Adjournment Debate.

ICT in Schools.

A recent evaluation report prepared by the Department's inspectorate based on case studies in more than 50 schools, inspections in more than 180 schools and survey evidence from almost 1,400 teachers, 900 principals and 900 students, studied the impact of ICT on teaching and learning in Irish primary and post-primary schools.

The report noted the significant improvements in reducing the student to computer ratio since the commencement of specific ICT funding initiatives for schools. It found that in the main schools make effective use of ICT grants provided by the Department to develop their ICT systems. It also shows that most schools have an ICT plan and an acceptable use policy in place. The report also indicated that the majority of teachers use ICT in lesson planning and preparation and acknowledges that large numbers of teachers are participating in continuing professional development courses in ICT.

The inspectorate's evaluation, however, recorded limited integration of ICT in the classroom at primary level. The evaluation found the use of ICT in primary schools is currently focused on developing students' numeracy, reading and writing skills and that it is also used in social, environmental and scientific education. The inspectors recommend wider use of ICT across the curriculum. If we are to successfully meet the challenge of providing our school-going children with the skills they require for the future, we must invest now in transforming schools into e-learning environments.

Apart from the investment in broadband for schools some years ago, the last major investment in ICT was during the IT 2000 project and the recent announcement by the Minister. Many computers in schools were too old by the time broadband was introduced and are certainly long past their sell-by date by now.

We know the importance of ICT back-up in this House but our primary schools, where a teacher could be dealing with up to 30 pupils, have no technical backup. In Ireland, we have many of the most important ICT companies and we have not sufficiently tapped into the partnership possibilities that exist with them. ICT equipment is getting less expensive, as is software. Schools need new ICT equipment, adequate broadband, technical support services and pedagogical guidance. There is an immediate need to provide new equipment and technical support. The strategy group recommends that the requirement be met by front-loading investment in these areas in the first three years of the national development plan period.

Achieving a desirable level of ICT usage in all schools depends on a number of critical, interconnected factors — teacher education and professional development to leverage the benefits of new learning technologies; the ready availability of appropriate digital content and content tools; sufficient computers and support ICT equipment in schools; adequate and robust broadband provision; technical support and maintenance of a high standard; structures to implement and support the investment; and support for effect-focused and learning age suitable ICT equipment.

It is recognised that schools will vary in their requirements for and expectations of ICT. To identify desirable baseline levels of ICT provision and equipment for schools, the strategy group recommends that schools adopt the recommended ICT configurations for the development of e-learning strategies and their future implementation. All classrooms should be networked to include between five and eight service points of access, with two at the teacher's desk and four to six for the students. Ideally schools should work towards eventually having a 5:1 pupil teacher computer ratio in classrooms.

To facilitate greater ICT integration at primary level, computers should be located in classrooms rather than in dedicated computer rooms. Large primary schools may choose to maintain their computer rooms. At post-primary level, a mix of locations is appropriate and should include both classroom computers and computer rooms. All classrooms should have a fixed digital projector and teaching computer with a wireless keyboard and wireless mouse. All computers in the schools should be networked and broadband enabled. Ready access should be available to a range of digital devices such as digital cameras and digital video cameras.

Access should be available to a mobile laptop trolley supporting between ten and 30 laptops capable of linking to the school network and the Internet, one for small schools and two for large schools. There should be a mobile multimedia station in every school with integrated digital media features to enable content creation, editing and production, recording and duplication. Resource rooms and learning support areas should be equipped with networked internet-ready computers and digital projectors, where appropriate.

As a former Minister for Education and Science, I am delighted to respond to this Adjournment matter on behalf of my colleague, the Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Batt O'Keeffe. I thank the Deputy for raising the matter as it provides us with an opportunity to outline the Department's commitment to the ICT in schools programme.

The Minister agrees that ICT skills are increasingly critical for full participation in our social, cultural, recreational and working lives. ICT has been identified as a core component of the knowledge society and is recognised as a key tool for the improvement of teaching and learning. Where ICT is used innovatively and integrated into the curriculum, the learning experience can be more enriching, collaborative and personally gainful.

ICT enables teachers to bring lessons to life in new ways, to motivate learners and to find new ways of reaching students with special educational needs. The Department's policy on ICT in schools seeks to promote the integration of ICT in teaching and learning across the curriculum and the acquisition of ICT skills by students to enable them to participate in the knowledge society.

