therefore, that we should be looking towards a harmonisation of the pupil-teacher ratios obtaining in second-level schools.
It was also a Fianna Fáil Government — I do not need to remind the house of the late Donagh O'Malley — who introduced free post-primary education, the free school transport system, the building of regional technical colleges and the provision of a VEC scholarship scheme to enable students to proceed to third-level education in the regional technical colleges and colleges of technology. Successive Fianna Fáil administrations have, therefore, been conscious of the changing needs in education and have, by their actions, responded positively by ensuring that resources required to meet these needs were forthcoming.
For its part, the vocational education sector has not been found wanting in its response. It has responded admirably to the challenge of change, realising that the future welfare of our society is linked intrinsically with the products of our schools. It has given a lead in the reorganisation of educational provision, placing new technical and technological modules before our pupils, stimulating work-experience in our schools and thereby bringing employers and teachers into a new partnership in education. The Minister and I, as former members of vocational education committees, are clear that not alone should vocational education continue but that it should grow because of the important contribution it has to make to the education of our children.
Why change the ratio?
Fianna Fáil administrations have always been to the forefront in the evolution of the education system and have acknowledged the key role performed by the VECs in that process. Notwithstanding the financial difficulties facing the country, the present Government have been at pains to ensure that sufficent funds are provided to enable the VECs to maintain a satisfactory level of second-level school facilities, including provision for the disadvantaged.
In more recent times the face of change and the variety and complexity of the demands have grown far beyond anything that could have been dreamed of in 1930. Many educational changes and advances have been undertaken within the parameters of the 1930 Act in that period. The local VEC in addition to managing its own schools and classes is now the centre for many other activities. Through its CEO, it assists in administering school transport for post-primary pupils. It runs adult education and adult literacy schemes and training workshops for travelling people. It provides scholarships for third level courses and grants for ESF courses. It promotes and co-ordinates sport activities in its area. It maintains close co-operation with AnCO and national manpower, now FÁS, regional and county development and other national and local organisations.
In the midst of change the vocational system has not lost sight of the need for all-round development of human potential. Care for the education of all individuals is the philosophical foundation of the 1930 Act. That continuing care is manifested in the many varied projects currently being developed in VEC schools.
The 1930 vocational Act has served this country well throughout the years. It has provided a flexible and imaginative basis by which local, educational, industrial and social requirements have been met, and this has remained true to the present day.
No one can be in any doubt about Fianna Fáil's regard for the vocational education system and their appreciation of the inestimable debt we all owe to those dedicated people involved in its day to day running. It is because of this regard for the vocational education system that the Government are anxious to ensure that the structures presently in place are delivering the services for which they are responsible in the most efficient and cost-effective manner. In this regard it is worth noting that in the 1985-86 school year VECs were responsible for 247 second level schools with nearly 5,000 whole-time teacher equivalents and some 82,000 pupils.
That is the number of people who will be affected.
They will be affected but Deputy Higgins seems to forget what occurred during the period his party were in Government.
I mentioned that.
In fact, during that period there were two reductions in the pupil-teacher ratio. The education system, because of the need to change and rationalise, cannot be immune at any time from the type of changes that are now taking place.
With regard to the amalgamation of VECs, the position is that the Government have decided, with a view to achieving a more efficient and cost-effective administration, that the vocational education sector should be rationalised. The Minister for Education has been reviewing the scope for rationalisation having regard to a wide range of factors and in the light of representations which have been made to her and consultations which she has had with various interest groups. While final decisions have not yet been taken it is envisaged that the revised structures will involve approximately 20 VECs, rather than 38 as at present.
In the present economic and financial climate it is generally acknowledged that economies must be secured in all areas of Government activity. In effecting these economies the Government have had due regard to their effects on the various public services involved. Given the resources devoted annually to the education services, it is apparent that a contribution must be forthcoming from this area to the resolution of our national difficulties. I am convinced, however, that the resources available in 1988 to the education sector and to the vocational education sector in particular will be adequate to sustain the basic educational framework and to allow satisfactory educational services to continue to be delivered. I reject the accusations made by Deputy Higgins in regard to the effects of the cuts. He said that ten posts would be removed in Galway city but I would like to assure him that that statement is not correct.
Has the Minister of State asked the teachers concerned? The Minister of State should look into his own heart.
No, that is for de Valera.
It is important that facts should be to the forefront.
