Adjournment Debate.

School Staffing.

I thank the House for the opportunity to raise on the Adjournment the necessity for temporary teacher cover in instances where brief drops in pupil enrolment adversely affect educational standards.

I recently received representations regarding a two-teacher school at Knocknagrave, Tydavnet, County Monaghan. A school inspection to determine the number of pupils enrolled at the school was carried out on 30 September 2003. The number of pupils enrolled on that date determined the number of teachers allocated to the school the following September. However, the number of pupils enrolled at Knocknagrave national school at that time dropped below the two-teacher requirement for a period of eight school days. In mid-October 2003, 13 pupils were enrolled at the school, well in excess of that required for the allocation of two teachers the following September. The school principal has indicated that the number of pupils who attending the school in September 2004 would be 18, an indication of the growing number of pupils enrolling at the school.

A number of houses have recently been built in the area and planning permission is currently being sought for five more houses, an indication of a healthy future for that rural community. The board of management appealed the decision to remove one of its two teachers next September and had great faith in the process because they felt they had a good case. However, they were bitterly disappointed to discover the appeals board was sticking rigidly to the number of pupils enrolled on the particular day in 2003 when the number dipped below that required.

Many letters ensued between the Minister, the Department of Education and Science appeals board and the Taoiseach, all of whom stonewalled the school's case. I am requesting that temporary cover be provided in cases such as that which arose at this school. The system should not be so rigid as to reject such appeals. The Department should consider that an additional 18 pupils are now enrolled at the school, bringing the number to that required for a second teacher. If a second permanent teacher cannot be allocated to the school the Department should provide a temporary or substitute teacher for the 12 months involved. Such a post could also provide a student studying for a higher diploma in education with necessary teaching experience. The teaching methods of such teachers are inspected three times a year. That would be a way of dealing with this issue. Removal of a teacher from the school will have devastating consequences.

On top of having to teach eight classes, the principal of the school is required to prepare children for first communion, confirmation and entrance examinations to secondary schools. She has to take care of sick children and may have to take injured children to hospital. She also has to do administrative work, meet parents, organise school trips, encourage sport and attend to the remedial needs of students in the school. It is impossible to expect any teacher to perform all these tasks. The Department of Education and Science is in such cases paying principals to be glorified babysitters, and that is not acceptable. I am sure I have outlined only some of the principal's functions.

Some €175,000 was recently spent on Knocknagrave national school. Other national schools complain that there are too many children in their classrooms and that they have to teach in portakabins. Knocknagrave has a lot going for it. There will not be a single national school between Tyndavnet and Clogher, an area of 14 miles, if the current trend continues. I strongly urge the Minister to take on board my suggestion.

Ba mhaith liom mo leithscéal pearsanta a ghabháil don Teachta nach bhfuil an tAire féin anseo. Ba mhaith liom mo bhuíochas a ghabháil leis an Teachta as ucht an ócáid a thabhairt dom cur in iúl don Teach mar gheall ar chúrsaí ins an Roinn. Rith sé liom nuair a bhí mé ag éisteacht leis an Teachta go bhfuil a fhios agam faoin scoil a raibh sé ag caint fói dtaobh di. Bhí mé féin ag caint leis an phríomhoide agus chuir sé in iúl dom na deacrachtaí, pearsanta agus eile, atá aige.

I am aware of the school to which the Deputy refers. I have had occasion to speak with the príomhoide of the school who drew this matter to my attention and, I am sure, to the attention of all elected representatives in the constituency of Cavan-Monaghan.

The mainstream staffing of a primary school is determined by reference to the enrolment of the school on 30 September of the previous year. The number of mainstream posts is determined by reference to a staffing schedule which is finalised for a particular school year following discussions with the education partners. The staffing schedule is set out in a circular which issues from the Department of Education and Science to all primary school boards of management. Accordingly, all boards are aware of the staffing position for their school in any school year.

