Priority Questions

School Textbooks

Brendan Smith

Question:

1. Deputy Brendan Smith asked the Minister for Education and Skills his plans to meet with school book publishers to discuss the fact that they are failing to abide by the code of practice on publishing unnecessary new editions of textbooks; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [31183/12]

I am very conscious that the cost of textbooks is a considerable burden on families. I have met with members of the Irish Educational Publishers' Association and impressed on them the need to limit the cost of textbooks and to avoid placing schools and families in a position where textbooks are altered unnecessarily. The association agreed a voluntary code of practice among their members, which commits them to limiting the publication of new editions and to maintaining editions in print unchanged for at least six years. The publishers also gave assurances that they will sell textbooks to schools at substantial discounts so schools can purchase in bulk to stock textbook rental schemes.

If the Deputy has information that suggests that publishers are not abiding by the code, I invite him to provide me with it and I will take it up with the Irish Educational Publishers' Association.

I share the Minister's concerns about the substantial costs for households. It is an issue that arises at this time of the year. I welcome the fact that last October the Minister received a commitment from the book publishers that they would sign up to a code of practice in regard to revised editions. There have been complaints, some of which have been aired in the national media, that a new edition of the home economics book, Lifewise, has been published. The publishers say the book concerned was published six months prior to the adoption of the code of practice. Whether it was outside the time from when the code of practice was implemented, they should have abided by the spirit of the agreement that was made with the Minister and his Department. I hope the Minister will pursue this matter.

Another issue brought to my attention is the fact that a new edition of the English poetry book is published each year. I do not know if that is the case, but those complaints have been made to me and this is the proper forum to air these concerns.

I thank the Deputy for bringing this matter before the House. With regard to the home economics curriculum, the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment, NCCA, last changed it in 1994. The first edition of Lifewise was published in 2006 and a second edition is being published in 2012. The code of practice provides for no revisions to existing textbooks for four years unless changes are required by the curriculum or due to examination changes. There has been a six year gap in this case between revisions. The first edition is still available to purchase online, as at 25 June last. The code of practice states that old editions will be kept in print for two years unless annual sales fall below 500 copies. It appears that this part of the code of practice is being complied with. It is valid to ask why schools are opting for the new book when there is no compulsion to do so. Schools must take leadership on this issue as well.

As regards the second matter raised by the Deputy, I do not have information to hand. If he has further information on it, I will be happy to receive it.

The Minister has correctly spoken about the value of the book rental schemes. The more of those that are in use and the more leadership given by schools on this issue, the better.

There is another practical problem. It is difficult for parents or pupils to sell on books. In many cases, compact discs, CDs, are provided along with the language books and in many instances workbooks are part of the textbook. From a practical point of view, it is not possible to sell such books. That is a matter that could be addressed as well because it is a matter of concern. A number of parents, who have a number of children who have gone through second level, raised it with me.

I agree with the Deputy on the last matter. Where a workbook and a textbook are integrated into a single document it should not be beyond the boundaries of imagination to construct a disposable workbook alongside the textbook. The textbook would remain valid and each year a cheaper, castaway workbook could be run in tandem with it. It is, in effect, built-in obsolescence to have a workbook which, if read by a student for one year, is considered to be interfered with and cannot be readily used by anybody else.

Residential Institutions Redress Scheme

Seán Crowe

Question:

2. Deputy Seán Crowe asked the Minister for Education and Skills if consideration has been given to using the database of survivors of residential abuse who applied for compensation to the Redress Board as a way of directly consulting with them on the drafting of the Residential Institutions Statutory Fund Bill, 2012. [31185/12]

My Department undertook a comprehensive consultation process on the proposed fund. Press advertisements invited views, which could be forwarded by post, e-mail or by a freefone service, which was operated by Barnardos. Officials also met with groups representing survivors of residential institutional abuse, the congregations and a number of other interested parties.

Under existing legislation, it was not open to my Department to use the database as outlined in the question. The current Bill empowers the redress board to provide awardees' names, addresses and dates of birth to the statutory fund. This will enable the fund to verify applicants' entitlements to apply. That is the only purpose for which the information can be used. The Attorney General's office has advised that any direct unsolicited communication with survivors could be open to challenge as it might encroach on their right to privacy under the Constitution and the European Convention on Human Rights.

