Other Questions.

Third Level Education.

Terence Flanagan

Question:

106 Deputy Terence Flanagan asked the Minister for Education and Science the details of the commitment in the programme for Government to ensure that all teacher training colleges reserve places for students from disadvantaged areas; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [21829/07]

As the Deputy will be aware, the Government is committed to ensuring that young people from disadvantaged communities can access third level education. In addition to extra investment in supports aimed at improving the achievement levels of students from disadvantaged areas at school, reserving places in the third level colleges is an important component of this strategy.

The commitment in the programme for Government to which the Deputy refers is, however, designed to recognise the particular advantages of attracting bright, committed young people from disadvantaged areas into the teaching profession. Teachers are important role models both in their schools and in their communities. While teachers as a whole are compassionate and understanding and those who choose to work in disadvantaged areas would be even more so, those who grew up in areas of significant social and economic disadvantage could be expected to have an enhanced understanding of the challenges their pupils face in their everyday lives. The fact that a teacher has managed to overcome these challenges, go to college and get a good job is living proof to his or her pupils that it is possible to succeed even against considerable obstacles.

The commitment to ensure that places are reserved in the teacher training colleges for students from disadvantaged areas therefore reflects a desire both to ensure that more young people from such areas can join this important and rewarding profession and also to provide strong role models for children in their schools.

Third level colleges have been offering a direct entry route for some time, whereby students from disadvantaged areas can usually qualify for a college place with less than the standard CAO points for the relevant year.

Back in April 2003, my Department informed each of the colleges of education of its support for the inclusion of the bachelor of education degree programme within the direct application scheme for third level places in order to facilitate socio-economically disadvantaged school leavers who wished to train as primary teachers.

Colleges participating may reserve up to 5% of their annual intake figure, exclusive of mature students. Colleges operating the scheme may also provide other specific support, including financial, to assist and enable students who do not have a tradition of progression to higher education to gain entry to the college and to participate fully in the various aspects of college life.

The manner in which the scheme is operated differs from college to college, as each college must take a range of factors into consideration when administering the programme, such as links with other third level institutions, links to local schools, overall enrolment numbers, numbers of applications under direct entry schemes, other local circumstances, etc.

In line with the commitment in the programme for Government, this scheme will continue to be implemented and its effectiveness will be kept under review.

I remind Members that in respect of Other Questions they have one minute to ask a supplementary question and the Minister has one minute to reply.

In my constituency of Dublin North-East I have been contacted by some schools that cater for students from disadvantaged areas. They welcome this announcement and fully support the policy that all teacher training colleges reserve places for students from disadvantaged areas. The message needs to be communicated by the Department to all children from disadvantaged areas that they can gain access to training colleges. I also welcome this move by the Government on the grounds of equality and fairness.

What proportions of students from disadvantaged areas have received places on teacher training courses to date, specifically in the Dublin North-East constituency? I hope that as a result of the Government's commitment to this issue the number of places for students from disadvantaged areas will greatly increase.

I wish Deputy Terence Flanagan well. Cuirim fáilte roimhe go dtí an Teach. The numbers vary within the different colleges, but it is not possible to indicate from which specific constituency people come. The Deputy will be aware of the increased participation rate in third level education from people in all constituencies, particularly his constituency, which is encouraging. The percentage intake of disadvantaged students to St. Patrick's College, Drumcondra over the past five years has grown from 0.5% to 1%. The figure for Mary Immaculate College in Limerick is more encouraging and has been at 5.12%, 5.12% and 4.7%. It is hitting its target for disadvantaged students and I know some people have been offered places through different schemes.

The figures for St. Patrick's College are curious. It is not that the college is not taking disadvantaged students, but often it does not get enough applications to fill the places available, perhaps because the college has confined the places to students from DEIS and Dublin schools. I wish to point out, to encourage students, that the college is very generous with support to students once they have been accepted. Perhaps we need to give students that message.

We have been speaking about disadvantage in areas of Dublin, but there are other areas that are seriously disadvantaged. Gorey is the largest town in the country with just one second level school, Gorey community school. In the PPP bundle mentioned by the Minister, and by the Taoiseach earlier, we were given the impression that everything is rosy, but it is not. Has the Minister got a site in Gorey for the new second level school she promised? If not, why not? When will she deliver on this needed project and provide this second level facility for Gorey?

