Cuts in Education: Motion [Private Members]

We will move to Private Members' business, motion re education. I call on Deputy Jonathan O'Brien to move the motion. There are 40 minutes in this speaking slot.

Is the Minister of State, Deputy O'Sullivan, remaining for this, or will the Minister-----

The Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Ruairí Quinn, will be returning to the House.

May we wait until the Minister returns?

The norm is that we proceed with the debate because there is limited time. That is the only issue.

I understand there is limited time but surely if we are to debate an issue as important as education, somebody from the Department must be in attendance to listen to the debate.

The Minister stated he would be present but he took three of the debates in the Topical Issues slot so he has gone out for a short period. I understand he is coming back for the debate.

Tá an t-Aire anseo. I call Deputy O'Brien.

I did not want to start without the Minister, Deputy Quinn, being present.

It has been a long day.

I thank the Minister for being present to take this important issue.

I understand the Deputy is sharing time with Deputies Gerry Adams, Michael Colreavy, Sandra McLellan, Seán Crowe, Pearse Doherty, Martin Ferris and Michael Healy Rae.

I move:

“That Dáil Éireann:

affirms that the right to education is an internationally recognised human right, enshrined in Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Articles 13 and 14 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, reaffirmed by the 1960 UNESCO Convention Against Discrimination in Education, Article 2 of the first Protocol to the European Convention on Human Rights and Article 28 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child;

notes that the Proclamation of the Irish Republic in 1916 pledges to "cherish all the children of the nation equally"’ and recognises their right to a decent education;

notes that access to education provisions in internationally recognised human rights law include the obligation to eliminate discrimination at all levels of the education system;

recognises that Article 42 of the Constitution of Ireland commits the State to ensuring children receive a certain minimum education;

notes that the commitment to ensuring a citizen’s right to education has been undermined by the failure of successive governments to adequately invest in education and that even during the height of the Celtic tiger the 2007 Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s annual Education at a Glance survey reported that the State was spending 4.7% of its income on education compared to an OECD average for that year of 5.7%, while current spending on third level education in Ireland amounts to 1.2% of GDP compared to the OECD average of 1.5%;

notes that, since coming to power in 2011, the Fine Gael-Labour Party Government has continued the slash and burn policies of its Fianna Fáil-Green Party predecessors through the implementation of successive cuts to the State’s education system that resulted in an adjustment of €132.3 million in 2012 and €77 million in 2013, with further cuts to come in October 2014, which are expected to be as high as €100 million; and the punitive cuts to education are being made when the school population is projected to rise significantly over the next decade and at a time when the Government has imposed an employment control framework that limits the numbers who can be employed in the education sector;

deplores the current class sizes of primary schools in Ireland which average 26 pupils per teacher, the second largest in the EU, and that a further increase in the pupil-teacher ratio, PTR, would mean 30 plus class sizes in many primary schools;

acknowledges that the State’s failure to invest properly in education has resulted in a significant decline in literacy and numeracy rates in Irish schools, as reflected in tests carried out by the OECD between 2000 and 2009 which saw a fall from 15th to 25th in maths and from 5th to 17th in reading;

believes that, during a recession, it is important to prioritise and ring-fence funding for education in order to produce a highly skilled and flexible workforce that is necessary for our future economic growth and prosperity;

challenges Government’s policies that target higher and further education and greatly undermine the objective of incentivising people from upskilling and re-training in order to enhance their employment prospects;

recognises that the millions cut from the education budget will greatly impact on the implementation of progressive measures such as the reform of the junior certificate cycle and improving literacy and numeracy standards that are essential for improving standards in Irish schools;

recognises that instead of guaranteeing equal access to the highest standard of education, current Government policy has entrenched educational inequalities and a two-tier system;

acknowledges that more than one in four primary school pupils are being taught in overcrowded classrooms and many are taught in run-down facilities;

further acknowledges that almost one quarter of children of working-class parents do not sit the leaving certificate and the numbers leaving school without qualifications have remained unchanged since the 1990s, and an estimated 1,000 students per year cannot even make the transition from primary to secondary education;

notes that approximately one quarter of the adult population has literacy and numeracy problems while taxpayers pay €80 million per annum to subsidise the private education system, even though the children of the majority will never have a chance to attend these exclusive fee-paying schools;

acknowledges that teachers who are proficient in the Irish language play an essential role in helping to ensure the future viability of our native tongue as a vibrant, working, living language;

further acknowledges that Gaelscoileanna are struggling because of changes to staffing schedules as well as the ending of the preferential PTR and that this is likely to lead to the forced closure of many Irish language schools; and agrees that back to school costs for parents are unacceptably high;

calls on the Government to set out a timetable to:

— adopt a similar strategic approach to that taken by Northern Ireland’s Education Minister, John O’Dowd, who has redirected almost £400 million back into schools that has led to a rise in standards which have been recognised by the findings of the TIMSS and PIRLS, Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study and Progress in International Reading Literacy, that showed primary schools in Northern Ireland are world leaders in terms of literacy and numeracy - a trend that has also been matched by encouraging improvements in the post-primary sector;

— reverse the loss of an estimated 700 plus career guidance counsellors in second level schools resulting from the decision in budget 2013 not to provide these posts on an ex-quota basis that will seriously reduce the level of support for children experiencing a range of emotional and learning difficulties;

— ring-fence funding for Delivering Equality of Opportunity in Schools bands 1 and 2 schools; increase the number of teaching resource hours and bring to an end the cap on special needs assistants in order to match the needs of a rising school population and break the cycle of deprivation, marginalisation and educational disadvantage through the promotion of fairness and equality;

— reverse the decision to increase the PTR from 17:1 to 19:1 for post leaving certificate programmes which unfairly impacts on marginalised learners and the loss of an estimated 400 teachers with expertise in specialised subjects who will be impossible to replace in the further education and training sector;

— reinstate resource teachers and supports for Traveller children to pre-2011 levels;

— reverse the cut to the back to education allowance which will further compound and restrict student opportunities to access further education and will act as a barrier to creating job opportunities for the unemployed;

— introduce mandatory regulations that will ensure parents have greater choice when buying school uniforms and paying for school text books; and

— place on a statutory footing the voluntary code of practice to regulate the printers responsible for producing school text books; and

further calls on the Government to:

— make a commitment not to increase the PTR in the State’s primary and secondary school sector;

— ensure that, before its proposed budget cuts to the education sector are implemented, a comprehensive equality and social impact study is undertaken to first determine the implications for teachers and students;

— increase supports for Irish language learning and ensure Gaeltacht schools retain a preferential PTR in recognition of the challenges of teaching in Irish medium schools;

— publish a timetable for the delivery and construction of school buildings and other educational facilities and bring an end to the use of prefab buildings with at least a minimum of 150 school building projects to enter the architectural and planning stage each year in order that schools are ready to proceed as quickly as possible to the construction phases;

— protect the maintenance grant and end the annual increase to student contribution fees;

— increase resources for adult literacy, and deliver a progressive national strategy on lifelong and work-based learning focused at those most in need of training, re-training and upskilling;

— spend at least 6% of GDP on education, in keeping with best international practice;

— set a target to eliminate the need for the subsidy of educational provisions by charitable organisations, in the form of school books and school breakfasts and lunches, and ensure that every child can avail of a book rental scheme and free school meals;

— immediately extend the early start preschool project to all schools with pupils from disadvantaged areas, with a maximum child to adult ratio of 12:1;

— introduce a universal pre-school session of 3.5 hours per day, five days a week for all children aged three to five years;

— invest towards implementation of a PTR of 15:1 in all post-primary schools and immediately reduce all class sizes for children under nine years of age to a maximum of 20 pupils;

— invest to progressively reduce class sizes at post-primary level;

— keep funding for schools fully public and under democratic control;

— ensure adequate provision of special needs assistants where required;

— set targets to increase the number of students in further and higher education, especially part-time and adult students and other groups, including people with disabilities and Travellers, and provide third level access programmes for schools with a low take-up of places;

— provide adequate financial assistance and support for students from disadvantaged backgrounds to complete their courses;

— establish a book lending scheme across all primary and secondary schools; and

— end the system where schools are reliant on voluntary contributions from parents by raising the capitation grants to cover the real cost of running a school.”