This is one of the suggestions put forward by the Munster survivors group which I considered to be practical. It is a pity the legislation cannot be used in that way. One of the major criticisms of some of the groups about the redress process up to now is about how to get the message out. They are saying the same about this scheme. It is probably a smaller cohort but one of my major concerns is that it will compound the hurt if people who went through the courts or the redress process will not be informed. We know from experience that part of the difficulty is that many of the survivors of these horrible places have literacy problems, and the issue is to get around that. I considered this a practical way of doing it. If it cannot be done, we will have to consider legislation on it in the future.

People are also saying that they feel sidelined by the process. I accept that the Minister met with a number of groups. Who were the groups the Minister's officials met? Many of the people who went through this process are not involved in groups and part of the problem is how to take their views on board. We need some form of outreach in that regard.

I appreciate what the Deputy is saying. I met with groups before I was Minister and when I was education spokesperson for the Labour Party. I also met constituents who were victims but who did not want me to write to their home address. They had concealed it from the rest of their family and wanted to preserve their privacy. Then there were individuals who did not wish to be associated with any group. There are a number of groups and they do not necessarily all have the same opinions and views on general matters of policy. We are doing our best. This matter has been ongoing for a long time. The Committee Stage of the Residential Institutions Statutory Fund Bill is being taken on Thursday by my colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Seán Sherlock, and some of these matters will arise in detail then.

The difficulty is to try to get the information across. I accept there will be detailed discussion on this on Thursday but I would like to be convinced that everybody who is entitled to access this fund will be made aware of it. The issue is to fill that gap and ensure we do not compound the hurt. Can the Minister assure us that every effort will be made? Aside from advertisements and so forth, we must think outside the box on this.

Some people suggested using YouTube or using embassy staff in terms of people abroad but we must ensure that everyone who is entitled to these supports under the statutory fund have access to them.

I share the Deputy's view in principle. I can tell him that 258 individual responses from the public were received and they broke down as follows: 135 telephone communications, 103 written or e-mail submissions from individuals and 20 written submissions from different organisations.

The report on the consultation process within the Department is available on the Department's website but if the type of persons the Deputy is talking about have literacy problems they may experience difficulties getting access to the Internet. After so many years and with so many support groups having been in place, anybody could, and some have, gone to a solicitor seeking help from the original fund. There have been different avenues but we will continue to do all that we can to try to highlight this to ensure that nobody is left behind simply because they did not hear of it.

Third Level Funding

Stephen Donnelly

Question:

3. Deputy Stephen S. Donnelly asked the Minister for Education and Skills the plans or additional revenue streams, if any, he is pursuing, in order to reverse the current planned cuts to third level education, which over the next four years will amount to a cut of approximately 30% per student in real terms assuming the 6% cut in absolute funding in Budget 2012, 2% inflation per year and 18% more students; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [31249/12]

The reality of the economic situation and the public expenditure corrections which must be made in the coming years present challenges across all areas of public expenditure, including higher education.

At my request the Higher Education Authority, HEA, completed an initial study late last year on sustainability of the current funding system for higher education. The report outlines the scale of recent reductions in funding and growth in student numbers, and provides some evidence on the possible impacts of this on quality of provision. However, the HEA has emphasised that the report is preliminary only and that substantial additional work now needs to be undertaken before comprehensive proposals as to how we can sustainably fund higher education into the future can be developed. The HEA is continuing its work in this area and further advice is expected later this year.

I look forward to the report. As the Minister is aware, the position is that we are looking at a 30% per student drop in our third level system in the next four years. Last year, the Higher Education Authority, HEA, stated that between 2008 and 2011 there had been an 18% drop. Between 2008 and 2015, therefore, we are looking at approximately a 50% drop in funding per student. That will destroy our third level system.

I spoke to the head of human resources of one of the largest multinational companies in the country and he said that Irish graduates were becoming unemployable. He was talking about the decline in standard in the past ten to 15 years. He said that when the company is hiring at Masters and PhD level in Ireland it no longer advertises the jobs here. He felt that for that company's needs the quality of our Masters and PhD graduates relative to European, United States and Canadian graduates had become so unequal that they do not even advertise the jobs.

Could the Deputy frame a question?