That is a slight extension of the question, but is rather important.

As always, one bows not just to the Deputies, but to the Leas-Cheann Comhairle in allowing such flexibility.

We are very conscious of the needs of Gorey. Approximately half a dozen sites have been tested for technical suitability and the Deputy is aware one of those was rejected out of hand by the local community before any decision was made.

By the local authority.

It was also rejected by the local community because it was a Coillte site. Both local and technical considerations must be taken into account. It is a priority to make progress on that school because the Gorey community school is too large.

Has the Minister a site yet?

State Examinations.

Billy Timmins

Question:

107 Deputy Billy Timmins asked the Minister for Education and Science the plans in place by the Examination Commission to facilitate external students for the 2008 State examinations; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [21834/07]

The State Examinations Commission has statutory responsibility for operational matters relating to the certificate examinations, including organising the holding of examinations and determining procedures in places where examinations are conducted, including the supervision of examinations.

I am informed by the State Examinations Commission that it will again facilitate external candidates to take the leaving certificate examination in 2008. For years, approximately 4,000 external candidates have taken the leaving certificate examination each year. Those classified as external candidates include those attending non State-funded schools, VTOS students and independent candidates. External candidates may be admitted to the leaving certificate examination in one or more subjects on payment of the appropriate fee provided that there is a period of at least two years between the candidate's completion of transition year or the junior cycle, whichever is the later, and the sitting of the leaving certificate examination or, in the case of a candidate who has not been a recognised junior pupil or a transition year pupil, the candidate will have attained the age of 17 years on or before 31 July of the year of examination.

These provisions are designed to ensure that a student who has left school will not be in a position to sit the leaving certificate examination earlier than if he or she had remained at school. Essentially, a student will not be permitted to sit the leaving certificate examination in the year after the junior certificate examination or in the year after transition year.

In regard to where an external candidate takes his examinations, each candidate must select a centre for examination and seek the approval of the school principal to sit there. The candidate will be assigned to that centre provided he or she has obtained approval from the school principal and accommodation is available. School authorities have been very generous in accommodating external candidates and I place on record my thanks for their support for these students.

Is the State Examinations Commission obliged to find a place to sit the exam or is that the student's responsibility? I am aware of cases where students who want to sit the exam have been frustrated by local principals. I know of a particular case where a student took up a full-time position but now wants to do two or three subjects for her leaving certificate, has issues with dyslexia and requires special assistance — a reader — and it has been difficult for her to find the appropriate school in that scenario. Who is obliged to find the place — the commission or the student?

The student is responsible for finding the place where he or she will sit the exams. Students who attend private colleges or grind schools generally have provision made by those schools for the exams. The once-off external student, however, must go to the local school. I met a student who did not realise it was her responsibility to do that.

Difficulties can arise when a student may have left the local school to attend a private school but then wants to go back to the local school to sit the exam. Conflicts and considerations arise in that situation.

I accept that.

The State Examinations Commission will facilitate the student and it is responsible for the operation of the system so that if the student has a special need, once the school applies, stating that the student needs an extra room, superintendent or tape recorder, the commission will provide that.

The school can say "no", and the next school can also say "no".

It can say "no".

Can I make a helpful suggestion?

The Deputy should make his suggestion by way of a question.

Would the Minister discuss the putting in place of an appeals system with the examinations commission? If a student cannot find a local school to facilitate him, there could be an appeals system within the commission which would then take responsibility for finding an appropriate place for that student to sit his examinations. There are 4,000 external students, people of all ages, and we must encourage them instead of putting barriers in their way when they are trying to sit their State exams.

The vast majority would sit the exams in recognised centres. I do not know if the State Examinations Commission can get involved with appeals in a local area as to who should sit where.

It could just find students a location.

The student is presumably attending somewhere.

He may not be.

Often he attends the grind school in Dublin and wishes to go back to Roscommon or Galway to sit the exams. Generally, however, schools will facilitate. I will ask the State Examinations Commission what evidence it has of numbers who have not been facilitated and find out if it is more than the odd one or two.

