Priority Questions.

Adult Education.

Olwyn Enright

Question:

1 Ms Enright asked the Minister for Education and Science the steps he is taking to address adult literacy problems; the position with regard to the implementation of workplace basic education programmes; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [5417/04]

The adult literacy service is organised by and delivered through the VEC adult literacy schemes throughout the country. The service is resourced and managed by the VECs through funding from my Department. Since the publication of a report of an international adult literacy survey in 1997, my Department has invested considerably increased funding in the development of adult literacy services.

The annual number of clients of the general adult literacy services provided by the VECs is currently 28,000. The additional funds provided in recent years were used to expand the scale and scope of provision, improve outreach and referral links and promote flexibility and quality. In addition to expanding the general adult literacy services, specially targeted programmes have been introduced for people with special literacy requirements in such areas as family learning, workplace learning, provision for special needs and catering for those for whom English is not the mother tongue. To try to reach as many people with literacy needs as possible, use is made of radio and television so that people can access help in the privacy of their own homes.

The national development plan committed €93.5 million to the service in the period from 2000 to 2006, with a target of reaching 113,000 clients over that period. In the area of workplace literacy, joint initiatives have been developed at local level through co-operation between VECs, FÁS, the National Adult Literacy Agency and local employers. Specific funding has been provided for a course in workplace basic skills training for experienced group literacy tutors. This course is designed to familiarise literacy tutors with the key issues in basic skills training in the workplace and also identifies strategies for introducing and implementing programmes in this context. Programmes under way at national level include the return to education programme, a joint initiative between FÁS, VECs and NALA, which provides an intensive literacy programme for community employment workers on FÁS community employment schemes. A focused workplace literacy programme is available nationwide for local authority outdoor staff. There are also successful workplace literacy programmes in two hospitals and in a trade union.

The commitment and support of employers is a fundamental requirement for the successful implementation of workplace literacy programmes. In seeking to support and encourage employers to participate in such programmes, the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment has approved a project proposal from NALA to design and deliver a workplace basic education programme for SMEs. A pilot programme for the development of a certificate in workplace skills has also been approved by that Department under the ESF aided in-company training measure of the human resources development operational programme.

I thank the Minister of State for her reply. Much work has been done and progress has been made in this area. The Minister of State mentioned the projects in local authorities, which are successful. However, I am concerned about the roll-out to the private sector, which I appreciate could be more difficult. Does the Minister of State agree that part of the difficulty is the absence of statutory support and that staff training programmes, which are already in place in the private sector, seem to assume that participants have basic literacy skills, which is not always the case? How will NALA's workplace basic education strategy, which features in Sustaining Progress, be progressed through the partnership process? What steps is the Department taking to progress the roll-out of the workplace basic education programmes in the private sector and has a timescale been set? Will the Department establish a workplace basic education fund? The Minister referred to two schemes in her reply. Has her Department been in contact with the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment about the possible use of the training budget for the workplace basic education programme? I know the Minister of State cannot answer for that Department, but that budget has not been spent.

I thank the Deputy for her questions and I welcome her acknowledgement that much work has been done and funding has been made available for adult literacy. That was a priority of the last Administration and of this one. There has been an 18-fold increase in the level of funding provided by the two Governments since 1997. While we recognise the tremendous work which needs to be done, much work has already been done and that is obvious from the increased take-up of the service. NALA is doing a great job in the roll-out of that service.

It has been acknowledged by people involved in the literacy programmes and in surveys which have been done that workplace literacy is one of the important elements of trying to eradicate illiteracy. To do that, we must ensure that people take up the programmes. However, that depends on employers. There is a specific reference in Sustaining Progress to the workplace learning programme. NALA has trained a number of tutors to provide literacy in the workplace and has promoted the availability of services among employer organisations. There are also successful workplace literacy programmes in two hospitals and a trade union, as I said in my initial reply. Paragraph 2.8 of Sustaining Progress, which the Deputy mentioned, states that workplace basic education literacy, numeracy and information and communications technology programmes will be implemented, building on the recommendations made by NALA, which is the agency with specific responsibility in this area.

Inquiry into Child Abuse.

