5. Deputy Colm Keaveney asked the Minister for Education and Skills his plans to improve special needs education; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [16464/14]
Vol. 837 No. 2
5. Deputy Colm Keaveney asked the Minister for Education and Skills his plans to improve special needs education; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [16464/14]
I recently announced that an additional 390 special needs assistant, SNA, posts had been made available to the National Council for Special Education, NCSE, to allocate to schools to the end of 2014, bringing the total number of SNAs available to 10,965. An additional 480 resource teaching posts have also been made available for the current school year, bringing to over 10,700 the number of resource teaching-learning support teachers in mainstream schools. This is a greater number of SNA and resource teachers than has been allocated at any time previously.
In May 2013 the NCSE published policy advice on supporting students with special needs in schools and made a number of recommendations to improve special education provision. At my request, it has developed proposals for a new model for the allocation of teaching supports to schools. I will consider these proposals carefully, with my colleagues in government, in order to establish how best we can continue to make improvements to special education provision.
I thank the Minister for his response. We all acknowledge that many great advancements have been made in the past decade in special needs provision for children. I welcome the 390 additional posts in this regard. However, there remains an issue of resources across the country, as there are black spot areas in Dublin, Dublin West and north Kildare in particular. One school enrolled two junior infant classes at the commencement of last year, totalling 54 children. Half way through the academic year, it came to the attention of the school authorities that three children had challenging needs. From the initial consultations with the parents in 2013, it was obvious that this was the case. It came as no surprise to the school, as an assessment of needs was carried out for one of the children involved. During the course of the academic year, it became apparent to the principal that there was a problem with securing resources for these children. The parents of one child secured an assessment of needs, as a consequence of which the child received 4.2 hours per week of low-incidence teaching. Half way through this year, the other two children are still awaiting their assessments. The first year of their educational lives has been lost because they lack the critical supports they require to participate successfully.
I thank the Deputy for his supplementary question. If he wishes to send me the details, I will examine the specific case. The allocation of resources is based on an assessment conducted by a special educational needs organiser or, in some cases, depends on private arrangements made by parents. I believe that is what the Deputy is referring to.
I thank the Minister for his invitation to forward the details. Does he not believe there is an opportunity for every child to undergo developmental needs assessments at three and a half years of age through the public health system? Is there not a more effective way of establishing a child's needs one year before entering the primary school system? Not every parent can afford to borrow from a credit union or put a hand in his or her pocket to have a needs assessment made. Another Department is involved, but I am prepared to accept that the Minister is flexible enough to consider the integration of some data from primary care settings and the Department of Education and Skills to assess children's needs.
I will consider the Deputy's suggestion and discuss it with the Ministers for Health and Children and Youth Affairs.
6. Deputy Jonathan O'Brien asked the Minister for Education and Skills if he is considering reviewing the RSE programme schools are obliged to deliver to ensure what is delivered is based on evidence and best practice. [16441/14]
Relationships and sexuality education, RSE, is one component of social, personal and health education, SPHE, in the existing junior cycle. As part of the new junior cycle student awards, the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment, NCCA, is finalising its specification for a new short course in SPHE. The development of the specification, including consultations and reviews of existing data, is, therefore, based on evidence and best practice. The SPHE short course will be available to schools from September 2014.
Circular 20/14 clarifies the position for schools in respect of SPHE and other subject areas for the 2014-15 school year. Schools may choose to incorporate the SPHE short course into their junior cycle programmes either for certification purposes or not for certification. They may also choose not to offer the new short course and continue instead to offer the existing SPHE syllabus.
There are no plans to review the content of the RSE curriculum at primary level or at senior cycle.
RSE is part of the curriculum and schools are obligated to implement it, but the curriculum sets out that the programme must be delivered within the ethos and value system of each school. While this is all well and good and it is progressive that post-primary schools are implementing RSE programmes at junior and senior cycle, that it is being implemented on an ethos basis means that some LGBT students may feel isolated or may not be getting the information they require. One of the downfalls is that the programme is not based on life experiences. What criteria are used when deciding on who to invite to a school to discuss these matters? We have heard recent reports of people visiting schools to speak about abortion instead of, for example, contraception or LGBT issues, which are relevant to students.
I am aware of those reports. These concerns have also been raised by a number of people in my party and other parties in the House. I welcome this question.
