Other Questions

School Curriculum

Micheál Martin

Question:

6. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Minister for Education and Skills his views on proposals in Britain to make foreign language learning compulsory from the age of seven and if he will comment on the differences in approach between Britain and Ireland on foreign language learning among primary school students; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [30955/12]

It is not meaningful to compare the foreign language policy in primary schools in this country with that prevailing in Britain as the contexts in both jurisdictions are significantly different. In Ireland, there are two national languages, Irish and English, both of which are given recognition under the Constitution. It is the policy of my Department that both of these languages are taught at primary level.

At present, the NCCA is in the process of developing a new language curriculum for primary schools. This work will be mindful of the literacy and numeracy strategy which I published last year. The recently published report by Dr. Pádraig Ó Duibhir and Professor Jim Cummins on the development of an integrated language curriculum will help to inform this process. The report recommends moving towards a language curriculum where children are encouraged to transfer skills acquired in one language to other languages.

I thank the Minister for his response. The reports published by the NCCA in the past couple of weeks are important and support the development of a new language curriculum at primary level. The Department must move on those reports as soon as is practical so as to ensure we develop an integrated language curriculum where language learning supports the development of literacy skills across all languages. This is particularly important for younger children.

We had the opportunity when discussing the Estimates in committee to discuss the substantial work that was carried out under the modern languages initiative, which started as a pilot project but became an initiative and was extended to a few hundred schools.

I share the concerns expressed by the Deputy. The crisis in literacy and numeracy in the primary school system and the results that emerged from the OECD Programme for International Student Assessment, PISA, demanded a national response. I published that national response in June 2011. Over time, the cost of that response, including the additional year of teaching for primary school teachers from three to four years of study and from one to two years for secondary school teachers, will amount to approximately €19 million. From memory, the language initiative cost of the order of €3 million. I used that money in the following way: by closing down that initiative. The NCCA recommended this although approximately 550 schools participated and got good results relatively speaking. We heard the same presentation. The NCCA, by which I must be guided, did not recommend making it mainstream throughout all schools. A new examination of this under way from Professor Cummins and Professor O'Dwyer. We will see what they recommend. They are considering a different way of approaching continental language learning in primary schools.

Did the council state why it did not recommend the expansion of the programme throughout all schools? The Minister said it does not compare to the British model and what is taking place there but other models exist throughout Europe. There is reference to a knowledge-based society and the importance of having a second or third language for skills and so on. All the literature and research has shown that the younger a child starts to learn a language, the better it works. We are lagging behind and this view is shared by many of the people involved in this initiative. The Minister should make clear whether it is a matter of money that is holding this back and, if it is simply money alone, perhaps we should consider other areas of expenditure.

Money is a significant factor but it is not simply money alone. English speaking countries, principally Ireland and Britain, are far behind other countries in languages for a host of reasons. This applies not only within schools. A young person spends only 15% of his or her time in school. The remainder of the time is spent at home or outside at play or whatever. In some countries, Finland, for example, there is an explicit policy of using subtitles in all television and film shows such that one can watch programmes in English with subtitles. Young people and adults in Finland learn English while reading the Finnish subtitles. There are various ways in which the acquisition of language is made easier. Popular music is mostly in English now but that was not the case 20 or 30 years ago. In a sense we are at a disadvantage because we are not getting the same cultural cross-references. People are probably learning more Irish now from TG4 programmes with subtitles than was the case previously. I await the new report from the two academics and I hope we will get a sense of how we can improve our linguistic skills, which are behind those of other countries.

School Curriculum

Seamus Kirk

Question:

7. Deputy Seamus Kirk asked the Minister for Education and Skills if he has any concerns in relation to the non-availability of a textbook for project maths; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [30952/12]

Project Maths is currently being phased in at post-primary schools. The textbook is one of many tools a teachers uses to support the delivery of the curriculum. Project Maths emphasises a range of skills that are beyond the scope of any textbook. Successful implementation depends on the skills and pedagogical knowledge of teachers which are developed through continuing professional development, CPD, peer learning and exchanges of best practice. Continuing professional development has been and continues to be made available to every mathematics teacher in the country. There is also an extensive range of resources for teachers and students available at projectmaths.ie. From this September, a post-graduate diploma funded by the Department will be made available to out-of-field teachers of mathematics. Textbooks for Project Maths are available on the market. Publishers have been making available supplements to their textbooks to reflect the evolving syllabus.