Absolutely. The Minister should give us the basis of his facts if he wants to dispute mine.
The Chair has come to expect, particularly in respect of debates on education, that there will be a certain maturity and enlightenment. I hope Deputy Higgins does not put that into reverse by interrupting.
Not at all. However, if the Minister of State asks me questions across the floor of the House he will get answers.
The Deputy must allow the Minister of State to make his case as he allowed the Deputy to make his. The Minister must be allowed to continue without interruption.
I did not ask the Deputy any questions. I told the Deputy that it was not correct to say that ten posts would be lost in Galway city and that he should ensure that his facts are correct before he makes such statements.
In line with the approach adopted in 1987 the Minister for Education is again emphasising to vocational education committees the need to accord priority to particular services. In particular, services designated for priority are: (a) the maintenance of essential second level school services including the administration of the school transport scheme; (b) junior and senior traveller centres; and (c) vocational preparation and training and middle level technician programmes.
These priorities are indicative of our concern to ensure that, despite the need to effect economies, this Government are committed to ensuring that the burden of adjustment does not fall on the disadvantaged, that there is adequate school provision for our young people and that training opportunities are available for those who wish to avail of them.
The policy of the Government in regard to the educational needs of disadvantaged groups is described in the Programme for National Recovery, section IV, paragraphs 15 to 19. As stated in that programme, there is a range of measures in place to assist disadvantaged groups.
I should mention that even though it has been necessary to limit expenditure, we have not curtailed provision which has been made for disadvantaged groups. Indeed, our purpose is to develop the provision made and to ensure that it is co-ordinated and made more effective. Out of the 200 or so posts for remedial education in the post-primary sector, about 100 have been allocated to the vocational education sector and this provision has been preserved. In addition to that provision, another 41 ex-quota posts have been allocated to the vocational education sector, taking special account of the needs of disadvantaged pupils and this provision has been preserved as well. We have also provided 26 special resource teacher posts to VECs in order to assist them to make special provision for mildly mentally handicapped pupils and it is intended to extend this scheme as required so that there is full continuity of provision between primary and post-primary levels for such pupils.
Our three pilot curriculum projects dealing with the transition from school to work life, based on the curriculum centres in Dublin, Shannon and Galway, have just completed their pilot phase and the results are being disseminated at present. Each of these projects has contained important elements which focused on the needs of the disadvantaged. Of these I might mention the Dublin Inner City junior cycle school certificate course which was concerned with developing basic competencies in communication, personal and social development and in applied subject areas such as metalwork, crafts, woodwork, etc. Similarly the Shannon Centre developed an alternative programme at senior cycle with a view to encouraging pupils to remain at school and much of the work of the Galway project was concerned with developing alternative curricula in areas such as technology, working world, community action etc. I would say to Deputy Higgins that we would certainly like to have the name of the teacher who does not have wood for his workworking requirements. We will ensure that this is not the position.
I thank the Minister.
I simply mention briefly some aspects of the overall scheme of projects and draw attention to the fact that full information on all of these projects is being disseminated through seminars and booklets.
It is not proposed to leave matters at that, various vocational education committee schemes have begun already to make proposals to adopt aspects of the pilot work and we look forward to supporting further development work which should commence in the near future. I would emphasise that vocational education committees were asked in 1987 to identify priority areas to be financed by VECs, and they are being requested to do so again in relation to their 1988 allocations.
However, I believe that what we must do in tackling the complex problem of disadvantage is to develop a co-operative approach by all the agencies involved at local and national level. The implemention of the social guarantee in which education and the various manpower and training services of FÁS play their part is having a direct impact on the least qualified young people and is improving their abilities to compete for existing jobs. My Department are working with the Department of Labour directly in order to develop a fully co-ordinated approach at both national and local levels so that the resources we have available to us will be deployed effectively for the most deprived young people, who are referred to as Priority Group 1 young people. In addition, the allocation of resources from the lottery funds to our youth services, some of which will be channelled through VECs, will assist in the development of out-of-school provision.
The Minister is committed to the future of vocational education and is keen to ensure that any cuts will be made in consultation with the people involved. This has been and will continue to be the case. Every possible opportunity is being taken to ensure that the difficulties caused by the inevitable cuts will be kept to a minimum. It is particularly significant that the vocational teachers have had an opportunity to meet the Taoiseach so that their views can be brought to the highest level. I am quite confident that those views are being taken on board very carefully by both the Minister and the Taoiseach. I would be very concerned at any serious restriction in vocational education, despite the inevitability of cuts.