Yes. I know the Minister is aware of this but I put it to him that a 50% drop will wipe out our system for the next ten, 20 or 30 years. Will the Minister consider reintroducing student fees? I know that is a very personal issue for him. The report from the Geary Institute in UCD suggests that measure has not done what I believe the Minister intended it to do, which was to improve the quality of access. My concern is that if we do not reintroduce fees, and it must be backed by zero or low interest long-term loans, as is the model in other countries, our students will be left in nominally free education in institutions that are falling in standards. I do not ask for that easily. It is not a pleasant political message for anybody in this Chamber to send. My concern is that without something like that our students will be left in second rate institutions. Will the Minister conduct a cost benefit analysis of that and perhaps consider introducing fees in one or two institutions to determine how the students, and the institutions, react?

I agree with the Deputy on a number of different levels but I am not satisfied yet that we have got the right economies within the higher level education system. I will give him one example. In the area of the provision of initial teacher education for teachers at primary and secondary level, the state of Singapore has one institution that provides the lot for primary and secondary. We have 22, and there are 43 courses between the five teacher training colleges on the one hand and various colleges that provide different forms of educational qualifications for secondary school teachers. This is a small country. We have invested millions of euro in the roads system and the transportation system, whether it is train or bus. The landscape in the 1970s when the regional technical colleges, RTCs, as they were, were established has shrunk enormously in that time. I want to make sure that as taxpayers we are getting very good value for money from within the existing system. I am not satisfied that we are getting that, but the full report from the HEA will help us to formulate policy.

I remind the Deputy that students at undergraduate level now pay a student contribution. It is not called a fee but it is de facto a fee. This year it will go up by €250 from €2,000 and in the next four years, including this year, it will go from €2,000 to €3,000. That is the contribution, and that is a higher de facto fee than many fee charging colleges. In the Netherlands, for example, there is a €1,700 fee per annum. We have crossed that particular Rubicon. Of the undergraduate students, 42% of them are on a grant of one kind or another that ensures they have the fee paid and also get a maintenance grant.

Regarding the Deputy's observation, the socio-economic spread of participation in higher level education has been transformed, and part of that transformation was due to better outcomes at second level, aspirations among young people to go to college, and the removal of the barrier that was the original fees.

I agree entirely. On the socio-economic strata, the Geary Institute report suggests that the lower socio-economic percentage has remained constant but I defer to the Minister's expertise in the area.

I agree entirely with the Minister. For example, in teacher training, if the figures I have seen are correct, 70% of new hires have come from Hibernia College, which is essentially zero cost to the State-----

-----while we have five teaching schools at enormous cost to the State. They may be doing very good work but that is clearly not the way to proceed. I agree that the first thing to do is find all of these inefficiencies quickly and ruthlessly. Nonetheless, if we take Buffalo University in the United States, which is a mid-ranking US university, its total funding is 30% more than our entire university system. That is what we are competing with. I know this is a difficult issue for the Minister and that promises were made before the election. I know he brought in this measure. I benefited from it as a student, and I appreciate that, but I ask the Minister to re-examine it with the back-stop of zero or very low interest loans that only kick in through when the graduate salary hits a certain amount.

When we get the HEA second report, which is due this year, we should have a debate on it either in the committee or the House.

Special Educational Needs

Brendan Smith

Question:

4. Deputy Brendan Smith asked the Minister for Education and Skills the total cut to resource hours last year and for this year; the impact that this will have on children with special and educational needs; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [31184/12]

I wish to clarify for the Deputy that there is no overall reduction in resource teaching numbers for the coming school year.

Overall, 9,950 posts will be provided for resource teaching and learning support for this coming academic year. That is the same number as that provided for last year and is an increase of 350 over that provided for in 2010.

Some 5,500 of these posts are available to the NCSE for allocation for pupils with more complex special educational needs.

Due to an increase in demand in schools it has been necessary for the NCSE to make an allocation of 85% of approved resource teaching hours to each school to ensure that every child who needs support can access support and are treated the same. This will ensure that there are a sufficient number of posts retained to make allocations for late or emergency applications, while staying within the European-imposed employment control framework.

I thank the Minister for his reply. Since the late 1990s huge advances have been made in putting in place a strong system of support for pupils with special educational needs. We must continue to support young people with special needs in our schools and protect the most vulnerable.

As the Minister stated, those with more complex needs have better resources provided for them, as is necessary.

The Minister said 9,950 posts will be provided for the school year 2012-13 and that this is similar to what was provided for in the 2011-12 school year. Were all of those posts allocated in the 2011-12 school year or is that information available to the Minister? I understood from the Minister's response that 9,950 posts were provided for, but were they all taken up or offered?

I do not believe they were, but I will arrange for that information to be communicated to the Deputy.