I thank the Minister for his reply. The person who was in contact with me subsequent to my tabling of the parliamentary question indicated that the problem was somewhat different, that textbooks were being introduced each year and that this added to the difficulty. Project Maths was rolled out originally in 2008 and it became a leaving certificate subject in 2010 in 24 schools, which was welcome. Ongoing professional development is important and the network of education centres, especially the education department in the University of Limerick, carry out important work for teachers. The initial information I received was contrary to what was indicated to me subsequently. The message from some in the educational community is that they hope a time will come when there will be a set textbook available rather than changes every year.

An earlier question dealt with textbooks generally. We will consider the proliferation of textbooks but we are not in control of what publishers wish to produce. We try to give some guidelines on what individual mathematics teachers will use but I understand a range of teaching supports are available, including various printed material to assist in the teaching of Project Maths.

It is important to recognise the engagement of mathematics teachers with this project as well. Often it is easy for people to knock the public service and those delivering services. This project emphasises the importance of ongoing professional development and the fact that these courses are developed. It is important to recognise the worthwhile engagement by teachers of mathematics. The recent announcement by the Minister is important in this regard as is the further involvement of the University of Limerick with the post-graduate diploma.

During the past three years €8.7 million has been spent on continuing professional development for mathematics teachers to assist in making the transition from the traditional mathematics to Project Maths. We will continue to maintain that support.

I welcome the Minister's reply. I have raised this matter with the Minister previously but let us take a step back from Project Maths to before the child gets to that stage. The Minster has probably heard of the concern among primary teachers that the fundamentals of mathematics are being eroded all the time. Will the Minister consider the issue of the use of calculators in primary school sector in consultation with the NCCA? This is all before the child gets to the Project Maths stage. There is a temptation at primary level to take the lazy route if one has a calculator in one's hand. One may not understand what one is doing or one may not understand the fundamentals of the calculations one is expected to perform.

I echo the comments of Deputy Smith on the chopping and changing of text books. The sooner the publishers are brought in by the Department, the better, given the fact that families are struggling to try to put bread on the table. Textbooks are changing year in, year out and sometimes only one page and the front cover are being changed. This is of great concern to all of us.

There is an issue with non-availability. Is there a problem with Project Maths in the Irish language? I realise there is a similar difficulty in the North. Is there co-operation between the Department and the education system in the North to try to fill the gap? It makes sense to reach some sort of agreement.

In regard to Deputy O'Donovan's question, I met the publishers and they have entered into a voluntary code of practice. They will not change textbooks that are less than four years old and will maintain a supply after that point to avoid the chopping and changing to which the Deputy referred. I remind him, however, that schools and individual teachers decide on the books and this is why I have encouraged schools to introduce book rental schemes. If a maths teacher wants to change a textbook for a second year course, 60 books may be required if there are two streams in the school. The book rental scheme would act as a deterrent to chopping and changing. I have seen examples of the same book being presented with different illustrations or other cosmetic changes. We are trying to deal with the matter but we have no responsibility as such for the textbooks and it is a matter for the teachers themselves to change them.

I am not clear on the position regarding the difficulty in sourcing Project Maths material as Gaeilge. As Deputy Crowe will possibly be aware, I have a very good working relationship with my counterpart, the Minister for Education in Northern Ireland, John O'Dowd, MLA. I will make contact with him to find out whether he is experiencing similar difficulties and if we can devise a joint response.

Education and Training Boards

Timmy Dooley

Question:

8. Deputy Timmy Dooley asked the Minister for Education and Skills if he will outline the progress made to date in the establishment of the new education and training agency SOLAS; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [30947/12]

Following the Government decision to create SOLAS, an implementation group which I chair was set up to establish the entity. A public consultation on the establishment of SOLAS involving key stakeholders was completed earlier this year. The heads of a Bill for the establishment of SOLAS have been approved by Government and I expect to publish this legislation during the autumn session. Following the establishment of SOLAS, more than 700 staff from the FÁS training division will commence transferring to the education and training boards. The establishment of SOLAS is part of a complex range of related reforms, including the transformation of the 33 VECs into 16 education and training boards. In advance of the establishment of the education and training boards a number of joint projects are already under way between the VECs and FÁS which will assist in the transfer of FÁS training services to the boards.