Notwithstanding the independence and ethos of each school, I have been informed about the invitations to external visitors and agencies that are issued by such schools. According to my note, all programmes and events delivered by visitors and external agencies must use appropriate evidence-based methodologies with clear educational outcomes. Such programmes are best delivered by those specifically qualified to work with young people for whom the programmes are designed.
In the management notes to the schools in question, it is strongly recommended that parents should be consulted and made aware of any such people or agencies visiting classrooms and schools. This would address the concerns of parents who may have had no choice but to send their child or children to a particular school.
The miscellaneous legislation I will be bringing forward both here and in the Upper House fairly soon will provide for a parents' charter that will strengthen the communications and rights of parents in this and other matters.
I welcome that. I particularly want to focus on the LGBT sector. If we allow schools to teach sex education based on a particular ethos or value, students from an LGBT background or community will effectively be silenced or whitewashed. It is just not right in this day and age, so it will have to be addressed. The Minister has undertaken a lot of work on homophobic bullying and I compliment him on that. Great strides have been made in that regard. However, I do not want to see all the work the Department has done to tackle homophobic bullying being undone by schools where LGBT issues are effectively whitewashed from sex education.
I thank the Deputy for his concern and his comments, which I share. I propose to ask the Department to raise this matter in its regular meetings with the joint management bodies. Those are the groups responsible in post-primary schools, but we can also do it with the Catholic Primary School Managers Association or CPSMA.
7. Deputy Charlie McConalogue asked the Minister for Education and Skills his views of the results of 15 year olds on the computer based assessment of problem solving in PISA 2012; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [16467/14]
The latest PISA report from the OECD's programme for international student assessment, PISA, shows that 15-year-old students in Ireland performed at the average level of participating countries on computer-based assessment of problem solving.
Ireland ranked 17th of the 28 OECD countries that took part in the study, and 22nd out of all 44 participating countries. Countries like the United States, Norway, Denmark and Sweden performed similarly to Ireland, while Canada, Australia, Finland and the United Kingdom performed significantly better than Ireland.
The top six performing countries are in Asia, with Singapore ranked first. The performance of Irish students on problem solving in this PISA study is good but there is considerable room for improvement.
Project Maths and the emphasis on skills development in the new junior cycle student awards, JCSA, offer students and teachers new ways of thinking and learning that should improve our 15-year-olds' problem-solving capabilities.
I thank the Minister of State for his response. The Educational Research Centre's analysis of the result makes the point that students in Ireland have lower levels of familiarity with using ICT in schools and at home for school-related tasks than on average across all 34 OECD countries. This suggests a lack of familiarity with school-based computer tasks which has contributed to lower performance on the computer-based assessment by PISA.
The ERC also suggests that Ireland's relatively weaker performance in problem solving appears to be compounded by a more general weakness on computer-based assessments. I know the Department is due to bring forward a digital strategy for schools, but when will this be finalised? What is the timeframe for its implementation and what will the strategy's budget be? Has the Minister of State assessed, more deeply than his initial answer would indicate, the reasons behind our relatively average performance in this particular result?
As has been articulated in other answers by the Minister, Deputy Quinn, we are moving away from a rote learning framework to one which is inquiry-based and which puts the student at the centre of problem solving. Therefore a paradigm shift is going on.
I cannot give the Deputy an answer regarding the cost of the digital strategy but I will revert to him with that information. There will be significant improvements in ICT infrastructure with the roll-out of broadband being available to all second-level schools in the autumn. The priorities and challenges of the digital strategy are currently being examined as part of an ongoing consultative process.
There is a school of thought that says we may have to look outside the Department concerning the digital strategy and maybe incorporate more stakeholders, including students themselves, in meeting head-on the challenges of PISA and learn from them.
As regards the methodologies involved, there is a marked difference between paper-based and computer-based problem solving. We have done extremely well vis-à-vis PISA on paper-based problems. However, there is clearly a deficit in the presentation of scenarios to students for the purposes of PISA marking.
I thank the Minister of State for his reply. He said that paper-based problem solving shows us way ahead of the average, while computer-based problem solving shows us very much at the average level. That is an important point because it shows that students currently have the ability to think through and solve such problems. The reform of the junior certificate will be important in terms of trying to enhance that ability.
The key point emerging from these results, however, focuses on IT services and facilities in schools. We have heard a lot from people who have concerns about what is planned under the junior certificate reform plans, including what ICT tools teachers will be given. Such facilities will help to deliver and expand new ways of learning. Can the Minister of State elaborate on any plans he has to improve the ICT-based facilities in schools, including computers, apart from the ongoing broadband improvements?
