Other Questions

Vocational Education Committees

Robert Troy

Question:

6 Deputy Robert Troy asked the Minister for Education and Skills the likely timescale for the proposed rationalisation of the vocational education committees; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [19177/11]

My officials are working on the preparation of legislation to give effect to the Government decision to reconfigure the VEC sector. This will take the form of a Bill that will consolidate the existing nine separate tranches of legislation. Ultimately, the timeframe for implementation of the decision will depend on the passage of the legislation through the Oireachtas. Consequently, it is expected that the mergers will occur during the course of 2012. The existing committee members will continue to serve together on the merged bodies until the local elections of 2014. In parallel, my Department will continue to engage with the relevant stakeholders, including trade unions representing staff in the VEC sector, in respect of the detailed implementation of the Government's decision and to progress the advance planning for these mergers.

Did I pick up the Minister correctly when he stated it would involve nine separate tranches of legislation?

No. We are consolidating nine separate tranches of legislation. The first Vocational Education Committee Act was in 1930. Since then and as recently as 2001, for various reasons there has been various amending legislation. We are using the reconfiguration of the 33 VECs to update and consolidate into one Act all the relevant legislation regarding the operation of the VECs. We are consolidating it. The heads of the Bill are at an advanced stage and I signed off on the first draft over the weekend. The idea is to have one tranche of legislation. My intention is that it will be brought in the form of the heads of a Bill to the Joint Committee on Jobs, Social Protection and Education for discussion by committee members and then returned to the Department before we send it to the Attorney General's office.

I thank the Minister for the clarification. I welcome the rationalisation of the vocational education committees. I have taken a consistent approach in this regard. I am a strong defender of and a believer in the value of the VEC system and what it has done for education since 1932. Better synergies can be had from stronger entities.

I hope I will not have to disagree with the Minister when he decides on the various headquarters and that we can keep this unanimity. Is it the Minister's intention in advance of the publication of the legislation to name the different headquarters? How will the various chief executive officers be chosen? What mechanism will be used to decide who heads up the 16 entities?

As the Deputy is aware, there are 33 VECs currently. Within that structure, 22 of the chief executive officers, CEOs, are permanent and the others are acting at present. The union representing the 22 CEOs on a professional basis, SIPTU, is in discussion with the Department to evolve a mechanism that will enable the 16 CEO designates for the new entities to be identified in a manner acceptable to all involved. Once the process of identification of the CEO designates is in motion, the question of the location of the headquarters will become germane. We will be at that stage in the coming five or six weeks and we will proceed in that order. I am keen to get there as quickly as possible and to provide certainty in terms of who the CEO designates will be and the location of the headquarters. The CEO designate will act in consultation and concert with the Department to begin to prepare for the integration of the VECs. For example, in some cases a city and county VEC will be integrated with another county VEC. Then, we will complete the process with the local elections in 2014.

Will consideration be given in the legislation to give further education a particular identity? Generally, it is appended to second level education. It amounts to a misnomer at this stage in view of the great success of post-leaving certificate courses, PLCs, and the colleges of further education. I am keen for consideration to be given to this in the context of the legislation that the Minister intends to merge and consolidate. I believe this sector has performed admirably and it deserves its own identity.

There is similar thinking on this side of the House in respect of that matter. My colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Ciarán Cannon, will have responsibility for taking the training element that was FÁS into the space currently occupied by the further education sector and bringing together the disparate elements of the further education components of VEC activities along with what used to be the training component of FÁS to create a recognised space for further education in exactly the way Deputy Smith has articulated. We are still working on the details of how best that can be done but we recognise the necessity to put it all together and give it an identity of its own. It is somewhat tacked in behind the post-primary section of VEC activities in many counties.

Higher Education Grants

Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin

Question:

7 Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin asked the Minister for Education and Skills if he will review and honour the pledge he made in February 2011, and reverse the €500 increase in the student contribution fee. [19166/11]

The economic circumstances of the country are such that the decision by the previous Government to introduce a new student contribution charge of €2,000 from this September cannot be reversed. The programme for Government commits the Government to implementing the decisions of the 2011 budget, which was passed by the last Dáil.

