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Dáil Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 26 Nov 2008

Vol. 668 No. 4

Adjournment Debate.

Health Services.

There was some very bad news in Limerick earlier today when the management of Bawnmore, which is a facility for persons with mental handicap, called the staff together and told them they would have to let 30 go before Christmas, that another 30 jobs were on the line between January and March and that services would have to be discontinued for 100 persons who were getting services.

Bawnmore looks after severely mentally handicapped and mildly mentally handicapped adults. Some of its work is for residential patients and others are helped on a day care basis. When the Minister, Deputy Harney, was allocating funds to the HSE for 2009, sufficient money was not allocated to the Brothers of Charity, who run Bawnmore. They were allocated €27 million but need another €1.5 million to keep services going. Despite the fact this was raised in the House on a number of occasions, unfortunately, the Minister cannot see her way to assist them further.

It is a common theme with the cuts emanating from the Department of Health and Children that the most vulnerable are identified for the cuts. It is as if somebody picked out the groups that did not have strong trade union or organisational backing. We have seen the cutbacks that were originally proposed to take medical cards from persons over 70 and those which deprive 12 year old girls of lifesaving vaccines. Now, we see 100 persons with mental handicap being deprived of services because their carers will no longer be paid and will be made redundant. If one takes 60 carers out of an institution like Bawnmore, there is a serious problem.

I appeal to the Minister to reconsider the issue and to provide special funding so that mentally handicapped persons are not sent back to the care of their families, and that they can continue to avail of the excellent care they have received and are receiving in the Bawnmore centre in Limerick.

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise this matter, which came to my attention over a week ago when the parents of adults who are residents in Bawnmore, and the service providers, the Brothers of Charity, advised me that the brothers were due €1.5 million from the HSE in respect of services. They had various discussions ongoing with the HSE but the money was not forthcoming and they needed the matter raised in the Dáil. I put the matter down on the Adjournment a number of times last week but it was not allowed. I am pleased it is allowed tonight and I am looking for a result.

We are concerned here with services for up to 100 intellectually disabled persons who are resident in the Bawnmore complex as well as throughout Limerick city and county. This involves 60 staff who care for these adults. As Deputy Noonan mentioned, today the Brothers of Charity informed more than 30 people working in full-time whole-time equivalent posts that if funding is not forthcoming from the HSE their jobs will finish at the end of December. If funding is not received, another 30 full-time carers will be let go in March. A total of 40 adults using the service will be affected from the end of December and up to 100 will be affected from March.

If 60 full-time posts are let go it will affect all services in the Brothers of Charity in Bawnmore. This is a disgrace. The Brothers of Charity do not even have a letter of intent from the HSE that this funding will be forthcoming. This is an indictment on the Government, the HSE and local Ministers. I hope and expect that in the reply we receive from the Minister of State, Deputy Seán Haughey, on behalf of the Minister for Health and Children, that not only will the funding be provided but that we will be given a date and it will provided as a matter of urgency. The parents of these young and older adults are extremely concerned. Once again, the Government is hitting the most vulnerable sections of society, this time the disabled. I expect to hear a positive response and we will not let this go.

I will take the Adjournment on behalf of my colleague, Deputy Mary Harney, the Minister for Health and Children. From the outset, I wish to emphasise the Government's commitment to providing a high-quality service to all people with a disability. This commitment is illustrated by the substantial investment we have been making in disability services over the past number of years.

In recent times, significant additional resources have been provided for services and supports in this area. The multi-annual investment programme, which is a key component of the Government's disability strategy, will by the end of 2008 have provided for 980 new residential places; 313 new respite places, and 2,505 new day places for the intellectual disability service. It will also have provided for 300 new residential places and 950,000 extra home care and personal assistance hours for people with physical and sensory disabilities.

Funding was also provided for the targeted transfer of persons with intellectual disability and autism from psychiatric hospitals and other inappropriate placements. Since 2006, more than €550 million has been allocated to the HSE under the multi-annual investment programme, of which €425 million was for disability services and €125 million for mental health.