Educational Disadvantage.

Catherine Byrne

Question:

108 Deputy Catherine Byrne asked the Minister for Education and Science her views on the recently published report Beyond Educational Disadvantage; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [21828/07]

I am aware of the report to which the Deputy refers, the scope of which reflects the wide variety of factors that are central to tackling educational disadvantage. The DEIS action plan is designed to provide children and young people from socio-economically disadvantaged areas with a comprehensive package of extra supports. DEIS represents a shift in emphasis away from individual initiatives, each addressing a particular aspect of the problem and adopts a multifaceted and more integrated approach. Greater cross-departmental and interagency co-operation is also prioritised to ensure a joined-up approach to the provision of services for children at risk.

With the roll-out of the DEIS action plan, many of the issues raised in this publication are being addressed, including early education, transition from primary to second level, the role of the family and community, literacy and numeracy, attendance and early school leaving, teacher retention and development, and so on.

Just some of the wide range of extra supports being targeted at children in the most disadvantaged areas include the following: special literacy and numeracy programmes with intensive extra tuition to help pupils with difficulties at an early stage; smaller classes; after-school and holiday time supports, including homework clubs and summer camps; extra funding for school books schemes; and school meals.

I am also conscious of the positive impact that working with parents in disadvantaged areas can have on their children's progress. Therefore, the home-school-community liaison scheme has been extended, and a new family literacy initiative is being developed in co-operation with the National Adult Literacy Agency and other partners.

This comprehensive package of extra support for children and their parents will improve attainment levels. I know the scale of the challenges facing children and young people in disadvantaged areas but I am confident that they can be overcome. Even before the DEIS plan was put in place there was evidence that the extra investment in social inclusion measures made by the Government between 1997 and 2005 had made a difference. By 2005, some 85.8% of Irish 20-24 year olds had attained upper second-level education or equivalent, up from 82.6% in 2000 and putting Ireland way ahead of the EU average of 77.5%.

I thank the Minister for her reply. I also welcome the report, which highlights the need to tackle inadequacy in our education system. Young people from all areas must be helped and encouraged to reach their full potential. We must tackle illiteracy head-on by making reading materials accessible to young people from an early age. The Fatima regeneration board has introduced newspapers and magazines as part of its homework club, which will go a long way towards encouraging young people to read more. Students must have access to a broad range of materials and in this respect additional funding is required, particularly from the Department of Education and Science.

Sadly, however, many young people often cannot reach their educational potential because they are caught in a poverty trap. This can lead to a wide variety of other problems in school, some of which the Minister has mentioned. If children go to school hungry they cannot concentrate on homework. A report published last year showed that in my constituency of Dublin South-Central, 28.8% of children in full-time education leave school before the age of 15. Some 29.2% of children left with a primary education or no full-time education at all. Additional funding is needed to ameliorate those figures. We need to get away from labelling schools as being in disadvantaged areas because this further marginalises young people attending them.

I welcome Deputy Catherine Byrne to the House and I note her interest in disadvantaged education. She put her finger on the matter when she referred to homework clubs and the provision of basic reading materials to improve literacy. One of the main objectives of our disadvantage plan is to target literacy and numeracy, not just in the context of smaller class sizes but also with programmes such as First Steps, which is for junior infants, as well as focused programmes like maths recovery and reading recovery. I have watched teachers being trained in this sector on a one-to-one basis and great progress has been made as a result of these developments. I am sure the Deputy will be glad that children in the homework club are reading newspapers as they will be up to date on current affairs.

In a community context, children in disadvantaged schools cannot reach their potential or attain the same standards as others if we do not have the support of their families. The family literacy programme, which started this year, is an integral part of DEIS. We are targeting parents to include them in the same manner as we do with the home-school-community liaison programme. In that way, we will have a better chance not only of keeping children in school but also of improving their literacy levels.

As Deputy Byrne has already pointed out, one of the report's recommendations is to remove the term "disadvantaged" from our vocabulary when dealing with educational issues. Does the Minister have a view on that?

