Priority Questions

School Enrolments

Brendan Smith

Question:

1 Deputy Brendan Smith asked the Minister for Education and Skills the impact that Census 2011 will have on his Department’s school building programme; the likely impact on teaching numbers at both primary and post primary level; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [19410/11]

We had envisaged that there would be increases of more than 45,000 primary school pupils and 24,900 post-primary pupils, excluding post-leaving certificate students, between now and 2018. The 2011 census did not change that. We have to provide new schools and extensions to existing schools as well as additional teachers to cater for the increased number of pupils. Detailed analysis is being finalised by my Department. Action plans are being drawn up for each area to determine the level of additional school capacity which will be required up to 2017. Detailed data from the 2011 census will feed into this analysis when such information is available next year. I recently announced that at least 40 new schools — 20 primary schools and 20 post-primary schools — are to be established in the next six years. Many existing schools need to be extended. My Department is prioritising this work at the moment.

I thank the Minister for his reply. I am pleased to hear that the Department's projections are up to date and in line with the preliminary census findings. We all welcome the 8% increase in the population of the State since 2006 that was highlighted in the preliminary findings. I was glad to hear that the population of my own county, which is very rural, has increased by 14%. It is very welcome in light of the prevalence of emigration in County Cavan over the decades. Another positive aspect of the preliminary population returns is the fact that Ireland has the youngest age profile and the fewest dependent older people in the EU. Many other member states are very concerned about the age profile trends in those countries. In light of the preliminary data that are available, are the Minister and the Department satisfied that the recently announced school building programme, which specified the locations of the primary and post-primary schools that will be built, will meet the needs of new and emerging areas with large young and schoolgoing populations?

I am satisfied that it will do so. I am not sure if the Deputies opposite have had an opportunity to examine the new geographical information storage system which tracks the locations where child benefit, for example, is paid. I will raise it at the relevant committee of the House to ensure the system is available to every Member. Deputy Wallace might be interested in it. We now know the geographical location where every child benefit payment is made. The system can provide information on the age profile and physical location of child benefit recipients. On the basis of that identification and other material, we are able to locate the areas that have younger populations. That will allow us to avoid the problem that developed in north County Dublin seven or eight years ago.

I would like to have personal access to any data the Minister can make available to the Opposition.

I will have that arranged.

It is very good that the system has been put in place. Are difficulties arising because mature areas have surplus primary and post-primary accommodation? Such areas may be contiguous to developing areas. Is it possible for such additional accommodation to be used to cater for emerging needs?

Two separate issues arise from the Deputy's question. Parents in built-up areas might prefer to send their child to a gaelscoil or an Educate Together school but cannot do so. They might prefer the local Church of Ireland school, but it might be full because its numbers have grown and it is obliged to give priority to members of the Church of Ireland community. Such parents might end up having to send their children to second-choice schools. We are prioritising needs that are caused by net additional population demand. We do not yet have the sort of information the Deputy is looking for. Paradoxically, there is a massive excess of demand for certain kinds of schools, including gaelscoileanna and Educate Together schools, in areas that are considered to be mature, including parts of my constituency of Dublin South-East. At the end of the expression of demand process, most if not all children find places in existing schools, although not necessarily in the location their parents would have chosen or with the kind of ethos they would have preferred.

Schools Building Projects

Seán Crowe

Question:

2 Deputy Seán Crowe asked the Minister for Education and Skills the funding he intends to make available to complete the construction of new school builds and upgrades to existing buildings including snag lists that were the responsibility of builders who went out of business during the economic downturn resulting in many schools being left unfinished and unfit for use. [19503/11]

Each main contractor that is engaged in a major school building project is required to produce a performance bond before it commences works. The bond provides security for the State if the contractor becomes insolvent and is no longer in a position to complete a contract. If such a scenario arises before the building is completed, a completion contractor can be appointed to complete the works. The performance bond covers any additional expenses incurred, up to the value of the bond. For smaller works, where grants are devolved to schools and the value of the works is less than €500,000, if a bond is not in place, the Department considers providing funding for outstanding defects on receipt of notification and appropriate supporting evidence from the school authority. In addition to the performance bond, moneys held as retention are also available to complete outstanding works within the defects period.

We touched on this when we discussed the Estimates. I do not know the extent of the problem. I am aware of previous problems with subcontractors and with delays in payments to contractors. The only such evidence I have that schools have encountered such difficulties is anecdotal. Apparently, the process of accessing the bond mentioned by the Minister can be quite slow because the legal liabilities and so on have to be examined. The schools I know of are probably caught in that process. That is what is causing their difficulties. It was on that basis that I asked whether departmental support can be made available in these circumstances. Does the Minister know how frequently this problem is being encountered? I understand a new arrangement for public contracts has been drawn up. I accept that the problem of builders going bust does not relate directly to the school issues we are dealing with, but I am trying to get some feedback from the Minister on how schools are being affected by it.