Jan O'Sullivan

Question:

2 Ms O’Sullivan asked the Minister for Education and Science his views on the publication of the third interim report of the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse; the steps he intends to take to ensure that the commission receives the appropriate level of co-operation from his Department in light of the view expressed in the report that the committee was not satisfied that, since its establishment, it had received the level of co-operation from his Department to which it was entitled; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [5365/04]

I thank Ms Justice Laffoy and the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse for the completion of its detailed third interim report. I welcome the report and I am pleased that it provides at least some closure and confirmation of their experiences for the former pupils of the Baltimore Fisheries School. I remind everyone that the valuable work the commission has completed in respect of Baltimore was one of the main purposes for which the commission was established, that is, to inquire into the abuse that occurred in these institutions and to report on it. This was the Government's intention at the time the commission was being established and continues to inform the manner in which the Government is dealing with this issue today.

The report also refers to the manner in which my Department dealt with the commission, both as a sponsor and a respondent, and I will deal with each of these issues in turn. Since the commission's inception, my Department has responded to its requests for resources as quickly as possible. As with all other Departments, this Department must and did submit each request for resources to the Department of Finance and-or the Government for consideration. The Department has been and will continue to be committed to supporting the commission.

The resourcing delays which the commission referred to in its report primarily relate to the period from June 2002 onwards when the commission sought a doubling of its resources, particularly its personnel. I previously explained that it was necessary that this request be considered by the Government, following which it was decided that a review of the operation of the investigation committee was necessary. This review has been justified and I am confident that the legislation which will emanate from this review will assist the commission in completing its remit in a timely fashion. Furthermore, Judge Ryan in his report on the working of the commission, which was undertaken prior to his being appointed chairperson of the commission, recommended that anad hoc group of senior officials be identified who could deal with resourcing issues as quickly as possible. The Government has accepted this suggestion. I am confident that this process will ensure that all future requests for resources are dealt with effectively and in a timely manner.

In its role as respondent, my Department at all stages made every effort to co-operate with and assist the work of the investigation committee of the commission. In this regard, the Department voluntarily handed over to the commission more than 500,000 pages of documentation between 2000 and 2002. Furthermore, by June 2003 it had provided the commission with approximately 1,900 statements relating to cases before the investigation committee. In addition, it responded to 16 discovery directions that were issued to it.

I have already accepted that there were some difficulties encountered, especially in complying with a small number of the discovery directions. However, in this regard, the commission's third interim report acknowledges, "some of the difficulties were caused, or contributed to by the Committee in that for example there was not sufficient clarity in the direction as to what was sought, or insufficient time was being allowed for compliance."

Additional information not given on the floor of the House.

To ensure that the Department's processes are above reproach, last December I ordered an independent review of the process and procedures for the making of discovery by the Department to the commission. I appointed the former chairperson of the Bar Council of England and Wales, Mr. Matthias Kelly QC, to conduct this review. In addition to being completely independent of my Department, Mr. Kelly has considerable experience of sexual abuse litigation and is co-author of an article entitled "Child Abuse in Residential Homes" in theNew Law Journal.

Mr. Kelly conducted his review over a two-week period that commenced on 5 January 2004. In the course of conducting his review Mr. Kelly met officials in the Department involved in the discovery process and the legal team representing the Department. He also had access to all of the Department's records. I understand that Mr. Kelly also met representatives of the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse.

The process of meeting with and interviewing persons relevant to his review has concluded and Mr. Kelly has very recently provided me with an interim report of his review. He has stated that he had originally expected that his report could be completed within a matter of weeks but that given the sheer volume of documentation, it is not possible and he will report in full as soon as possible. I would add however that, in his interim report, Mr. Kelly has reached the provisional conclusion that, "the difficulties over discovery were not due to obstruction or concealment but rather due to poor historic record storage systems and misunderstandings as to what in fact was required." Mr. Kelly also outlines a number of interim measures, which I will be happy to implement pending receipt of his full report.

I thank the Minister for his reply. Has the Minister engaged with his Department given the unprecedented criticism of the chairperson of the commission when she said that the committee is not satisfied that since its establishment it has received the level of co-operation which it is entitled to receive from the Department of State which is its statutory sponsor? This is a very serious criticism to be levelled by the chairperson of the commission at a Department. Has the Minister engaged with that rather than simply justifying the actions of the Department?

Following an extension, the discovery documents are now required by 28 February. Will those documents be supplied to the commission by that date? I hope the Minister shares the sense of urgency given that these people are getting older and waiting to have their cases heard by the commission. In this context, has the Minister given consideration to holding parallel hearings as proposed by Ms Justice Laffoy and Judge Ryan? This morning we debated legislation allowing tribunals of inquiry to conduct parallel hearings. The Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse is just as important in terms of resourcing. Has the judgment on the Christian Brothers case been approved? Are we now into the 21 day period for appeal?