Last night, I attended a meeting in Cork on the subject of cuts in education, organised by the INTO and the National Parents Council. Understandably, there has been much media attention lately concerning potential or proposed increases in the pupil teacher ratio, PTR, at primary level, which was of great concern to everybody who attended. At the meeting there were Deputies from all sides of the Chamber who heard at first hand from teachers, principals and parents about the difficulties and challenges being faced by everybody involved in the education sector. I am sure the Minister will understand the level of anger and frustration which was palpable in that room last night in regard to some of the media coverage about the proposed PTR increases that has been aired both in print media and on the airwaves. Much of that anger was directed, not only at the present Minister, but at the successive governments that, in the opinion of those teachers and principals who are working within the education system, failed to invest in education. One of the most common questions that kept coming up in all contributions, whether from the top floor, from members of the INTO, parents or from concerned members of the public, was why this is happening. Why are children being targeted for cuts? Why are they being asked to pay for the economic failings of this State and of previous governments, bankers, bondholders and such like? That was the recurring theme in all the contributions made last night.

The answer many are coming to form on their own is that this Government has decided that children must pay towards the economic recovery of the State, and because of policy decisions being taken by this Minister in respect of education, children must take some of the burden of responsibility in the regaining of economic sovereignty. Of course that does not go down well with people because children did not create the economic crisis and should therefore not be held responsible. They should not have to pay for the failings of others.

Government Deputies will say that answer is simplistic in nature and shows a lack of understanding of the economic challenges facing us.

On the contrary, the Minister can understand why people come to that conclusion when we look at some of the decisions taken by the Department in recent years. There were budget cuts of €132 million in 2012, followed by €77 million last year, and if we are to believe media reports, up to €100 million this year. We do not have the exact figure this year because of the changes in the timing of the budget, and I understand that, but we are certainly looking at in excess of €70 million again this year and possibly up to €100 million. If we take the upper level of that estimate, in the region of €300 million will have been taken out of education over the last three years. The Government's amendment to the motion states that it has protected front-line services. I do not think that if €300 million is taken out of education it can be stated categorically that front-line services have been protected. It is just not possible and I think the Minister knows that.

Many of the cuts which have been announced since the Minister came into office were in DEIS, and the Government's amended motion refers to the advantages of having DEIS posts, which makes the Minister's decision in the first budget all the more bewildering, when he targeted DEIS. Of course, he reversed that decision but we had cuts in further education last year and we are seeing cuts to capitation, increases in PTR and the minor works grant has been scrapped. All of these are having a significant impact on the provision of education at a local, regional and State level. They cannot continue to be implemented at that rate. All of this comes at a time when our class sizes are already the second highest in the EU. One school in my county of Cork has 41 pupils in one class. There is no way that a class of 41 pupils will get the type of education that is needed. It is just too many pupils for one teacher. Within that class of 41 pupils, there will be a wide spectrum of ability among the student population, so it is unfair on the teacher to try to teach 41 students.

The cuts in education are not just the preserve of this Government. We have seen what the previous Administration thought of education and we can see in its amendment the priority it affords education. It tabled a two-line amendment. During the boom time of the Celtic tiger era, we were spending less of our GDP on education than the OECD average. That is the type of low base from which we are trying to come. I am the first to admit that there are huge challenges facing the Minister, the Government and society in general when it comes to education. The way to answer that challenge is not to cut the education budget, but to protect it. I know people will say that this cannot be done, but it can be done, it must be done and we have shown in our alternative budget last year and this year how it can be done. We may differ on how to achieve that, but it can be done. If we look at international best practice we see that when countries like Finland were in recession, not only did they protect their education budget, they increased investment in education and they are now reaping the benefits of that. This can and must be done.

There are major challenges and we have outlined some of them tonight. One in four people in this State have numeracy and literacy problems. Students are being taught in classes in excess of 30 pupils, and I already cited a case in Cork of a class in excess of 40 pupils. I will be the first to recognise that there have been some progressive measures coming from the Department in education, such as junior cycle reform and the creation of SOLAS, but all of these progressive measure are under threat of not being implemented due to the continuation of cuts in education. The Minister cannot bring in reforming measures and then cut budgets which are needed to implement those reforms.

There will be much focus over the next two nights on the fact that Sinn Féin is in government in the North and we have a Minister for Education. Before Members in other parties criticise our record in the Six Counties, I would like mention some of the initiatives which the Minister, John O'Dowd MLA, has put in place for education. In this State the Minister is cutting investment in education, but under a Sinn Féin Minister in the North, we have actually redirected almost €400 million back into education. We have increased the number of teachers working with students with learning difficulties. All of this is bringing success and a recent report showed that students in the Six Counties finish top of the class. I know there was some improvement in the levels of literacy and numeracy in this State, but it shows that with a bit of political will, financial input, foresight and long-term planning, much can be achieved. One of my biggest criticisms of this Government is its lack of long-term planning. There is some planning on junior cycle reform, but all of that has been undermined by the lack of investment. If we are serious about creating an education system that is fit for purpose, we have to make a decision to protect our education budgets.

Over the next couple of nights, Members will come in here and say that we are in tough economic times and there are hard decisions to be made that they do not like to make, but they will make them in the best interests of the State. Cutting education is not a hard decision. There is no such thing as a hard or easy decision. There is only a right and wrong decision. Cutting education budgets and denying children the best possible opportunity to attain their own personal academic potential is not a hard decision. It is simply the wrong decision and I ask the Minister to reconsider any proposed cuts in education in the upcoming budget.

I commend an Teachta Jonathan O'Brien for bringing forward this very comprehensive PMB motion on education, and for his thoughtful and considered contribution to this debate. Hopefully the Minister will take some of his points on board. Mar a deireann Sinn Féin, tá an Rialtas seo ag leanúint na droch pholasaí oideachais céanna a bhí i bhfeidhim ag Rialtas Fianna Fáil. Níl aon Teachta ó Fhianna Fáil anseo, ach tá a fhios ag an Aire cad atá ar siúl acu.

With the budget only weeks away, there is serious concern among many teachers and parents that the Government plans to impose more cuts on education, and that this will lead to a further increase in the pupil-teacher ratio. The primary school class sizes in this State are already the second highest in the EU, with primary schools allocated one teacher for every 28 pupils. I am sure all Members have received hundreds of postcards over the last few weeks urging them to ensure that primary education is protected in the October budget, so this motion and this debate is timely.

There is no way that school children of today and tomorrow should be paying for the mistakes of greedy bankers and incompetent politicians. Education is a very basic right for every child, regardless of his or her background, and an across the board cut to education would be a direct attack on that right. An increase of 2.5 in the pupil-teacher ratio could also mean the loss of as many as 500 mainstream teaching posts, which would mean more overcrowded classrooms and understaffed schools, and basically failing the next generation. The Minister knows better than me that class sizes have a huge impact on children's learning. All the evidence shows that learning outcomes improve in smaller classes. Smaller classes also provide greater opportunity to identify learning difficulties and allow for early intervention.

Primary education needs to be a cornerstone of the recovery, not a target for more cuts.

As Deputy O'Brien mentioned, Labour Deputies have spoken about places in the North that many of them have never visited. The current pupil-teacher ratio in primary schools in the North is 24.7:1. By contrast, in this State, austerity rules, not the child's right to an education or the parents' right to see their children reach their full potential. Some €200 million has been cut from education since the Government entered power. The cost in educational terms is significant for children. The financial cost has been severe for parents. School uniforms, books, stationery, activities like sport and drama and the demands for voluntary contributions can cost a family with three children more than €1,000 per year.

More than 120,000 children - nearly a quarter of all primary school children in mainstream schools - are in classes of 30 pupils. As the Minister knows, the school population is set to increase significantly during the next decade. In Termonfeckin in my constituency of Louth, there are 36 in one classroom and 37 in another.