The new student contribution will replace the previous student services charge and will apply to students who qualify for free fees. The contribution will be paid by the Exchequer on behalf of student grant holders who last year amounted to some 46% of students in receipt of free fees. Conscious of financial pressures on families, an additional category, 50% student contribution, has been included in the student grants scheme. Tax relief provisions have also been put in place in order that second and subsequent siblings will not have to bear the full cost increase. Institutions have also been asked to allow students to pay the contribution in two parts.

Most families try, when their kids enter education, to budget for it over a number of years. However, having established that budget, many families now unfortunately are being obliged to pull their children out of education. In the case of one family with which I am familiar, it was a question of which child would be taken out of education. I refer to the pledge that was made and while I do not put it on the record of the House to embarrass anyone, does the Minister not accept the difficulty facing many students is that they and their families are in a worse position financially this year than was the case last year when the pledge was made? This is the great difficulty faced by such students, many of whom now face being obliged to withdraw from education. Moreover, the difficulty for many families will be to decide which son or daughter will be pulled out of education.

The decision to increase the student contribution from €1,500 to €2,000 was made in December 2010. The election took place in February and the programme for Government adopted in full — because the incoming Government had no other option — the entire array of economic decisions contained in that budget of 2011. This included the increase by one third of the student service charge as it then was termed and which now properly and accurately is called the student contribution. As for time to prepare, a minimum of nine months has been put in place to enable families to prepare for what will be a difficult year for them and for everyone else. I accept this will be an extremely difficult time for some families. However, if the economic circumstances of a family have deteriorated, the son or daughter in question then will be, all else being equal, in a position to apply for a student grant. Moreover, the family's income threshold could be such that not only will the student get the grant but the student contribution also will be paid.

As the Minister is aware, the difficulty will be with the grey areas and will affect those people who are on the edge or who are just outside the limit. However, the problem is worsening and increasing numbers of families and students are coming forward in this regard. Another difficulty arises in respect of some students who are lone parents but who also fall outside such thresholds. They claim that their chances of moving to full-time education, moving on with their lives and breaking the cycle of familial poverty will be gone because of the contribution fee being introduced by the Government. I note that no body or group is offering supports in this regard at present. A number of years ago, people could approach student unions and so on with such difficulties but the student unions now state the funds simply are not there because of the demand.

The Deputy from Dublin South-West is articulating what the loss of economic sovereignty means. This is the point this country has reached and this is what the loss of control over our own cheque book actually means. The Government is constrained in these circumstances. I am determined to return to a point at which the Government has the economic freedom to make freely-determined decisions based on priorities it would determine. However, we are not there yet and the next two budgets must ensure we reach that point quickly.

School Transport

Brendan Griffin

Question:

8 Deputy Brendan Griffin asked the Minister for Education and Skills if he will consider directly subsidising schools for the provision of their own school transport through the private sector; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [19188/11]

The school transport system is organised on behalf of the Department of Education and Skills by Bus Éireann. There is significant private sector engagement in the delivery of services with 85%, or approximately 3,300 of the vehicles used, owned by private operators. Moreover, this percentage will increase over time.

The system was reviewed in a value for money review that was published earlier this year. In this context, options were considered, including options that would not involve school transport being centrally organised. However, the report concluded that, particularly in the context of the complexities of deciding on eligibility for procuring and developing networks for school transport, a single national organiser with a regional dimension to operate the scheme is required. I do not believe a school transport system could operate effectively were those administrative burdens to be imposed on individual schools.

Before discussing the school transport issue, I wish to put on record my thanks to the Minister for his logical decision to retain the Kerry Education Service as a stand-alone entity. I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Cannon, for his response and for the time and effort he has devoted to this issue, which he has inherited and with which he has been landed. It has caused great concern in rural Ireland in particular and I am anxious to find a solution.

Could the Deputy frame a question please?

Yes. While it is understood that savings must be made, the feasibility should be investigated of making the requisite savings from the overall budget and then allocating the funding directly to schools which in turn could seek tenders from private contractors. Will the Minister of State investigate that proposal? The money being sought could be saved in a single year rather than over a number of years. Moreover, this proposal would ensure those people in rural areas who sought buses would get them.