One needs broadband provision in the first instance in order to give effect to a digital strategy. That strategy is not yet under way and work remains to be done both internally and externally. The key purpose of this is to ensure that students have a proper understanding of the dynamic involved. People in Ireland are digital natives and instinctively interface with the technology both in schools and elsewhere. However, when certain scenarios were presented to them it showed a deficit, so we need to discover why and tackle it. That is not merely a matter of giving more iPads or tablets to schools, it is a question of how the learning process can be enhanced as a result of interaction with technology. That is part of the digital strategy which needs to be further interrogated. I want to give the Deputy a proper answer. It is not just about throwing money at the problem, it is also about properly interpreting the PISA dynamic and comparing the experiences of other countries. We can take Finland as an exemplar and see how it is done there. We may adopt some of those models into an Irish system. We are getting there but we need to get the ICT roll-out completed in the first instance.
8. Deputy Seán Ó Fearghaíl asked the Minister for Education and Skills if he will revise the guidance counsellor changes he has made; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [16471/14]
I am asking the Minister to revisit a decision he made early in his tenure when he decided that the guidance counselling role would move from an ex-quota position to one within the overall teacher allocation, thereby effectively reducing the pupil-teacher ratio in schools and limiting the subject choice available in many schools throughout the country.
That decision has had a detrimental effect in schools and on students, particularly the most vulnerable students. Will the Minister of State reconsider the matter?
I do not intend to revise the changes made in budget 2012 whereby guidance counselling is provided from within the overall staffing allocation of a school. This gives schools greater autonomy to determine how they deploy their teaching resources across the competing needs of schools. With economic recovery and as our budgetary position permits, when the Government is in a position to consider improving the teaching resources for schools, it would not be desirable to return to a situation where there would be a separate allocation for guidance in schools. The principal and leadership of a school should have discretion in deciding on how teachers are deployed for certain purposes. Furthermore, a separate allocation creates a false demarcation and creates an impression that supporting students through guidance and counselling is dependent exclusively on guidance counsellors. Guidance and counselling are a whole school responsibility, with guidance counsellors playing their part within an overall team approach.
I am rarely appalled in the House, but I am appalled by the Minister of State's response. One realises the seriousness of the economic difficulties we face and appreciates that every Minister is challenged to deal with them, but it is appalling for him to say that when conditions improve, he will not revisit the guidance issue. For 40 years successive Ministers for Education saw to it that principals and vice principals and guidance counsellors were ex-quota. Students need more guidance today than in any period in the past because of the plethora of social problems that confront them and the challenges in the context of progression to third level. Initially, I would have said this was sleight of hand on the part of the Department, but it appears from the Minister for State's response that this is a deliberate policy that is to the detriment of students.
The Deputy may be aware that the initial policy idea around mainstrreaming guidance provision and sharing responsibility for it across the teaching community in individual schools came from principals. Since September 2012 guidance provision has been organised by school management from within the staffing schedule allocation. There is every reason to expect, as the country's economic position improves, that additional teaching resources will be made available to schools, but it is and should remain the decision of the school managers, board of management and teaching staff how the resources are allocated. There is no reason to make a distinctive demarcation between the role of the guidance counsellor and the implied role of guidance counselling across the teaching profession. That is the thinking behind this. It is not about limiting resources for schools; it is about giving them the autonomy to make the decision and suggesting to other teachers that they have a significant role to play in guidance provision. Such provision can take place in a formal classroom setting or outside the classroom, while a one-to-one service should be available for pupils who are experiencing difficulties.
With regard to schools subject to significant challenges, the Department helped to shelter the impact on DEIS post-primary schools by improving their standard staffing allocation. All 195 second level schools in DEIS have been given targeted supported by a more favourable staffing schedule of 18.25:1. This is a 0.75 reduction compared to the existing PTR of 19:1 that applies in non-fee paying second level schools.
Section 9(c) of the 1998 Act places direct responsibility on the Minister and schools to provide guidance counselling. The Minister of State is not in a position, given what he has said, to honour his commitments to students throughout the country. He is involved in a process of false economy and the costs to the Department and the State in the long term will be greater as a result of the increased social problems, with which students will have to contend, and difficulties with progression to third level, with increasing numbers of students dropping out in first and second year because adequate counselling was not available to them and they failed to make the correct choices based on what was suitable for them.
That is a paternalistic attitude to education.
The Minister of State is engaged in a false economy.