The staffing schedule for the coming school year, 2004-05, is outlined in the Department's circular 03/04, which issued to all primary schools in April 2004 and is also available on the Department's website. The allocation of additional teaching posts in recent years for children with special needs and improvements in the staffing schedule together with a decline in enrolments has helped to ensure that the overall pupil-teacher ratio in primary schools has improved substantially.

An independent appeals board on mainstream staffing allocations was established in August 2002 and commenced operation at the beginning of the 2002-03 school year. The purpose of the board is to allow for the independent consideration of appeals under certain criteria against the mainstream staffing schedule as issued to schools. The appeals board allows for equitable and transparent treatment of all primary schools and its decision is final. It is not open to the Minister for Education and Science or his Department to interfere in this process. Details of the criteria and application date for appeal were issued to all schools.

The staffing schedule is designed to cater for increases and decreases in enrolment. There is no provision for temporary teachers to be allocated in instances where brief drops in pupil enrolment occur. On the basis of the question asked, the reply does not refer to the school mentioned by the Deputy. I appreciate that additional children attended the school after 30 September, but unfortunately the permeation would not be such that it would be part of the emergency schedule. I have listened to what the Deputy had to say and will inform my colleague, the Minister for Education and Science, of the difficulties being experienced by the two-teacher school in north Monaghan. Perhaps this matter can be pressed further outside the realms of the floor of the House.

Schools Building Projects.

I thank the House for the opportunity to raise this matter on the Adjournment this evening. Cornafulla national school currently has 261 pupils and by September 2005 will cater for more than 300 pupils. The school was built in 1983 as a five teacher school. The existing structure can cater for approximately 150 children.

In September 2004, the school will have to cater for 270 pupils and 14 teachers. It is the fastest growing school in County Roscommon, if not the fastest growing school in the west. Currently, 103 junior pupils, baby and senior infants, are being catered for in the old school constructed in 1843 and renovated in 2001. The building is serviced by two toilets which cater for the needs of these 103 pupils. The situation is totally unsuitable. The school is Dickensian and brings a new meaning to the book Hard Times.

I ask the Minister to address immediately a situation where 103 pupils are provided with two toilets in a totally unsuitable school built in 1843. The old school has a stairway which is completely inadequate compared with today's standards. Not only is the 161 year old school building inadequate to meet today's standards, there is also severe overcrowding in the building constructed in 1983. At present, that building accommodates 158 children which is in excess of its construction specification. The building also accommodates two resource teachers, a learning support teacher and a secretary. The general purpose room has been divided into three and converted into an area for the resource teachers, a classroom and a staff room. It is expected that the numbers attending the school will continue to increase given the huge building developments in the local area.

Having seen the facilities and the overcrowding in the school first hand, I believe that the school urgently needs departmental approval for the construction of five additional classrooms, a general purpose room, a staff room and an administration block. As the Minister can see from the list, there is significant under-resourcing of accommodation in the building at present and an urgent need for further resources to be put in place. Unless the funding from the Department is forthcoming, the school will have to turn away pupils. In light of the fact that this year's enrolment is almost exclusively comprised of pupils with older siblings in the school, the Department's inaction could see families being split up owing to the lack of adequate accommodation. The situation is urgent. The school roll has dramatically increased over the last few years. The facilities are inadequate to meet current numbers which will increase over the coming years.

I plead with the Minister, because of his own connections with south Roscommon and the strong loyalty of the Cornafulla area to his late father, to take a personal interest in the issue and ensure that the resources are put in place and sanction is provided by the Department of Education and Science to ensure that the construction goes ahead. It is not good enough that 103 junior pupils should be provided with two toilets in a school built 161 years ago. Surely no one thinks that is an acceptable situation and that pupils should be left like that in this day and age. I ask the Minister to ensure that sanction is provided by the Department and that the construction takes place.

I am replying on behalf of the Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Noel Dempsey, and will draw the matter to the Minister's attention. I thank the Deputy for giving me the opportunity to outline to the House the Department of Education and Science's proposals for the proposed refurbishment and extension project at Cornafulla national school, County Roscommon.