Deputy Higgins made some serious exaggerations in relation to the school building programme and I must take issue with some of his statements. It is not correct to say that the school building programme has been halted and that there is an embargo on all new building, extensions and repairs, other that emergency repairs. The Government, in pursuance of their policy to limit Government expenditure as part of their economic programme for national recovery, decided to curtail their capital provision for second level schools. They did not, however, terminate the programme for those schools. They merely deferred those elements of it which could prudently be postponed without doing damage to the overall programme.
I readily agree with Deputy Higgins when he talks about the prefab accommodation to be found in vocational schools throughout the country. I have felt very strongly about this matter in recent years. I do not wish to be political about this problem but in County Galway we have had no new school building since 1981, with the exception of two small extensions to vocational schools. There are seven vocational schools with diabolical prefab accommodation. It is not quite fair of Deputy Higgins to point the finger in this direction as if he were immune from responsibility. Government Deputies and Senators who supported the previous administration were completely and utterly neglectful of the vocational education sector in County Galway, particularly in regard to the school building programme. I am, therefore, left with a huge problem on my hands at a time——
The Minister's party kept me off a vocational education committee for 13 years.
Deputy Higgins was a Member of either the Dáil or the Seanad and that is where it happened, with all due respect.
Has the junior Minister resigned from his local authority yet?
Deputy Higgins was chairman of a party who participated in a Government which spent a significant amount of money, mostly in the secondary sector. I could reel off a list of secondary colleges in County Galway which would include St. Jarlath's, Garbally College, the college in Portumna and the college in Woodford. Yet this Deputy can talk about the state of the vocational sector while the Government which he supported built two miserable extensions to vocational schools in County Galway. Let us not have this hogwash from Deputy Higgins night after night as if he himself had no responsibility whatever in politics in the past few years.
The sum of £21 million was initially provided in the estimates to ensure the continuance of the capital programme at the reduced level. This was increased in the budget to £23 million. In making available the additional allocation, the Minister for Finance specified that it would be devoted mainly to school buildings in rural areas. I am glad to say that the vast bulk of that money will be made available to the vocational and community sectors.
I hope what I have said indicates that this Minister and this Government are committed to the future of vocational education. My personal view is that the most important sector of education at present is the vocational sector. I have no doubt about it, although I have been a secondary school teacher myself. The future of education is dependent on the vocational sector. My personal view is that we must have rationalisation, taking into account changing circumstances. We now have a situation where the same set of conditions apply to secondary and vocational education. We must get away from some of the ridiculous situations which exist in small towns where we have a vocational school, a convent school and a secondary school all competing with great gusto for the dwindling number of students in their catchment areas and with one school looking for an extension while rooms are lying idle in another. A vocational teacher told me this week that one school is offering free trips to young people in order to get them into the school as first years.
Who is paying for them?
There has to be sensible co-operation between the various schools in small towns and there needs to be rationalisation so that there will be co-operation between the schools and so that the education which they are providing is provided in the most cost effective and most efficient way possible.
I move amendment No. 1:
To delete all words after "Dáil Éireann" and substitute:
"conscious of the special role played by vocational, community and comprehensive schools in the education system particularly as it affects the disadvantaged young person, calls on the Government to convene a meeting of the Central Review Committee under the Programme for National Recovery in order to examine the implications of the decision to increase the pupil teacher ratio in that sector in the context of the statement in the Programme at section IV, paragraph 15 `that the burden of adjustment does not fall on the disadvantaged' and that such examination should take place within the existing overall public expenditure provision for 1988.”
I welcome this opportunity to debate the difficulties which face the vocational, community and comprehensive schools as a result of the Government's proposal to disimprove the pupil-teacher ratio to 20:1 from September 1988. It has been the publicly stated position of Fine Gael since the 1988 Estimates were announced last October, a few days after the publication of the Programme for National Recovery, that the proposed worsening of pupil-teacher ratios in both the primary and vocational sectors was unjustifiable and should be reviewed within the Government's overall spending Estimates. Indeed, while Fine Gael have welcomed the long overdue conversion of Fianna Fáil to financial responsibility, we have reserved the right to object to certain proposals which we believe are wrong. Therefore, our amendment gives the Government and the Minister for Education an opportunity to reopen the question of the cuts in the staffing of vocational schools within the monitoring system which they established in the Programme for National Recovery because in our view it conflicts with the clearly stated aim of that programme. We hope the initiative we have taken in this respect will lead to a change of heart and a reversal of this very damaging proposal.