Since the Department's ICT in schools programme commenced in 1998, almost €209 million was invested in the programme up to the end of 2008, comprising €121 million capital investment and €88 million current investment. The programme has addressed four broad areas, the provision of essential ICT infrastructural networking within schools, the provision of access to broadband connectivity to schools, up-skilling teachers' ICT skills and integrating ICT within the curriculum and providing curriculum relevant digital content and software.

In addition to the capital funding provided by the ICT in schools programme, additional funding for ICT is provided through the Department's school building programme. While new post-primary school buildings projects have included ICT equipment budgets for some time, similar arrangements were introduced at primary level last year. In 2008, equipment grants of €2.3 million were provided to new post-primary school building projects while €2.2 million was provided to 72 primary schools where a newly constructed school or large scale extension reached practical completion.

Last Monday, the Minister announced grants of €4.2 million in respect of 383 primary schools where construction work was completed in 2008 and 2009. The grants are based on an amount of €5,000 in respect of each occupied permanent classroom built in 2008 and 2009 and will enable the school to buy computer hardware, software and digital equipment. In addition, the grant scheme for minor works to national school properties includes ICT equipment within the range of approved school expenditure.

Disadvantaged schools have benefited from the €3.4 million ITC grant scheme for delivering equality of opportunity for schools, DEIS, from the Dormant Accounts (Educational Disadvantage) Fund. A further €1.5 million fund is being supported from the Dormant Account Fund to assist up to 100 DEIS schools achieve digital schools status.

The ICT strategy group report, Investing Effectively in ICT in Schools, which was published in July 2008 provides a clear direction to inform actions to further the integration of ICT into teaching and learning in our schools. The framework for sustainable economic renewal, building Ireland's smart economy, reiterates Government policy to enhance the role of ICT in the educational system, working in partnership with industry, to invest further in the provision of equipment and connectivity.

Earlier this year, the Minister set up the joint advisory group, comprising members of ICT Ireland, the Telecommunications and Internet Federation, the Irish Software Association, the Department of Education and Science and the National Centre for Technology in Education, to explore how best to do this having regard to the recommendations set out in the strategy group report. The main recommendations of the report focus on the provision of up-to-date ICT equipment and digital content in all schools, access to an appropriately specified, cost-efficient broadband service to all learning areas within the school, and a functional and dependable ICT infrastructure with access to appropriate technical support and maintenance to sustain this quality of service.

This joint advisory group which commenced its work last March signifies a strong partnership between industry and the education sector, with the shared objective of supporting children's developmental potential by enhancing the role of ICT in the educational system. The group's report is being finalised and the Minister will consider its recommendations in the context of existing policy and funding.

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue and assure him that the Department is committed to the objectives of the smart economy whereby use of ICT in schools will be enhanced through working in partnership with industry to invest in ICT equipment and connectivity.

Health Service Staff.

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for affording me time to raise this important matter on the Adjournment, namely, the need for the Minister for Health and Children to outline her position in relation to the issuing of bogus appointments for a consultant who left the Midlands Regional Hospital, Mullingar, County Westmeath, last March and whether she stands over these actions, particularly if they are on a country-wide basis. What happened in relation to the "phantom" appointments with a dermatological consultant in the Midlands Regional Hospital between March this year and September, when I highlighted the deception in the press, was mind-blowing. The fact that it was endorsed by the HSE compounded the felony, and I use the word advisedly.

No matter how the parliamentary affairs section of the HSE tries to rationalise the matter and despite its admission of guilt, the fact that any health service would deliberately set out to deceive vulnerable patients by sending out appointments to see a consultant who had left a hospital months previously needs very urgent review. I am outraged that the HSE can mislead patients in a manner which is blatant and calculated to deceive. Given the high incidence of skin cancer in Ireland, the actions of the HSE, which are the Minister's responsibility, are criminal. Does she have any concern that holding patients at the mercy of appointments that were repeatedly made and cancelled at the last minute, with a consultant who did not exist, could or may have, led to fatalities?

I am extremely concerned that what happened in the Midlands Regional Hospital is, as we speak, being replicated around the country as this seems to be the directive that the Minister is sending out. If it is happening in one hospital, we can be sure that it is happening in others but will the trusting patients ever know the facts?