The Government has further emphasised this pledge to people with disabilities by allocating additional funding to the continued development and enhancement of services in 2009. In the budget for 2009, an additional €10 million was allocated to the HSE for services in the area of disability and mental health. The funding for 2009 will provide for 125 additional therapy posts in the disability and mental health services area, targeted at children of schoolgoing age. Once-off funding of €1.75 million will be provided for suicide prevention initiatives and for mental health projects supporting service users and carers.

With regard to the specific matters raised by Deputies Noonan and O'Donnell, the HSE has confirmed that the full level of funding approved by it to the Brothers of Charity for the delivery of services to people with intellectual disability in 2008 will be paid to the organisation this year subject to normal and agreed financial procedures. The budget for the Brothers of Charity in Limerick in 2008 is approximately €29 million. This represents an increase of 64% since 2002, when its budget was €17.6 million.

At present, 262 clients receive residential services from the organisation and a further 125 receive day services. In addition, the Brothers of Charity work in partnership with the HSE and other service providers in the Limerick area in the provision of early intervention services.

The Brothers of Charity services in Limerick have been in discussion with the HSE about core deficits for some time. In documents supplied to the HSE, the Brothers of Charity in Limerick refer to a deficit of €1.5 million. In 2006, the core deficit stood at €750,000. The HSE considers that the increase since 2006 is the result of the combination of a number of factors, including an increase in staff numbers above the levels approved and funded by the HSE.

At the beginning of 2008, the organisation indicated that it had approximately 50 staff over the levels approved and funded by the HSE. While the organisation has indicated the need to enhance service delivery and staffing levels to address particular difficulties, HSE policy is that, prior to employing additional staff over approved levels, all other alternatives must be explored by the relevant organisation.

In 2008 an efficiency savings target of 1% was introduced by the HSE for all voluntary organisations providing services for people with a disability. The objective of this initiative was for organisations to review all non-front line expenditure and generate savings of this order through improved practices. In this way, any core deficits should not have been impacted.

It is essential that every health service provider takes responsibility for reviewing all expenditure in a proactive way and revisits approaches to service delivery, to ensure that front line services are prioritised within available resources. The HSE does not believe that the Brothers of Charity have yet explored all other alternatives to ensure the services are delivered within the funding available to them.

That is incorrect.

The HSE has given an assurance that it will continue to work with the Brothers of Charity in Limerick to review their financial position and ascertain how services can be maintained within approved funding and staffing levels and in line with the practices and costs in other similar organisations.

Adult Education.

Many businesses throughout the country have been affected by the major downturn which is gripping the world's economy. The increasing number of people who have become unemployed represents a major challenge that we must address. Certain sectors of the economy, in particular the construction and manufacturing sectors, have seen a downturn in activity with subsequent corresponding significant increases in unemployment.

Rising unemployment levels coupled with the downturn in the Irish economy represent the most demanding challenge which Ireland has faced in almost 20 years. That employment in manufacturing should be declining in an economy such as ours is no surprise. Manufacturing follows cheap labour, wherever it goes. In short, the answer to the loss of labour intensive manufacturing is retraining and education. FÁS, the VECs and other educational establishments provide a wide range of courses for people who need to be re-trained or who need new or better qualifications to return to the workforce. However, it is increasingly important to do more than provide training and education for those who have lost their jobs.

The need to constantly up-skill and educate those in employment at every level from the shop floor to the highest levels of management is also crucial and one of the best insurances against future unemployment. This is why our education and training establishments need to become even more flexible with regard to the availability, organisation and structure of courses, particularly for mature students and those in employment.

We can all recall something of a minor furore when the then Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Noel Dempsey, introduced a new primary teaching course for graduates run by Hibernia College. The degree involved a mixture of tutorials, coursework, teaching practice and on-line study. This course is now very much accepted and Hibernia's founder, Seán Rowland, recently received an award for entrepreneurship.

Distance learning should no longer be considered the poor cousin of traditional on-campus learning. Flexibility is a major advantage of such courses, as students can study when it suits. Moreover, the courses also allow more flexibility when it comes to completion. Since the Open University pioneered distance learning in the 1960s, the concept has evolved to meet the demands of modern living and to match the expectations of professionals who are keen to further their education, but because of time, location and personal commitments, are unable to do so in the traditional setting of a university.