I wish to address briefly the issue of guidance counsellors. They are spending more time in the classroom and are not available to deal with students who approach them seeking help, sometimes with serious mental health issues. There has also been a loss of 500 teaching posts in 700 schools as a result of the changes made to secondary school staffing allocations. This has led to the loss of guidance counsellors. This is unacceptable at a time when young people are particularly vulnerable and the suicide rate is increasing.

I commend this motion to the Dáil and ask Deputies to vote to protect primary education and the pupil-teacher ratio. The Minister should accept the points made in the spirit in which they have been offered.

Education is key to the development of a nation and its youth. There can be little argument that, without a proper, functioning education system, a country is unable to prosper, innovate and grow. Most Irish people would understand and appreciate the exhortation in our nation's Proclamation that we cherish the children of the nation. In a decent, democratic republic, the state would surely ensure children had access to the care and education required to reach their full potential as citizens. In this State, however, particularly since the enforcement of austerity measures, State effort seems to be focused more on identifying reasons children should not access quality care and education services rather than on facilitating such access. The financial bottom line carries more weight than the potential of our children. This is wrong and short-sighted.

I will spend my limited time speaking of preschool child care and education. These services should not be regarded by any society as an optional extra that can be granted or withdrawn at the whim of any Government or Administration. Extensive studies carried out nationally and internationally demonstrate clearly the social and economic benefits to the individual and to societies with enlightened preschool policies and facilities.

There are some praiseworthy initiatives in respect of preschool care and education. The early childhood care and education scheme, ECCE, is excellent. I understand it was originally intended to be extended to two years, finances allowing, but consideration of the extension was dropped when the Government moved to improve the inspections regime urgently. The ECCE scheme should be continued and consideration should be given again to extending it to two years.

Will the Minister right a grievous wrong? Children who have been identified as having special needs are allowed only one year in the ECCE scheme - one year on three days, one year on two days. Generally, such children start mainstream schooling one year later. If the Minister does nothing else, will he consider extending the scheme to two full years for children with special needs as opposed to one?

Standardised inspections should be mandatory in all areas. This is the Minister's intention. I understand that, in some areas, the joint environmental child care inspections are not being carried out because environmental health officers or public health nurses are not available to conduct them. Even the facilities' owners have pointed out that only half inspections are being conducted. They want full inspections.

Regarding training, many child care workers who have achieved FETAC level 5 or 6 would like to progress to BA level. While they are quite prepared to spend their own time doing the four year BA child care programme, child care workers are not well paid and cannot afford the €12,000 in fees or the cost of transport, if they must travel, to education centres. Despite this, they cannot qualify for grant assistance because they are working. In child care, an income ceiling prevents both women and men workers from attaining their maximum potential, which has obvious implications for the quality of care and education they can deliver to the children in their charge.

Will the Minister and his Department re-examine the preschool resource allocations model? Since it is heavily influenced by population statistics, communities in rural areas with a lower population, such as the west, north west and the Border, are disadvantaged. There is some adjustment in the model to take account of lower populations, but it is inadequate. The model should be rebalanced or at least re-examined to reflect the particular challenges in low population areas.

The Constitution does not contain much by way of explicit positive rights or social and economic rights of which the people can avail. However, the right to a certain minimum education is guaranteed under Article 42. We and all the children of the nation are entitled to it. Often, however, the real meaning of education is lost upon the Government and its officials.

One of the most ignoble episodes in recent Irish educational history was the dreadful spectacle of successive Fianna Fáil education Ministers dragging children with special needs, such as Jamie Sinnott and Paul O'Donoghue, and their parents through the courts system, arguing against these children receiving a full education and trying to limit their right to an education. In the O'Donoghue case, the High Court played down what was meant by education in this State. The court found that the right to free primary education in Article 42.4 of the Constitution was not confined to simply scholastic education provided in primary schools between ages four and 12, but was about fuller development on a human and social level, not merely an academic level, and extended to include the needs of all children, however limited their capacities.

Education is about the full development of our young people and should involve so much more than books and study. The arts, sport, and cultural pursuits have a significant role to play in the type of young people that we raise and bring through the educational system. Art has long been considered something of a luxury subject, something akin to an add-on. None of this is the responsibility of the teachers, but the reality is that the history of arts and education in this State is decidedly weak.

The Government recently introduced the arts in education charter. While it contains much that is positive, there is a great deal of concern that it could end up the same as the countless reports and documents that have been introduced in the past decade or two on the role of art in education - gathering dust and not implemented. There is no set budget for the arts in education charter. Without one, we are simply expecting goodwill from teaching staff.

If the Government is seeking goodwill to implement projects like these, it should drastically change its approach to how it engages with teachers and their unions. Given the significant role teachers play in society, it is shameful that the Government continues to seek to brow beat and bully them into accepting poorer conditions. The ability of teachers to bring in such projects as the arts in education charter rests not only on support and on resources, important though they are, but also on the atmosphere in the classroom or school. As it is, morale in schools is low as conditions deteriorate.

This is likely to be exacerbated by any increase in the pupil-teacher ratio.

Teaching and exploring art with pupils requires attention to be given to individual students in small groups. How we can expect a teacher to be able to do that in a class of 30 - as may be the case in many places - is beyond me. Without a change in approach the Minister for the Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht will find his project sunk by his colleagues due to oversized classes.

Likewise, we are far behind the rest of the world in terms of sport and physical education. Pupils in Irish primary schools spend less time in physical education classes than those of any other EU member state. The EU's education information network, EURYDICE, states that both in absolute and proportionate terms Ireland has fewer hours of compulsory PE classes than any other EU member state.

We then wonder where our obesity crisis is coming from. Our lack of PE is truly scandalous but sadly not surprising. The reality is that the Minister lacks a vision for education in this State. He has ambitions and, perhaps, aspirations, but certainly no over-arching vision. He would do well to look at his counterpart in the North, John O'Dowd MLA who, in spite of extremely difficult circumstances, has succeeded in substantially improving educational outcomes. He is transforming the whole philosophy of education by ending academic selection and increasing the amount of school meals for disadvantaged children.

There is a need for an overall vision and a total change of approach. The Minister should consider that in terms of his Department, more so than any others, the decisions he makes in the forthcoming budget will still be affecting people and their prospects decades from now due to lost opportunities. It will follow them for the rest of their lives.

It is timely to focus on education as children return to school after the summer break. In addition, students are returning to universities this month and the budget is coming up in October.

Last Saturday, I was speaking to a special needs teacher on the Luas and heard at first hand, a blow-by-blow account of how low morale is among teachers. That teacher opened up and it happens to us all the time. She said how she used to look forward to teaching in school but now she dreads it. That woman has spent half her life in the classroom. In the majority of classrooms around the country, teachers are fighting against pressures resulting from years of incremental cutbacks. They are tired and overworked. The teacher I met on the Luas said she and her colleagues are completely worn out from the past few years of treatment that undermines their work and ability to teach.

She said that what is happening in the community and in the home is being reflected in the classroom which is not isolated. She said that all the pressures in society, that we constantly discuss here, have to be dealt with daily in schools. Teachers are at breaking point, as can be seen by the decision of ASTI members to reject the Haddington Road agreement and vote for some form of industrial action. It arises from frustration and the teachers' powerlessness in the system.

The teacher I spoke to said they are not doing this for selfish or self-centred reasons, they are doing it because they see the hard won education system crumbling in front of them. They are at the coalface and can see the degree of cutbacks in special needs education and the heartbreaking effect this is having on the lives of children and their families.

The Minister may say there are no cutbacks in that area, but we know there are because we deal with families every day who have difficulties in trying to get their children through the system. We have debated on many occasions in this Chamber the desire for a seamless transfer of children from primary to secondary school, yet that has not happened. That must be a priority because there are too many trap-doors in the system, particularly for children with special needs.

The teacher on the Luas spoke of her rights being trampled on, as well as the lack of fairness and equality in the Government's cuts and the austerity measures that are impacting on the most vulnerable.

When will the Government wake up and acknowledge that teachers and schools can take no more cuts? Our educational system is in need of drastic reform, but austerity measures are not the response that is needed.