Unfortunately, the Minister of State is diminishing the importance of the guidance counsellor's role. He said it should be left to the school to decide whether these services should be provided by a guidance counsellor or other teachers. He failed to acknowledge the training and qualifications of guidance counsellors. He is trying to pass on the responsibility these qualified professionals have delivered up to now to all the members of the teaching staff in schools and saying it is not important to have qualified guidance counsellors to carry out that role in each school and providing a good service for students. It is a worrying development and the Minister of State needs to revisit the issue. We cannot have what was built up over years eroded by the approach he is taking and the diminishing respect he is giving to the availability of the service in schools.
The Deputy is diminishing the role of teachers. Many teachers, particularly in post-primary schools, may not be described as qualified guidance counsellors, but they have a deep knowledge of the options available to young people in choosing their third level path. As resources improve, it will be fully within the power of school principals and boards of management to make a decision to make a unique guidance counselling service available, but that decision will be taken by schools as they see fit in the best interests of their students. I do not suggest a diminished guidance service will be available to young people in the future. It will be enhanced and delivered across the school system and if schools choose to provide a unique guidance counselling service, they will have the autonomy and independence to make that decision.
If the Minister of State believes that, God help us all.
What about parental responsibility?
9. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Minister for Education and Skills the options his Department will provide to those in special needs secondary schools who have to leave school when they turn 18 years old before completing their secondary education, in view of the fact that the State, subsequent to the Sinnott case said, that it recognised persons with severe disabilities required education beyond the age of 18, and that it wished to look after such people even if it did not have a constitutional obligation to do so; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [16472/14]
I have been contacted by a constituent who has a son, Michael, who has Down's syndrome. He is in fourth year, but he has been informed by the school that owing to the decision in the Sinnott case which limits the right of children with special needs to an education up to the age of 18 years, he will have nowhere to go when he reaches that age. His mother is distressed by this and also points out that he is one of many in this position. She believes it is unfair discrimination against children with special needs who should have the right to complete their education.
Special schools are classified as primary national schools and intended to cater for children with special educational needs from the age of 4 years to 18. The Health Service Executive then assumes direct responsibility for young adults with special needs who are over 18 years. Where special schools apply to my Department to retain pupils who, prior to reaching 18 years, had embarked on courses leading to accreditation at FETAC level 3 or above and who require an additional year to complete such a course, my Department will provide sanction for this. It may also provide sanction for special schools, subject to application, to retain a pupil for an additional year to facilitate the transition of a pupil to adult services. Students who transfer to adult service settings can continue to participate in education programmes through further adult education programmes or in adult settings that are allocated resources towards educational provision.
Will the Minister clarify that if the school makes an application for Michael to remain in the school to complete his leaving certificate examinations, the Department will approve it?
That is the inference from the reply.
That is good news. It is a mystery why the school is so adamant that that is not the case. I presumed from my discussion with the mother that there was a resourcing issue. I will pass on the Minister's reply.
The mother made a general point on moving children with special needs - her child has Down's syndrome - straight from school settings, in which they would be with other young people, into adult services. She stated children with special needs were often placed in such services alongside adults who were much older than them. This is really not suitable. She also informed me that Carmona Services in Dún Laoghaire had received 200 applications for two places and that - as she discovered, much to her amazement - Roslyn Park College did not take children with Down's syndrome. Again, this appears to give rise to a problem.
The Deputy is referring to a specific case. I would be more than happy to discuss it with him on a one to one basis. Alternatively, if he forwards the details to me, I will obtain for him bespoke advice on the position on this matter. My initial reply was a general policy response, which shows that there is some flexibility in the context of the time when people reach the age of 18 years. If schools make applications, the Department can grant them the discretion to enable young people, for whatever reason, to continue with their studies until they complete the leaving certificate programme. It is clear that the Deputy is concerned about a specific case and I am of the view that I could obtain for him a more tailored response that would meet the needs of his constituent.
That would be appreciated. The mother has indicated - she was not clear on the details and neither am I - that there is a UN convention with deals with the rights of people with disabilities. While the Government has signed up to it, it has not ratified it. Is the Minister in a position to enlighten us on the matter?
Not immediately. I will make inquiries and return to the Deputy on it. If he forwards all of the relevant details to me, I will obtain for him a proper response.