Many of lreland's universities now offer distance learning programmes and have responded to the growing need for courses aimed at professionals who seek to attain a masters or other postgraduate qualifications. At the Institute of Technology Tralee, masters programmes are offered on a part-time basis over two calendar years with module workshops, residential and bimonthly facilitated action-learning group meetings.

This year, the UCD Michael Smurfit School of Business launched its first postgraduate distance learning programme, a masters degree in management. It offers a range of business-related subjects including marketing, management, law and human resource management. The decision to offer this course in a flexible manner has resulted in a course intake some three times greater than before, despite the fact that it was never advertised.

In addition to distance learning programmes, other more flexible programmes have also appeared on the Irish market from such establishments as Dublin City University, the Open University and the Irish Management Institute. The need for greater choice and flexibility can be accommodated by courses which allow candidates to learn at their own pace. The concept of a credit bank, whereby students can work towards qualifications such as diplomas and from there to masters degrees offers many advantages including motivation.

The development of student support structures aimed at assisting students to complete their studies could include a personal tutor, a person available to discuss course matters by telephone, e-mail or through a drop-in service. Entry requirements tend to be more flexible and to acknowledge to a greater extent workplace experience. At Dublin City University, for example, there are five entry routes to its distance learning programme, including evidence of substantial relevant work experience. Flexible learning offers greater advantages for employers and hopefully we can look forward to an expanding range of courses including courses with a strong workplace focus and tailor-made or bespoke diploma courses for companies. Employers often prefer the distance learning option, as it offers some reassurance that staff can engage with the learning process in a flexible way and it can reduce the likelihood of constraints on the ability of staff to complete work.

We must maintain the competitive edge provided by the skills of our workforce. Responsive and flexible training programmes are providing both individuals and businesses with the necessary skills to succeed in the ever-changing global economy. Such colleges as the Institute of Technology Tralee along with the universities, vocational education committees and FÁS——

The Deputy should conclude.

A lifelong learning framework aimed at enabling experienced professionals to further their education in a flexible manner is developing. The development of flexible learning at all levels should be supported and encouraged.

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. A key priority for the education system is to continue to respond to the needs of learners across the sector and to respond to the wider needs of society and the economy. Much progress has been made in adapting and responding to these needs. This can be seen in the very substantial programme of curriculum change across both primary and post-primary levels, the development of new learning opportunities outside the traditional post-primary system, the expansion of third level, the growth of a new fourth level and the provision of adult and further education opportunities.

With regard to flexible learning, one particularly significant development in recent years is the national framework of qualifications, NFQ. The framework was introduced in 2003 to bring greater coherence and a shared understanding to the Irish system of qualifications. Through its system of ten levels, spanning awards from basic literacy to post graduate learning, the framework seeks to recognise all learning, wherever it is gained.

Flexibility for learners is a core principle at the heart of the framework, as it incorporates not just major awards such as the junior certificate or bachelors degrees, but also minor awards for partial completion of those major awards. This enables learners to move at the pace most appropriate to them and their lifestyles, secure in the knowledge that their learning is being recognised along the way. Principles have also been laid down for the recognition of prior learning, such as that attained in the workplace and other non-formal settings. The framework also provides support for education providers in determining policies on access to programmes, transfer between programmes and progression through programmes leading to awards at each level of the framework. It is especially important that non-traditional progression paths are facilitated and this is a key focus of a current National Qualifications Authority of Ireland study on the implementation and impact of the framework.

The introduction of the leaving certificate applied and leaving certificate vocational programmes has significantly enhanced the range of options available to post-primary students. The facilitation of external leaving certificate candidates by the State Examinations Commission and especially the option to sit examinations for one or more subjects also increases flexibility for learners.

In the area of further education, the back to education initiative, BETI, which commenced in October 2002, provides flexible part-time options throughout the sector. It is targeted at adults with less than upper second level education, including unemployed adults. It aims to give those who wish to return to education an opportunity to combine their return to learning with family, work and other responsibilities. Programmes are offered on a part-time basis in the mornings, afternoons, evenings or at weekends. Under this initiative a programme may be offered comprising as little as one hour per week, or as much as 17 hours per week, depending on the needs and demands of the prospective learners. Initially, only back to education initiative participants with a social welfare entitlement or medical card were entitled to free tuition. In order to encourage participation, from September 2007, free tuition on the BTEI was extended to participants with less than an upper second level education. Child care support is provided to enable participation by those with child care needs and courses are often organised at times when children are at school.