I have a response to a parliamentary question on the matter which states that the first consultant dermatologist was appointed to the Midland Regional Hospital in September 2007. This dermatologist resigned her post in March of this year. The response goes on to say that the HSE sought on several occasions to recruit a replacement. I believe from this answer that discussions have taken place with St. James's Hospital, Dublin, and the post is now to be immediately filled.

While this response is, I suppose, factual, it does not explain why these details could not have been outlined in the first place and patients told that there was no dermatologist available. They could have then been given the opportunity to make alternative arrangements to see another consultant or refer back to their GPs.

When I was first made aware of this situation last September, I was shown appointments for patients made for last April, up to and including this month, which is eight months after the consultant left to take up another position. The hospital's answer to this dubious practice was that "the appointments were made in good faith". That must be HSE speak for "con". This is disgraceful. It is taking unaccountability to new levels. What exactly are the functions of the Department of Health and Children and the HSE? Do the patients who are supposed to be the central focus of any health system have any rights under the Minister's watch?

Are they not entitled to an honest open and equal system that will provide the best care possible for each and every one of them? "Equality" is certainly not a word that can be associated with the Department of Health and Children and neither is "sanity". Recent madness in the Department saw already overpaid consultants given an increase of €25,000 while essential services at hospitals such as Mullingar are cut and patients left in life-threatening situations.

Cutbacks have seen the recent closure of 16 much needed beds in the Midland Regional Hospital. I have been reliably informed that 16 more are due to be cut. Will Minister inform me that this is not the case? With an already poor health infrastructure in the midlands, any further erosion of essential services would be a scandalous dereliction of duty. Playing God and deciding who should live and who should die is the next step for a Government that has completely lost touch with reality.

I am replying to this Adjournment matter on behalf of my colleague the Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Mary Harney.

The Midland Regional Hospital at Mullingar provides an extensive range of acute services to the population of Dublin and the midlands and, in particular, to people in the Longford-Westmeath area. The Government has shown its commitment to the hospital by the capital improvements that it has supported in recent years.

The first consultant dermatologist for the midlands was appointed to the Midland Regional Hospital, Mullingar, in September 2007. Prior to this, a consultant dermatologist from Temple Street Hospital provided two sessions per week at the hospital. In December 2008, the consultant dermatologist appointed at the hospital tendered her resignation to take effect from 31 January 2009. On 8 January 2009, approval was received from the consultants appointments unit to fill the post on a temporary basis pending the permanent filling of the post. In mid-January, the temporary post for consultant dermatologist at the hospital was advertised. There were no applicants for this competition. In February 2009 an offer of employment was made to a Belfast-based dermatologist to provide a temporary dermatology service at the hospital. However, it was not possible to agree contract terms with this consultant and he did not take up duty.

The post was then re-advertised in the press, journals and websites from 1 March to 27 March 2009. Resulting from this competition, two inquiries were received. Neither of these candidates met the qualifications for the post. The HSE sought on several occasions to recruit a suitable temporary replacement without success. Discussions have taken place between the HSE and a major teaching hospital in Dublin with a view to expanding the remit of the post. As a result of these discussions, the HSE intends to advertise the permanent restructured post in the coming weeks. In the meantime, the HSE is endeavouring to put arrangements in place pending filling of the post permanently.

The appointment times issued to patients by the hospital were based on an expectation, at the time, that the consultant post was about to be filled. Unfortunately, the expected appointment did not materialise. The hospital management regrets any confusion resulting from this. In the meantime, some patients who required urgent treatment have been seen in Dublin. Arrangements have also been made for children to be treated in Dublin. The hospital will continue to focus on the best possible quality of care for all its patients.

Schools Building Projects.

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for affording me the opportunity to raise this issue again. It has been a sensitive issue in my constituency for some years. The schools building project at Kill, County Kildare, which started in the past six months was the end of a long drawn-out campaign to upgrade the school to better cater for the needs of its pupils and the people in an area with a rapidly expanding population. All seemed to be going well during the summer. Unfortunately, the project has run into difficulty as it appears the builder in charge of the project has gone into liquidation.

The school authorities, board of management and the parents are concerned at this development and that the project may fall by the wayside or be delayed for some time. What is required at this stage is that the school authorities would have an opportunity to meet with the Minister to identify the best possible means of proceeding with the project in the shortest time possible. There is no difference of opinion as to what needs to be done. The school authorities and the Department of Education and Science are at one on this issue.