10. Deputy Jonathan O'Brien asked the Minister for Education and Skills the number of applications made by schools for psychological assessments of students in the academic year 2012-13; the number of assessments that were carried out ; the reasons for not carrying out the remainder; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [16440/14]
The Department's National Educational Psychological Service, NEPS, in line with best international practice, works through a consultative model of service and a continuum-based assessment and intervention process. This means that each school takes responsibility for initial assessment, educational planning and remedial intervention for pupils with learning, emotional or behavioural difficulties, as appropriate, with their assigned NEPS psychologist. In the 2012-13 academic year NEPS psychologists consulted schools in respect of an estimated 25,000 pupils.
In the event of a pupil not making reasonable progress or where he or she requires further additional support, the NEPS may undertake intensive intervention, including assessment of the pupil. In the 2013-13 academic year the NEPS undertook such casework, including assessments, with 8,480 pupils in primary and post-primary schools. In addition, 2,167 assessments were provided for schools through a panel of private practitioners. The nature of the consultative model of service means that the NEPS consults schools on all pupils who are considered to require support. It does not maintain a waiting list for assessments.
Do I take it that there is no limit on the number of applications a school can make for assessments by the NEPS? I was under the impression that in any academic year schools could only avail of three in-school assessments, whereby someone from the NEPS assessed students on site over a number of days. Will the Minister confirm whether that is the case?
On the basis of what I have said, the Deputy can take it that that is the case. If, however, he wants to provide me with details of a particular instance where this may have arisen, I will be happy to obtain more comprehensive information for him.
I am happy with that reply.
11. Deputy Seán Kyne asked the Minister for Education and Skills his views on providing additional support from the budget for 2015 or from this year's departmental budget - should the State's financial position improve to the extent that additional resources may be found - for the book rental schemes already in operation in schools; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [16451/14]
In the light of the negotiations that will take place on the budget for 2015, does the Minister envisage seeking additional resources for book rental schemes in schools in which such schemes are already in operation?
The Department will continue to provide a book grant as usual for all primary schools and this grant can be utilised for the purposes of updating or expanding a school's existing book rental scheme. The National Parents Council - Primary has surveyed its members on book rental schemes currently in operation. The survey has found that they are open to all parents in 95% of cases, that the cost per child is under €40 per year in the majority of schools and that 93% of parents believe book rental schemes help with the cost of educating a child. A sum of €5 million has been made available this year to support the establishment of book rental schemes in primary schools that do not currently operate them. It is my aim to ensure every primary school in the country will have a book rental scheme. If the economic situation improves and I obtain additional resources, the option of extending the grant to other school is one of the possibilities I will consider.
I thank the Minister for his reply. I also thank him and the Government for making €5 million available this year for the establishment of new schemes. I was contacted by the principal of Scoil Shéamais Naofa in Bearna who informed me that it had had a partial book rental scheme in place for the past two years. The scheme cannot be extended to the entire school as a result of issues relating to funding. It is welcome that the Minister is committed to extending the grant if the necessary resources become available.
12. Deputy Charlie McConalogue asked the Minister for Education and Skills the number of primary schools from the September 2013 returns on pupil numbers that fall into the following categories: schools with 81 to 85 pupils, schools 49 to 55 pupils and schools 12 to 19 pupils and, therefore, are affected by the increases in pupil thresholds for teacher numbers introduced in budget 2012; if and when he will publish the value for money report on small schools; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [16466/14]
Information on the number of pupils enrolled in individual schools is provided in the national school annual census. Results from the census for the current school year - 2013-14 - are being finalised. All data at first level and a final list of schools and their enrolments will be published on my Department's website by the end of the school year. Based on the preliminary figures which were published on the Department's website in March, there were 50 schools with 81 to 85 pupils, 61 schools with 49 to 55 pupils and 55 schools with 12 to 19 pupils. The report on the value for money review of small primary schools will be published as soon as my Government colleagues and I have finalised our consideration of the report and its recommendations. I am not in a position to give a precise publication date at this time.
I thank the Minister for his reply. He has indicated that there are 166 schools in the categories affected by the increase in the pupil threshold necessary to retain existing numbers of teaching staff in such schools. The number in question represents approximately 5% of all schools. As the Minister is well aware, 50% of all primary schools have four teachers or fewer. In addition, 10% of these schools are either in line to lose one teacher or they have not obtained an additional teacher as a result of the increase in the threshold. This means that a significant number of schools are down by one teacher, except in instances where they have appealed the decision and won. If, however, they have won appeals, the reverse is only temporary because if the level of enrolment does not increase, the schools in question will lose a teach in the following year. This is having a major impact in the context of an increase in the number of multi-class environments and the various difficulties attaching to running a school. It also means that significant pressure is being placed on schools to remain in existence and compete with neighbouring schools. It is time the Minister revisited the approach taken during the past three years. The 166 schools in question are under pressure. They should be given the relief, of which they would have been in a position to avail if the Minister had not adopted the very unfair approach of removing teachers from the system.