The Department of Education and Science is working with the Higher Education Authority to support the expansion of opportunities for flexible learning. Developmental funding has already been allocated under the strategic innovation fund, SIF. Examples of projects being funded through this fund include the supported flexible learning project. The aim of this project is to establish mainstream flexible learning at the institutes of technology to meet learner and workforce development needs. The institutes of technology, including the Dublin Institute of Technology, are collaborating on this project. Successful implementation of the project will result in mainstreaming supported flexible learning within and across the institutes.

Employer engagement is another key feature of flexible modes of learning. The Cork Institute of Technology roadmap for employer-academic partnership, also funded under the strategic innovation fund, will identify learning needs within workplaces, draw up a comprehensive plan for partnership between employers and higher education institutes, and offer a single, simple, relevant, inclusive framework to facilitate interaction with the workplace.

These are but two of the projects funded under the strategic innovation fund to develop flexible modes of learning in partnership with industry. The outcomes of these projects will be vital in meeting the core challenge of providing flexible learning opportunities in the higher education sector. In addition, my Department and the Higher Education Authority will advise on the development of a national policy on open, distance and blended learning.

I again thank the Deputy for raising this issue and providing me with an opportunity to outline the recent developments in supporting flexible delivery modes across the education sector.

Schools Building Projects.

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for giving me and Deputy Noel J. Coonan the opportunity to raise this matter. Scoil náisiúnta Cronain Naofa is located in County Offaly but serves children from its hinterland of south Offaly and north Tipperary. It is one of a number of schools on which substantial amounts of money have been spent to get them through the complicated stages of the schools building programme. Having successfully navigated that, the school was, needless to say, expecting to proceed to building its extension. However, that has not happened. This school has spent €148,269 so far on fees to get through the process and is one of 14 or 15, including the Convent of Mercy national school in Borris-in-Ossory, County Laois, that has not been given permission by the Minister to proceed.

I believe the Minister is to make an announcement in the first quarter of 2009, if not earlier, on which schools are to be allowed to proceed under this programme, and I believe strongly that the schools in Dromakeenan and Borris-in-Ossory need to be included. The school in Dromakeenan has 249 students. It has a special autism unit that is currently operating from a prefab. It has two thirds of the space it is supposed to have. The Minister himself, in his portfolio and in view of his previous positions, will be well aware of the importance in the primary school curriculum of having adequate space. The school in Dromakeenan does not have the space needed to implement the curriculum. Similarly, if the Department wants autism units around the country — which has clearly been its preference, as it is not prepared to sanction the ABA model — schools that are willing to set up these units which are extremely important, need to be given the proper facilities, as the children need those facilities. That is not the case in Dromakeenan. It is a great school but it is hampered by its inability to develop. Those at the school have done fantastic work in terms of car parking and so on.

The Minister will be making decisions over the coming weeks about what projects will proceed. To spend the amount of money that has been spent on this project to date and not allow it to proceed would be almost criminal. I ask the Minister of State, Deputy Haughey, and particularly the Minister, Deputy O'Keeffe, to give proper consideration to this in view of the amount that has been spent and to give the school permission to proceed to build, which it is ready to do.

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for allowing me to raise this issue along with my colleague, Deputy Enright. This is an important matter for people in the Dromakeenan area, which is just outside the borders of north Tipperary, on the outskirts of Roscrea. Many parents and children in the area have major concerns, particularly about the safety issues to which Deputy Enright has alluded. Two of the classrooms are less than half the size they should be. The three children in the autism unit — into which two more children are anxious to enter — are in temporary accommodation. The fact that a learning support teacher must work from a kitchenette is unfair to the pupils and the teachers. The management must be complimented on the fact that it has everything in situ. It is ready to roll. It has gone through all stages with the Department — with the exception of the most important stage, which is sanction to build — and the contractor is on site.