I welcome that the heads of the Bill have been approved by the Government. Does the Minister of State expects to have the legislation enacted before the end of the calendar year?

It is our ambition to have it before the end of the year.

Is it envisaged that the new architecture will be put in place in parallel with the legislation going through the Houses of the Oireachtas?

The SOLAS implementation group has primarily been working to create a roadmap for the amalgamation of the education and training boards and the further education and training functions of FÁS. We have established two pilot programmes, in Cork and Dublin, to carry out a paper exercise of assessing the challenges and issues that might arise as a result of the amalgamation. We are trying to establish the issues and work out solutions at this stage so that we can address them when they arise. We are putting in place the circuitry of SOLAS so that when the legislation is introduced we can throw the switch to allow the amalgamation to be completed speedily.

The amalgamation of 33 VECs into 16 education and training boards and the process of amalgamating the boards with FÁS are difficult challenges by themselves. We are trying to complete both tasks concurrently while also ensuring continued provision for the many unemployed people who deserve excellent opportunities in terms of further education and training.

We are working hard to ensure that SOLAS comes into being as speedily as possible. I envisage that SOLAS will get its legal basis as an entity towards the end of 2012 and amalgamations will ensue, initially in Dublin and Cork and other areas following quickly. It is hoped that the amalgamation process will be completed by the end of 2013.

I thank the Minister of State for the clarification. I appreciate this is a major project and it has my full support. However, the momentum needs to be maintained. If any doubt or uncertainty sets in the new entity will get off to a bad start and will take time to recover. I am concerned for the people who avail of the services. All of us have met people in our clinics who have asked about SOLAS and whether it provides courses. Some are not yet fully aware that FÁS continues to deliver training services. It is important to get this right but delays must be minimised for the sake of the people who depend on these service and for the employees who fear being stuck a lacuna between the existing authority and the new entity.

The Minister, Deputy Quinn, and I have been anxious to engage with employees of FÁS and the VECs. Several weeks ago we held an enlightening meeting with the chairs and CEOs of the VECs in which we addressed a number of concerns in the VEC sector regarding what the future held for the new entity.

I share Deputy Smith's concern that when SOLAS comes into being, people should be able to trust the quality of service they receive as end users. Industry should also be able to trust that it can respond effectively to emerging skill requirements. It is important not to rush the process but it is also important to avoid unnecessary delays so that the new entity serves the people for whom it is intended in the most effective and high quality manner.

Third Level Grants

Barry Cowen

Question:

9. Deputy Barry Cowen asked the Minister for Education and Skills if he will explain the funding options that are available to persons who want to study at postgraduate level from September 2012 but cannot afford to following the abolition of postgraduate grants and in view of the fact that the back to education allowance is not an option for many in view of the fact that their chosen area for postgraduate study is different to that studied at undergraduate level; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [30944/12]

Students entering postgraduates courses who meet the qualifying conditions for the special rate of grant will be eligible to have their postgraduate tuition fees paid up to the maximum fee limit of €6,270 under the student grant scheme. In addition, a limited number of students who would previously have qualified under the standard grant thresholds will qualify for a €2,000 contribution towards the costs of their fees. The new income threshold for this payment is €31,500 for the 2012-13 academic year, increasing relative to the number of family dependants. Maintenance payments beyond these levels of fee support will not be provided. Postgraduate students continuing on their existing courses will not be affected by these changes. A number of financial institutions offer loans for postgraduate studies.

Deputy Crowe referred earlier to deficiencies in language teaching. I spoke privately with the Minister while we were campaigning in the recent referendum about my shock at the number of people from outside this jurisdiction who were working in a certain enterprise because of a lack of people with specific skills here. At a recent party meeting a young person who is pursuing postdoctoral studies expressed concern about the drop in the number of Irish graduates undertaking postgraduate courses and, specifically, PhD courses in the sciences. She indicated that there was a visible decrease in the number of new Irish PhD students in postgraduate labs and pointed out that most people who achieve that level of education are guaranteed employment. She was concerned that these opportunities are being taken up by non-Irish postgraduate students. From her experience as a young person, she feared those who came to college a few years after her would not get the same opportunities to avail of the grant system, with fees paid and adequate maintenance.