On the final point, we are into the 21 day period for appeal. The Chief State Solicitor's office has been informed that the Christian Brothers intend to appeal. However, I do not believe they have lodged papers yet. The Deputy is right in saying that Ms Justice Laffoy suggested that parallel hearings might represent a way forward and on this basis she requested a doubling of personnel. However, Judge Ryan outlined a quite different view in his report. He feels that some injustice could be done by having different people hear the cases in distinct units.

Did he not suggest one-member committees?

He did that, but not in the same sense as Ms Justice Laffoy. The Government has indicated that it will support the recommendations of Judge Ryan, who is now chairperson of the commission, in how he wants to go about his business. It is up to him to decide the best and most effective way, consistent with bringing closure as quickly as possible. I share the sense of urgency of all the victims who have suffered abuse in the past in getting closure and completion. Even with the proposal for extra resources I was not satisfied that it would shorten the timeframe of ten to 11 years of the commission. As that was not satisfactory to me, I ordered the review.

Educational Welfare Service.

Paul Nicholas Gogarty

Question:

3 Mr. Gogarty asked the Minister for Education and Science the number of educational welfare officers now in place; the number expected to be in place by the end of 2004; his Department’s estimates of the minimum number of officers required for the National Educational Welfare Board to be able to carry out its statutory duties adequately on a nationwide basis; the likely timescale for reaching that number; the statutory role of the educational welfare officer under the Education (Welfare) Act, and the difference between this role and that of a home school liaison co-ordinator; if a vacuum currently exists in terms of responsibility for children who drop out of school; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [5217/04]

The National Educational Welfare Board was established to ensure that every child attends school regularly or otherwise receives an education. The board is developing a nationwide service to provide welfare-focused services for children, families and schools. The board's authorised staffing complement is 84. It has recently advertised a competition to fill 15 vacancies. When these vacancies are filled the staff composition will be as follows: 11 head office staff and 65 educational welfare staff supported by eight clerical support staff.

As provided for under section 10 of the Education (Welfare) Act 2000, I have arranged for officials of my Department to work with the board to ensure that any opportunities for integrated working between educational welfare officers and staff on other educational disadvantage programmes whose work involves a school attendance element are exploited to the maximum. I consider the implementation of protocols for such integrated working on attendance matters between the NEWB and, in particular, the home-school-community liaison scheme, the school completion programme and the visiting teacher service for Travellers, to be very important. When in place, these will assist the NEWB in carrying out its remit and ensure that all available existing resources are utilised to the full. I consider it essential that the board should focus on ways in which it can deliver the service with its authorised personnel and with the help of other personnel involved in the area. When this has been achieved, I will consider the position again taking into account the available resources.

The duties of the educational welfare officer include: fostering an appreciation of the value of education; advising schools and parents on school attendance issues and on strategies to promote regular school attendance; dealing with poor attendance or early school leaving case referrals from schools using a welfare-orientated approach; and initiating legal proceedings under the Act, where appropriate.

The duties of the home-school-community liaison co-ordinator include developing processes for active co-operation between home, school and relevant community agencies in promoting the educational interests of the children and visiting parents' homes. School attendance issues and learning needs are commonly discussed during these visits. Their duties also include developing parents as prime educators, enabling them to support their children's learning and addressing, through a local committee, school-related issues in the community which impinge on attendance and learning. There is significant scope for integrated working between educational welfare officers and home-school-community liaison co-ordinators and discussions between the NEWB and officials of my Department are continuing with a view to finalising protocols for this as soon as possible.

Section 21 of the Act requires the principal of a recognised school to inform an educational welfare officer in writing where a pupil is absent from school for more than 20 days or where he or she is of the view that a student is not attending school regularly.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House.

This covers cases in which a student under the age of 16 drops out of school entirely and the NEWB has put procedures in place to classify all such cases as urgent and prioritise them accordingly. Arrangements are also in place in the areas covered by my Department's school completion programme to target children under 16 who have dropped out of school for particular support, with the aim of ensuring their earliest possible return to full-time education. I am satisfied that these procedures address the issue of responsibility for children who drop out of school early.

Is the Minister aware of the substantial criticism of the Government over early intervention for school leavers? This is having a knock-on effect on those such as the 17 year old boy before the courts yesterday, for whom, fortunately, a place was again found in Ballydowd. Is the Minister aware that an independent report states that the full implementation of the Education (Welfare) Act requires a complement of 360 staff? Even if the Minister feels this is not required, there is a big difference between 360 and the 99 that will shortly be in place.

