Other Questions.

Insurance Costs.

Pádraic McCormack


6 Mr. McCormack asked the Minister for Education and Science his views on the cost of insurance for primary and secondary schools; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [5212/04]

Responsibility for arranging insurance cover on school property and against public liability is a matter for the managerial authorities of primary and secondary schools, which are privately owned. It would not be reasonable to expect the State to meet the full insurance costs of privately owned buildings.

Funding is provided to primary and secondary schools by way of per capita grants which afford schools considerable flexibility in the use of these resources to cater for the needs of their pupils. This is, in general, a preferable approach to putting in place grants for specific cost items such as insurance. I also hold the view that moving to a position where the Government covers the insurance costs of primary and secondary schools might encourage the insurance sector to keep increasing premia on the basis that the State, that is, the taxpayer, would meet the cost. Such an approach would also reduce the incentive for school management to reduce risks.

I am committed to improving the funding position of primary and secondary schools in the light of available resources. At a time of increased financial constraints, the recent announcement of further significant increases in the funding of primary and secondary schools is a clear demonstration of my commitment to prioritise available resources to address the needs of schools. In the case of primary schools the standard rate of capitation grant has been increased from €57 in 1997 to €121.58 per pupil from 1 January last, an increase of almost 113%. A measure of the increase in overall funding for secondary schools is that, by comparison with 1997, a secondary school with 500 pupils now receives extra annual funding of up to €108,000 per annum.

Perhaps I should have done my homework and brought the figures on how much schools' insurance has increased since 1997 as well. I do not disagree with the Minister's comments on the capitation grant but schools have little flexibility when faced with rising insurance costs. One school is spending €60,000 which is a doubling of its insurance premium in just one year. Does the Minister have proposals to deal with this issue? The Tánaiste has responsibility for dealing with insurance costs but the schools are the Minister's responsibility. Has he approached the insurance companies about this or looked at a possible scheme which a number of schools could use?

It is unfair to say that schools would not concentrate on reducing risks if the Department paid their insurance. I doubt that any school principal wishes to have unnecessary risks in his or her school. Does the Minister agree that the capitation grant, given what it has to be used for in addition to the cost of insurance, leaves no money available to schools to reduce those risks where they occur?

Every school tries to reduce risk as much as possible, but there would be no incentive to do so if the Department were to meet all the costs. The increase in insurance premia for the period 1998 to 2002 was 70% while the capitation grant increased by 113%.

Many of them doubled last year.

Figures available in the Department indicate that the average increase last year in the cost of insurance premia in the secondary sector was 10%. There have been variations in individual schools where there were difficulties because of incidents and so forth, but the general increase is 10%.

The Deputy asked whether we had made any contact with insurance companies etc. Not many companies quote for this business, or perhaps they are not asked to quote. Most of the business is done by Allianz. We have been in contact with the company about insurance premia and got a lot of information on the issue. We tried, in so far as we could, to get it to ensure the levels of increase were not exorbitant. We got as much information as we could in our effort to assist schools as much as possible in the area of insurance. The company is also running a business.

Whether it is primary or second level schools — I think it is second level — in fairness to the company, it operates and charges its premia on a portfolio basis. Except in rare exceptions where a school has had a number of incidents or claims, it treats all schools the same based on a per capita basis. This is how it arrives at its premia. It is a little like the community charge in the VHI, there is a balance and a check. The insurers try to respond to schools in as fair a manner as possible. I would love to see insurance premia being reduced. The Tánaiste is engaged in trying to achieve this on a wider front. I am assured by the insurance companies that the average level of increase was about 10% last year.

As the Minister is aware, I raised the issue of insurance within the constituency on a wider basis some time ago. He said that between 1998 and 2002 capitation grants increased by 113% while the cost of insurance increased by 70%. He must be aware that capitation grants needed to be increased by 113% because the amount available to schools to cater for the work such as that we read about in the newspapers every week falls far short of what is needed. Given that the cost of insurance has risen well beyond the rate of inflation, the increase in capitation grants should be significantly higher unless the Minister can work with the Tánaiste to come up with some scheme which will enable schools, primary schools in particular, to pay some sort of levy via the State. Otherwise he is giving carte blanche to the insurance companies to set unreasonable rates.

I have a supplementary question on the cost of insurance for primary and secondary schools. Is the Minister really aware of the crisis in regard to the cost of insurance? Having heard his response, I have some concerns.