We know the ICT sector needs more graduates and the same could be said of the pharmaceutical sector, where there has been a move to bio-pharmaceuticals. There are challenges and job opportunities and we want to ensure our people with the requisite skills and ability have the opportunity to pursue those studies, gain useful employment and create employment for others.

Science Foundation Ireland was a very good initiative established by a Minister in the Fianna Fáil-led Administration in the late 1990s and has put an enormous amount of money into science and science-related research. It has benefited in the main, but not exclusively, science graduates who want to do postgraduate work, including doctoral and postdoctoral studies. Substantial funding remains in that area. There was a difficulty in attracting people into the STEM areas and into science subjects at undergraduate level. My predecessor, Mary Coughlan, was instrumental in persuading the universities application system to award an extra 25 points for higher level mathematics, which is the gateway into science-related subjects such as physics, chemistry and engineering. If Deputy Smith's party member has specific evidence of declines in particular areas, I am happy to seek a detailed explanation. My impression is that there is no shortage, relative to the space available, of people to do postgraduate work in Ireland. However, there is an internationalisation of the third level sector at postdoctoral level. That is a good thing because Irish people move to other universities and people come to ours.

I welcome the news on the grants. Some students find it difficult to get loans from financial institutions for postgraduate courses. Will the Minister consider a guarantee to back up the students applying for loans?

When we discussed this before, the Minister said he would know the drop-off rates in October. Is that still the position?

Considerable progress can be made in achieving better collaboration between the universities, the institutes of technology and relevant industries. We made progress in this area when I was in the Department. It is relevant to the point made about Deputy Donnelly's question. There can be better collaboration and better utilisation of resources and less duplication. This will be of benefit to more people.

In response to Deputy Lawlor's question, the problem is that financial institutions in the private sector are making loans available but, in many cases, parents or family relatives must go guarantor. Evidently, that mitigates against people without familial support to underwrite the loan. We are looking at ways in which loan finance can be made easier to access.

The detailed statistics on participation will be available when we see what happens in October.

I agree with Deputy Smith. We are looking for better collaboration between third level institutions and local businesses. This is particularly true in the institutes of technology sector, where the needs of business and enterprise in the general scientific research and applied research areas can be met. I saw very good examples of that in Athlone over nine months ago. In implementing the Hunt report, the Higher Education Authority, HEA, has asked institutes and universities to reply by the end of this month on their intentions regarding strategic alliances and collaboration as part of the review and reform of the HEA area.

Teaching Contracts

Pádraig MacLochlainn

Question:

10. Deputy Pádraig Mac Lochlainn asked the Minister for Education and Skills if teachers on indefinite contracts can be replaced under the terms of the Croke Park deal. [30986/12]

I assume the Deputy is referring to the position of teachers who hold a contract of indefinite duration, CID. Under the public service agreement, the Government has given a commitment that compulsory redundancy will not apply to permanent staff within the public service, save where existing exit provisions apply. This commitment was given in the context of redeployment and comprehends teachers employed on contracts of indefinite duration who are covered by the teachers' redeployment scheme. This scheme is in place to redeploy permanent and CID teachers where they are surplus in a particular school or VEC or in the event of school closure.

This was a technical question and, with the exception of teachers affected by it, people are not interested in it. I have come across a number of cases of this. It may involve teachers with contracts of indefinite duration who do not have 22 hours of teaching. I know of a teacher who has five hours and 20 minutes paid by the Department, with the rest paid by the school. Now that another teacher has been redeployed to school, that teacher is in a crisis situation. These are awkward cases and it is difficult to legislate for them. People seek information on the situation. Perhaps there could be a circular or advice given on it.