Is the Minister aware of the comments of his colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Brian Lenihan, who said: "Remember, for several decades now——

The Deputy is not entitled to quote during Question Time.

He alluded to the fact that for several decades we had a system in operation in many schools, whereby liaison between the home and the school exists. However, they have not been able to get all the children to attend school because in some impossible cases there is no co-operation forthcoming from the child or parents. While I agree with the Minister of State wholeheartedly, would the Minister not agree this means that the educational welfare officers, who have the power to take legal proceedings, are needed more than ever to ensure children do not end up in prison later on? If the staff is not increased from 85 to 360 as soon as possible, it would be like giving a junior hurling team drumsticks to take on Kilkenny — they would make considerable noise but would not get a result. While money has been thrown at the system since 1997, would the Minister agree we also need a coherent strategy and to staff the areas needed given the statutory right for educational welfare officers to promote attendance and take legal proceedings where the necessary?

Meath men know nothing about hurling.

The report referred to by the Deputy was not an independent one. It was commissioned by the National Educational Welfare Board and based on a brief with which I would not fully agree. It did not take into account the numbers of people in other areas of the education system who have a duty and obligation, as I mentioned, to look after children and ensure they attend school. I accept that home-school liaison officers, visiting teachers and so on do not have the ultimate statutory sanction of legislation. They cannot take legal action against the parents of a child who is not attending school. However, the Deputy will agree — it is no great secret — that the National Educational Welfare Board is most reluctant to go as far as prosecution. It would prefer to take a more welfare-based approach initially, with which I agree.

Perhaps the report to which the Deputy is referring took into account the wonderful work being done under the school completion programme by the home-school-community liaison officers and visiting teachers and considered in more detail how they might all co-operate with each other. If this happened we could have a far superior system. That is what we are trying to achieve.

School Curriculum.

Olwyn Enright

Question:

4 Ms Enright asked the Minister for Education and Science the number of primary and secondary schools offering the social, personal and health education syllabus; the number of schools in which the course is being implemented in full; if there are planned additions to the content of the course; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [5418/04]

Social, personal and health education has been part of the national curriculum in all primary schools since September 2003. It is delivered to children at all levels from infants upwards. The content of the SPHE curriculum for primary schools was developed as part of the revised primary curriculum introduced in 1999. It provides opportunities to foster the personal development, health and well-being of the individual child and help the child to create and maintain supportive relations and become an active, responsible citizen.

All post-primary schools were required to implement SPHE as part of the junior cycle core curriculum from September 2003. The 2003-04 return of pupil information from 743 post-primary schools indicates that all post-primary schools are complying with this requirement. The content of the SPHE curriculum at junior cycle in post-primary schools builds on the new SPHE curriculum for primary schools. Its content is comprehensive and it is presented in ten modules which address topics and issues relevant to the lives of the students. An SPHE curriculum is being developed for senior cycle at present by the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment, NCCA. Consultation on the proposed content of this new curriculum took place last autumn. It is planned that relationship and sexuality education will be fully integrated into the new senior cycle SPHE curriculum when it is completed.

I welcome the fact that the SPHE programme is to be extended to the senior cycle. The Minister said that the 2003-04 return of pupil information from post-primary schools indicated that all 743 are implementing the programme. Is there a similar survey for primary schools and, if not, will one be undertaken? Will the Minister confirm that the programme is being implemented at each stage of primary school and each stage of the junior cycle in secondary school? Has the Minister taken steps to investigate whether each of the ten modules at junior cycle level is being given the required attention?

The Minister states that all primary schools are implementing the programme. Is he happy that each school is implementing it properly? There was a reluctance to implement the Stay Safe programme in a small minority of schools. Is the Minister satisfied that the SPHE programme is not facing difficulties of this kind?

Nothing negative has been brought to my attention about the implementation of the ten modules of the programme. The system has been in place in the primary school curriculum for some time and as far as I know there has been no problem with any aspect of implementation at that level.

The Deputy may also be referring to the senior cycle. The provision for social and personal development for students at senior cycle varies. It tends to be influenced by factors such as the culture and ethos of the school and the curriculum offered. There is no standard approach to implementation of the programme at this level. Some schools use workshops and seminars at certain periods during the senior cycle. In some cases schools have an integrated, cross-curricular approach. Some schools also teach social and personal education as a discrete subject, even if it is only taught once a week or once a month. Within transition year there is a variety of practices. While I have had no reports of problems at primary level or junior cycle, the situation is much more varied at senior cycle level.