The Department received an application from the board of management of the school in May 2000 requesting the provision of additional accommodation. The Cornafulla national school building project is listed in section 8 of the 2004 school building programme which is published on the Department's website. A full design team has been appointed and architectural design of the project is progressing. The project is currently at stages 1, 2 and 3, detailed plans and costs, and has been assigned a band 2 rating by the Department of Education and Science in accordance with the published criteria for prioritising large-scale projects. I am pleased to inform the Deputy that it is planned to progress the project to advanced architectural planning during this year.

Indicative timescales have been included for large-scale projects proceeding to tender in 2004. The budget announcement regarding multi-annual capital envelopes will enable me to adopt a multi-annual framework for the school building programme, which in turn will give greater clarity regarding projects that are not progressing to tender in this year's programme, including Cornafulla national school. The Department will make a further announcement in that regard during the year.

I thank the Deputy once again for raising the matter in the House.

University Entry Criteria.

I too am grateful to the Ceann Comhairle for allowing me to raise this issue on the Adjournment. I was prompted to seek a debate largely because I was not satisfied by the response that I had received to a question that I had tabled on the issue. I was contacted by more than one constituent who is or has a child currently studying for the leaving certificate and is keen to study medicine. The Department of Education and Science has said that this may be the last year that someone can gain direct access to study medicine. I understand from the response that the Minister is to receive and decide on the recommendations of the working group on undergraduate medical education and training later in the year.

The dilemma in which I find myself is that if someone who is currently sitting the leaving certificate fails to gain enough points to study medicine, the question arises which subject he or she should study to facilitate entry to study medicine in three years. In responding to my question, the Minister stated that the report had recommended that students should undertake an undergraduate programme of their choice in any area before taking a decision to enter medicine or one of the other health sciences. That leaves it wide open and the effect will be that, in three years, when graduates from any field will be seeking entry to medical training, there will be an even greater bottleneck than is currently the case. I understand that the rationale behind the introduction of the graduate level is to ease the current pressure on the points system. However, this will have a completely contrary, or at least prolonging, effect.

The first requirement that will present itself when the Minister is dealing with the CAO is addressing the potentially significant number of graduates who may seek entry to study medicine at graduate level. The primary degree will be in health sciences. Some kind of flushing out will have to occur which is in direct conflict with the information the Minister has provided in response to my question. That is the difficulty that my constituents and I have. The Minister must make a firm decision on this before 1 July so that students can make decisions on their CAO form, since that is the date by which final "change of mind" slips must be submitted.

That was the issue that prompted my investigation into the matter. However, on looking into it, I discovered that there are a few other reasons to be somewhat concerned. Moving the entry level to graduates simply moves the pressure from second level to third level. The real answer to easing the points pressure is to provide more places for medical training. To that end, the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Health and Children, of which I am a member, is currently conducting research and the report is imminent.

Under the new changes proposed, and given that so many people may present themselves at graduate level, a method of filtering or selecting entrants will have to be devised. How will that selection be conducted and will it be fair? Are we sure it will be an improvement on the current CAO system? The proposal would also extend the length of time to qualify for medicine from the current six years to a primary degree of three years followed by a five-year degree. That would obviously increase costs. Students would not qualify for free education for the second degree and it would take many more years of study, meaning that the costs would rise to the disadvantage of people from poorer backgrounds who might be precluded from studying medicine. That is currently the case on cost grounds alone.

Furthermore, if these proposals are to be adopted, will the health service be starved of medical graduates as the system establishes itself? The health services can ill-afford such a blip. It is significant that the deans of the five medical schools have said that they are opposed to exclusively graduate-based entry. I am sure that the Minister will take cognisance of that. However, before changing the entry system, we must be sure of what the benefits are and I am not at all convinced that the case for change has been made.

I thank the Deputy for raising this matter as it provides the Minister for Education and Science with an opportunity to outline the position to the House.