In talking about convening a meeting of the central review committee I want to emphasise that we believe that meeting should be called with great speed, if possible within the next week or so, because at present a great threat hangs over the vocational, community and comprehensive schools. There is a great deal of fear and confusion. The mechanism is already established and therefore there is no need for new structures. What we need is for that review committee to be convened to discuss this issue.
The week before last when the Taoiseach was answering questions from the leader of The Workers' Party on the workings of the central review committee I asked him if that review committee had ever been asked to address or had addressed the subject of the vocational school pupil-teacher ratio. To my surprise he was able to tell me the subject had never been brought up or discussed by the review committee. I found this surprising in view of the fact that the social partners are all parties to that programme and in particular I was very surprised that the trade union movement had not sought to bring this matter up at that committee. I will speak a little bit more about this later on.
Let me put our position in context. I was very glad to hear Deputy Higgins's speech this evening, which I would not describe, as the Minister of State unfortunately described it, as being hogwash but rather as a most thoughtful input to this debate.
I did not describe it as hogwash.
We will not argue about that. I am glad the Minister is withdrawing that word. The speeches of Deputy Mac Giolla and Deputy Kemmy were made with the utmost concern and sincerity for this sector. They feel and I feel that at a time of recession and a time of very high unemployment and great economic difficulties for so many people, education should be used as an instrument of social change. That is how we should regard education at a time like this. It has a most important role to play in giving a better chance to young people who start out life with a great range of handicaps — socially, sometimes intellectually and economically. We can give young people a better chance through the education system providing they have the schools to go to, that they have the teachers to teach them, that they have the means of arriving at those schools through the transport system and that they have a curriculum which is in keeping with the kind of potential they can develop themselves.
We have to look — unfortunately, we need to look all of the time — at our unemployment statistics. We find stated in them again and again that the biggest single group among the unemployed, in particular the long term unemployed, are the least educated people in our society, the people who have spent the least amount of time in the education system, the people who leave the system at the first possible opportunity. The vocational sector is doing enormous work in combating that handicap.
There have been responses to new demands and new perceived needs in recent years and I was very glad that the vocational preparation and training courses were brought in during my time as Minister. I am also glad that the practical element of the vocational sector has gone from strength to strength and in a few moments I will take up the Minister of State on the selective quotation he used from the Green Paper. The provision of schools in the vocational sector was going ahead and I was not aware that County Galway was experiencing such a problem. I must say I was sorry to hear that. Perhaps it is not quite as badly off as some of the other counties.
The school transport system for needy families is in place. There were and I hope still are many moves to reform the curriculum in order to make it more relevant to the wide range of the needs of these young people. As the Minister of State and Deputy Higgins mentioned their own local areas, allow me to mention my home county of Wicklow where, interestingly enough, 50 per cent of the young people in our schools are being educated through the vocational system which is astonishingly higher than the national average of 25 per cent. The vocational education system had some extraordinary achievements in that county and, as the Minister is well aware, there was an enormous march in Athlone on 31 January in which an enormous number of County Wicklow parents featured because of that county's very large interest in vocational education.
There was also a Fianna Fáil Deputy there.
There was, indeed, but we will not go into that. The Minister of State went into the history of vocational education in some detail and Deputy Higgins also referred to it. Those vocational schools and much later the community and comprehensive schools were set up to meet a very definitely perceived need among young people for particular kinds of help to get through the system. We have to look back to the thirties as being among the darker days of education, before we began to make strides in the provision of education for a wider section of the population. Education, at a later level was reserved mostly for the solid middle and upper middle classes of the population. That was very welcome and was brought about by the arrival and the development of the vocational sector.