In addition, is it possible to make available the details concerning the 150 routes that are to be lost next September? People in my constituency and elsewhere have raised this point with me and I wish to ascertain whether such information can be made available.

I am no great champion of Bus Éireann and have been highly critical of the company in the past for the predatory and anti-competitive practices in which it sometimes has engaged. I refer to instances in which private operators that had identified profitable routes had their buses followed around the city by Bus Éireann buses in an attempt to stymie the success of those routes. However, it is important to point out Bus Éireann's role in providing the national transport system for schools. It is an extremely onerous role and no other entity exists at present — I stress at present — that has the corporate capacity or knowledge to provide this service. I will run through Bus Éireann's role in the provision of school transport to illustrate this point. It is responsible for the procurement of and payments in respect of approximately 1,400 private operators that are needed to deliver the services and must ensure that each contractor, driver and vehicle procured meets all relevant tax and legislative compliance criteria, including child protection vetting. It processes every single primary school transport application, liaises with the transport liaison officers in the VECs in respect to post-primary applications and assesses eligibility for pupils across the entire school network. Bus Éireann is involved in the design, constant renewal and revision of the 6,000 routes that are needed to pick up and drop off children each year. It also is responsible for collecting parental contributions centrally and providing an online payment facility. Finally, the company undertakes the day-to-day supervision and monitoring of service performance, standards and safety.

Given the practical issues in which Bus Éireann is involved on a daily basis, I do not consider there to be any opportunity at present for establishing another entity that somehow could take over its role. Effectively, what is in place at present is virtually a model public private partnership in which Bus Éireann oversees the process at a national level, while 85% of the routes are provided by the private sector.

As we are running out of time, Deputy Griffin may wish to ask another question.

In particular, I seek information on the 150 routes that face an immediate threat. Serious concern is being expressed on this matter in rural areas, including in my constituency in County Kerry, particularly regarding the change from seven to ten in the minimum pupil number qualification criterion, which effectively means routes will be lost for some people.

Back in 2001, the requirement to establish a service was a minimum of ten pupils. This was changed by the then Minister to seven pupils and the cost of operating the school transport system rose by €20 million the following year. Bus Éireann has established in recent months that potentially, 600 routes could be lost but it then carried out a forensic and in-depth analysis of the aforementioned routes. On concluding that analysis, the company decided that for a substantial number of those routes, taking them off the road would not provide any real saving to the Exchequer. The number has been reduced from 600 routes to 150. It is my understanding that those schools which will lose their bus service will be informed of this loss in the near future. I will endeavour to provide the Deputy with a list in order that he can be better informed.

Special Educational Needs

Willie O'Dea

Question:

9 Deputy Willie O’Dea asked the Minister for Education and Skills the progress made in relation to the publication of a plan to implement the Education for People with Special Education Needs Act 2004; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [19174/11]

Pearse Doherty

Question:

19 Deputy Pearse Doherty asked the Minister for Education and Skills if he will explain the root cause in the delay in implementing fully the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act. [19149/11]

Sandra McLellan

Question:

29 Deputy Sandra McLellan asked the Minister for Education and Skills the timescale in which he proposes to initiate fully the commencement acts that are needed to implement the Education for People with Special Educational Needs Act. [19162/11]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 9, 19 and 29 together.

The Deputies will be aware that a number of sections of the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs, EPSEN, Act have been commenced. The National Council for Special Education, NCSE, made recommendations which suggested additional investment over a period of years of up to €235 million per annum across the education and health sectors would be required to fully implement the EPSEN Act. My Department's opinion is that the level of investment required would be greater than that envisaged in the NCSE report. In the light of the very difficult economic situation and these significant costs, the previous Government deferred full implementation of the EPSEN Act. Given the costs involved and current fiscal constraints, addressing this issue will be very challenging. I will be considering how we can develop a plan to implement the objectives of the EPSEN Act to deliver improved educational outcomes for students with special needs.