The crisis particularly relates to small schools for which two and a half years ago insurance bills were between €7,000 and €15,000. Now they range from €15,000 to €20,000 and we have heard of some that are higher. In the past week I heard of a school with an insurance bill of €24,000. Figures for larger schools have gone as high as €60,000. That is a major dent in the board of management funds for the year for the principal of those schools who has to write the cheque. Will the Minister respond to this crisis and try to do something about it? I have listened to the Tánaiste for the past two years talking about how she will deal with the insurance issue. We are still waiting for a comprehensive response. I ask the Minister to work seriously on this issue.

Does the Minister accept that it is the parents who bear the brunt of many of these increases? There is increased pressure on them to raise funds, whether through cake sales or, as in the Minister's constituency, the raffle of a horse. We are told the issue of insurance is a priority for Government but the reality is that the cost of insurance has increased. House, motor, school and commercial zone insurance premia have risen, not come down.

The cost of school insurance is affecting the education of children. Will the Minister accept that this is a responsibility for his Department? Can he outline some new initiative in order that we can go back to our constituents and tell them he understands their plight? We do not want the response that his hands are tied or there is nothing he can do. We want initiatives.

Will the Minister engage in discussions with the managerial bodies which represent the schools? They have indicated that they will be willing to look at some kind of flexible approach to the issue. We need discussion in order to find a solution.

We are always willing to talk to the joint managerial bodies. To talk about a crisis makes for easy headlines.

That is the reality.

The per capita element of insurance in schools, set on the portfolio basis, is about €5 per pupil. I am told by the insurance companies, with which we engaged to try to see if there was anything that could be done to keep the levels of insurance down, that at second level it was anticipated there would be no increases in premia in 2004 and that the average increase for primary schools would be somewhat less than 10%. I include the caveat that where schools have a particular claims history, it will affect their premium and there will be a loading.

If Deputies know of schools where insurance premia have increased by €24,000 or €25,000 or where the increase is exorbitant for no reason and they provide individual examples, I will be pleased to ask my officials to re-engage with the insurance companies to try to find the reason.

I will get back to the Minister.

However, I will not take responsibility for the taxpayer for the insurance costs of private property. There has been much talk over the past 24 hours on the issue of tribunals etc. I do not wish to be involved in one in a few years time or to have somebody asking me why I took this road.

I find it necessary to remind the House of the time limit on questions, particularly supplementaries. Time is limited to one minute for the question and one minute for the reply.

Leaving Certificate Applied Programme.

Liz McManus


7 Ms McManus asked the Minister for Education and Science if his attention has been drawn to concerns expressed by the national association of leaving certificate applied co-ordinators that the future of the course was under threat due to cutbacks in support services; the steps he will take to address the issues raised, particularly in view of the successful role the applied leaving plays in keeping at risk students at school; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [5246/04]

I am aware of the concerns expressed by the group referred to by the Deputy. The leaving certificate applied programme is one of the options of the senior cycle structure. The programme has been introduced on a phased basis since 1995 and there are over 300 schools or centres offering the programme.

An intensive support service to assist with the introduction of this innovative and distinct programme into the second level education system was put in place in 1995. This service, dedicated solely to the LCA programme, was continued for a significant number of years, up to the end of the last school year. It would not be appropriate to have an intensive service like this, dedicated solely to the LCA, continue forever into the future. The LCA programme is, at this stage, well established in the education system.

Inservice training and support for the LCA programme is now, since the beginning of the present school year, provided by the broader second level support service. This service provides inservice and support for a number of second level programmes as well as the LCA. For well established programmes, this arrangement enables best use to be made of the expertise that has been developed and built up over a number of years and can be shared and utilised in a number of different but related areas.

The concerns expressed have been considered by the steering committee for the programme and officials of my Department recently met the director of the second level support service to further review the situation in the context of the new arrangements for inservice for the programme. The matter is being kept under review on an ongoing basis.

I put it to the Minister that one of the points made by the association of leaving certificate applied co-ordinators, in a letter dated 29 January 2004, is that new co-ordinators in existing schools are still waiting for inservice training this year. This programme and its success are based on doing things differently for young people who may otherwise feel alienated from the education system. It has been highly successful for the young people for whom it is suited. Because the methodologies are different, classroom practice and behaviour are also different from the regular schoolroom. It is important that teachers are properly trained and equipped in order that they do not apply the old methods of teaching to this course. I put it to the Minister that these are genuine concerns and urge him to take these problems seriously. As it is a different way of teaching, it needs intensive preparation for teachers in order that it can do what it is intended to do.