A number of contractors that were undertaking schools building projects have gone into receivership. They are in suspended animation, in effect, because they are not performing. The sites in question will have to be taken back. The contractual procedures in the building industry can be quite elaborate. If the Deputy wishes to inquire about specific projects, I invite him to table a parliamentary question or to write a letter to me in relation to them. I will try to get the up-to-date information.

I raised with the previous Minister the fact that many contractors are submitting bids that are too low. That is causing difficulty for legitimate contractors. The University of Limerick had a problem with a contractor recently. This issue arises with big and small jobs. It would be useful if a mechanism could be found to give us a sense of the extent to which this is having an impact. It is certainly affecting Joe Public out there. If it is having an effect on local government and hospital contracts, it must be having some effect on school contracts. I would appreciate it if some sort of review could be done.

I know from my previous background as an architect that in recessionary times, contractors sometimes undercut other tenders or bids when a project goes out to tender. They are hoping to buy work, in effect, and subsequently claim extras to recoup the margin and bring the project into profit. I understand that under contract law, the client — the building section of the Department in this instance — is not obliged to take the lowest tender or the lowest price. There is a mechanism for evaluating the capacity of a contractor to deliver the product to the quality, within the timeframe and at the price outlined in the bid. There are safeguards in place. It is a complex area. The construction industry has faced a horrendous time over the past couple of years, as the Deputy will be well aware.

Would the Minister agree to the review?

Yes. It is something that concerns me already because there have been bankruptcies in a number of projects. One must put the completion of the contract out for re-tender and that process is cumbersome, slow and, as a result, costly. It also delays the delivery of the final product for the students and teachers.

As Deputy Luke Flanagan is not present, we will go on to Question No. 4 in the name of Deputy Brendan Smith.

Question No. 3 lapsed.

School Staffing

Brendan Smith

Question:

4 Deputy Brendan Smith asked the Minister for Education and Skills if he has satisfied himself that only qualified registered teachers will be employed in approved teaching posts in schools from September 2011; and the response to date from schools following a recent Department circular on teacher recruitment registration and qualifications. [19411/11]

I am committed to ensuring that schools employ registered teachers who have the qualifications needed for teaching in recognised schools. This is important in terms of quality provision to pupils and in ensuring qualified and registered teachers can secure employment.

My Department recently issued a circular requiring schools to prioritise teachers over unregistered persons and appropriately qualified teachers over teachers qualified for different sectors. Unemployed teachers are given priority over retired teachers.

Only where every avenue for sourcing a registered teacher has been exhausted may a school employ an unregistered person until a registered teacher may be located, for a maximum period of five days.

Any decision to employ an unregistered person is a local decision made by the school authorities and not my Department. The new circular, to which I referred, is aimed at ensuring that boards of management and principals only resort to having an unregistered person in very limited circumstances.

I thank the Minister for his reply. I had the opportunity to state in this House previously that it is not good enough that there are young teachers struggling to get work and yet schools around the country are hiring retired persons to fill substitute positions.

I welcome the fact the Minister issued, relatively recently, as did his predecessor, Ms Mary Coughlan, a circular to schools directing them to hire qualified teachers who are registered, obviously, with the appropriate qualifications.

The numbers may be relatively small on a macro level, but it is wrong if we send out a message that newly qualified persons will be denied a teaching opportunity and a person with a damn good pension is back in the classroom. I ask the Minister if he will take a zero tolerance approach to this issue. It is not the numbers who are in the classroom back from retirement but the very message that is wrong. Of course, for every retired person taking up a teaching position generally, it is denying a newly qualified person that opportunity to start his or her career.

The Deputy opposite, Deputy Crowe and I were at the INTO conference in Sligo just after Easter at which time this issue was hotly debated. It really must be brought to the attention of everybody involved that on short notice it is the principal who is the person who hires the substitute teacher if somebody reports sick or cannot attend. The INTO has given a clear indication to all of its members not to work with unqualified teachers. Also, it must be recognised that the principals are members of the INTO. They are the ones who make the decision to hire a substitute teacher and the circular that we issued was directed to them.

Preference is clearly to be given to young unemployed teachers as against retired teachers. Preference is to be given to qualified teachers as against unqualified teachers. A maximum of five days is allowed where an unqualified person can be in the classroom if the alternative is that those children would be sent home.

We will continue along this road because I share the concerns the Deputy outlined.

I welcome the Minister's comments. He indicated some time ago that he would ask his officials to examine the pension consequences for retirees returning to teach. If he has it available, he might let us know the outcome of that examination by his officials. He quite rightly outlined that teachers must be registered and qualified and only in exceptional circumstances should a retired person be taken back.