This year, Barnardos' school costs survey highlighted again that, on average, parents are paying €350 in back to school costs for a child in senior infants, €400 for children in fourth class in primary school, and €785 for children going into first year in secondary school.

Families are being crippled by the Government's austerity measures and budget cutbacks. The last thing they should have to worry about is how to afford to send their children to school. Parents are being forced to cut back on other essential services. We know from Barnardos and others the difficulties that parents face each September in getting a basic education for their children.

One of the biggest school expenses for parents - and it is an issue I have consistently raised in the Dáil - arises from schools forcing students to wear expensive uniforms. In England it can cost just £2 to stamp a school crest on a uniform. Here, however, 74% of parents of primary school children and 97% of parents of secondary school children told Barnardos that they had to buy uniforms with the school crest on them, which greatly added to the costs involved.

When I was Sinn Féin's education spokesperson, I publicly called on the Minister to proactively introduce measures to eliminate this school uniform racket. Parents do not want excuses, they want to hear what the Minister can do about this matter. It is true that each school board of management is responsible for matters of school policy and governance, but they are also responsible to the school patron and ultimately to the Minister for Education and Skills.

As my colleagues said earlier, we want to see a halt to cuts. We support the Minister when he is arguing at the Cabinet table for education funding. We believe it can be done through alternative measures, and it must be done.

Ba mhaith liomsa fosta mo bhuíochas a ghabháil leis an Teachta O'Brien, a chur an rún seo os comhair na Dála anocht. Ba mhaith liom díriú isteach ar chúpla ceist fhíorthábhachtach. Níl dabht ar bith go bhfuil na ciorruithe atá an Rialtas ag cur i bhfeidhm ag déanamh damáiste mór don chóras oideachais agus do pháistí, daltaí agus tuismitheoirí. Tá sé ag déanamh damáiste freisin don Ghaeilge agus go háirithe don Ghaeltacht. Cuireann cúpla ceann de na ciorruithe atá beartaithe ag an Aire isteach go mór orm. Ba mhaith liom sa chomhthéacs sin díriú isteach ar an liúntas oileáin agus an liúntas Gaeltachta. Labhair mé sa Dáil roimhe seo fi dtaobh an tábhacht a bhaineann leis an dá liúntas seo. Thug mé mar shampla-----

Gabh mo leithscéal, ach níl Gaeilge mhaith agam. Ní féidir liom an méid atá le rá ag an Teachta a thuiscint.

Ceart go leor. Tá córas aistriúcháin anseo. There is a translation service to translate.

It is not available.

I know the headsets are not here sometimes.

The Minister's education policies have not only damaged the sector but also the Irish language. The importance of the cuts to the island allowance and the language allowance cannot be overstated. I have spoken about this matter here before. For example, Arranmore secondary school applied for a teacher but could not get somebody who would be able to teach the subject in Irish, and that was with the allowance in place. Taking those allowances away from small island communities will have a devastating effect on the ability of those schools to attract teachers from the mainland. I ask the Minister to consider that point.

The Gaeltacht allowance is there because teachers who teach in Gaeltacht schools do not have the resources. I know this myself because my wife is a teacher and my three sisters are primary school teachers. There are simply not enough resources to be able to teach children in the current environment. This is about having additional assistance to recognise the extra work and effort that those teachers put in in Gaeltacht schools. For many years, the Department did not have its act together in providing those type of resources. That is having a direct effect on the Irish language itself.

I will cite another example about which I have been in communication with the Minister. The catchment area of Pobalscoil Chloich Cheannfhaola has the strongest Gaeltacht in the entire State. It includes areas such as Magheroarty and Fana Bhuí where the poet Cathal Ó Searcaigh comes from. It is absolutely rooted in the Irish language. Some 84% or 85% of people there speak Irish daily, yet at the secondary school students cannot do their leaving certificate in Irish. They can only do it through Gaeilge up to the third year.

The pupils who want to do their leaving certificate through Irish are crying out for the Minister to give additional resources to their school to allow them do so.

We have heard a great deal about Straitéis 20 Bliain don Ghaeilge. It states:

Cuirfear oideachas lán-Ghaeilge ar ardchaighdeán ar fáil do dhaltaí scoile arb é mian a dtuismitheoirí/gcaomhnóirí é. Leanfar leis an tacaíocht do ghaelscoileanna ag leibhéal na bunscoile agus déanfar forbairt ar sholáthar lán-Ghaeilge ag leibhéal na hiarbhunscoile chun freastal ar éileamh de réir mar is gá.

This means that the Government has signed up to the 20-year strategy to provide resources for Irish language education and to increase resources for post-primary education where the demand exists. The Minister knows that the demand is there from the pupils in Pobailscoil Chloich Cheannfhaola who want to receive their education through Irish. They speak Irish every day and their mothers and fathers speak Irish to them every day. They want to be able to do their leaving certificate through Irish and the State is denying them that opportunity. I appeal to the Minister to re-examine that issue. Let us help regenerate the Irish language. The island allowance, which does not amount to much, and the Gaeltacht allowance are important to that community not only for education but in the context of the Irish language.

Éamon de Valera, the founder of the Fianna Fáil Party, whose members are absent, made a speech in the 1930s in which he stated that Fianna Fáil would no longer run a State in which children are reared for export. We all know what happened after that. Like the current Government, the former Fianna Fáil-led Government, decided to put the interests of anonymous bondholders ahead of those of the citizens of this State. It is now the case that the best option for children of school-leaving age is the boat or the aeroplane. It is little wonder then that little attention is being paid to our schools. More young people than are sitting the leaving certificate are emigrating. From a cynical point of view one might ask what is the point of teaching them anything other than how to complete a passport or visa application.

The Labour Party and the Minister for Education and Skills make much of their fighting the Aunt Sally of the Catholic church - battles over school management which were fought and won a long time ago. Parents and children are not deluded by all of this. This is no more than a cover to conceal the fact that a Labour Minister is presiding over the running down of the education system at every level from primary to university. A report published some weeks ago stated that September is one of the most stressful times of the year for families because of the expense of sending their children to school. We claim that education is free. However, the reality is that schooling takes up a considerable part of the family income. It can be a challenge even for those people who are working and on a reasonably good income. For those unfortunate enough not to be working, it is far more challenging.

People do not mind paying for education. The perception is that education is being targeted for cuts by a Government that does not have the courage to take on others and that, like its predecessor, does not have the courage to put the interests of the Irish people ahead of those of a bunch of failed gamblers. A man who gambles his money away at Paddy Power before looking after his family is rightly considered to be turning his back on his responsibilities. A Government that favours gamblers over schools and children is worse.

Last night, Deputy Healy-Rae, myself and three other Deputies representing Kerry attended a meeting of more than 500 people, including teachers, parents and members of the public, at the Brandon Hotel in Tralee. The contributions from the floor were worth listening to. Everybody is hurting. The teachers have made the point that they are prepared to take wage cuts, and have done so, but they are not prepared to take cuts in class sizes if children are to have every chance of getting the education they deserve and are entitled to. It was damning for the Government and for people who have turned their backs on their responsibility to look after our children.

I thank Deputy Martin Ferris and Sinn Féin for allowing me some of their speaking time. I also compliment Deputy Jonathan O'Brien on this Private Members' motion, which is most timely. Like Deputy Ferris and others, I have visited schools during the past couple of weeks and months that are extremely concerned about what is coming down the tracks. As the Minister will be aware, one of the biggest issues is teacher-pupil ratios. Small schools in particular are worried about their future viability.

It is not good enough for people to stand back and say this is all the Minister's fault because it is he who is proposing it. The Minister is proposing this because he has the backing of the people supporting him. Like me, Deputy Ferris and the others, who are honest, will not stand up at a public meeting and say one thing and then vote differently in this House. If we are supporting something that the Government is proposing we will say so and if we are against it we will say that also. However, there are people who are agreeing at public meetings in our constituency with the parents, pupils, principals and teachers and are then agreeing with the Minister, who is completely at odds with the people who are standing up for small schools. It is hypocritical of people to say one thing to their constituents and then support the Minister. In previous bad times our teachers and small schools kept going and stayed the course. I hope the Minister will not be the one to knock them off course now.