The Minister made the point earlier that there had been an increase of 1,000% in the number of special needs assistants in schools. He also said there were 60,000 primary teachers and 10,000 special needs assistants. It might be useful to know how these compare with the figures for primary level education in other countries in the European Union. Deputy Crowe has referred to a lack of uniformity in assessing the needs of particular children. From my knowledge as a public representative, the appointment of special educational needs organisers was a worthwhile and positive development which stemmed from the establishment of the National Council for Special Education. Is there any element of the EPSEN Act which the Minister hopes to initiate, considering the commitment given in the programme for Government, perhaps an aspect that may not be as demanding as other strands of the Act?

I share the Deputy's concern and those expressed by a wide number of Deputies across the House. The advice to me in the Department is that there would be difficulties if we tried to introduce the legislation on an age-cohort basis. I intend to review the spirit of the legislation in these difficult times to see what provisions can be implemented, perhaps by different means. I am not entirely sure, as it is a complex issue. However, we are simply not in a position in current circumstances to even contemplate taking on a recurring additional burden of €300 million each year. I would be misleading the House and all those directly involved if I were to give any sense of hope this was possible.

The Minister states the investment could be more than €290 million. Can a breakdown be provided of what has not been implemented? For instance, the Joint Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement, of which I am a member, is carrying out an audit of the provisions of the Good Friday Agreement that have not been implemented. The investment needs to be rights-based. Is that where the cost difficulty lies? When the legislation was introduced many years ago, everyone knew there would be a cost factor. For how long must people with disabilities wait? If the timetable is that it will not happen in the foreseeable future, that is not fair to those who want to become full members of society. We placed them in mainstream schools to try to move forward, yet we are now holding them back. Society is impairing them.

I understand the Deputy's point and heard him use the phrase "rights-based". One could exercise these rights if this was a sovereign republic in control of its own economy. There is only one crowd in the world who will lend us money at present and that is the European Central Bank.

We had choices as to how we could have dealt with it.

It is the European Central Bank or the money-lenders. The House needs to understand the reality of where we are. We have lost our economic sovereignty. We cannot deliver on a rights-based approach because we do not have the money to do it. The money we would attempt to offer would be provided by the European Central Bank. The IMF is in this city. When Deputy Boyd Barrett was outside the Department of Finance yesterday, he made this very clear. There is nobody else who will lend us money, except at moneylenders' rates.

Therefore, we treat our citizens as second-class citizens.

I ask the Minister to finish as I must call Deputy Boyd Barrett.

I will not get into the blame game because everybody knows how we got here. The debate has to be informed by reality. I support what Deputy Crowe is looking for and we may be able to look at it when we have regained our sovereignty but not before.

Does the Minister really expect the parents of the most vulnerable children in the country to accept that answer, given that both the Labour Party and Fine Gael were extremely vociferous in demanding full implementation of this legislation just one year ago? Does he really expect them to accept that money cannot be found when the value of the most recent bond paid for Anglo Irish Bank far exceeded the €230 million he says is necessary to implement the legislation? We can find the money to pay off the bondholders of a zombie bank such as Anglo Irish Bank, but we are unable to find the money to meet the needs of the most vulnerable children in the country. In the discussions with the EU-IMF delegation do we tell them we have no chance of economic recovery if implementation of the Government's austerity programme means substantial and consequential long-term adverse effects in terms of the quality of education provided for young people who are the key to our economic recovery? Is it not asking us to apply cannibal logic to our society and children? How can we accept this?

The reality, sad and all as it may be, is that we have to reduce current expenditure in the education sector in the forthcoming fiscal year. The thrust of my reply is that if we were to attempt to implement in full the balance of what is required under the EPSEN Act — instead of reducing expenditure by a certain amount, which will be tough when the issue is debated before Christmas — we would add an additional mountain of approximately €235 million, according to the NCSE, or something closer to €300 million, according to my Department. It is simply not possible to do it. We will look at other ways of trying to address, with limited resources, some of the more acute components relating to people with special needs. I would be misleading the House if I were to say we could do it.