I agree with everything the Deputy said. The only point of difference is whether a national association of co-ordinators is required or if it should be part of the remit of the second level support service, SLSS. I favour the phasing out of all of these different systems whereby there are co-ordinators for everything. There are so many different groups that we have almost arrived at a point where we need co-ordinators for the co-ordinators.

I accept what the Deputy said about inservice training. It is important that there is good inservice training for this programme which we should encourage. As the Deputy rightly said, the leaving certificate applied, LCA, programme will help many children who may not find their feet in the normal academic leaving certificate system. I strongly support the programme. The question is if we should consider a separate existence for all of these different bodies or if we should have a strong second level support service that will target inservice training and be able to provide it as required. I accept that there is a difficulty.

The issue is that people have not been trained. I do not mind how the Minister deals with it as long as it is dealt with and people receive the appropriate training.

We are agreed on that.

The point is I do not think anything is happening.

The point being made by co-ordinators is that the level of support and inservice training for teachers on this course is not what it should be. This needs to be addressed. Is the Minister happy with this and will he ensure that, whichever section is looking after it, an adequate level of inservice training is provided, as was the case in the past?

I accept the point. There are a number of reasons for the difficulty, the reason we are reviewing the provision of inservice training. There is a high turnover of teachers for this programme in schools. When teachers change from the LCA programme in schools, there seems to be a lack of continuity in the dissemination of information and passing it on to new teachers. It also appears that teaching resources are not passed on and very often the incoming teacher has to start from scratch, perhaps without inservice training. Some of these issues can and should be dealt with by school management. However, I accept the point made about inservice training in regard to which we continue to be in contact with the SLSS.

Residential Institutions Redress Scheme.

Joe Costello


8 Mr. Costello asked the Minister for Education and Science the total number of persons who have made compensation applications to the Residential Institutions Redress Board at the latest date for which figures are available; the way in which the number of applications compares with the original estimate made by his Department; the estimate of the number of likely applications; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [5235/04]

The Residential Institutions Redress Board is an independent body established under the terms of the Residential Institutions Redress Act 2002 which provided for its establishment. The board is in place and fully operational. Judge Sean O'Leary, a High Court judge, is its chairperson. Seven other members have also been appointed.

On the basis of the most recent information available from the board, it has received 2,849 applications. To date, the board has completed the process in 680 cases. The average award is approximately €80,000.

The board provides regular updates as to the number of claims received on its website, www.rirb.ie. It is finalising its first annual report which will cover the period 16 December 2002 to 31 December 2003. When this report is received, I will make arrangements for it to be laid before both Houses

of the Oireachtas.

Prior to the establishment of the board, my Department had estimated that there would be approximately 5,000 applicants. It is too early to determine what the final outcome will be but we can view the information on the website.

The figures the Minister has provided indicate an increase of almost 700 from the last time I tabled this question in December 2003. This is a fairly significant rise in the number of applications. What are his views on the suggestion by the Comptroller and Auditor General that the cost of the entire package under the indemnity deal may reach €1 billion?

I tabled another related question to the Minister recently and got a reply to the effect that the information was not available. Perhaps it has since come into his possession. The question concerned cases where religious institutions had handed over responsibility for the defence of these cases to the State, although it is not a co-defendant because of clause 6(a) in the deeds of indemnity dated 5 June 2002. How many such cases are before the courts?

I am afraid I cannot enlighten the Deputy. I am sorry that she did not get a reply to the question when she originally tabled it. I will certainly pursue the matter.

I got an answer saying the information was not yet available.

It is my understanding that there have been one or two such cases. I will endeavour to get the information for the Deputy; it should be available to us. I again apologise that she did not receive the information when she first sought it. That is the cost of the indemnity to date. In regard to sum of €1 billion referred to in the report of the Comptroller and Auditor General, that is his estimate. He does not like me using the word "guesstimate". In deference to him I will use the word "estimate" rather than "guesstimate". He estimates that we may have a contingent liability of €1 billion for the redress board, not the indemnity. The figure we have, which I do not yet have any reason to change, is €508 million. We still estimate that it will come in around that figure.