I now call the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Quinn, who I understand is sharing time with Deputies Kevin Humphreys and John Paul Phelan.

I move amendment No. 2:

To delete all words after “Dáil Éireann” and substitute the following:

“recognises that:

- the latest Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, OECD, Education at a Glance survey from 2013, relating to the 2010 year, reports that the State was investing 6.4% of GDP in education, compared to an OECD average of 6.3%, while current spending on third level education in Ireland amounts to 1.6% of GDP, equal to the OECD average of 1.6%; and

- education services have been protected despite the immense challenges posed to the financial sustainability of our nation;

welcomes:

- the fact that the 2012 report on retention rates of pupils in second level schools, published by the Department of Education and Skills, found that over 90% of all students in Ireland now stay in school to sit the leaving certificate;

- that this shows that the proportion of early school leavers in Ireland is considerably below the EU average of 14%;

- the fact that retention rates in delivering equality of opportunity in schools, DEIS, schools have particularly improved, rising from 68% to over 80% over a five-year period, and that studies from the Department’s inspectorate and from the Educational Research Centre have shown improvements in pupils’ literacy in DEIS primary schools; and

- the fact that Irish fourth class pupils were placed among the countries performing significantly above the international average in the 2011 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study tests conducted by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement, and that the Irish fourth class pupils were among the top performers in Progress in International Reading Literacy 2011 tests;

notes that under the current Government a range of new initiatives have been introduced to protect the quality of our education system and the well-being of our young people, which include:

- reform of the junior cycle;

- an action plan to combat bullying in schools;

- the implementation of a major restructuring of initial teacher education provision;

- the creation and report of a forum on patronage and pluralism in the primary sector;

- a review of the system of apprenticeships in Ireland;

- significant reform of school inspection and the introduction of school self-evaluation;

- the roll-out of new guidelines for schools on mental health promotion and suicide prevention;

- a new landscape for the higher education sector, and implementation of the national higher education strategy to 2030; and

- the publication of the draft general scheme of an education (admission to schools) Bill 2013 which will ensure fairness and transparency in school admissions;

further welcomes:

- the fact that €12 million has been set aside by this Government since 2011 for the roll-out of a new national literacy and numeracy strategy, which is designed to help ensure that every child who leaves school has the literacy and numeracy skills they will need for the rest of their lives, and that a further €9 million has been invested in the same period for other related activities including standardised testing and the junior certificate schools programme;

- the provision of free high-speed broadband to every post-primary school in Ireland by September 2014, at a cost of up to €40 million by 2015, paid for by the Department of Education and Skills and the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources;

- the protection by this Government of the standard pupil-teacher ratio in primary schools and free post-primary schools since taking office;

- the ring-fencing of an investment of €1.3 billion to support children with special educational needs in the education sector;

- the consolidation of the vocational education committees sector as local education and training boards, and the replacement of FÁS with SOLAS, an agency that will be empowered to lead a coherent, high-quality further education and training sector in Ireland;

- the inclusion in the Further Education and Training Act 2013 of a requirement for SOLAS to develop a strategy for the promotion and development of adult literacy and numeracy;

- the investment of over €2 billion during the lifetime of this Government in school building projects, creating an estimated 15,000 direct and 3,000 indirect jobs over the period of the programme;

- in particular, the investment by this Government of €57 million to date to replace prefabricated structures with permanent school classrooms, which will reduce the prefab rental bill by 25% each year; and

- the creation of new training, further and higher education programmes, such as Springboard and Momentum, which have so far provided over 23,000 unemployed people with educational opportunities closely linked to areas where employment opportunities exist.”

I thank Sinn Féin and, in particular, Deputy Jonathan O'Brien, for tabling this topic for discussion. The motion is very comprehensive. I am not sure we will be able to give it the attention it deserves this evening but we will have other times to do so.

I would like to remind the House that when this Government came into office two and half years ago, Ireland was in a precarious position as a result of economic mismanagement on a vast scale. Since then, it has been the difficult - and sometimes unpopular - task of Government to get this country moving towards economic recovery and into a position whereby we can once again control our own economic destiny. The latest financial figures show that we are on track to meet our targets under the EU-IMF programme of financial support and to achieve a successful exit from that programme. When we do so, we will be the first European country to so do.

The task of regaining our economic independence has not been easy, given the massive differential between what was being spent by Government and what was being collected by way of taxes prior to this Government's taking up office. Narrowing this gap is essential in order for equilibrium to be restored. While the gap has been reduced significantly, we are still, in 2013, obliged to borrow €1 billion per month to fund public services. This is not a sustainable situation. However, while there is work still to be done, the Government is confident that our policies can help in turning the economy around to a strengthened position of stability and growth.

I make these opening comments to inject an element of realism into this debate. Significant investment in education expenditure in Ireland is reflected in the most recent OECD statistics from its education at a glance series of reports. The latest set of results, published in June of this year, shows that expenditure on education in Ireland in 2010 was 6.4% of GDP. This compared favourably to an OECD average of 6.3%. The report also showed that expenditure on higher education, at 1.6% of GDP, was the same as the OECD average. Between 2005 and 2010, total public and private spending on education in Ireland below higher level increased by 44% in real terms. This compared to an average increase of 13% across OECD countries.

In higher education, expenditure grew in real terms by 40% compared to a 20% average increase across the OECD. The latest OECD results, therefore, paint a different picture of Irish education expenditure than earlier OECD results indicated. It is unfortunate that Sinn Féin chose to ignore the latest available figures in compiling its Private Members' motion and relied instead on data published more than three years ago. While a debate on the appropriate level of State expenditure on education is welcome, we must ensure such debate is properly informed and up to date.

Great importance has been attached to improving retention rates of pupils at second level as a key factor in improving overall levels of educational attainment and I share the concerns expressed by Sinn Féin Deputies in this regard. More than 90% of all students in Irish schools now sit the leaving certificate, the highest rate ever and proof of the success of policies which strive to keep young people in school. The percentage of early school leavers in Ireland - less than 10% of students - is considerably lower than the European Union average of 14%. There is never room to be complacent in this area, however, and a 10% rate of early school leavers indicates that far too many young people are still leaving school prematurely and heading into a very uncertain future. Nevertheless, our performance relative to other EU countries shows we are having some success in this area.

Retention rates in disadvantaged schools have improved even more markedly due in large part to the supports offered through the DEIS action plan for educational inclusion. I will be pleased to discuss the reasons the action plan is working on another occasion. Retention rates for DEIS second level schools increased by almost 12% over a five year period, between pupils who entered second level in 2001 and those who entered in 2006. There is clear evidence that the DEIS programme is having a positive effect in tackling educational disadvantage and is an example of funding well spent. The 850 DEIS schools across the primary and post-primary sectors receive additional funding of the order of €70 million to provide a range of supports for pupils, including lower pupil-teacher ratios in the most disadvantaged schools.

In addition to measures to promote educational inclusion in schools, the Government is committed to facilitating access to higher education. A key objective of the current national strategy for higher education is to promote access to higher education for disadvantaged groups. The higher education system performance framework published by my Department earlier this year sets out how progress towards national objectives, such as increasing access of certain disadvantaged groups, including students from lower socio-economic backgrounds, can be made. An overall evaluation of progress on the plan will be completed later this year.

A new national access plan is being developed for the period from 2014 to 2016. The Department supports a range of measures which facilitate greater levels of participation by disadvantaged students, mature students and students with disabilities. The principal support in financial terms is provided under the student grant scheme. Approximately 42% of students in full-time higher education in the 2011-12 academic year were in receipt of a student grant.