The Minister mentioned there would be a review of the implementation of the programme at senior cycle level. When is this likely to be done? The idea of different schools following different approaches is a good one, once they cover the same ground. Will this remain the case at this level?

I do not want to anticipate what the NCCA will decide, but there is some merit, as the Deputy says, in having a flexible approach at senior level. I presume that will continue, but I cannot say what the recommendation of the NCCA will be. Consultation on the new curriculum took place last autumn so I expect we will hear something by the middle of this year, although I have no specific date.

Special Educational Needs.

Jan O'Sullivan

Question:

5 Ms O’Sullivan asked the Minister for Education and Science the number of applications for resource teachers and special needs assistant resources awaiting a decision within his Department; the steps he is taking to address the backlog and to provide the supports needed by children with special needs in a timely manner; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [5366/04]

Applications for special needs resources received between 15 February 2003 and 31 August 2003 are being considered at present. More than 5,000 such applications were received. Priority was given to cases involving children who were starting school last September. All these new entrant cases were responded to and we continue to respond to emergency applications.

The processing of applications is a complex and time-consuming operation. However, my Department is endeavouring to have this process completed as quickly as possible and my officials will then respond to all applicant schools. The balance of more than 4,000 applications has been reviewed by a dedicated team comprising members of my Department's inspectorate and the national educational psychological service. These applications are being further considered in the context of the outcome of surveys of special needs provision conducted over the past year or so. Account is also being taken of the data submitted by schools as part of the recent nationwide census of special needs provision.

Arrangements for processing applications received since September 2003 will be considered in the context of the outcome of discussions on a weighted system of allocation of resource teaching support. In this context, my officials have initiated discussions on the matter with representative interests. At this stage, it would be premature to anticipate the outcome. However, the basic purpose of the review is to ensure that each school has the level of resources required to cater for its pupils with special educational needs. Pending the conclusion of discussions with the representative interests, schools are advised to refer to circular 24/03, which issued in September 2003. This circular contains practical advice on how to achieve the most effective deployment of resources already allocated for special educational needs within the school.

I am aware of the pressures on that section of the Department. Deputy Enright and I met its officials late last year. Can I take it from the Minister's reply that applications between 15 February and 31 August 2003 have been dealt with and reviewed in the Department? Are they ready to be sent to the schools or are they being delayed for some reason? The Minister will be aware of the concern of parents awaiting special needs resources for young children given that early intervention is so crucial. If the decisions have been made in the Department and the review is complete, can the Minister not simply give the sanction and allow those children to get the resources they need?

I have a copy of circular 24/03. Are applications after 31 August being delayed until the discussions with interested parties about the weighted system have been completed?

The Deputy is generally correct. Individual applications from between 15 February and 31 August have effectively been processed in the Department at this stage. However, there is a second part of the process which is still being carried on, that is, the assessment of the resources available to the schools concerned. We conducted an audit of the provisions available to schools at the end of last year. The results of this are being processed in the Department. The second half of the picture, therefore, is to see where resources are needed within the system. We accept that the individuals may have a need but we must now establish whether the resources are already in the school and if the need can be dealt with from within the school's current resources.

That is the reason I refer to circular 24/03. To put it bluntly, the system we had in operation in the past only added more resources with little reference to what might have gone through the system. There was a situation where special needs assistants and resource teaching hours were available within the system but the children for whom they were made available had passed out of the school and the resources were never checked again. We are now trying to match the resources within the school to the needs of the young people who have applied to the Department.

With regard to applications after September 2003, we are in discussions about a weighted system with various groups and interested parties. This would mean that we could automatically provide the resources for schools from the start of the school year. The schools would be as aware of the resources they will have as they are of the number of teachers they will have and will be able to cater for the special needs automatically, particularly the less severe special needs. The schools would know from September how many resource hours, resource teachers and so forth they will have. We are anxious to finalise those discussions because there is no point appointing people and then removing them from the system again.

The time for Priority Questions has expired.

Is the Minister saying that because there might be extra resources in some schools, other children who need special needs assistance will have to wait? That is unacceptable. I am aware of the need to get value for money.

I have a duty and responsibility to ensure that every child with a genuine special need will have his or her needs met as quickly as possible. The only way to do that is as I am doing now.

The time for priority questions has expired.

All applications are genuine. Delete the word "genuine".

I have reports which the Deputy has not seen. I accept that the applications are genuine and made in the best spirit but it is a fact that there is over-resourcing in the system at present.

They will all have to wait now.