The Deputy also referred to 700 applications since December. She can do her maths on this one. The average number of applications up to December was about 50 a week. It may have since dropped to about 48 per week. There is a belief that more cases present in the initial stages but if we work on the basis of an average of 50 per week, the total number of cases would be about 6,000. That is a guesstimate on my part, a word I do not mind using.

The Minister should be careful.

I tabled a written question to the Minister on a certain issue a number of times and the answer has always been that he is considering it. When, and if, does he intend to add the additional institutions to the Schedule? I am aware that there are a number of outstanding claims on that basis?

It is not totally within my control. We want to try to avoid coming with lists every two or three months or so. A number of people have indicated that they want the institutions in which they were involved included.

We are consulting with other Departments, particularly the Department of Health of Children, where searches in its records are under way. We have sought advice from the Attorney General regarding the inclusion of a number of the institutions and we are waiting for this before we proceed with the decision to include the additional institutions in the schedule.

Student Councils.

Seán Ryan


9 Mr. S. Ryan asked the Minister for Education and Science the number of second level schools which have established student councils in accordance with the terms of the Education Act 1998; the steps being taken to encourage other schools to establish such councils; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [5257/04]

My Department has recently completed a survey of all post-primary schools on this issue. Student councils have been established in 558 of the 743 schools surveyed. Under section 27 of the Education Act 1998, students in a post-primary school may establish a student council whose role is to promote the involvement of students in the affairs of the school in co-operation with the board of management, parents and teachers. This development originated in my Department's recognition that students have a voice and contribution to make to their school. These councils can play an integral and important role in the school community by providing a representative structure through which students can debate issues of concern and undertake initiatives of benefit to the school and the wider community.

My Department issued comprehensive guidelines on student councils to all second level schools in 2002. These provide practical guidance to school management, teachers and students on the establishment and operation of student councils. Officials of my Department are participating in a working group on student councils that was established in June 2003 by the National Children's Office. The group comprises representatives of students and all the partners in education and will work to encourage the establishment of effective and democratic student councils in all second level schools in the country.

The group will examine the number, composition and operation of existing student councils in second level schools and will seek to identify the barriers, if any, to the establishment of student councils. The National Children's Office has recently invited tenders for the appointment of a researcher to support the work of the working group. The group will report on its findings, including a proposed three year strategy to support the establishment and development of student councils, to my colleague, the Minister of State with special responsibility for children, by December 2004.

The number of schools that have student councils, which has increased in the recent past, is encouraging. I understand from a previous reply that there may be 100 schools in the State that do not have boards of management. When there is no board of management, it is almost impossible to establish a student council as these are established under such boards. Does the Minister intend to do anything about the schools without boards of management? Has the Minister met the national association of school students, an umbrella body for school councils? I have found it to include a responsible group of young people who are encouraging the establishment of student councils in schools that do not already have them.

While I am speaking off the top of my head, there are 100 or 110 schools that do not have boards of management. A number of these schools do not have boards of management because of an ongoing difficulty regarding their legal status. We are pursuing the matter of establishing boards of management with the schools in question. Apart from meeting student councils in schools, the only second level student body I have met is the Union of Secondary Students.

That is the correct name of the body to which I referred.

Officials of my Department have met this body on a number of occasions. I agree with the Deputy that the number of student councils that have been established is encouraging. However, I am unsure whether there is a uniform agreement or standard of response to student councils. This is why the working group has been established. While the councils are good, democratic and have a direct input into certain schools, they may not be as good in other schools. The purpose of the working group is to ensure the councils have a real say in issues that affect students and schools generally.

I know the Minister has met the body and I spoke to last year's president of the Union of Secondary Students a number of times. While each school may have a student council, it can be difficult for them to meet. Does the Minister have any proposals to fund the union so that students from different schools can get more involved together?

The Union of Secondary Students requested money when I met it. I laid down the conditions under which I would provide money. For example, I asked for a business plan and details of how the union would operate and spend the funds. The view has recently been expressed that Comhairle na nÓg and Dáil na nÓg operate to look after the views of young people. We try to ensure their findings are worked into policy. It has been said that we should avoid moving from circumstances where young people had no voice to having diverse voices. It might be as well to work through one body.

It would be good to get diverse voices of young people.