The problem is that the disability community and parents of children with disabilities the length and breadth of the country are aware that the last time there was great economic growth and we had more money than sense, we did not act on this issue and that as soon as the previous Government came up against an economic problem, this was one of the first measures to be put in cold storage. What parents and I want to hear from the Minister is that when our economic sovereignty is restored, this issue will be a priority for his Department and that he will have the preparatory work done now in order that the Government will not miss opportunities to deliver, unlike the previous Government.

That is a very fair request. We will explore ways by which we can implement the EPSEN Act.

Teaching Qualifications

Peadar Tóibín

Question:

10 Deputy Peadar Tóibín asked the Minister for Education and Skills the steps that have been taken to ensure that the Professional Development Service for Teachers has sufficient full-time staff to meet the needs of Gaelscoileanna, Gaelcholáistí and Scoileanna Gaeltacht; if he has made provision for the interviewing of candidates through the medium of Gaeilge; and the supports in place to ensure the competency of staff to teach in Irish speaking schools. [19140/11]

It is the policy of my Department that professional development support services for teachers provide a service through Irish for teachers working in Irish-medium schools. The PDST has ten full time members of staff who have the capacity to provide a service through the medium of Irish and this is being reviewed in the context of planning for the next school year. Recruitment processes take account of the skills and capacity requirements of the service and relevant statutory requirements.

In addition to the supports provided by the PDST, there are a number of other supports for teachers in Irish-speaking schools. At post-primary level, An tSeirbhís Tacaíochta Dara Leibhéal don Ghaeilge is a full-time team dedicated to providing support to teachers of Irish in all post-primary schools. Other supports include summer courses and online resources.

I commend the work of the PDST which is excellent. However, there are deficits in teaching subjects through Irish. Those who come from a meánscoil and those teaching project maths and related subjects require technical support. It is not just a case of people being able to speak the language, they must have the technical ability to deliver it. I do not know the extent of the vacancies. I urge the Minister of State to re-examine the issue and provide support. That is the message I am hearing from meánscoileanna and gaelscoileanna.

I thank the Deputy for his comments. I ask him to identify specific areas, schools or service which engaged with the PDST and where a deficit was found. I would like to hear more about that. Perhaps the Department could engage with him. The PDST can also augment its support mechanisms through the engagement of advisers. It has the facility to recruit part-time advisers. I am willing to engage with the Deputy on a specific issue.

Language activists and those involved in schools have said there is a weakness in the system. I will revert to the Minister of State. The people concerned have referred specifically to the teaching of chemistry and mathematics which need support if taught through the medium of Irish. Those delivering supports often do so through English rather than Irish. That is the weakness in the system.

If the Deputy is aware of specific people who have identified a range of issues, the Department will have to engage with such people. It is vital.

Voluntary Contributions

Derek Keating

Question:

11 Deputy Derek Keating asked the Minister for Education and Skills the controls that will be implemented to assist families who are expected to make a voluntary registration fee at the start of every year for primary and secondary school students, who are also expected to pay €40 to €80 for photocopying services for the year as well as anything from €100 to €300 for extra curriculum such as sport, drama, music; if he will implement regulations to assist families who do not qualify for the back to school grant and who are not in a position to meet these extra payments; his views that the term free education is now redundant; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [19026/11]

It is not my Department's policy to prohibit the practice of schools seeking contributions from parents as long as it is made absolutely clear that the contributions concerned are voluntary. The manner in which contributions are sought and collected is a matter for school management. However, their collection should be such as not to create a situation where either parents or pupils could reasonably infer that the contributions take on a compulsory character. I have no plans to alter this position provided schools ensure the contributions are sought in a manner that makes this clear to all concerned.

In regard to payments sought for photocopying services, a school may seek payment to cover the cost of photocopied or other such learning materials where the amount sought by the school is consistent with the costs involved and the level of materials provided. It is also permissible for a school to seek payments in respect of extra-curricular activities, provided such activities are not obligatory and individual pupils can choose whether to participate. No charge may be made, however, in respect of instruction in any subject of the school curriculum or recreation or other activities where all pupils are expected to take part.