The decision on this matter was taken in the light of the extraordinary set of economic circumstances which obtained when we entered office. We had no choice but to make reductions all over the place and this was one of the areas affected. When I made the announcement on this matter, I gave schools a three year horizon within which they might examine their own situations and provide for a degree of planning. I also provided such a horizon in respect of student contributions, otherwise known as fees, at third level and stated that over the four years the figure in this regard would increase from €2,000 to €3,000. I did this in order that there might be a degree of certainty. When the final figures for the current year become available, we will be in a position to discover what has been the impact on the schools to which the Deputy refers. I am not sure whether the figure is 10%, but it is certainly significant. For the communities served by the schools in question, it is definitely significant. I have no proposal to change the pupil-teacher ratio into the future. However, when we are in a position to gauge the full impact - it will not vary a great deal from what we already know - we can examine the physical consequences for schools throughout the country. I would like progress to be made in this matter.
It was very good of the Minister to provide that level of certainty. However, the schools involved might inform him that there is a very clear level of uncertainty. What he stated originally was that during the three years from 2012 onwards they would lose teachers.
The Minister was giving them certainty that was what was going to happen unless their numbers were significantly increasing. I do not know why he has targeted these schools. What has happened is that four-teacher schools have dropped down to having three teachers, three-teachers schools have dropped down to having two teachers and many two-teacher schools, in which category there is a significant number of Protestant and minority faith schools, are in danger of losing their second teacher.
The value for money report is a significant concern in this respect. Why has the Minister been sitting on it for more than a year? Why will he not publish it? Were the measures the Minister has introduced during the past three years part of that report? There is a concern that he has an agenda to try to diminish the resources that are being given to smaller schools to force them into a situation where they have to consider amalgamation. As long as the Minister sits on the report and refuses to publish what is in or to have a discussion on where we are going, the concern in this respect will remain. Can he give us an update on where that report is at and when he will publish it?
I know the Deputy from Donegal and Deputy Ó Cuív, who is seated beside him, are concerned about this matter but I want to assure them both that small schools are not necessarily synonymous with rural Ireland. There are many small schools on either side of a school yard where there is a junior school and a senior school - I am talking about urban areas - where it makes sense to have some form of rationalisation - some form of examining the situation.
Those are a small number.
I am talking about the broader picture. I am aware and I respect the Deputies' concerns about parts of rural Ireland, particularly isolated parts where the school is a critical part of the viability of the very community but I am talking about-----
It is half of all our schools.
I am still talking about schools in the greater urban complex in Dublin that are to be found across the yard from each other that have not moved or are not looking at rationalisation at a time when everybody has to be bear some degree of support and some degree of the burden of correcting a very difficult economic situation.
What about the 50% of other schools - our very small schools?
We must proceed to the next question as we must make progress.
13. Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív asked the Minister for Education and Skills the number of one-teacher primary schools in the State in each of the past five years; his views on whether it is a suitable arrangement to have only one full-time teacher in a school; the number of these schools on the mainland that have more than 12 pupils at present and in the case of the islands more than eight pupils; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [16341/14]
The Minister changed the pupil-teacher ratio for two-teacher schools to one. I do not think it is a suitable arrangement. It is the reason we have put a second teacher in schools, but I do not think it is a suitable arrangement to have only one teacher permanently in a school. What effect has the Minister's policy has had on the number of one-teacher schools in the State?
Under the budget 2012 measures the minimum threshold for a two-teacher school is now 20 pupils. However, if a school is the only school on an island, the pupil threshold for it to remain as a two-teacher school is eight pupils.
The number of one-teacher schools over the last five years has varied between four and eight schools. In the 2008-09 school year, there were eight schools, the number reduced to four in the 2010-11 school year and rose to eight again in the past year. I am arranging to have the full tabular details provided to the Deputy in regard to this matter.
I would say, however, that the day to day running of a school, including with just one full-time teacher, is a matter for the board of management of each school. Schools are required to take all reasonable precautions to ensure the safety of pupils and to participate in supervising pupils when the pupils are on the school premises during school time and-or on school activities.