In September 2003, the Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Dempsey, together with his colleague, the Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Martin, announced details of the membership and terms of reference for a working group on undergraduate medical education and training which has been jointly established to make recommendations on the organisation and delivery of high quality training for doctors in Ireland. The working group was asked to look at the recommendations of a report prepared by the Higher Education Authority, which was commissioned on foot of a commitment in An Agreed Programme for Government, to address the issue of the distorting impact of these high points courses on the points system.

The report recommended a move away from undergraduate entry to medicine and the other health science disciplines including physiotherapy, occupational therapy, speech and language therapy, dentistry, veterinary medicine, pharmacy and radiography to a system of broad based graduate entry. This is preferred to the introduction of a common sciences programme, which would simply become the new high points course.

Such an approach would yield a number of benefits including the elimination of the high points associated with the existing entry to these programmes. It would enable second level students to select undergraduate courses in line with their preferences and aptitudes, enhancing their educational experience at both senior cycle and undergraduate levels. It would also ensure that individuals' decisions to enter these professions are made at a more mature age and for the "right" reasons — not simply because they are high points achievers — thus improving attrition rates in the professions and encouraging more "rounded" entrants with broader skilled backgrounds. However, it is clear that such a change will have an impact, which is the reason the Minister for Education and Science has sought the advice of experts in this area.

The terms of reference for the working group include an examination on the organisation and delivery of undergraduate medical education and training in Ireland, with particular reference to the course curriculum and syllabus; teaching methods and delivery mechanisms; making undergraduate medical teaching professional; the scope for the promotion of greater interdisciplinary working between professionals through the development of joint programmes at the initial stages of undergraduate training — signalled in the health strategy, under action 104; and such other issues relating to the organisation and delivery of undergraduate medical education and training as the working group considers relevant. These other issues would include any resource implications, in so far as they arise.

The working group's recommendations, in so far as is possible, will be framed within the context of existing resources. Where this is not feasible, the various means other than Exchequer provision by which the resource implications might be funded shall be identified. The Minister for Education and Science expects to receive the recommendations of the working group later this year.

He is particularly conscious of the uncertainty for students referred to by the Deputy, in moving the Adjournment this evening, and is anxious that this be resolved as quickly as possible. It is not anticipated that students considering the CAO "Change of Mind" choices before the first day of July will be excluded from future potential entry to medicine on the basis of their choice at this time.

I thank the Deputy for raising the matter in this House.

Decentralisation Programme.

Last December the Minister for Finance announced his decision to move 200 staff to Mitchelstown from the head office of Bus Éireann. That announcement shows the nonsense of the decentralisation process. There are not 200 staff in the head office in Dublin. There are 80.

Some 85% of Bus Éireann staff are already relocated outside Dublin. What a nonsensical proposal as regards decentralisation this is since the Government does not seem to know how many staff are working in head office. It had almost three times the number actually there and given that 85% of the staff were already located outside Dublin, there was surely no need for further decentralisation.

I see from a newspaper article dated the end of May that the decentralisation group is continuing on the same basis, as though the 200 staff were in Dublin. The phantom staff will be decentralised down the country somewhere. The 80 staff working in Broadstone did a survey on decentralisation. It showed that 96% of them did not want to move to Mitchelstown, which is the proposed location, and 92% did not want to move anywhere, but wanted to stay in Dublin. Furthermore, 85% described the move as a "political stunt". I must say "Amen" to that.

I have received a number of letters from constituents on this matter, all of whom are totally opposed to the proposal to move. I will just quote one or two of the good points that have been made:

One is that Bus Éireann is "totally unique" in the decentralisation process: "We are a commercial company and our staff are not civil servants." This is an interesting aspect, as the Minister of Finance spoke purely of civil servants in his budget speech. Another says: "No commercial or business case has been made for the relocation of our head office. We were told that this process was voluntary, yet, as we have not been told what our options are if we decide not to relocate, we feel like there is no choice". Finally, Bus Éireann's own implementation plan says: "The most serious risk created by decentralising the head office of Bus Éireann from Dublin to Mitchelstown is the continuity of the business. This risk would be very low if the majority of management and staff volunteered to transfer, but the opposite will be the case." So decentralisation is a threat to the future of the company.