I understand the difficulty. The problem in getting good, permanent employment in secondary schools is that teachers tend to be teachers of subjects. Getting the number of hours required to teach a couple of subjects can be problematic, particularly in smaller schools. It is a topic I will discuss with the employment and management bodies in the area. The same problem does not exist in the primary school sector because the teacher is employed to teach a specific class, not a specific subject. It is unsatisfactory and the situation to which Deputy Crowe refers can arise.

In this example, the person is in the job for five years. At this stage, the person should be moving towards a full-time contract. Lo and behold, once a teacher is redeployed, the teacher has been reduced to five hours and 20 minutes and has lost the support she received from the school. Are there many such cases? With the pressure in the system, we will get more and more of these cases. Can the Minister outline the number of cases this affects?

I will take note of the specific request and provide information on it. Across the employment spectrum in education, the good news for teachers at primary and secondary level is that in the next six years we will have 45,000 extra primary school pupils and 25,000 post-primary pupils. Dividing this by the pupil teacher ratio, approximately 30, gives an indication of the number of teachers required. Redeployment out of the system, even including schools that will lose a teacher because of size and pupil teacher ratios, will not account for this. Demand for teachers is strong and will continue until 2024.

School Uniforms

Jonathan O'Brien

Question:

11. Deputy Jonathan O'Brien asked the Minister for Education and Skills if he will outline the meetings he or his Department have had with interested groups or persons in relation to his initiative regarding the need to reduce the cost of school uniforms; the number of schools that have been contacted and asked to participate in this scheme; and his projection in relation to the success or otherwise of this scheme. [30989/12]

I have previously put on the record of this House my support for any measures that can reduce uniform costs for parents, including measures such as the use of generic type uniforms or the use of sew-on crests or school badges. I have raised this matter informally with the National Parents Council at primary level and I recommend that the primary and post primary National Parents Councils mobilise parents' associations and schools' associations to raise this issue with school authorities. I have since discussed the matter again with the National Parents Council and a further meeting on this matter will take place in early September. However, any arrangements in this regard will have to be made between school authorities and parents. It is important that schools are sensitive to the financial pressures on parents in making decisions, not just about school uniforms but about any matter that has cost implications for parents.

This is a racket. I do not know how many companies are involved but, in some cases, a school jumper costs €75.

And then the child loses it.

Yes, it is lost or damaged. The same jumper could be bought online for €15 instead of €75. Clearly, somebody is making a huge profit off the requirement for jumpers to have a badge or crest.

Are the Minister's hands tied on this issue? Is it a matter for each school to decide its own uniform policy? I understand that in some cases, the school itself receives part of the profit, which seems somewhat odd. The cost of uniforms is out of control and must be tackled. This is probably the last opportunity to raise the issue before the same problems arise with the start of the new school year in September. We all support the Minister's initiative, but nothing is happening locally. Can he indicate which, if any, schools have taken up the initiative? Unless action is taken, the current situation will continue and more parents will struggle to cope.

This is an issue that arises at the same time every year. I am personally aware of the costs involved as I have a young son and grandchildren. The most appropriate solution is for a school to opt for a generic colour for its uniform, which could be delivered by the large retail units. As it is, uniforms are often not manufactured in this country, so it is not a question of disrupting local employment. The school would then arrange for the clothing to be customised with a badge or crest. That was the option advised to me by people in the garment trade. The production of the badge may be outsourced but is conceived and delivered locally.

However, it is not within my remit to oblige schools to take this approach. Rather, it is a matter for the board of management and patron of each school, and there is a large number of players in that particular chain of decision making. All I can do is recommend that schools explore this option. All I can say to the National Parents Councils at both primary and secondary level is that they should seek to mobilise parents on this issue. I understand there are some 1,600 parents' associations affiliated to the national council at primary level, which is where the intervention must take place. The Department cannot, under any statutory instrument or legislation, compel a school to do X or Y in the area of uniforms.

It might be worthwhile for the Department to raise this issue with the Joint Managerial Body, Association of Community and Comprehensive Schools, National Parents Councils and so on. The Minister knows better than anybody that these bodies are very effective lobbyists on other issues and could give a similar impetus in this case.

I agree that such an engagement would be useful. Perhaps the Joint Committee on Jobs, Social Protection and Education would issue an invitation to the relevant management bodies to participate in a discussion on the issue. That could be very helpful.

