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Dáil Éireann debate -
Thursday, 29 May 2014

Vol. 842 No. 3

Other Questions

On Question No. 6, the Deputy is not present. Therefore, we will move on to Question No. 7 in the name of Deputy McConalogue.

Question No. 6 replied to with Written Answers.

School Guidance Counsellors

Charlie McConalogue


7. Deputy Charlie McConalogue asked the Minister for Education and Skills his views on a survey showing a 59% drop in one-to-one guidance counselling hours since the removal of the ex-quota allocation to schools; his views on the impact of this cut on student welfare in view of the fact that the service is provided by trained guidance practitioners who are required to undergo constant professional supervision, which means this is not a service that can be safely provided as a whole-school activity; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [23370/14]

Robert Troy


21. Deputy Robert Troy asked the Minister for Education and Skills if he is satisfied that there is sufficient provision for guidance counselling in place in our schools; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [23376/14]

Colm Keaveney


28. Deputy Colm Keaveney asked the Minister for Education and Skills if he will address the ongoing concerns regarding the impact of guidance counselling cuts; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [23372/14]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 7, 21 and 28 together.

The surveys cited by Deputy McConalogue focused on guidance counsellors and, in particular, on the time they spend in a one-to-one setting giving career guidance and student counselling. Guidance and counselling are a whole-school responsibility, with guidance counsellors playing their part within an overall team approach. The representative organisations for school principals and school management have developed a framework that assists schools on how best to manage the provision of guidance from within their staffing allocation. Wherever possible, group work and class-based activity should be used to maximise the amount of time available for those pupils who are most in need of one-to-one support. In February the Department of Education and Skills published a guide to developing student support teams in post-primary schools. This is an important resource for schools in promoting and protecting students' well-being and an aid to establishing a team or reviewing an existing team.

As the Deputies who asked Questions Nos. 21 and 28 are not present, we have six minutes on these questions.

I asked the Minister of State specifically for his views on the fact that the survey found a decrease of 59% in one-to-one counselling time as a result of the cuts introduced by his Government. His response has been similar to previous replies from the Minister for Education and Skills, namely, that guidance counselling and guidance are a whole-school activity.

I draw the Minister of State's attention to a letter which issued to every principal in Ireland in second level schools and colleges of further education on behalf of the teacher education section of his Department. The letter requested principals to facilitate their guidance counsellors' attendance at professional counselling supervision on five occasions for two hours each time during the next academic year. This service, which is funded and overseen by the Department, was put in place by a previous Minister for Education and Skills to ensure that all the one-to-one counselling taking place in schools meets the highest ethical standards and that guidance practitioners receive constant professional supervision to ensure these standards are maintained. Given the often difficult personal issues that students raise in their interactions with guidance counsellors, I am sure the Minister of State will agree that the maintenance of such high professional standards is essential. Is he now stating that while those who are professionally trained and subject to ongoing supervision of their work as guidance counsellors have lost 59% of the time available to them to undertake this activity, the implications are limited because guidance should be a whole-school activity? That is not a situation anyone can stand over. I ask him to specifically address that point.

In my earlier reply I outlined to the Deputy how the vast majority of guidance support will operate within the school community in future. The representative organisations for school principals and my Department have worked to develop a framework to allow schools to best manage the provision of guidance from within their staffing allocations. That puts a greater emphasis on group work and class-based activity and, for the significant majority of the role fulfilled by guidance counsellors, I argue that it is more than sufficient. Where the need arises for one-to-one support for young people, particularly where they experience mental health issues or other challenges, it is important that guidance and support are allocated to them as needed. Well developed and managed student support teams are central to the successful implementation of guidance, and two previous documents which have outlined how that might happen are the guidelines Well-Being in Post-Primary School, which were published in 2013, and A Continuum of Support for Post-Primary Schools, which was published in 2010. These documents provide a framework for schools to support students with social, emotional or academic needs, and their implementation will make a significant contribution to the general well-being of young people and provide a stable and supportive learning environment for all students.

Guidance counsellors have two distinct functions. The first is general career guidance and guidance on the educational opportunities a child or young person might pursue, while the second involves support for students' well-being. If a school manages its resources well in terms of guidance, I do not think either of those provisions will suffer at any point in the future.