We are conscious in rural Ireland that the Minister of State, as a Dublin Deputy, may exert more influence than perhaps even the Taoiseach himself, who comes from a rural area. The Government's emphasis is on providing accommodation for people within the greater Dublin area and the commuter belt. However, our children in rural Ireland deserve fair play too. We are not going to stand here and allow them to be neglected. The people of north Tipperary and south Offaly deserve their share of the resources, and Dromakeenan national school certainly deserves it.

Moreover, it would be an ideal opportunity, with the local elections coming, for the Taoiseach to present himself in that area to turn the sod. He would be taking in north Tipperary and south Offaly for the local elections.

He does not need any encouragement to do that.

Perhaps at the end of the year he could be there for the official opening, just prior to the general election we anticipate.

This is a serious issue. I urge the Minister of State and his senior Minister, Deputy O'Keeffe, to sanction this proposal because it is essential for the people of the area and it is an example of what we need in rural Ireland.

I thank the Deputies for raising this matter as it provides me with the opportunity to outline to the House the position with regard to the proposed building project for scoil náisiúnta Cronain Naofa, Dromakeenan, County Offaly.

Scoil náisiúnta Cronáin Naofa is a fully vertical co-educational facility. This means it caters for boys and girls from junior infants to sixth class inclusive. The enrolment as at 30 September 2008 was 249 pupils. The school has a current staffing of a principal, nine mainstream assistants, three learning support teachers and one special class teacher.

The school has applied to the Department of Education and Science for large-scale capital funding for an extension and refurbishment project. In common with all applications for large-scale capital funding, the application was assessed in accordance with the Department's published prioritisation criteria for large-scale building projects. It has been assigned a band 2.4 rating under this process. A band rating reflects the type and extent of work needed at a school and the urgency attaching to it. In this case, the band 2.4 rating reflects the fact that the school has a deficit of mainstream accommodation but this deficit is not as significant as that of higher band rated projects. The school also needs a refurbishment. Overall, the Department of Education and Science intends to provide the school with suitable accommodation for a five-teacher school.

The project was on the Department's capital programme for 2007 to advance to tender and construction. Tenders were submitted late last year. Unfortunately, the funding was not available to allow the project to progress to construction at that time, and this continues to be the case. As the Minister has said in this House many times, due to the extent of the demand on the Department's capital budget, all school accommodation needs cannot be met together. They can only be met incrementally over time in a structured and orderly manner. We must be realistic in accepting that there was significant under-investment in school buildings over decades. Taken together with the current extra demands on the Department's capital budget from newly emerging communities with little or no school infrastructure, and the growing need to provide for special needs pupils, the Department must have an orderly process for allocating capital funding to ensure that the most critical needs are met first.

The Minister appreciates that boards of management and wider school communities are anxious to see their individual building projects proceed as quickly as possible. The Minister has no desire to see schools in less than suitable accommodation. However, he is also realistic about what needs to be done on a nationwide basis and is anxious to ensure that the resources of the Department are targeted at the most urgent needs first.

The Department of Education and Science's capital allocation for next year will amount to €581 million. This will allow it to continue to invest significantly in primary and post-primary school buildings throughout the country in order to provide additional school places and continue the Department's programme of modernising existing schools. Annual capital resources of this magnitude have allowed the Department of Education and Science to deliver more than 7,800 building projects under the last national development plan alone. The Minister is looking forward to building on this unprecedented level of work with the €4.5 billion allocated under the current national development plan.

I thank the Deputies again for raising this matter and assure them that the project for scoil náisiúnta Cronain Naofa will be considered for advancement under the Department's school building and modernisation programme as and when the funding becomes available and consistently with the priority attaching to it.

On a point of information, the Minister of State might tell us what a "fully vertical co-educational facility" is.

We know what "co-educational" is, but what does "vertical" mean?

I am sorry; we must move on.

Like the people of Dromakeenan, the people of Buttevant are proud of where they come from. They have an equally dire need for a new school. They have been campaigning for such a school for over 11 years. When I was a member of Cork County Council, we co-ordinated with the local VEC on the rezoning of a specific parcel of land to allow the new school to be developed. That site was purchased over 12 months ago. As I understand it, a schedule of accommodation was submitted in September of this year. Nothing has come back from the Department yet. The school authorities are seeking the appointment of a design team. Such an appointment should not incur an undue cost. On behalf of the community, I want the next stage of the process to be reached.