Regarding possible regulations, the Deputy may be aware that I have recently launched a discussion paper on a regulatory framework for school enrolment which contains suggestions on how to make the process of enrolling in schools more open, equitable and consistent. While I do not propose to comment on the nature of any regulations that might result from this process, I draw the Deputy's attention to the fact that the issue of financial contributions is raised in the paper. The Deputy may wish to note that I am inviting interested parties to submit their views to my Department by 28 October 2011.

I acknowledge that our current economic difficulties mean that schools are under increased funding pressures and that for many schools, fund-raising is an important additional source of income. However, it is also important that schools are cognisant of the financial pressures that many parents are experiencing and that such fund-raising is carried out in a manner that is sensitive to these difficulties.

I thank the Minister for his comprehensive reply for which I am very grateful. I know he will agree that investment in education will form a central part of our country's national recovery and anything that obstructs education for our children, young adults and parents engaged in back-to-education schemes will affect our recovery into the medium to long term. I received a copy of a letter recently which is typical of those sent to many families throughout the Dublin region, setting out the costs of various items that will be required before September. Many families have two, three or four children in school.

I ask the Deputy to frame a question.

I ask for the indulgence of the Chair for 20 seconds. Some of the costs add up to almost €600. When one factors in two, three or four children, one would have very little change from €2,000 for 2011-2012. It is not an exaggeration to say that many people find it restrictive. I ask the Minister in the interests of common sense that a directive be issued to schools. The Department could show leadership and help control some of the costs which are restrictive, especially for families who do not avail of the back-to-school allowance. Such families are the focus of my question.

I thank the Deputy for raising these matters in a supplementary question. The Society of St. Vincent de Paul, the National Parents Council and others have raised two issues with me. One is the frequent change of books on the curriculum and so-called revised editions where the amount of revision is minimal. I met the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, the National Parents Council and representatives of the publishers and will meet them again. We will be actively exploring with effect from the following academic year the benefits of a book lending scheme in schools.

If one has two or three children, one frequently finds that a book the eldest child was using for geography is not the same as that required for the youngest, even though the rivers and mountains of Ireland have not changed in the meantime. There are similar concerns in respect of uniforms, where parents have to buy them from a designated vendor. Generic grey, blue, green and red uniforms are sold in large retail stores and if schools confined themselves to selling their badge or emblem, we could seriously address the cost issues. I am actively exploring those areas.

I thank the Minister for the supplementary answer. It will be of great assistance and comfort to parents in the years ahead as we face difficult challenges.

I echo the sentiments of Deputy Keating. I am aware of a school in my constituency which I will not name. There have been consistent complaints about serious pressure being put on less well-off students to come up with extra money for things that are part of the core curriculum, such as art and other subjects. Parents have had stand-up rows with a headmaster, during which they have told him that they do not have the money and that a daughter is being excluded and put under extreme pressure and anxiety.

Could a circular be sent to schools setting out in strident terms that it is unacceptable to put any pressure on students to come up with money for core curriculum subjects? Could we have a unit in the Minister's Department which people could contact if they have a problem? If schools are not obeying the rules, what can be done about it? What recourse do parents have to bring such matters to the Department's attention so that action can be taken?

What is really galling for many parents is the fact that these payments are supposedly voluntary. When addressing some of the teachers' conferences, the Minister referred to the book-lending scheme initiative and also said he would not put new books on the curriculum. We all support that initiative but how will it be rolled out? No one should be putting families under extra pressure, particularly in the current difficult climate.

I will respond first to what Deputy Boyd Barrett said. Within the primary school structure there are parents' representatives on the boards of management. Therefore, if any parents feel they have been unduly pressurised, I suggest their first port of call should be to the parents' representative. In the post-primary sector, depending on the school, parental representation is not as transparent because the structures are different. If they cannot, or do not want to for personal reasons, go to a parents' representative on that board of management, I recommend that they contact the National Parents Council and express their concerns there. The National Parents Council is a recognised partner in the education sector, so that is the way I would recommend them to go if they do not feel personally that they wish to contact the school's board of management.