The evidence shows there has been a reduction of 59% in one-to-one guidance counselling time since the Government introduced the cuts. The Minister of State referred to a framework his Department is trying to develop with principals to govern how guidance counsellors should operate. I remind him once again of the framework that was put in place a number of years ago to ensure that guidance counsellors are professionally supervised and trained in counselling, particularly in one-to-one counselling. It is a service that requires training and people who know what they are doing. In essence, the Minister of State is saying that subject teachers who do not have professional counselling skills will be expected to consider this work as part of whole-school guidance and an activity in which they can comfortably engage. Is the Minister of State comfortable with allowing teachers who have no qualifications in counselling to counsel vulnerable children, while at the same time insisting on the highest standards of counselling from those who are qualified to do so?

This is an exceptionally important service. Students are encountering more difficulties with mental health now than they have in the past. The incidence of self-harm is increasing. The Minister of State at the Department of Health, Deputy Kathleen Lynch, recently spoke in a radio interview about her plans to deploy nurses with relevant qualifications to accident and emergency departments to deal with people presenting with mental health problems. When people present to accident and emergency departments they have already been failed by the supports that should be on offer in the community and schools.

The Minister of State is trying to deflect from this issue by minimising the impact of the 59% reduction in one-to-one counselling time. This is not something the Government should stand over because it is not safe or fair to children who need support from our school system and the State. The matter needs to be reconsidered with a view to reinstating supports for guidance counselling in schools.

The 59% reduction in one-to-one counselling time to which the Deputy referred includes both the guidance that a child or young person might need to deal with issues arising in school, such as bullying or mental health problems, and career guidance support for young people. With a better allocation of resources and a reallocation of guidance counsellors' time, the supports that a child or young person might need for his or her mental well-being and in dealing with challenges are capable of being catered for within the new guidance counselling structure. The principal and leadership of a school have the best knowledge and experience to determine how exactly guidance resources and teaching resources should be allocated. Even as our budgetary situation recovers, hopefully, over the coming years, I do not believe we should reinstate that one dedicated guidance post. I do not think it is necessary because, with some innovation and imagination, we can end up with a more holistic guidance and counselling support service across all of the teaching community in a school. I do not subscribe to the assertion that teachers, as highly trained individuals and responsible adults operating in a school environment, do not have the professional capacity or knowledge to deal with a significant number of the issues that arise in their classrooms on a daily basis.

State Examinations Reviews

Bernard Durkan


8. Deputy Bernard J. Durkan asked the Minister for Education and Skills the extent to which he expects to reach agreement with the relevant teachers' unions in respect of replacement of the junior certificate examinations; if he will find it possible to reconcile the concerns expressed by the unions with the need for reform; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [23362/14]

Thomas Pringle


17. Deputy Thomas Pringle asked the Minister for Education and Skills how he will address the concerns of teachers regarding junior cycle reform; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [23286/14]

Bernard Durkan


62. Deputy Bernard J. Durkan asked the Minister for Education and Skills the extent to which he has had further discussions with the teaching unions with a view to reaching agreement in respect of outstanding issues arising from the proposed replacement of the junior certificate examination; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [23617/14]

This question relates to the ongoing debate between the Minister for Education and Skills and the teachers' unions regarding the replacement of the junior certificate examination. While it is recognised that reform is necessary and that there is concern among teachers' unions, I am trying to ascertain the extent to which we can address the need for reform while recognising the need to include all stakeholders.

I propose to take Questions Nos. 8, 17 and 62 together.

The Minister for Education and Skills and his officials are very open to discussing issues of disagreement relating to the junior cycle student award with the teacher unions, and have been all along. The Minister has asked his officials to continue to have discussions with the partners through the national working group on junior cycle. He has received detailed suggestions, particularly from the management and patron bodies, which will inform the discussions, but he continues to await similar written submissions from the teacher unions.

The Minister's door has always been, and will remain, open to anyone in the teaching profession and their representative bodies who want to engage as to how best to deliver this very significant reform of our education system at junior cycle.