I will now address the literacy and numeracy strategy, an issue that has animated me since long before I became Minister for Education and Skills. This Government is strongly committed to improving literacy and numeracy levels in schools. I described the Programme for International Student Assessment, PISA, results on mathematics and reading, which were published in late 2010, as a "wake-up call" for the Irish education system. The programme for Government made literacy and numeracy a national priority. The 2011 to 2020 national strategy to improve literacy and numeracy among children and young people was published in July 2011. Since then, the Government has ring-fenced some €12 million for the roll-out of the strategy, while a further €9 million has been invested across other related activities. The strategy contains 41 actions and 180 sub-actions across six key areas.

Primary schools were asked to increase the time each week spent on mathematics and literacy in class and introduce a third point in standardised testing in English reading and mathematics. This will mean pupils are tested at the end of second, fourth and sixth class. On the basis that if one does not measure, one will now know, specific targets have been set to measure progress against the strategy. In addition, ongoing implementation of significant junior cycle reform aims to develop an integrated approach to promote the development of literacy and numeracy skills across the curriculum. The results of the PISA 2012 study are due to be published in December of this year and I hope they will show some improvement as a consequence of the change in approach.

The programme for Government also seeks to promote adult literacy through integration of literacy in vocational training and community education. As Deputy Jonathan O'Brien will be aware, I made it a point of the legislation establishing SOLAS that, unlike FÁS, the new organisation will have a specific statutory responsibility to be aware of literacy problems among people entering long-term training programmes. The last time literacy was measured among the adult population, it emerged that 500,000 of our citizens had literacy problems. As Deputies are aware, if a person has literacy problems, he or she will also have employment problems.

On teachers, class size and staffing schedules, salary costs of teaching staff in schools constitute the most significant element of the education budget, amounting to approximately €3.8 billion in 2013 or 47% of overall voted current expenditure. While difficult choices had to be made to identify savings across the Department, the Government has sought to protect front-line services as best as possible. The focus is on ensuring there are sufficient school places and teachers for the thousands of additional pupils entering our schools each year. There is no realistic scope at present to give any consideration to the provision of additional teachers to reduce class sizes. However, increases in the school population as a result of demographics will give rise under existing policy to a demand for an additional 800 to 1,000 teachers on average each year over the medium term, in other words, the next six to ten years. Classroom teachers in primary schools are currently allocated under the published staffing schedule on the basis of a general average of one teacher for every 28 pupils, with lower thresholds for DEIS band 1 primary schools. The 28:1 ratio has been protected by the Government in the past two and a half years.

The staffing schedule sets out in a fair and transparent manner the pupil thresholds for the allocation of mainstream classroom posts for all schools and treats all similar types of schools equally, irrespective of location, a point I hope Deputy Pearse Doherty will note. At post-primary level the standard staffing allocation for schools is based on a ratio of 19:1. DEIS post-primary schools operate on a standard staffing allocation of 18.25:1. The main budget measure to affect the staffing of post-primary schools in the current school year was confined to fee charging schools, of which there are 55 from a total of 729 secondary schools. The standard staffing allocation for fee charging schools was increased to 23:1 with effect from September 2013. This reflects the fact that fee charging schools have the resources, through fees charged, to employ teachers privately, an option which is not available to schools in the free education scheme.

The budget for education, including the number of teaching posts we can afford to fund in schools, is a matter I will have to consider with my colleagues in Cabinet in the context of the forthcoming budget. The Government will endeavour to continue to protect front-line education services as best as possible.

This Government has passionately defended the provision for special educational spending since coming into office. Some €1.3 billion will be spent in support of children with special educational needs this year. This is exactly the same amount allocated to the entire operation of the Garda Síochána.

This provision is in line with expenditure in recent years and shows that despite the current economic difficulties, the total funding for special education has not been cut. It is the same amount this year as last year and the previous year. The level of expenditure which is being provided means that the majority of pupils with special educational needs can continue to be educated in an inclusive environment in mainstream schools along with their peers. It also means that for pupils who have additional special educational needs which require intensive interventions in a specialised environment, special class and special school placements can continue to be provided. More than 1,100 teaching posts in special schools will continue to be provided for this school year.

The National Council for Special Education, NCSE, has also opened 118 new special classes for the 2013-14 school year, which brings the total number of special classes to 740. This year we will again provide funding for 10,575 whole-time equivalent SNAs. There has been no reduction to the overall number of SNA posts which are available for allocation to schools. The number remains at 10,575 posts available for allocation. It should also be noted that unlike many other areas of the public sector, SNA vacancies are being filled up to this number.

On the allocation of resource teaching support for schools, in June I authorised the NCSE to maintain the level of resource teaching allocations to be provided to individual students at existing levels. There has been growing demand for resources in this area and I have agreed to provide the necessary extra posts to reflect this increase in demand. There will therefore not be a reduction in resource-teaching time for these pupils compared with the amount of support provided last year. That is a change in policy in response to a genuine sense of concern. Deputies will be also aware that the NCSE recently published comprehensive policy advice on supporting students with special educational needs in schools. On foot of that change in policy, I have requested the NCSE to establish a working group to develop a proposal for consideration for a new allocation model for teaching supports for children with special educational needs. I am not satisfied that the current model is working satisfactorily and I would be happy to discuss it wherever Deputies wish. We all know much more and regardless of who is in government, resources will be finite. Let us work on getting a better system. I expect to receive shortly an update on the work of this group, which is led by Mr. Eamon Stack, the former chief inspector of the Department and currently chair of the NCSE. When we get that report, we can discuss it.

Deputies, in particular the former education spokesperson for Sinn Féin, Deputy Crowe, spoke about back-to-school costs. Tackling the costs associated with school has been a major priority of mine for some time and is obviously a very topical issue at this time. Since becoming Minister for Education and Skills, I have taken a number of steps aimed at helping to reduce the burden on families. On the cost of school textbooks, I met members of the Irish Educational Publishers' Association and received a commitment from them to limit the publication of new editions of textbooks and to maintain editions of books in print, unchanged for at least six years. Some books were changing arbitrarily every two or three years while the substance had not changed - for example, the map of Ireland has not changed.

The publishers have also assured me that they would sell books for rental schemes to schools at a substantial discount, similar to the wholesale rate they were giving to booksellers, but not entirely the same. Deputies will be also aware that I greatly favour schools establishing textbook rental schemes. I launched new guidelines for developing textbook rental schemes in schools in January. These guidelines provide practical advice to primary and post-primary schools on how rental schemes can be established and operated. The aim of the guidelines is to help as many schools as possible to start such book rental programmes as soon as they can. I hope schools that are not yet operating book rental schemes will be encouraged to use the guidelines to introduce them in order to provide substantial savings for parents. Schools which already have rental schemes can save parents up to 80% of the cost of buying new books. I will continue to monitor the number of schools operating book-rental schemes and if it proves necessary, I will consider further steps to encourage schools to do so.

I have also been clear in my support for measures to reduce uniform costs for parents including measures such as the use of generic-type uniforms and the use of sew-on crests. There are about four or five colours of school uniforms with which we are all familiar. The ones available in the various big retail outlets cost a fraction of bespoke individual school uniforms. The technology and practices are available for the sew-on crests to deal with the particularisation of the branding of an individual school. I have raised this matter with the National Parents Council at primary level and recommended that the National Parents Councils - primary and post primary- mobilise parents' associations to raise this issue with school authorities. The only group recognised in the Constitution in terms of education is the family as "the primary and natural educator of the child". The school authorities and the Department are not recognised in the same way and yet the families represent the weakest component at the moment.

The Minister has one minute remaining.

Schools should consult parents on matters relating to their children's education, including those matters which have cost implications. In that regard, I propose to draft a parent and student charter in consultation with interested parties and to give it some statutory basis so that parents will be empowered to do some of the things I believe Deputies across the political spectrum wish to see.

Do I have ten minutes remaining?

I could refer to what we are doing in other areas, but I do not want to deprive my colleagues of speaking time. I thank Sinn Féin for introducing the motion.

I thank the Minister for sharing his time because it is always difficult for a Government backbencher to get time to contribute to debates in the House. I commend him on his response to the motion and the amendment he moved. It is important that the contributions we make tonight be fact based. Figures from the latest OECD Education at a Glance survey confirm that in 2010 Ireland invested 6.4% of GDP on education compared with OECD average of 6.3%. While we can all bandy around these figures, the Government amendment is fact-based and I ask Sinn Féin to accept it as that.