I do not yet have the complete information relating to the current school year, however, I can tell the Deputy, from the preliminary information available to me, there are 60 mainland schools below the threshold of 20 pupils and of seven island schools that are below the threshold of 20 pupils, four of the schools are two-teacher schools. There are two island schools below the threshold of eight pupils. The complete information in regard to all schools will be placed on the Department's website in June of this year.
Table showing the number of one-teacher schools over the five-year period 2008-9 to 2012-13.
Number of one-teacher schools
Total number of pupils
8 (1 island)
6 (1 island)
4 (1 island)
5 (1 island)
8 (2 islands)
Did the Minister say that are 60 schools below the threshold?
I will make the tabular information available to the Deputy. I am aware of his interest in this matter. To quote from my reply, "I can tell the Deputy from preliminary information that there are 60 mainland schools".
Sixty - six zero.
What is staring us in the face is the fact that the number of one-teacher schools will increase from four to 60, as the Minister's policy progresses. In regard to island schools, can he confirm that if the number of pupils falls below eight for one year, the number must then increase to 20 to get back the second teacher? Does he think it is likely or possible that will happen in schools on small islands where the number of pupils has already dropped to eight?
With regard to small islands, I will certainly adopt, and do adopt, a different approach. That is my intention because of the very nature of those schools. The Deputy may be aware of this, and I have additional information in regard to two islands because of the viability of island communities. That is a separate case altogether and I am prepared to talk to people about that matter, but we have to examine the implications of the impact if that is the case and the number of pupils in a school has fallen below eight. The threshold now is 20.
We had the case of the school in Inis Meáin where the number of pupils dropped for one year but the school authorities were told that they will have to meet the new threshold figure - we appealed that decision in every way possible and made personal appeals to the Minister - which now is 20 to get back the second teacher. It is not a question of the school bringing the number of pupils back to over eight; once the number falls below eight, the number has to increase to 20. That is the rule and that is what we were told by officials in the Department and that is what the Minister told them. Can he confirm to the House that in fact is the situation?
What I can say to the Deputy and confirm to the House is with regard to isolated communities, particularly island schools, I am reconsidering that rule.
I sincerely welcome that. That is very progressive and important. I am glad the Minister has recognised the unique community situation on the island and, in many cases, the unique cultural heritage that we have inherited. I have often pointed out that we keep crying over the Blasket Islands, but the culture that was there is long gone but that culture is alive and well on islands like Inis Meáin and the Aran Islands. As the Minister's policy progresses, can the Minister confirm that the number of one-teacher schools in the country is likely to increase from under ten to about 60?
That is what the figures suggest and in those cases in the first instance it is for the board of management to decide what it thinks is the best for the future for the school.
14. Deputy Robert Troy asked the Minister for Education and Skills if he will provide an update on the anti-bullying campaigns in schools; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [16473/14]
18. Deputy Robert Troy asked the Minister for Education and Skills the measures in place against cyberbullying in schools; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [16474/14]
25. Deputy Charlie McConalogue asked the Minister for Education and Skills if he is satisfied that anti-bullying campaigns in schools have sufficient resources; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [16465/14]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 14, 18 and 25 together.
The Minister, Deputy Fitzgerald, and I published an action plan on bullying in January of last year which sets out 12 actions to help prevent and tackle bullying in schools. I have made €500,000 available in 2014 and I am satisfied that this is an adequate sum of money to support the implementation of the action plan.
The implementation of the actions is progressing. New anti-bullying national procedures were published last September. These will be adopted and form the basis for anti-bullying policies in all schools during this school year. In addition, training materials for parents, teacher and boards of management are being developed and rolled out.
Awareness raising initiatives on cyberbullying, including Up2Us, a new resource to tackle cyberbullying, are provided through the Internet safety initiative, Webwise. In 2013 and 2014 the Department supported safer Internet day, an initiative that addresses Internet safety issues, including cyberbullying, for young people.
The Department also supported the Stand Up! awareness week against homophobic and transphobic bullying in second level schools which took place in March 2013 and 2014 and has commissioned research on bullying of particular groups, which will be published this year. Implementation of these and other actions identified in the plan will continue in 2014.