As the Deputy who tabled Question No. 17 is not present, Deputy Durkan has six minutes for this question.

I thank the Minister of State for his reply and recognise his willingness to accommodate the views of the teaching professionals. We must ask to what extent it will be possible to reconcile the need for reform with the question whether the review of students by their teachers is the appropriate way to do it and the willingness on the part of teachers and their unions to cross that Rubicon in the interests of education and the children.

A national working group has been established to see how best we can achieve this welcome reform of our junior cycle system. The group includes representatives from the Teachers Union of Ireland, TUI, the Association of Secondary Teachers Ireland, ASTI, all the school management bodies, the National Association of Principals and Deputy Principals, NAPD, Educate Together, the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment, NCCA, and the State Examination Commission. It has established three subgroups to examine closely the challenges that some have suggested might emanate from this reform. The subgroups are on quality assurance and support for teacher assessment, continuing professional development required to support teachers and school leaders to implement the junior cycle, and workload and implementation issues for schools and teachers.

The subgroup on quality assurance and support is considering ways the assessment and moderation of the new junior cycle will be addressed. The management bodies, Educate Together and parents have provided written submissions containing their views and they are being considered by the Department. However, without a written submission from teachers it is impossible to have the balanced debate the Deputy rightly suggests we have. The teachers must make that submission to represent their views alongside all the other education partners. Without it we are operating in a vacuum. I call upon the teachers' unions across the country to make submissions, engage with the process and, hopefully, arrive at a point where we can collectively move forward together to implement the reform.

I thank the Minister of State. Can he identify a possible deadline for the conclusion of these discussions with a view to putting in place the necessary reforms?

While I hope the review will be completed by the end of the year, it is being stalled - I do not suggest deliberately - by the non-engagement of the unions in terms of a written submission. The sooner we receive such a submission the quicker we can move towards a conclusion.

Given that the new junior cycle is due to commence in September, I hope the review concludes before the end of the year. The Minister of State is being disingenuous when he says he does not know the teachers' unions' concerns because they have not provided a written submission. The Minister of State and Department are very well aware of their concerns. It is unfair to say he cannot progress unless they engage. They have been engaging with the groups the Department established. To say he does not know their concerns because they have not put them on paper is unfair.

A recent survey of parents' opinions by a professional polling company is that 60% want to retain independent assessment of the new junior certificate. That is where there is disagreement and the Minister of State refuses to take on board what teachers and parents want. I urge the Minister of State to re-examine this with the Minister, who has been obstinate, stubborn and blind to the views of others in his approach to a very important reform of our education system.

When one is attempting to work with parents, the teaching profession and school communities to implement a very significant reform, it is exceptionally important to engage with all partners. When those partners raise valid concerns about the implementation of the reformed junior cycle, it is important to engage with them. That engagement has been ongoing and the national working group has been established. However, it is exceptionally difficult to operate in an environment where a significant number of the representative groups involved in the process have not made written submissions. We need those ideas as to how we can make this work to the best possible extent. Teachers are professionals and I have every confidence in their professionalism and integrity. Until they put their heads together and use their professional experience to suggest how exactly we can implement the reform, it is very difficult to move forward.

School Accommodation Provision

Jonathan O'Brien


9. Deputy Jonathan O'Brien asked the Minister for Education and Skills if he will ensure that his Department will give permission for a school (details supplied) to enter into a five-year lease agreement with NCE campus in Farranferris, County Cork; if a funding application by the school to fit out additional classrooms needed as a result of a large increase in student numbers in September 2014 and to provide a suitable play area will be granted; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [23277/14]

This question is about a gaelscoil on the north side of Cork city and an issue it has with extending its lease because of the Department's failure to give it an assurance that it will continue to fund it as a public school.

A new application for significant additional accommodation comprising additional mainstream classrooms, resource rooms and ancillary accommodation for the Gaelscoil in question has recently been submitted to my Department. The application is under consideration and a decision will be conveyed to the school authority shortly. The school has also submitted a draft five-year lease to my Department for consideration. The proposed draft lease incorporates the additional accommodation. Once a decision on the additional accommodation has been finalised, my Department will further liaise with the school authority regarding the proposed lease agreement.