The Minister has at his disposal a very big stick in the form of an ability to withhold funding. Is he prepared to use it to encourage action on this issue? It would be helpful to know exactly how much is being charged in every school in the country. It is unacceptable, in the current economic climate, to have this type of racket being carried on by a small number of companies.

Subject to confirmation - although I am fairly confident it is the case - I have no legal basis for varying the capitation funding available to schools that are delivering the curriculum on the basis of whether or not they offer the type of flexible uniform policy to which the Deputy referred.

Vocational Education Committees

Niall Collins

Question:

12. Deputy Niall Collins asked the Minister for Education and Skills when he anticipates that the chief executive officers will be assigned to the sixteen proposed new VECs; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [30942/12]

The agreed redeployment arrangements for CEOs are operating at present. The process will result in the identification of the CEOs designate for 15 of the 16 boards. I expect the process to have reached that point by early August. The CEOs designate will be appointed to the new boards when the Education and Training Boards Bill 2011 is enacted and the boards are established by law.

Under the agreed redeployment scheme, the CEO in the City of Dublin vocational education committee is not required to participate in the redeployment process but will be appointed to the position of CEO in the city of Dublin education and training board on the day it is established.

There has been some public commentary to the effect that this issue has gone to conciliation at one of the arms of the State's industrial relations machinery. Given that we are talking about only 15 people, there should be no delay in finalising these matters. The Minister has huge experience in government, including in the area of labour affairs. He should use his skills to finalise these appointments. In my constituency, the two chief executive officers are excellent public servants who work way beyond the call of duty. I know very few other CEOs, but I am sure most of them want to have their new designation finalised. The earlier these very important foundations blocks are put in place the better. Before we know it, August will be over and the new school year will be beginning. Instead of depending on the industrial relations machinery of the State to resolve an issue among little more than a dozen people, the Department should bring it to a head as soon as possible in the best interests of the new education and training boards and the personnel involved.

I acknowledge the concern and frustration the Deputy has expressed. Nothing is worse than uncertainty in any aspect of one's life, let alone one's employment. The people involved were all permanent CEOs, with the associated entitlements, and they have co-operated with the Department in regard to the reconfiguration which, as the Deputy observed earlier, amounts to a massive national reform measure. I am hopeful that by the end of July or the beginning of August we will know who are the designated people. They will be working with the acting CEOs until the legislation is enacted and commenced. Once identified, the CEOs designate will immediately commence work with two acting CEOs or, as the case may be, one permanent CEO and an acting CEO, in which case the permanent CEO would have less seniority than the designated person who is coming in as the super-CEO.

I hope this initiative will bring certainty for the staff delivering the services. The VEC schools and colleges of further education and their client groups, that is, the pupils and learners, will not necessarily be affected by any of this. However, the delivery, management and administration of the system is already being affected. The sooner we know the identity of the CEOs designate, the sequence of appointments and so on, the sooner they can get to work in restoring the confidence and momentum that have been lost.

The notion of certainty is at the core of this. The sooner these appointments are finalised the better from everybody's point of view, both those delivering the service and those availing of it, whether at second level, further education or in the traditional training area.

School Accommodation

Bernard Durkan

Question:

13. Deputy Bernard J. Durkan asked the Minister for Education and Skills if he is satisfied that he can continue to meet the school building programme requirements at primary and secondary level throughout the country notwithstanding the present economic situation and keeping in mind the need to ensure that pupils, students and staff are adequately accommodated with the highest quality of facilities and utilising the most modern methods in their provision; if he expects to discontinue the use of temporary or pre-fabricated classrooms throughout the system in the foreseeable future in view of the availability of resources; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [30937/12]

My priority is to ensure there is sufficient school accommodation to meet projected pupil enrolment increases into the future. The five-year plan, which I announced in March as part of a €2 billion capital investment programme, outlines the major school projects that will commence construction over the duration of the plan. These have been prioritised on the basis of meeting significant demographic needs.

In addition, my Department will consider applications by schools for funding for additional classrooms, which schools may provide on a permanent basis, where an immediate enrolment need is arising.