These remarks were made by one member who certainly is disgruntled with the proposal. The head office is based in my constituency, so I am well aware of that disgruntlement being multiplied hundreds of times. There is a strong human element to all of this. Families have to be uprooted. In the modern Ireland both spouses are generally working and it is extremely difficult for the other spouse who is not moving to Mitchelstown to uproot from his or her job and not suffer the loss of serious income. There is the search for another job to be considered, promotional prospects, career options etc. As regards other family members, children have to be uprooted and must relocate to other schools where there may or may not be sufficient place in the immediate facility. These are matters of considerable concern, especially in an area where already there has been massive staff decentralisation and where the number employed in head office is low — 80 members. I am asking the Minister of State if the decision might be reviewed in the light of what I have said, with a view to allowing the staff to remain in Dublin and retain that core head office element that is necessary to ensure the continuation of a successful venture.

I am replying on behalf of the Minister for Transport, Deputy Brennan. He wants to make the point that the decision to include the decentralisation of Bus Éireann staff is consistent with the overall approach to decentralisation both in this programme and in previous initiatives. The company has prepared an initial implementation plan as regards the headquarters staff and will be developing this as further information becomes available.

The proposal has to be seen in the context of the wider plan to decentralise more than 10,000 civil and public service jobs to locations outside of Dublin. As his colleague the Minister for Finance announced in the budget speech in December last, the decision to undertake this initiative was taken for a variety of reasons, including the Government's desire to spread the fruits of growth on a regionally progressive basis.

The transport sector is contributing to this initiative and in total about 460 posts will be moved from Dublin to a number of locations including Loughrea, Shannon and Ballinasloe in addition to Mitchelstown. By their nature many of the transport operations involved extend across the country. Bus Éireann is not an exception in this regard. In the case of the Department of Transport there are already 60 staff based in Ballina, with a further 65 driver testers and supervisors who operate from more than 50 locations throughout the country. The Irish Aviation Authority and the National Roads Authority have a significant presence outside of Dublin and both of these bodies are due to have their headquarters relocated.

When the process of decentralisation commenced almost 20 years ago it was to a large extent sections of parts of Departments or agencies that were moved to locations away from Dublin. This most recent decision is to proceed with a new and more radical programme of decentralisation not only in scale but in that both the operational side of Departments and agencies and the decision-making function will also be relocated. To that end, a number of Departments and agencies are being decentralised in their entirety. A small amount of office accommodation and a small secretariat will be retained in Dublin for Ministers. When the programme has been completed, eight Departments and the Office of Public Works will be based outside Dublin. Just seven Departments will have their headquarters in Dublin.

As is the case in respect of the transport sector, significant portions of the many Departments and agencies that are due to relocate are decentralised outside Dublin. During the first decentralisation programme 20 years ago, for example, a large portion of the then Department of Agriculture was relocated to Castlebar. A total of 655 jobs in the Department of Agriculture and Food and a number of its agencies will be relocated under the current decentralisation programme to five locations outside Dublin. Some 400 jobs at the departmental headquarters will go to Portlaoise.

The Minister believes that the principle of relocating jobs from organisations that have already been decentralised to a significant degree is well established. He does not see any compelling reasons the headquarters of Bus Éireann's operations should not move to Mitchelstown. Such a move would be consistent with the current and past decentralisation programmes. If most of an organisation's operations are outside Dublin, one could ask why its headquarters needs to be in that city.

The full details of the process for the transport sector are being developed. That this creates challenges and opportunities for the organisations involved is understandable, given the extent of the initiative. In the case of Bus Éireann, for example, work is continuing on identifying the posts that will be transferred. Over 80 posts have been included on the central applications facility to date. The Minister has asked the chairman of the company to examine how the overall target of 200 can be met. The Minister for Transport is confident that the transport sector, including Bus Éireann, can make a positive contribution to the decentralisation programme which will benefit the country.

The Dáil adjourned at 10.40 p.m. until10.30 a.m. on Wednesday, 23 June 2004.