I have raised the issue on the Adjournment to get a reassurance from the Minister for Education and Science that the project will proceed with all possible speed. In the interim, I ask the Minister for Transport to convey to the Minister for Education and Science the urgent necessity to accommodate an early meeting with the school authorities to identify the best possible means of proceeding the project without interruption.

I am replying to this Adjournment matter on behalf of my colleague, the Minister for Education and Science.

Scoil Bhríde has a principal plus 19 teachers and four learning-resource teachers. In September 2008, it had 520 pupils and has seen a 24% increase in its enrolments over the five years up to September 2008. The project is in an area experiencing rapid growth and has a band rating of 1.1, the highest priority rating for schools building projects. It was one of 25 projects the Minister announced on 29 September 2008 to proceed to tender and construction. Since then the Minister has announced a further 53 projects to proceed to tender and construction.

The brief for the project in Scoil Bhríde is for a new 32 classroom school plus associated ancillary accommodation and site works. Following the announcement in September 2008 the project was tendered and a contractor was appointed in June 2009. Work commenced on site in June 2009.

On Tuesday, departmental officials were verbally made aware the contractor had gone into receivership. Although the Department has not received formal written notification that the contractor is in receivership, officials have been actively engaging with the design team to ensure all the necessary steps are being taken. The bondsman has been notified and contact has been made with the putative receiver who has been asked to confirm if the contractor is in receivership. The design team on the project held a meeting on site this morning to discuss progress and to agree the next steps.

Difficulties with contractors, while relatively rare, do occur from time to time. This is why the Minister insists on having the necessary documentation before contracts are in place. The project in Kill has a performance bond in place which will ensure the State is insulated from any additional costs that may arise in having this project completed. The purpose of the bond is to provide security for the State in the event of a contractor becoming insolvent and is no longer in a position to complete the contract.

The most recent school building project where a contractor went into receivership was in County Meath, a case with which I was familiar. In this case the project was re-tendered and a new contractor appointed in four months. The project in question was subsequently completed and handed over to the school in September.

If it transpires the contractor is not in a position to complete the project, then following the implementation of the formal procedures required by the conditions of contract, departmental officials will take the necessary steps to have this project back on site as soon as possible in accordance with public procurement procedures. Departmental officials will be in touch with the school in the coming days to appraise it of the situation and to assess the potential impact on the school in its current accommodation in the event of the likely delay in completing the project.

I again thank the Deputy for raising this matter and will convey his concerns to the Minister for Education and Science.

Hospital Services.

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise this issue. It is widely known that the situation regarding the provision of cancer services in Sligo General Hospital has been very difficult during the past 18 months. Despite the best efforts of Deputy Devins, Senator Mark MacSharry and me, the diagnosing and surgical services have been moved to University Hospital Galway. I am very disappointed that has happened.

During that period Opposition parties made what I can only describe as a political football out of the situation in Sligo General Hospital. Opposition politicians who came to Sligo gave assurances on this, that and the other and promised the people there that when they returned to the Dáil after the summer recess they would table Private Members' motions on the retention of cancer services in Sligo General Hospital. The leaders of the two main Opposition parties were asked to sign pledges for the continuation of services in Sligo General Hospital, but they refused to do that. Despite that, their spokespeople gave assurances that they would raise the issue in the Dáil. They were supposed to do that in October, but it is now November and that still has not happened.

During the course of the deliberations on the transfer of diagnostics and surgery to University Hospital Galway, quite a number of meetings took place with the local committee on the services that would be provided in Sligo General Hospital following the transfer of services to University Hospital Galway. The Minister, Deputy Harney, Professor Drumm, and Professor Keane were in attendance at one meeting in particular at which guaranteed assurances were given to the people availing of the services in Sligo General Hospital, to people who had already availed of surgical services at that hospital, and to people who would have cancer surgery in University Hospital Galway and follow-up treatment in Sligo General Hospital, that mammography services and clinics would be available for these people in Sligo General Hospital.

I have received numerous letters during the past three weeks about this issue. It has been widely stated on local radio by many women, who are in a very distressed state, that they are being told different stories. I understand the director of the national cancer control programme issued a statement last week to the local radio station indicating that nothing had changed and that people would receive services in Sligo General Hospital. The people are being told something different apparently in the hospital. People are in doubt about the services that are being provided in Sligo General Hospital. That is not fair. This is an issue that needs to be resolved, however that may happen, even if it means that a person from the national care strategy comes to Sligo General Hospital to meet these people.