The circulars by the former Minister, Ms Coughlan, and by himself, also asked schools to keep a list of registered teachers. Does the Minister's inspectorate know whether all schools are abiding by this direction?

We will be moving to have in place by autumn a system whereby the school will make available a panel of substitute teachers that it has in mind should a necessity to hire somebody arise and that panel will be open to scrutiny by members of the school community, the board of management and the parents, and perhaps by a wider public if that is necessary. At the same time, teachers who are seeking work, even substitute work, will be shown how to get onto that panel. We are still working on the detail and the operational modalities of that system. Ideally, what I want for the forthcoming academic year is a panel system where parents and others who are interested will know that if a vacancy arises at short notice, the substitute would be drawn from that group of people. That is the ideal situation as far as we are concerned and we are moving towards it.

Special Educational Needs

Seán Crowe

Question:

5 Deputy Seán Crowe asked the Minister for Education and Skills if he will provide a report outlining the way a decision is made by him in which children with behavioural or special needs may lose a special needs assistant; the appeals process currently in place and the amount of schools, children and parents that have been informed that they are losing their supports next year. [19504/11]

As Minister, I do not make individual decisions regarding the allocation of special needs assistants to a particular child.

The National Council for Special Education, NCSE, is responsible for allocating SNAs to schools. The NCSE is in the process of advising schools of their SNA allocations for the coming school year.

Some 10,575 whole-time equivalent posts are being provided for the coming school year. To manage this limited resource, 475 of these posts will be retained for allocation over the coming school year to address significant emergency cases, new entrants with special needs or new assessments or injuries acquired during the school year.

The NCSE will advise schools early in the new school year of a review process to review allocation decisions to ensure correct procedures were followed and that they comply with my Department's policy. The merits of individual allocation decisions will not be open to appeal under this mechanism.

It will be expected that schools, before requesting a review, will be in a position to demonstrate that they have made every effort to manage their allocation of SNA posts to best effect.

Would the Minister agree that the critical issue is that parents must trust the SENO and the National Council for Special Education? The difficulty facing many parents who have been recently through the process is that there is a lack of trust, transparency and consistency. There seems to be a lack of consistency, not only locally in Ireland but internationally. The value for money review highlights that fact.

The value for money report, which is part of the focus on SNAs, stated that in focus groups other professionals referred to pressure and reported a lack of overall control of the situation or their inability to influence decisions relating to the needs of children. Even for those who are involved in the process, there seems to be a problem in that regard. Parents cannot understand that one child will get an assessment for 15 minutes and for other children there does not seem to be that on-site assessment. That is part of the difficulty.

I understand there are problems of funding etc. but the problem facing parents is that there is no consistency. There is any number of examples. Where there is equipment worth €2,500 to help a child see the teacher and the SNA is being taken away, for example, how does the child follow the teacher around the room?

I understand the concern the Deputy expressed. I have had it expressed to me by parents in my constituency and around the country, and by many of the Fine Gael and Labour backbench Deputies. I hope the NCSE will be able to respond to the kind of comment Deputy Crowe and others have made in this regard.

The value for money report is a revealing document and should be read carefully by every Deputy dealing with parents who are in this area and who are looking for special needs assistants for their child. We are in a situation where we must cap the numbers. They have grown by approximately 1,000% in the past ten years to the current figure. There are 60,000 teachers in the system and just in excess of 10,000 special needs assistants, SNAs. Now, we must examine how best to deploy this capacity of SNAs. This is something I will continue to keep under review.

I accept a cap is in place. Recently my colleague, Deputy Pearse Doherty, tabled a question about the number of special needs assistants employed in County Donegal. He was informed this was not readily available, which seems bizarre. How are these assessments carried out? It appears there are difficulties across the board.

How many of the children assessed have been taken out of DEIS schools? I realise some SNAs are being held back for the September period but the difficulty for families is to try to get into a school in the meantime. This continues to be a problem and we are going to hit crisis levels come September.

I am unsure what the response to getting the statistical data on a county basis will be but I will make inquiries in that regard. If the data are available I will make them available to all Deputies in the House and to Senators as well.

The position regarding holding back a certain number of posts was genuinely misunderstood across the sector at the time. It was a good management precaution. We are now at the end of one academic year and people will be presenting for schools between now and September and onwards. It was considered prudent to hold back something of the order of 10% of the total allocation to establish what new, legitimate claims and requirements for special needs assistants would manifest themselves. If these did not transpire then we would be in a position to go to the full allocation of 10,575 posts. That is the position.

Deputies will understand that I am loth to be in a position to have authorised the NCSE to allocate on the basis of what the council knows now only to find ourselves confronted next September with new demands which do not surface until that time and to be utterly unable to respond to these. It is prudent management to do what we have done. I will make inquiries to ensure that reserve is rapidly deployed.