I deliberately avoided using the term "disadvantaged" to label the new programme. It is called DEIS, which is delivering equality of opportunity in schools. It is all about opportunity. The word "deis" is the Irish word for opportunity, so I took it in that context. I particularly wanted to use a word that is not an acronym, because the education sector is full of acronyms. I am sure Deputy Hayes could spend from now until Christmas trying to get his head around what they all stand for.

I am trying to.

That was the idea of using the word "deis". Principals now state that their schools are in the DEIS scheme, whereas in the past they used to say the schools were in the disadvantaged scheme. That labelling has certainly disappeared from our perspective.

Science Education.

Denis Naughten

Question:

109 Deputy Denis Naughten asked the Minister for Education and Science the steps she will take to improve the uptake of science at second level; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [21518/07]

My Department is fully committed to strengthening the quality of science teaching and learning, promoting increased scientific literacy and encouraging more students to choose science subjects. Progress in these areas is a vitally important part of our national strategy to support competitiveness and employment.

Significant progress is being made in regard to curricular reform and in-service support for science at both primary and post-primary levels. Science was introduced as a key component in the revised primary school curriculum in 1999 and has been implemented in all schools since September 2003. A revised syllabus in junior certificate science was introduced in 2003 and was examined for the first time in June 2006. This syllabus, with its hands-on investigative approach and its new emphasis on scientific process skills, will be instrumental in encouraging more students to continue their study of science at senior level. A particularly interesting innovation in the revised syllabus is the introduction of the assessment of students' practical work. This assessment accounts for 35% of marks in the junior certificate examination and is based on the completion of 30 mandatory practical activities carried out during the three-year course and on projects undertaken by students in the final year.

Revised syllabuses in leaving certificate physics, chemistry and biology have all been examined for the first time in the past five years. These three subjects are now included in the first phase of the senior cycle review currently being undertaken by the NCCA. This revision of the syllabuses is intended to build on the progress achieved at junior cycle level. Work on the revision of the two remaining leaving certificate subjects — agricultural science and combined physics-chemistry — has also been advanced.

Additional equipment grants have been provided to schools, and laboratories continue to be refurbished as part of the ongoing school building programme. In that context, €13 million was issued to schools in 2004 to support the implementation of the revised junior certificate science syllabus. New and refurbished science labs have also been provided in schools as part of major building projects and through the summer works scheme.

In addition, the introduction of each of the revised syllabuses has been supported by comprehensive in-service programmes for teachers. The strategy for science, technology and innovation sets out a range of measures to further strengthen science teaching and learning and to improve the uptake of senior cycle physics and chemistry. These include ensuring that the project based hands-on investigative approach, which is now in place at junior cycle, is extended to senior cycle, that the appropriate type of assessment is used, and that there is an emphasis on the interdisciplinary nature of science in society.

I accept that our objective should be to have a hands-on approach to teaching science. The reality, however, is that there is a lack of facilities. Coupled with overcrowded classrooms, especially at senior level, this leads to practical classes being taken on a demonstration level rather than using a hands-on approach. Will the Minister provide a timetable for the introduction of such a hands-on approach in the leaving certificate? When will the resources be put in place to deliver that programme?

Will the Minister put resources in place to provide for school laboratory technicians in order to establish such classes? Time and resources are needed to establish practical classes in which pupils can adopt a hands-on approach to science education. What steps will be taken to ensure a continuous, rolling programme of upskilling teachers on new science and technology developments? The difficulty with the syllabus approach in this country is that science and technology teachers are not being kept up to date with the latest developments in relevant sectors.

The investment in laboratories over the past few years has been significant, particularly through the junior certificate programme where there was a substantial investment in laboratories in 2003.

There are still a lot of poor laboratories around.

Since then, they have been provided under the summer works scheme where curriculum is one of the main criteria. Quite a number of schools have had their laboratories upgraded. All new schools and school extensions also have state-of-the-art laboratories. The senior cycle syllabus should now follow on the success of the junior certificate cycle, and that is being looked at currently.

Is it being looked at or delivered upon?