With regard to Deputy Crowe's point, school uniform and book-lending schemes will reduce the turnover involved. A decision to change, for example, a geography book for 90 junior cycle children has implications. We are talking about books that cost €24 each. A schoolbook lending scheme will prolong the life of the volumes and reduces the costs involved. The primary school survey that must be completed by October each year contains a question about book-lending schemes. We do not know how many such schemes there are, and they can operate in different ways. We are hoping to get a best practice model that can operate in primary schools and another model for secondary schools. If it happens, it will not be in the current academic year but hopefully it will start to happen next year.

School IT Systems

Seán Crowe

Question:

12 Deputy Seán Crowe asked the Minister for Education and Skills if his attention has been drawn to the problems being experienced in some schools where there are difficulties in maintaining and upgrading essential IT systems and the way he proposes to address this matter. [19146/11]

Each school is responsible for the development, management and maintenance of its IT systems and there is no requirement to notify difficulties to my Department. The Department recognises the need for the provision of technical support to schools but funding is not available due to the overall resource constraints being faced at this time.

To help schools upgrade their ICT infrastructure, my Department has provided €92 million in devolved grants since November 2009 under the ICT in schools programme. This funding was to be used for the installation of a digital projector and teaching computer in every classroom, after which schools could use remaining funds to buy other appropriate ICT hardware and software.

The Department funds a national support helpdesk for the schools broadband service, incorporating content filtering and anti-virus protection. In addition, it has deployed national procurement frameworks for schools, covering digital projectors, computers and printers, and providing a three-year next-business-day on-site warranty as standard.

I am aware of the initiative on rolling out broadband. One of the difficulties facing schools is the speed at which such a service can be accessed. Another difficulty can arise if an IT teacher retires because one must then buy in such expertise, which puts pressure on existing resources. It is increasingly happening and the issue is being discussed by boards of management which are trying to surmount the difficulty. Supports are provided for through departmental Estimates but when we move into the school structures the supports are not there. I do not know how to get around that problem. There is probably a lot of IT expertise in the community, including people who are doing internships. That may not be a long-term suggestion but it could be examined in terms of addressing this difficulty. I do not know how the Minister or the Department can deal with it.

That is a very helpful suggestion which I will explore.

There has been a major IT investment in primary and secondary schools over the past four or five years in particular. In schools that I have had the opportunity to visit, it is great to see good suites of hi-tech equipment. Will the Minister consider the possibility that progressive VECs could have a role in providing support services for our primary schools? It is already happening in my own constituency where VECs provide information technology services to voluntary secondary schools and primary schools. With the forthcoming rationalisation of the VECs, perhaps they could take on those additional responsibilities, thus justifying an enhanced role for them not just as providers of second-level and further education, but also as providers at primary level.

That suggestion is very much in the spirit of the reforms for the VEC sector that we have in mind.

It so happens that in two of the schools I visited in Wexford that were complaining about cuts to their education budget — concerning resource teachers for Travellers — they said they would like to have had an extra teacher rather than the IT facilities they received. I cannot be sure if it is the same all over the country, but when the IT materials were being given out in the good times, schools in Wexford were happy with the level of IT. They even said it was a bit on the generous side at times. They are killed now that they are losing resource teachers, which will have a much bigger impact.

I note what the Deputy has said.

Schools Building Projects

Noel Harrington

Question:

13 Deputy Noel Harrington asked the Minister for Education and Skills the progress made by Cork County Vocational Education Committee in securing funding for the proposed development of a 900 pupil secondary school for Skibbereen, County Cork; the stages of the assessment still to be processed; the proposed timetable for the completion of this project; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [19028/11]

In 2005, my Department allocated funding of €300 million for a public private partnership programme comprising 23 new post-primary and four new primary schools. The provision of the proposed new secondary school in Skibbereen was included in that announcement. As a site for the school was secured in 2009, it had not been possible to include this project in any of the bundles already being procured. As part of the jobs initiative recently announced by the Minister, I confirmed that I am developing two further bundles of PPP schools. The provision of the school in Skibbereen will be considered in this context.