I thank the Minister for that update. Obviously, the implementation of the anti-bullying plan involves everyone within a school and it is important that everyone works together to ensure that students are kept safe and that there is a happy environment within the school. With reference to the guidance counsellor role, the Minister of State, Deputy Cannon, took the earlier direct question on that matter and in his response he very much seemed to indicate that it was entirely a matter for the school and seemed to minimise the importance of a school ensuring that it had a fully qualified guidance counsellor available to play his or her part within the school, working along with others. We seem to be seeing from the Minister and the Department that this particular role is being diminished. It is particularly important in regard to the implementation of this plan and also in regard to providing the ancillary supports necessary as part of a comprehensive anti-bullying strategy within each school.
Will the Minister comment on the role of guidance counsellors and whether he agrees with the response given earlier by the Minister of State, Deputy Cannon?
From my point of view the Minister of State, Deputy Cannon, gave a very accurate response in answer to the supplementary questions asked by Deputy Ó Fearghaíl. When considering reductions in the overall pupil-teacher ratio at second level, we had to make a difficult choice regarding the idea that a particular category of teacher would be ring-fenced and ex-quota when in many cases these teachers were qualified to teach a subject before they became guidance counsellors. I will be very frank with Deputies McConalogue and O'Brien. Reducing the overall pupil-teacher ratio in post-primary schools has an uneven effect which is very difficult to predict because we do not have the information as to the impact on subject choice in a post-primary school if the pupil-teacher ratio is reduced and a teacher is lost, either immediately or very quickly, as a consequence. Therefore, I did not reduce the pupil-teacher ratio in post-primary schools but I did mainstream the guidance teacher allocation. This was the equivalent of a reduction of 0.6 in the pupil-teacher ratio.
I did this because I was under economic pressure to do so and because the principals of many schools had come to me informally and stated they would prefer to deploy the guidance teacher resource, including guidance provision, throughout the school, so that when guidance provision was done the teachers could be allocated to other requirements within the school. There is an ongoing debate about leadership in schools and having as much autonomy and resources as possible at the discretion of the principal and his or her team. This is what we are trying to do. I fully support the position articulated by the Minister of State, Deputy Cannon, because it is clearly in line with the position we have enunciated for some time.
The approach we are seeing from the Minister and the policy he has adopted very much diminishes the importance of the guidance counsellor role vis-à-vis other teaching roles in schools. One would not send a teacher qualified in Irish to teach English unless he or she also had a qualification in English. Likewise, one would not have someone who was unqualified teaching a maths class; nor would the Minister advocate it. What the Minister stated in his response is that to avoid an impact on subject choice he decided that the least worst option was a reduction in the guidance counselling role and that principals could cut this if they so decided to provide greater subject choice or to cater for other needs in the school. I do not think this is acceptable. The response we have received from the Minister and Minister of State that other teachers can do this work acknowledges the fact the role played by guidance counsellors is very important and specialist in terms of career guidance, which is a traditional role in which much knowledge is required, and with regard to counselling, in which they are qualified and which requires qualifications.
We are going down a dangerous road in removing an essential service that has been built up over a period of time. Not acknowledging this and standing over the fact that he will continue this approach is something about which the Minister must think very seriously. He must change the direction in which he is going.
I fundamentally disagree with the Deputy. The two traditional aspects to guidance counsellors are pastoral care and actual career guidance. The resources for career guidance, the amount of information available and a host of other facilities which exist are totally different from what was available ten, 15, 20 or 30 years ago.
With regard to pastoral care and mental health in a school environment - particularly in post-primary schools, which is what we are discussing - in the health document published by the Minister of State, Deputy Kathleen Lynch, she clearly articulated that the mental health of the school community is the responsibility of everybody in the school community and that everybody should feel empowered. If somebody is in an unhappy place, which could lead to very tragic circumstances, the potential victim or sufferer should feel comfortable enough to be able to articulate his or her concerns in the first instance to any member of the school community or to a friend and tell someone he or she is feeling very depressed. The person told should feel empowered to say to the guidance counsellor that the first person is feeling very depressed, or should be seen to, and in turn the guidance counsellor, who is not a qualified psychiatrist or health worker per se but who has very clear skills, should be able to refer the person to a proper professional service.
In light of many of the tragedies we have had in schools recently - we are all aware of them - the health of the school community and the young people in it in particular must be more than just one person's responsibility. This was the message very clearly sent out by the Minister of State, Deputy Kathleen Lynch. Some people felt this was an intrusion into their area, although this is not true of all guidance counsellors. We must recognise that young people in particular suffer through cyberbullying and a host of other issues, and we have had great tragedies, including very poignant tragedies in Deputy McConalogue's constituency. We must make it the responsibility of more than just one person.