The past five years have been tough and anybody who has been involved in politics or has children in either the education or health system, knows exactly how tough it has been in those years. I commend the Minister, Deputy Quinn, on the work he has done on protecting the education area from cuts.

There has been considerable reporting of potential cuts to education budgets. While I believe much of it has been unfounded, we will know on the day of the budget. It is to the eternal shame of the Catholic Church that the State has been left to pick up the majority of the cost of the redress scheme for the victims of clerical abuse. It has been reported that owing to the high demand for the scheme, €40 million more than budgeted has been spent and will need to be provided for in the budget of the Department of Education and Skills. I believe I would have cross-party support in saying that the children of today should not be made to pay for the liabilities for the redress provided to the children of yesterday for the crimes committed against them. The money that is needed to pay that redress should come from a central fund and should not need to be carried by an education Vote. The Minister would have my support and that of many Deputies if we could achieve that outcome in the budget. A sum of €40 million to come from the education fund for redress for those terrible crimes that were committed against the children of the past is far too heavy a burden for the children of today to carry. We cannot ask the current children to carry that.

I call on the Minister of State, Deputy Ciarán Cannon, who has just come into the Chamber and the Minister to argue strongly about this at the Cabinet table.

Simplistic solutions have been thrown around, but we must be careful because we had simplistic solutions all the way through the boom years and the outcomes were very poor. Prefabs were provided throughout the country and children were left in them for ten to 15 years. That was at a time when there was a great deal of money around. It is to the credit of the Government that there is a classroom building programme throughout the State, for which I commend it.

Earlier I heard Deputy Jonathan O'Brien discussing pupil-teacher ratios, but there can be too much of a focus on pupil-teacher ratios. We need to focus on and measure the outcomes for children coming from these classrooms. As chairman of the City of Dublin Vocational Education Committee and many VEC colleges throughout the country, I have seen children come through the primary education system with poor literacy and numeracy skills under programmes with low pupil-teacher ratios. Therefore, I question the claims made. We should concentrate on measured outcomes, one example of which is to be found in my constituency and the constituency of Deputy Mary Lou McDonald and the Minister of State, Deputy Joe Costello. It is an early learning initiative based in the National College of Ireland in the docklands. It runs a programme entitled the parent-child home programme. During the summer I was giving awards to primary school pupils in their first year and it was the first time I had seen at first hand the outcome of the initiative under which people from the community are trained to teach numeracy and literacy skills and parents how to play with their children in an educational manner. This has been rigidly looked at by people from Trinity College Dublin who have said it is cost-effective. When we see the literacy skills of young children, we realise that at last it is giving them an equal playing field in primary school. Certainly, many children from inner city areas start at a great disadvantage.

I will skip over much of my script. The Government must continue with reform. My primary focus is on primary education. All through my time in politics I have seen my community being denied equal opportunity. We must ensure many disadvantaged areas have an equal opportunity. I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle for his patience.

I know that sometimes I may sound more like a school principal than a chairman.

I wish to speak about a couple of issues. In fairness, the Sinn Féin motion is rather detailed and I agree with a couple of points made in it. At the end of his comments the Minister touched on the efforts he had made in respect of book rental schemes. Certainly, I agree that the cost of texts at all levels of education is very significant and the introduction of such schemes is more than desirable.

I concur with the sentiments expressed about school uniforms. Recently, I was in a house where the subject raised was education. The occupants were not especially well-off. It was pointed out to me that crested uniforms tended to be produced in Ireland, whereas universally generic ones were not. This means that the additional cost is at least being spent within the economy. However, I believe people should have the option. For families on lower incomes, a relatively small reduction in the cost of a uniform could have a very significant impact.

I wish to speak about the series of public meetings that have taken place throughout the country on the pupil-teacher ratio. I was at one such meeting in Kilkenny yesterday evening and it was well attended. As someone who was a teacher in a previous life, albeit a secondary school teacher, I am only too familiar with the importance of trying to keep classes as small as possible. There are significant benefits for children, particularly younger children who are new to the system and may have educational difficulties which have not been identified. It is also best in giving them the best start. I urge the Minister to ensure, if he can, that the ratios will not be affected in the upcoming budget. I was amused when Deputy Michael Healy-Rae spoke about the importance of Deputies doing what they said they would at these meetings. He spoke about schools in Ireland 40 years ago, but 40 years ago there were 50 or 60 children in classrooms in which there might only have been one teacher. Thankfully, the Government will ensure we will not go anywhere near what was happening in the glorious years of education 40 or 50 year ago to which the Deputy referred.

I wish to comment on the general point made by Deputy Pearse Doherty on Irish language education. It is not something on which I am particularly expert, but I consider myself to have been a relatively good student in school. It is a system of education in which we invest millions of euro every year. However, children can attend primary and secondary school for 13 or 14 years and remain unable to speak the language when they leave. That is simply unsustainable. The notion that extra funding should be provided for a system that simply does not work in a great many cases makes no sense. The proof lies in the fact that the uptake in terms of speaking the language is poor in most parts of the country. We must change the way we teach Irish.

The aim of my final point is to reaffirm and request once more that the Minister of State, Deputy Ciarán Cannon, do all he can in his discussions with the Minister to ensure class sizes are retained at existing levels. I realise it will be difficult to do, but it is significant and important, especially for children in their early years in education.

I join the various Deputies on both sides of the House and commend Sinn Féin, in particular its spokesperson on education, Deputy Jonathan O'Brien, for bringing forward and putting this comprehensive motion before the House. The motion covers the entirety of the education spectrum from preschool to third level.

Let us consider the experience of the various sectors of education since the Government came to office. A serious strain has been put on educational services as a result of decisions taken by the Government in its various budgets. Let us consider the primary education sector. Schools are struggling on a daily basis to make ends meet. I refer, in particular, to the minor works grant which was worth a minimum of approximately €5,000 to each school, regardless of size. This was a significant blow and has put schools in a difficult position, especially smaller schools because the payment made up a significant part of their income.

Other Deputies on the Joint Committee on Education and Social Protection will have heard from the CPMSA, the management body for 90% of primary schools nationally. The body presented recently, before the Dáil went into recess for the summer, and its representatives indicated that the evidence was that half of primary schools nationally were operating with a deficit. Let us consider where the burden is falling. Once again, it is falling on that section of society which is most stretched, which is feeling the most pain and which is finding it most difficult to make ends meet.

Let us consider the minor works grant. If it was worth approximately €5,000 to a school with 50 students, that works out at approximately €100 per student which must be found by that school to replace the funding lost.

This then falls back on the family, who already are in a difficult position. At secondary level, the decision to remove the ex quota career guidance provision in last year's budget has had a significant impact in secondary schools. It constituted a de facto worsening of the pupil-teacher ratio because in an effort to retain some careers guidance hours, many schools were obliged to squeeze their subject areas as a result. The end product has been pressure on subjects, larger class sizes and significant pressure on the provision of careers guidance hours with a significant reduction in one-to-one meetings in particular. One survey showed how the number of one-to-one hours between students and careers guidance counsellors has been reduced by 50%. Moreover, this measure is having a greater impact this year and if one talks to school management bodies, they will outline how difficult this has been. At third level, the Government has piled the pressure on students to meet the increased costs of going to college by increasing the registration fee year on year by €250 per year. At the same time, it actually is reducing the level of funding to colleges, thereby putting significant pressure on them. Overall, a recent survey from the Central Statistics Office revealed that education inflation increased by 5% last year and was one of the leading factors in the national inflation rate. Again, this increase must be borne by parents, who find it extremely difficult to equip the students in their families to go to school.