This is a matter of urgency. Some parents are wondering whether the NCE and Department will sign this lease. The school wants only a letter of comfort from the Department stating it will continue to receive funding for the next five years. The landlord in question refuses to sign any lease until he receives the letter, which has not been forthcoming.

The Department is carefully considering the lease and will shortly liaise with the school authority to finalise issues surrounding the lease agreement. As I would not like to mislead the Deputy, I cannot give a timeframe, however the Department is actively addressing this issue and intends to engage with the school authorities in the near future.

As the Deputies who tabled Questions Nos. 10 and 11 are absent, we will take Question No. 12.

Question No. 10 replied to with Written Answers.

School Accommodation Provision

Seán Kyne


12. Deputy Seán Kyne asked the Minister for Education and Skills if he will provide an update on the progress at securing new premises and-or new sites for schools (details supplied) in County Galway; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [23349/14]

I would like the Minister of State to provide an update on the progress in securing new premises or new sites for Gaelscoil Mhic Amhlaigh and Coláiste na Coiribe in Galway city.

In accordance with the Department's five year capital building programme, the provision of a new post-primary school building for Coláiste na Coiribe has been devolved to Galway and Roscommon Education and Training Board under a service level agreement. This project proceeded to tender in April and it is envisaged that, subject to no issues arising, the project will proceed to construction shortly. Following consultations with representatives of Gaelscoil Mhic Amhlaigh and Department officials, it was agreed to relocate the Gaelscoil to a new greenfield site. A suitable site has been identified and the acquisition process is ongoing. Department officials will meet the school's representatives shortly to review the plans for the new school building.

I thank the Minister of State for his reply. It is good that progress is being made on the Gaelscoil. The new greenfield site is in the vicinity further away from the existing site. When will a meeting take place on it?

It has not been decided. The process of site identification took quite a while, but the acquisition process is ongoing, and it is a very significant milestone in the development of a new school for Gaelscoil Mhic Amhlaigh.

The officials in the Department will meet shortly with the school's representatives to review the plans for that building. The project was at an impasse but it is moving ahead now towards a conclusion.

As Deputy Wallace has just arrived, is it agreed that we will go back to his question? Agreed.

Special Educational Needs Service Provision

Mick Wallace


11. Deputy Mick Wallace asked the Minister for Education and Skills if he will clarify whether section 7 of Circular 0030/2014 means that children with behaviour related care needs will have to wait until all other interventions are tried before special needs assistant support is allocated; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [23364/14]

I thank the Ceann Comhairle. Section 7 of Circular 0030/2014 states that access to SNA support for pupils with behavioural care needs will only be sanctioned under certain conditions. It seems to indicate that the Department believes a child with behavioural care needs should first be disciplined and punished by a school before SNA support is provided. Will the Minister explain the rationale behind the policy?

I do not think Deputy Wallace will be playing midfield with Wexford Youths any time in the future.

Section 7 of the circular states that in the case of new applications for SNA support, for children with behavioural care needs - that is, where a professional report has identified the care needs as being related to behaviour - in general, it will not be possible to consider access to SNA support until there has been a clear assessment of the child's needs in the classroom setting.

The term "in general" allows flexibility for the NCSE to make an SNA allocation immediately where there is a clear and obvious need. However, for most pupils, the circular sets out that it is important to assess how pupils respond to behaviour management strategies in class before allocating SNA support, as SNA support is not designed to be that first response to behavioural difficulties. This section of the circular will not prevent those pupils who need support from receiving that support.

Some parents are very worried. A parent I know in Wexford, Jane Johnstone, has pointed out to me that the section of the circular is a serious concern for many parents. She stated:

Most of our kids wouldn't have the understanding of rules, and when kids present with challenging behaviours it's largely due to one of two reasons - either they can't communicate their needs, or are over-stimulated and unable to cope with their environment due to a sensory processing disability. To implement disciplinary action on a child who has a disability or autism is therefore effectively punishing them for having a disability, and for breaking rules that they cannot understand. In addition, there is a fear that these kids will be suspended or expelled, and will fall out of the education system completely, in the absence of needs-based support.