The issues to be considered in the timing and bundling of schools include, site availability for each school, geographical spread and total cost of the proposed school bundle. The timescale for the provision of the school is approximately four years from the time the bundle is announced.

I thank the Minister of State for his response. When the scheme was announced recently it was met with some disappointment. I accept, however, that it was a different scheme involving the announcement of entirely new schools on new sites. This issue in Skibbereen has been going on for a quite a number of years. There is a clear need to build a new school, where three existing schools are being amalgamated: the Mercy Heights School, De La Salle School and Rossa College. The new school project would provide a facility for up to 900 or 1,000 students in Skibbereen. The identification of a suitable site was always a big issue but thankfully it has now been resolved with the generous help of County Cork VEC and Skibbereen Town Council among others. That issue has been put to bed.

Having heard the Minister of State's response, I appeal for the issues I have raised to be considered seriously by him and his Department in the context of the new bundle that hopefully will be announced under a new PPP arrangement. These issues have already been brought to the attention of the Minister of State and his Department.

I take on board everything Deputy Harrington has said. It is vital to proceed with and expedite this project as soon as possible.

School Transport

Timmy Dooley

Question:

14 Deputy Timmy Dooley asked the Minister for Education and Skills if any analysis has been undertaken to identify possible savings in relation to school transport costs with improved co-ordination of school holidays at both primary and post primary level; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [19179/11]

The school transport scheme, which is operated by Bus Éireann, facilitates the transportation of more than 123,000 children to primary and post-primary schools each day. The parties to the Teachers' Conciliation Council have agreed the standardisation of the school breaks at Christmas, Easter and mid-term in the first and second terms, for the 2011-12, 2012-13 and 2013-14 school years.

School transport services will be co-ordinated and arranged to tie in with these dates while the commencement date for services will take into account the start date of the certificate examinations in June of these years. In general, bus services operate for 183 days at primary and 167 days at post-primary level each school year.

The 2011 allocation for the scheme is approximately €180 million which represents a daily cost of approximately €1 million. My Department is working closely with Bus Éireann to ensure services continue to operate in an efficient and cost effective manner.

I welcome the Minister of State's statement that school breaks will be standardised. However, we have heard this before. A number of years ago, a predecessor of the Minister, Deputy Quinn, was forceful on that issue. I understood — I am open to correction on this — that immediately following the then Minister's announcement school breaks were standardised. However, this has lapsed in the meantime.

I spoke recently to parents of two primary school-going children, one attending a boy's school and the other a convent in the same town, in respect of whom there was practically a week in the difference in terms of summer holidays, which is ludicrous and is a burden on parents. Non-standardised school breaks can create an unnecessary burden for parents of two children attending different primary schools and another in their first or second year of second level in terms of work commitments and caring. I hope the Minister or Minister of State has the power to ensure the standardisation is adhered to. I acknowledge that in difficult winters schools must often close for a few days. Many parents who have spoken to me, some of whom I know well, are frustrated by the lack of co-ordination of school breaks and holidays within small communities.

I am interested in hearing about the deviation which the Deputy suggests is occurring in the locality concerned. The Department will issue a circular reminding schools of their obligations to standardise breaks. The type of savings required in respect of school transport could be made in conjunction with standardisation of school breaks at Christmas, Easter and mid-term. We will issue a circular in each of the coming years to ensure compliance with standardised breaks.

I welcome the Minister of State's commitment. This should be strictly enforced. The Minister of State mentioned that school transport costs €1 million per day and that his Department must save more than €70 million over a four year period. A considerable amount of that €70 million could be achieved by practical measures. I have previously tabled questions to the Minister of State in regard to co-ordination of school, rural and HSE transport. All of those practical initiatives must be implemented and maximised at a time when there are particular pressures on the school transport budget.

The Deputy has made valid points. These are exactly the type of practical measures that can be used to achieve the savings required. In relation to co-ordination of transport services, discussions are ongoing between the Minister of State, Deputy Kelly, and my Department in regard to how we begin the process of merging the school, rural and HSE transport services in order to achieve economies of scale.

Written Answers follow Adjournment Debate.