I know. Comhairle na nÓg and Dáil na nÓg cater for people under 18 and it might be better to follow this route.

Has a report been issued by the working group on the participation on student councils? A report would be useful to examine the levels of participation in disadvantaged areas in comparison to better off areas. If this is not happening, does the Minister acknowledge that it is crucial it should be done? Student councils enable better participation by students in a democratic process and may, for example, encourage people to vote. Such councils may also make students feel that they have more of a shareholding in society.

The group was established in June 2003. It has had a number of meetings and has decided to do what the Deputy has suggested. It proposes to conduct research to establish what is happening within schools, what effect student councils have and what status their voice has. This is why the researcher is being appointed. The group hopes to have this research completed and make a report available to me by the end of 2004.

The group is trying to agree a meaningful role for student councils, identify barriers to the establishment of such councils, identify the measures needed to encourage them, identify the required training needs and resource materials, make recommendations about training resource materials not only for students, but also for all the education partners to facilitate this, manage and develop the production of resource and training teachers and promote and publicise the importance of establishing student councils.

The group is focused on getting the councils up and running. I am sure that when they are in place, the experience of being involved in the process will help produce more civic-minded students. For this to work, student councils must be listened to.

My sister would tell the Minister this. She is a member of the council in her school.

This has the potential to produce — I hate to use the term — civic-minded citizens who know that the democratic process can make change. If that is their experience, that will be positive. If the experience is the opposite, the effect will be the reverse, so we must ensure that they work well.

Does Deputy Crowe have a supplementary question?

The question has been asked.

Third Level Education.

Michael D. Higgins


10 Mr. M. Higgins asked the Minister for Education and Science if the review of capital funding for third level institutions is complete; when he will release funding for priority third level capital projects; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [5240/04]

It was originally expected that the review group would report to the Higher Education Authority, HEA, not later than 31 October 2003. However, the task was more complex than expected. Extensive work has been completed by the group, and that is at an advanced stage. It is the intention of the group to have a report submitted to the HEA by the end of March. The authority will then advise me of its views. I will then make decisions in respect of the capital investment programme for the third level sector in the context of the capital envelope of funds available to me.

I considered it prudent to re-evaluate and review the overall position on third level capital projects and to establish priorities for future years. The review was commissioned against a background of very considerable demands on the Exchequer for capital financing for higher education projects and the need to set out clearly the priorities and phasing of future investment programmes in the sector.

The remit of the review group, under the chairmanship of Mr. Kevin Kelly, is to develop criteria for prioritising projects mindful of existing building stock and future requirements and to prioritise on a project basis accordingly. Each institution has met the group, made a presentation of its institutional strategy and set the capital development proposals in such a strategic context.

While all major projects at third level remain paused pending the outcome of the work of the review group, the Deputy will know that I have made provision of €25 million in the 2004 Estimates for the capital element of cycle three of the programme for research in third level institutions, or PRTLI, to start this year. That allocation is a clear recognition of the Government's commitment to the programme, which will play a key role in developing world-class capabilities in research and innovation.

I welcome the fact that the report is due by the end of March. I make no apologies for being parochial on this question. On 15 November 1999, the Department told the colleges of education that they had been placed at the top of the third level agenda for capital investment. In particular, I wish to put the case for Mary Immaculate College in Limerick, where both students and staff are working in really atrocious conditions. They have been a victim of that pause. Will the Minister give any hope to that college?

Being parochial is not a sin, though sometimes in this House one would imagine it to be so. The Deputy need not apologise for it. I can give Mary Immaculate the same comfort as I can give any other institution. The project will be thoroughly evaluated, and I will respect the outcome of the review process. It is important that the process be needs-based. The group has been asked, in evaluating the proposals that it is putting forward to me, to have regard to the following criteria: health and safety; environment and access; student numbers and profile; national policies; regional and institutional balance; programme balance; collaboration between institutions; the national spatial strategy; the needs of the Border, midlands and western region; land purchase; urgent replacement projects; projects required to improve access and to accommodate student stock increases, which would affect Mary Immaculate; overall adequacy of built space vis-à-vis student stock and staff numbers; addressing a space deficit; institutional strategies; and so on. Being as familiar as I am with the college’s circumstances through various representations made by Mary Immaculate, I am sure that it would qualify under many of those criteria.

Written answers follow Adjournment Debate.