I acknowledge the wisdom and prudence in retaining 15% for allocation as the year progresses. I remember a question raised here previously with regard to special needs allocations and a substantial number of positions had still not been allocated as we approached the end of the school year. Does the Minister have a pattern for how the 15% is allocated over the year? Is it possible to allocate more of those posts earlier in the year? If the evidence from last year shows it is and if that is the pattern emerging, we should be more adventurous in upping the allocation above 85%.

I agree with the Deputy. With regard to SNAs, last year was the first time we held back a 10% quota for emergency cases and late applications. This year we announced on the same day, both the SNA allocation and the resource and special teaching support systems. The practice and the experience from last year is informing us and it is probable we will be able to release more posts in the first round allocations than previously. We did not want a situation to arise whereby we would have no reserves left to fill a bona fide application and the person would be left without an allocation. I am informed by the director general of the NCSE that the incidence of special need, vis-à-vis either SNAs or resource teachers, is levelling off. Therefore, we can do the job effectively with the numbers we have.

I thank the Minister for that clarification. The start of the school year is always an anxious time for parents with regard to the provision being made for children with special needs. We are aware of those concerns from what happened prior to the start of the school year last August. I suggest that if sufficient prudence was exercised so as to allow for a larger allocation of posts to be made initially, that would ease and alleviate some of the fears of parents.

That is what we will try to do. With regard to the reduction in the allocation in terms of time and the breakdown of the minutes, a schedule of how the hour should be allocated was drawn up in 1993 and is now being revisited to see if it is an appropriate allocation of different kinds of subvention and support systems for people with learning difficulties. Last year, the reduction of 10% accounted for six minutes from one hour and this year there is a further 5% reduction. Therefore, the 15% amounts to nine minutes. We have sent guidelines to the schools suggesting how, through different ways of teaching, such as grouping some learners with difficulties together, we can maintain the same kind of productivity, notwithstanding the notional and nominal 15% reduction in the time allocation.

Schools Building Projects

Seamus Healy

Question:

5. Deputy Seamus Healy asked the Minister for Education and Skills the position regarding the construction of a new school (details supplied) which has been waiting for the past 18 years for a new school; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [31250/12]

I can confirm to the Deputy that in 2011 my Department purchased a site, subject to the granting of planning permission, to construct a new school building for the school in question. My officials have consulted with the planning authority and are currently preparing a planning application for a 16-classroom school.

In view of the need to ensure that every child has access to a school place, the delivery of major school projects to meet demographic demands nationally will be the main focus for capital investment in schools in the coming years. The five-year programme is focused on meeting those demographic needs. The area in which the school is located has not been identified as an area of significant demographic growth. In that context, it has not been possible to advance all applications for capital funding concurrently.

All school building projects, including the project for the school in question, will continue to be advanced incrementally over time within the context of the funding available. However, in light of current competing demands on the Department's capital budget, it is not possible at this time to give an indicative timeframe for the construction of a new school building for the school.

I thank the Minister for his response, although it is disappointing. Gaelscoil Chluain Meala was established in September 1994. It has approximately 216 students and 11 teachers and provides education through Irish to the highest standards. However, the building from which it operates is very old, substandard and unfit for purpose. The school does its best to ensure it is maintained properly, but it is unfit for purpose. It has taken 18 years to get to the point where it now has a site and in view of this I urge the Minister to ensure the construction of the new school is expedited, irrespective of other matters. The delay in getting to construction is completely unacceptable.

The Minister said the issue of planning and planning permission is ongoing. What does that mean? Where do we stand with regard to the drawings? I am aware that local architects submitted drawings to the Department in 2010, but the Department indicated it was going to produce drawings in-house.

Subject to confirmation, if necessary, the information I have is that formal planning permission has not yet been received from the local authority. Such permission has a shelf life or validity of five years. I will get back to the Deputy on the issue, but what should happen is that the process of applying for planning permission should proceed, notwithstanding the fact we do not have the additional funding available at this time. However, should such funding become available, they should then be ready to go on site immediately. The process of getting ready to go on site should continue. The indication from the information I have is that formal planning permission has not yet been received.

Is the application for planning permission not subject to the drawings being available from the Department? Will the Minister take a serious look at the file and will he take a personal interest in the matter? This has been ongoing for 18 years and judging by what the Minister said, it may continue quite a bit longer. I urge the Minister to take a personal interest in the matter because of the delay up to now.

I will examine the matter and will take a personal interest in it.