Is it not true that more difficult arrangements are being put in place to save money?

No, it is not true. They are being put in place to clarify the role of the SNA and to ensure that this nation's scarce resources are directed towards those who need them most. The Government approved an extra 390 SNA posts last December up to the end of this year, which means that almost 11,000 SNAs are now available to work. That is the largest number of SNAs we have had since the foundation of the SNA support system. It is not about saving money; it is about ensuring that those children who need SNA support can have access to it.

It is important to point out also that professionals - teachers - have significant skills, and they acquire those skills in their training in behaviour management within the classroom setting. Those behaviour management skills apply to all children, and they have the capacity to determine the way and on what basis they are applied.

Despite the tough economic circumstances we faced, we protected - and in some cases regarding SNA provision, increased - the budget devoted to supporting our children. This is not about saving money. It is a reflection of our Government's priorities to protect and cherish our children who have special educational needs. The circular does not seek to remove or reduce SNA support to those children who are very much in need of it.

I understand the Government has retained the numbers-----

It has increased the numbers.

The big problem is that the demand has grown greatly, which is unfortunate. The number of children needing help has increased a great deal and we have not kept pace in dealing with them. We know that resources are stretched, but children are falling behind now because they do not have as much support. The Minister of State said that teachers are qualified to look after many of these children, but the teachers already have their hands full dealing with the other children. The Minister cannot deny that children with difficulties will fall further behind, and it is unfair to allow so much of an impact on their potential to improve, which is what the parents are telling me is happening.

I was fortunate to work for seven years for a charity that cares for children with special needs. It is not fair to characterise - I am not making this accusation about Deputy Wallace - all children with special needs as having behavioural difficulties; a significant number of them do not. The professional assessment and conclusion drawn by the SENO should be the main factor in determining whether young people need SNA support. It is not and has never been the intention of this Government to reduce the support available to special needs children within our school system. This circular is, first, clarifying the role of the SNAs in terms of their function within the classroom setting and, second, ensuring that those children who need SNA support from the first day they enter the school environment have that support available to them. As their needs evolve and change and, hopefully, diminish, that SNA support can be reduced - there is nothing wrong with that - and those supports can be allocated to other children coming into the system who might be more deserving of them at that time.

As Deputies Broughan and Troy are not present, we will move on to Question No. 15.

Questions Nos. 13 and 14 replied to with Written Answers.

School Curriculum

John Browne


15. Deputy John Browne asked the Minister for Education and Skills his response to a recently undertaken survey which suggests that people want to see independent assessment of students at junior cycle; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [23380/14]

Charlie McConalogue


18. Deputy Charlie McConalogue asked the Minister for Education and Skills his response to a recent survey which indicates a high degree of public support for independent assessment at junior cycle; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [23366/14]

Brendan Smith


43. Deputy Brendan Smith asked the Minister for Education and Skills his views on a poll that suggests strong public support for external and independent assessment for junior certificate students; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [23382/14]

I ask the Minister for his response to a recent survey which indicates a high degree of public support for independent assessment at junior cycle level.

I propose to take Questions Nos. 15, 18 and 43 together.

I am aware of and have noted the findings of the Irish Independent-Millward Brown opinion poll which was published last week.

Last year, officials from the Department went to 12 locations around the country and met parents to explain the implications of the implementation of the framework for the junior cycle. Parents had concerns - I am a parent and I speak to other parents - but when the new approaches were explained they understood the need for these new approaches and the vast majority of parents welcomed them.

In the past few weeks my officials met representatives of both the national parents' councils – primary and post-primary - to discuss the needs of parents. It has been agreed that both national parent councils for primary and post-primary will, in partnership with the NCCA, organise a series of meetings around the country between now and the school summer holidays to explain the new approach to learning and assessment. The arrangements for these are detailed in the accompanying table.