Another pressure point to emerge from Government action has been the impact of its policy on small schools. Nationally, 47% of primary schools have five teachers or fewer and this is the same school size that has been targeted by the Government with regard to the increases in the pupil-teacher ratio. In this context, there have been yearly increases for one, two, three and four-teacher schools. This also has a particular impact on the plurality of patronage within the education system. Last night, I attended a meeting organised by the INTO in Letterkenny that was similar to those attended by many other Members in various venues nationwide. A particular theme to emerge from that meeting was a concern expressed by the Protestant community regarding the pressure that increases in the pupil-teacher ratio is exerting on their schools, as well as the impact of changes to the minor works grant. The Protestant community is particularly concerned by what may be contained in the Government's value for money report on schools, which recent media reports indicate will set a threshold for sustainable schools of 85 pupils. A Protestant minister who attended the aforementioned meeting indicated that of the 33 Protestant schools in County Donegal, just three would remain following the implementation of such a threshold. Moreover, of 200 Protestant schools nationwide, one quarter have 30 pupils or fewer. This demonstrates the impact such pressure on small schools is having on their ability to continue as viable entities. This also flies in the face of the rhetoric one hears from the Minister for Education and Skills about increasing the plurality of patronage within the education system. On the one hand, the Minister advocates the need to bring greater diversity to patronage bodies. On the other hand, however, his policies regarding small schools, a category into which most existing Protestant schools fall, is putting them under massive pressure and this is threatening diversity and plurality of patronage within the education system in an unprecedented fashion.

Another area in which budget 2013 has had a significant impact both last year and this year has been the pressure on special needs and resource teaching hours. While the Government rowed back on its plans not to meet the increased demand for resource teaching hours, it did not do so with regard to the increased demand for special needs assistants, SNAs. While Members continually hear the Government state the number of special needs assistants and resource teachers remains constant, they do not hear it acknowledge the demand for the time of such teachers and SNAs has increased significantly. The Government was forced to admit this point following much public pressure and a Private Members' motion tabled in this Chamber after which the Government decided to increase the number of resource teachers being hired to meet the existing demand and to avoid cuts to the resource teaching hours being provided to individual children. However, as far as the special needs assistant posts were concerned, the Government continued with the fallacy that there has been no cut to the students on the ground by virtue of the its keeping constant of the overall number of SNAs. This ignores the increase in demand that is feeding through in schools nationwide at present and every Member of this House will have heard of the pressure under which classrooms are operating and of the additional pressure being exerted for SNAs to be shared among a large number of pupils where a greater number of hours are now required. This also is in direct contrast to the approach the Minister has taken regarding the hiring of additional teachers to ensure the general pupil-teacher ratio has remained constant. The principle that as demand for a service increases, so too must the numbers of those who provide it in order for it not to be diluted, must be remembered. However, the Minister has not been consistent in his application of that principle.

Overall, Members need to discern from the Government a recognition of the need to prioritise education and to ring-fence the funding for it. They are aware of the existing budgetary position and of the requirement to make income meet expenditure. However, one must consider the impact this is having and the impact the cuts already have had on education. Fianna Fáil, will be advocating, as it has done in its last two pre-budget submissions, that the Government should ring-fence education spending. It has identified it as one of three areas for which spending should be ring-fenced, together with expenditure on mental health services and disability services. While this obviously will require additional funds and finances to be found elsewhere to ensure that education funding is not cut, Members require and should expect from the Minister that in government, he also should follow this policy.

Another point I wish to bring to the Minister's attention concerns the impact of the increases of the pupil-teacher ratio in the further education sector that took effect after the last budget. Last year, the Minister increased the pupil-teacher ratio from 17:1 to 19:1 in the post-leaving certificate, PLC, and further education sectors. This is an area which could ill afford such cuts and while I acknowledge the Minister reversed them to an extent by providing some remediation following an appeal process, the cut has had a significant impact on the ability of VECs and PLCs to provide the diversity of courses that is their hallmark. I ask the Minister for Education and Skills to re-examine this issue and to reverse that particular measure in the forthcoming budget. Another issue on which I wish to focus is the impact on schools of the career guidance cuts. An unprecedented situation has arisen among young people with regard to mental health.

In the last couple of weeks there have been further soundings from the Labour Party backbenchers regarding the chaplaincy services in secondary schools, identifying them as a potential source of further cuts in the forthcoming budget. The Minister must look at the impact this has had and listen to the career guidance counsellors who have made it clear that they are unable to cope with the stresses that have been imposed on them. Many students who need to avail of one-to-one contact simply cannot get it. This is a crisis in many parts of the country. Unless an ex quota allocation is reinstated to ensure there is a minimum service and threshold for careers guidance service, these staff will continue to be unable to meet the demand.

Since this Government took office there have been repeated cuts in the education budget. It has been indicated that the cut will be up to €100 million this year, although there has been talk recently that there might be an amelioration in that regard. I urge the Minister to ring-fence the budget to ensure we protect what is there and, in time, try to develop it further. I urge the Minister and his Cabinet colleagues to find a way to ensure that the policy the Minister has followed in his first two budgets is not replicated in the path he chooses for this budget.

Deputies Thomas Pringle and Richard Boyd Barrett have two and a half minutes each.

I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate on the education sector. I congratulate Sinn Féin on tabling the motion. It was interesting to hear the Minister's contribution earlier in which he quoted statistics from the OECD as a justification for the spending on education and said we are meeting the OECD average. He criticised the Sinn Féin figures, saying they are from 2007 and not up to date. However, the OECD figures quoted by the Minister are from 2011 and are a couple of years out of date. They do not take into account the €200 million in cuts that have taken place under this Minister in the lifetime of this Government and the impact that is having on the education of young people throughout the country.

It is vital that we recognise education as a right. The Minister should fight the battle on behalf of education as an investment rather than a spend for the Government. That would change the way education is perceived and treated. It is an investment. It is an investment in the future of this country and in children for the future. If this country is to recover, it must have a highly educated workforce that is capable of availing of a recovery when it comes. That is vital.

The reality on the ground gives a lie to the Minister's arguments about the spending taking place in education. He should attend the public meetings on this issue that are taking place throughout the country. There was one in Donegal last night. The reality is that class sizes are out of control. Many students are suffering due to these class sizes and it impacts on the quality of the education they can receive. In Donegal, almost 4,000 children in primary school are in classes of more than 30 and 86% of all children in the county are in class sizes of more than 20. That has a huge impact and is putting huge strain on the schools. It is vital to keep class sizes down and reduce their size. The Government is talking about possibly increasing class sizes in the next budget.

We should look at what is happening in other European countries. Indeed, the country the Government constantly says Ireland does not wish to resemble, Greece, has an average class size of 16.8. It is 24.7 in Ireland. These countries in programmes of support have protected their education sectors and their children by keeping class sizes small, yet this country has increased them. We must defend the sector against that.

Any further education cuts are completely inexcusable. It is not just that we cannot and should not cut any further, we should urgently reverse the cuts that have been made to the education budget which amount to €170 million over the last two years. The Minister should reverse them and increase the amount of money we spend on education. Anything less than an increase in education funding is a cut anyway, because there are 10,000 extra new pupils joining the education system every year. Even standing still represents a very significant cut, but to cut against a background in which there is a greater demand on the education system amounts to slaughtering the quality of our education.

It makes a joke of the curriculum, which is supposed to be child centred. The phrase we use is "child centred education". How can one have child centred education in classes of more than 30 pupils? Over one quarter of schools in the country have classes of more than 30 pupils. One cannot have child centred education in that situation; it is simply not possible. Add to that the mainstreaming of special needs children who do not have as much support as previously. That is very bad for them and also makes the class much more difficult to manage. There are also the cuts in capitation grants to schools, while parents who are hit with either unemployment and virtually no income or significant cuts in their income must pay for school books, uniforms and so forth. Parents have less money to pay for that and schools have fewer resources to support families who might have financial difficulty. It is bad all around.

There is a way to increase education funding, by taxing wealth and corporate profits. Even the multinationals who are investing in this country and understand the importance of an educated workforce could see the logic of them paying a little extra tax so we can educate our young people to be in a position to work in the high tech industries which the Minister talks so much about promoting.

Debate adjourned.
The Dáil adjourned at 9.10 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Wednesday, 25 September 2013.