Nowadays our understanding of different kinds of aptitudes is better and there is a rejection of the concept of failure. This attitude permeates or should permeate the education system. We recognise the mastery of technical subjects, the connection between hand and brain, as being extremely valid and important. Unfortunately, we have not advanced as far as the Minister of State implied when he gave a rather selective quotation from the Green Paper. The Minister of State said that according to the Green Paper different types of schools are seeking to provide essentially the same education service and then said that according to the Green Paper up to the mid-sixties the voluntary secondary schools provided services at post primary level different in character and emphasis from each other. That was a selective reference. I remind the Minister of State that the Government who brought out that Green Paper were as concerned as he is about the competition, difficulties and conflicts of interest between different kinds of second level schools. I gather that the Minister of State in his concern spoke from the heart. I felt I was in some sort of time warp, having so often stood on that side of the House and said the same thing. The Minister of State must have come up against some of the great community problems I dealt with then.
The Government who brought out that Green Paper, because they were well aware that the vocational and voluntary secondary system had not arrived at the point they were seeking, did not make the PTR the same in the vocational sector as in the voluntary secondary sector. That was a very definite decision at that time. The Green Paper was an attempt to make sense of a second level system which has strengths and variations and schools competing in the same areas for different kinds of pupils and sometimes using questionable methods.
It is not good to start rationalisation by disimproving all schools to a lower level. I point to some of the figures which I got in reply to a parliamentary question to the Minister for Education on the practical subjects take-up in vocational and secondary schools. The number of schools providing woodwork at junior cycle is 35 per cent of secondary schools and 97 per cent of vocational schools. Metalwork is provided in 6.4 per cent of secondary schools and in 88.1 per cent of vocational schools. Mechanical drawing which does not require the equipment of the other subjects, is provided in 45 per cent of secondary schools and in 96 per cent of vocational schools. In each of those three categories the community comprehensive provision for those three facilities is way up, nearly at 100 per cent.
When we proceed later to leaving certificate we have three subjects, engineering, technical drawing and building construction. Engineering is provided in 4.6 per cent of secondary schools and in 78.4 per cent of vocational schools. Technical drawing, which does not require the equipment the other two subjects require, is provided in 33.7 per cent of secondary schools, in 95.9 per cent of vocational schools and in 98.3 per cent of community and comprehensive schools. Building construction is provided in 12.9 per cent of secondary schools, in 75.2 per cent of vocational schools and in 88.3 per cent of community and comprehensive schools.
These figures speak for themselves in terms of how far we have come towards a general overall level of schools which provide a broad curriculum. That is one of the main bases for our concern about this sudden decision in the 1988 Estimates to proceed along the lines proposed. I have to reject the assertion from the Government side of the House that we are equalising a system. We cannot equalise these two things. If a room is full of heavy equipment and tools for building construction, for woodwork, for metalwork and for engineering, one cannot actually accommodate in that room the same number of pupils.
A second feature touched on by various Deputies is the question of the selectivity or otherwise of vocational schools. I do not want to attack the voluntary secondary sector because they are selective. I know a huge number of voluntary secondary schools are not selective. However, the vocational schools do not select at all. All of us in our clinics have had parents coming to us in despair. Their children have been running into educational problems because they are disruptive, because they are slow learners or because they have difficulties with teachers. Time and again we have found that the principals and staff of the vocational schools make the maximum effort to readmit these young people and help them to get back into the system. This is not a bad time or place to pay a compliment to those people in the system who generously make such an effort and who open so many educational doors to young people who would not have had that opportunity anywhere else. In former days those young people would never have entered the education system at second level at all. They would simply have dropped out.
The vocational schools have made great efforts to broaden the curriculum in their schools while keeping up the practical side, so that every young person whether his ambitions are academic or technical can be accommodated together comfortably in the one school. I am sure the Minister would agree that we should proceed towards having that kind of school everywhere. That is the ideal to be aimed for. The way to progress down that road is not to make that combination so difficult as to discourage it and to cause schools to diversify away from that so that some schools will have to concentrate on the practical subjects only to the detriment of the other subjects and other schools will only have academic subjects. That is a most regrettable step, guaranteed to militate against the disadvantaged.
I see that I have a time problem but I will have ten minutes tomorrow evening. As regards the Fine Gael amendment, we want to see a rapid and effective meeting of the central review committee. It has been specified as a procedure in the Programme for National Recovery. This meeting should have this item on the agenda. The proposal to disimprove the PTR at vocational, community and comprehensive schools should have been discussed before now. I am astonished to hear that it was not. It is in conflict with the statement in the Programme for National Recovery. Tomorrow evening in the few minutes I have left I will be able to read out to the House a document which I believe is a report on the progress of the Programme for National Recovery which, to my amazement again, does not mention this area.