Under the recent biggest initiative ever undertaken to replace rented prefabs in schools, almost 200 schools have been offered grants to build permanent accommodation this year, that is, over a third of all schools which currently have rented prefabs. Over €40 million has been allocated for this initiative. In light of the need to prioritise available funding to meet demographic demand, it is not possible to say whether this scheme will be extended.

The Minister is familiar with a case in my own constituency - St. Mary's National School in Virginia, County Cavan - where I am anxious to have 16 prefabs displaced. We have done further analysis on the projected enrolment trends and would like to advance that project.

European Globalisation Fund

14. Deputy Aengus Ó Snodaigh asked the Minister for Education and Skills the total funds expected to be returned to the European Commission arising from the underspends in the EGF funding programmes for workers in companies (details supplied). [30992/12]

My Department has submitted final reports to the European Commission in respect of the Dell, Waterford Crystal and SR Technics programmes co-funded by the European Globalisation Adjustment Fund or EGF. The Deputy should note that as yet, none of these programmes has been formally closed by the Commission and, as such, the amounts of the reimbursements cannot be finally determined.

However, this month, my Department has made an advance payment of an estimated reimbursement to the European Commission in respect of the SR Technics programme. This amounts to €4,066,320.64. which represents 90% of the value of the EGF portion of unused programme funds. Debit notes in respect of 90% of the value of the EGF portion of unused programme funds for the Dell and Waterford Crystal programmes, in the amount of €5,380,480.17 and €506,332.35 respectively, were received by the Department on 25 June and are being duly processed.

It should be noted that the design of the EGF process provides for the return of moneys, given the inherent difficulties in precisely estimating the level of provision that will be subsequently taken up. On the basis of figures available to date, this has been the experience of all EGF applicant countries. The three construction sub-sector EGF programmes only concluded on 9 June this year. The Department does not yet have total expenditures for these programmes, which have to be submitted with final reports to the European Commission by 9 December 2012. A full picture of reimbursements will only emerge after that date.

Go raibh maith agat, a Aire Stáit. When I raised this issue in a Topical Issue debate last October, the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Ruairí Quinn said, "I share with the Deputy my concerns about the maladministration of this set of programmes by the previous administration. I will be honest with the Deputy, it is not a satisfactory situation". I agree with the statement he made on that occasion.

While this Government cannot be held responsible for the mess that Fianna Fáil made of the Dell, Waterford Crystal or SR Technics programmes, it is responsible for the largest programme for redundant construction workers, as €55 million is available to retrain them. The redundant construction workers programme, which the Government has overseen for the past 15 months, is probably the worst organised scheme in the State. Workers who are eligible to benefit from the funds were not contacted until 19 December 2011, some ten months after the Government took office. Of the original 9,089 workers named in the application, only 337 have accessed any additional support via the EGF, as of the end of April 2012.

Can the Deputy please frame a question?

What has the Minister of State done since admitting the existence of maladministration last October? Has he established who is responsible for the maladministration? Has he conducted any internal investigation, given that under the last three programmes at least €10 million has gone back to the European Commission? There are serious questions to be answered.

It is time for an independent investigation into the operation of these funding programmes to establish where the administrative and political responsibility lies, and to ensure that similar failures do not happen again. We know that there is another application pending.

I want to point out that the first application to be lodged by this Administration, and managed in its entirety from beginning to end, will be the TalkTalk application in Waterford. The Deputy seems somehow to conclude that it is the intention of the EGF process to expend all the money to which one can gain access. That is not, and never has been, the case in this or any other country.

EU statistics indicate that the average reimbursement is of the order of 46%. We are currently under that figure at 44.5%. Upon my appointment as Minister of State, I acknowledged that perhaps the performance of my Department in the past had not been stellar in this area. I immediately initiated a review of the EGF application process. We had extensive and ongoing discussions and meetings with worker representatives from the three entities mentioned by the Deputy. We learned a lot from that process, which was used when we prepared for and lodged the TalkTalk application. I am confident that the outcome of the process that has been undergone in interacting meaningfully with the workers in Waterford, trying to establish as best we can - although it is a very difficult thing to do - what their training and further education needs are, will be a far more positive one than we have experienced in the past.

Written Answers follow Adjournment.