We all have had friends who had cancer. We all know the stress of that on a family. These people certainly do not need any more stress. They should not be left in doubt as to where they will have their next clinical appointment or mammogram. There were two radiologists in Sligo General Hospital and I understand one of them retired recently. Perhaps this is causing a problem. If do not know that it is, but if it is, people should be told.

Will the Minister ensure that this issue resolved one way or another and let the people know the position? That is the least they expect. If the services will not be provided in Sligo General Hospital, the people should be honestly told that. We are talking about sick people who are suffering and who do not really know their future. They deserve much more than the current position. What is happening is wrong.

I am replying to this Adjournment matter on behalf of my colleague, the Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Mary Harney.

I welcome the opportunity to set out the current position on cancer services at Sligo General Hospital. Deputies may recall a previous debate relating to the transfer of breast cancer diagnostic and surgical services from Sligo General Hospital to University Hospital Galway last April. In that debate, the Minister of State, Deputy Seán Haughey, outlined the rationale and objectives of the restructuring of cancer services under the national cancer control programme. As he stated then, the goals of the programme are better cancer prevention, detection and survival through a national service based on evidence and best practice for all cancers. This involves significant realignment of cancer services to move to a system which is consistent with best international practice in cancer control. Diagnosis and treatment planning for all cancers will ultimately be directed and managed by multidisciplinary teams based at eight cancer centres, but much of the treatment other than surgery, including chemotherapy, may be delivered in local hospitals.

The reorganisation of breast cancer diagnosis and surgery, which was the first priority for the national cancer control programme, is now almost complete with just one hospital awaiting transfer of these services. In the case of Sligo General Hospital, breast cancer diagnosis and surgery were transferred to University Hospital Galway on 6 August 2009. New patients are now referred to the symptomatic breast cancer service in Galway, which receives 15 to 20 referrals per week from Sligo-Leitrim and the surrounding area. A small number of women from the area are being referred to the Dublin centres.

Diagnosis and treatment planning are directed and managed by the multidisciplinary team in University Hospital Galway. Patients have their surgery and radiation oncology, if required, in University Hospital Galway. Medical oncology, for example, chemotherapy, which constitutes the majority of cancer services at Sligo General Hospital, continues to be provided there and the medical oncologist in Sligo General Hospital participates by video-conference in the multidisciplinary team meetings in University Hospital Galway of both the symptomatic breast cancer service and BreastCheck. The breast care nurse based in Sligo General Hospital follows up women with minor complications locally and provides ongoing support and breast care if necessary.

Other cancer services at the hospital are not affected. Other than skin cancer, which usually involves minor surgery, and a limited volume of bowel cancer cases, the vast majority of other curative cancer surgeries have never been undertaken at Sligo General Hospital, but are routinely referred to one of the eight designated cancer centres.

All resources associated with the breast cancer service in Sligo General Hospital were left in place until 1 November to facilitate the hospital in fulfilling its obligations to patients who were referred prior to 6 August but had not yet been seen. This process is now almost complete and it is anticipated that the remaining patients will be seen by the end of this week.

For review patients, follow-up mammography has been provided in the hospital since 6 August. The national cancer control programme is satisfied that a safe service can be provided in the short term with the equipment and experienced radiology and radiography personnel in Sligo General Hospital, as has happened in the case of other transitions. Follow-up mammography will continue to be provided in Sligo General Hospital into the future, as an outreach service from University Hospital Galway.

It is the responsibility of the relevant consultant and the hospital to arrange appropriate follow-up care for pre-existing patients following the transfer. The national cancer control programme has offered any assistance to the hospital that it may require in arranging these follow-ups.

The transition period for the transfer of breast cancer diagnosis and surgery from Sligo General Hospital is almost complete and the national cancer control programme is available to provide any assistance to the hospital that is required in arranging appropriate follow-up care for its pre-existing patients following the transfer. Only breast cancer diagnostic and surgical services have been transferred from Sligo General Hospitals and all other services, including medical oncology, remain in place.

The Dáil adjourned at 10.20 p.m. until 2.30 p.m. on Tuesday, 10 November 2009.