There is a significant information already available for parents on the NCCA website at




Monday 27th May 2013

Dublin North

Dublin Skylon Hotel, Upper Drumcondra Rd., Drumcondra, Dublin 9

Monday 27th May 2013

Dublin West

Crown Plaza, Blanchardstown

Wednesday 29th May 2013

Dublin South

Dublin West Ed Centre

Thursday 30th May 2013


Glencarn Hotel, Castleblaney

Tuesday 4th June 2013


Whites of Wexford

Tuesday 4th June 2013


Mount Errigal Hotel

Wednesday 5th June 2013


Tralee Education Centre

Thursday 6th June 2013

Cork City

Rochestown Park

Thursday 6th June 2013


South Court Hotel, Raheen

Monday 10th June 2013


Mayo Education Centre, Castlebar

Tuesday 11th June 2013


Salthill Hotel, Promenade, Galway

Thursday 13th June 2013

Longford Town

Longford Arms Hotel

I am afraid the Minister of State and the Minister, Deputy Quinn, are living in their own bubble regarding their views on the reform of the junior cycle student award. I attended one of the 12 meetings that took place throughout the country. There were attendances of 50, 60 and 70 people at the 12 meetings. The Minister has before him a survey by a reputable polling company telling him that 60% of parents believe that independent assessment at junior cycle level should continue. The Minister, Deputy Quinn, has not been listening on this issue. He tried to dismiss it as a concern of teachers alone and said that the parents to whom he had spoken did not have a concern. The evidence is available now to indicate that parents believe independent assessment should continue. I asked transition year students for their views and the majority of them believe independent assessment should continue. The way this issue has been handled is unfortunate.

It is time the Minister and the Minister of State started to listen to the views of others on this issue. Reform is about more than just the Minister for Education and Skills.

Reform is about more than just the Minister for Education and Skills. However, there are times in the lifetime of any Government when somebody must take the lead and a stand in terms of what needs to be done to reform the education system. Nobody denies that the junior certificate programme, as constituted, is broken. It serves no function or purpose in empowering young people to be exceptionally able in the future. We abolished the primary certificate programme many years ago when it became apparent that it also served no useful function. Everybody agrees that this is the right direction in which to move. There is no question about this; what is at issue is implementation. The Minister and I have engaged with young people on a number of issues in the recent past, including this one. The door is open in terms of how we should implement this badly needed reform of the junior cycle system. The working group has been established and includes representatives of the parents council. As I said, we propose to re-engage with parents and will do our best to make people aware of the opportunities to engage with us at various centres throughout the country. There will be a public relations campaign around these opportunities. Our door is open to parents, student and teacher representatives. Nobody denies this is the direction in which we need to move. I agree that we need to re-engage to determine how we can address the concerns raised by parents and teachers.

Unfortunately, since the Minister announced his intentions in this regard, his door has not been open. The initial National Council for Curriculum and Assessment working group report on the future of junior certificate reform advocated that the 60% examination part of the new junior cycle student award should be independently marked. The Minister made a unilateral decision not to accept this recommendation. At the teachers' conferences last year he described junior certificate reform as a person political project. The result of his approach to this matter is that teachers are refusing to co-operate and there is talk of further industrial action by them in the autumn. As pointed out by the Minister of State, reform of the second level system is very much needed. However, it is being bogged down and brought into question by the approach being taken by the Minister. One of the key issues is independent assessment. It is time the Minister opened his door and worked with others in coming up with a solution and that he take on board the views of parents, teachers and students on independent assessment and incorporated it into the very much needed reform of the junior cycle system.

We must be careful not to lose faith in the professional capacity of teachers to independently, fairly and transparently verify the progress of their students. I am not suggesting the Deputy is making that charge. As parents, we receive reports on the academic achievements and social success or otherwise in the school setting of our children at the end of first and second year and the first half of third year. We have trusted this system for decades. Why should we not trust it now? That is one of the key questions for me. That said, if parents and the teaching profession, in which I have the utmost faith, are expressing concerns, we need to re-engage. Without that engagement and the support of parents, teacher unions and young people we cannot move forward together. The Minister has stated he is open to significant discussion on the independent assessment and verification of young people's achievements, academically and otherwise. His door and that of the Department of Education and Skills remain open. As I stated, we propose to engage again with parents in the next number of weeks. This engagement will continue until we arrive at a consensus on how to move forward together.

Written Answers follow Adjournment.