The NCCA is now doing that as part of its review. I expect to receive recommendations on that issue. The important thing, however, is that we will see an uptake at leaving certificate level from the junior certificate. At junior certificate level, approximately 90% of students, if not more, when one subtracts the external students, take science for the junior certificate examination. However, the numbers taking physics and chemistry drops to approximately 14% at leaving certificate level. The hands-on approach to junior cycle science and the investment in laboratories are certainly working. There are significant link schemes between industry and schools with science teachers being invited to company laboratories to carry out in-service training during the summer.

What about laboratory technicians?

Laboratory technicians are not a priority at present. The required investment is of better use in the other areas I have mentioned. I have no doubt that if we were to employ laboratory technicians in schools, there would be a knock on demand from all other practical subjects. If that were the case, it would cost up to €112 million per annum.

Fee-Paying Schools.

Brian O'Shea

Question:

110 Deputy Brian O’Shea asked the Minister for Education and Science her views on the call from the Teachers Union of Ireland for a review of State financial support for fee-paying schools; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [21606/07]

It is important to take account of the historical context that gave rise to the differentiation between fee-paying and non fee-paying secondary schools. This differentiation arises essentially from the arrangements put in place when free second level education was introduced and those arrangements took account specifically of the position of minority religions with dispersed membership, through the creation of the block grant.

There are currently 56 fee-charging second level schools in the country, of which 21 are Protestant, two inter-denominational, one Jewish and the remainder Catholic. Fee-charging schools, with the exception of the Protestant and Jewish fee-charging schools for which special arrangements apply, do not receive capitation or related supports. I have already referred to the block grant, by way of which Protestant fee-charging schools receive funding. The block grant has its origins in the desire of the State to enable students of the Protestant and Jewish persuasions to attend schools which reflect their denominational ethos, and it includes payments in respect of capitation. In addition, Protestant and Jewish fee-charging schools are eligible for payment of such grants as the transition year support grant, the secretarial grant and caretaking grant.

Teachers in fee-charging schools are paid by the State, irrespective of a school's religious ethos. The payment of teachers' salaries is part of a complex scheme of funding for fee-charging schools, which has traditionally sought to balance considerations of equity, pragmatism and State support for minority religions. This may well reflect a long-standing pragmatism that the State would be required to provide teachers for the pupils in question were they located within the free education scheme.

Minority religion schools also receive capital funding for building projects and have done so under successive Governments on the same basis as other secondary schools, while approximately 50% of capital costs for Catholic fee-charging schools building projects are met by the State. However, school building projects, whether for fee charging schools or schools in the free education sector, are selected for inclusion on the basis of priority of need. In that regard the Deputy should note that the proportion of the school building programme spent in fee-charging schools in recent years has been extremely small.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House.

It would be inappropriate for the State to depart in any fundamental way from the original intent that allowed some schools to opt to remain outside the "free scheme" and continue to charge fees and therefore I do not propose to carry out any review to that end. This support has been a long standing feature of our education system and one continued by successive Governments.

However, it is important to take stock at this point. While continuing to give reasonable support to existing schools, there should be no further development of the sector and accordingly I do not intend to provide state funding for any new fee paying schools.

As with all public expenditure measures I will keep the funding arrangements for the schools concerned under review to ensure that they remain consistent with their original policy basis.

We have time for only one supplementary question.

In the light of the complex history which has been correctly described, has the Minister plans to review whether the original objectives, which gave rise to it, have been achieved?

Given the nature of fee-paying schools, I do not believe any one policy can apply to them. We must ensure, for example, to continue to protect the minority religions and that is reflected in the way fee-paying schools are funded. I hold the strong view that no new fee paying school will be supported by the State. In the event of a body offering to set up a voluntary secondary school, I would not support any change in the system.

From anecdotal accounts one would get the impression that there has been a major increase in the numbers attending fee-paying schools, but that is not the case. In the 2006-2007 school year, there were 26,373 pupils in private schools, whereas ten years ago there were 24,200. The largest increase in pupil numbers has been in Protestant schools.

It is important we continue to support fee-paying schools on the basis of their history and minority religions, but I will not support any new schools setting up.

Written Answers follow Adjournment Debate.