Like their counterparts in hundreds of schools throughout the State, the pupils and teachers of the vocational school in Buttevant are having to work in dire circumstances. The building in question dates back to pre-Famine times. Its structures are not in line with what one would expect to see in a modern school. Notwithstanding the financial circumstances the State finds itself in, if it is to be progressive it needs to move this project onto the next stage. That would not involve a major outlay. All I am calling for at this stage is the progression of the project — it should not be stalled.

I will leave it at that because I have summed up my point. I have tabled parliamentary questions on this matter in the past and have raised it on the Adjournment previously. I will continue to raise this issue. I appreciate that the Minister of State will give me a pro forma reply. I appeal to the official in the Department of Education and Science who will be responsible for reading the transcript of this debate to take up this case and try to move it on to the next stage.

I thank the Deputy for raising this matter and giving me an opportunity to outline the current position in respect of the proposed building project at Coláiste Pobail Naomh Mhuire in Buttevant, County Cork.

All applications for capital funding are assessed in the school planning and building unit of the Department of Education and Science. The assessment process determines the extent and type of accommodation needed at each school, based on such matters as the demographics of the local area, any proposed housing developments in the locality, the condition of the school buildings, and the capacity of the proposed site. That process ultimately leads to the determination of an appropriate accommodation solution. As part of this process, each proposed project is assigned a band rating under the published prioritisation criteria for large scale building projects. These criteria were devised following consultation with the education partners. Projects are selected for inclusion in the school building and modernisation programme on the basis of priority of need. This is reflected in the band rating that is assigned to them. There are four band ratings, of which band 1 is the highest and band 4 the lowest. Band 1 projects, for example, include the provision of buildings where none currently exists, but there is a high demand for pupil places. Band 4 projects are those in which facilities are desirable but not necessarily urgent or essential. Each band rating has a number of sub-categories which more specifically describe the type of works needed and the urgency attaching to them.

Coláiste Pobail Naomh Mhuire in Buttevant is the sole post-primary education provider in Buttevant. It operates under the aegis of County Cork VEC and has a current enrolment of 192 pupils. Enrolments at the school are stable. The VEC applied to the Department of Education and Science for capital funding to provide a new school building for Coláiste Pobail Naomh Mhuire on a greenfield site. The proposed new school building was to cater for a long-term projected enrolment of 325 pupils. The project reached an early stage of architectural planning in 2001. At that time, the VEC identified a site for the new school. However, acquisition of the site was not finalised for a number of reasons. In the intervening period, the Department became concerned about declining enrolments in the school. In that light, its planning and building unit conducted a review of second level education provision in the Buttevant area. This review took into account factors such as enrolment trends at the school, the impact of projected housing developments and existing post-primary school provision in the general area. On completion of this review, the Department affirmed its original decision that a new school on a greenfield site should be provided to cater for a long-term projected enrolment of 325 pupils. Approval was given to County Cork VEC to identify a suitable site to enable the provision of this building. A site has been acquired for that purpose. Consistent with the approach that the Minister, Deputy Batt O'Keeffe, has outlined, the application was assessed in accordance with the published prioritisation criteria for large scale building projects and assigned a band 2 rating. Due to the level of demand on my Department's capital budget, unfortunately, the Minister is not in a position to provide an indicative timeframe as to when this project can proceed further.

Deputy Sherlock will appreciate that modernising facilities in our 3,200 primary and 750 post-primary schools is not an easy task in light of the decades of under-investment in this area and the need to respond to emerging needs in areas of rapid population growth. The Minister, Deputy Batt O'Keeffe wants to assure the Deputy that the Government has a sincere determination to ensure that all children are educated in appropriate facilities to enable the delivery of a broad and balanced curriculum. This is evidenced by the scale of funding made available for school buildings under the former and current national development plans. Thousands of school building projects were carried out under the last national development plan to provide new and modernised educational infrastructure. Thousands more will be carried out under the new national development plan. Projects will be advanced incrementally through the system over time on a prioritised basis, as and when the funding situation allows. I thank the Deputy again for raising this matter. The Department's planning and building unit is well aware of the needs of Coláiste Pobail Naomh Mhuire. It will be in contact with the VEC when it is in a position to advance the project further.