I thank Deputies Creighton and Mathews for the opportunity to address this issue and to outline for the House the position on post-primary education.
The Deputies will be aware of the challenging economic environment that forms the backdrop to all decisions relating to the public finances. While the Government has tried to protect front-line services, difficult choices had to be made to identify savings across all Departments.
Achieving savings in education is particularly difficult given the significant increases in the overall number of pupils in our schools. Teacher allocations to all second level schools are approved annually by my Department in accordance with established rules based on recognised pupil enrolment. The criteria for the allocation of posts are communicated to the management of schools annually and are available on the Department website. In accordance with these rules, each school management authority is required to organise its subject options within the limit of its approved teacher allocation.
At post-primary level and in accordance with existing arrangements, where a school management authority is unable to meet its curricular commitments within its approved allocation, my Department considers applications for additional short-term support, that is, curricular concessions.
The allocation process also includes an appeals mechanism under which schools can appeal against the allocation due to them under the staffing schedules. The appeal procedures are set out in the published staffing arrangements. The appeals board operates independently of the Department and its decision is final.
The deployment of teaching staff in the school, the range of subjects offered and, ultimately, the quality of teaching and learning are in the first instance a matter for the school management authorities. The Government's focus in recent years has been on operating a budgetary programme that is designed to return the Government finances to a sustainable basis. This included budget decisions which brought guidance provision within the staffing schedule allocation for post-primary schools and an adjustment to the ratio for fee-paying schools.
I acknowledge that bringing guidance within quota is challenging for schools. However, the alternative was to adjust the pupil-teacher ratio staffing allocations. The budget decision sheltered the impact for all DEIS post-primary schools by improving their standard staffing allocations.
The budgetary decision to increase the pupil-teacher ratio for fee-charging schools reflects the fact that fee-charging schools have resources, as Deputy Matthews stated, through fees charged, to employ teachers privately, an option that is not available to schools in the free education scheme.
The Government recognises the importance of ensuring that students from a Protestant background can attend a school that reflects their denominational ethos, while at the same time ensuring that funding arrangements are in accordance with the provisions of the Constitution.
The Department is open to having discussions with any fee-charging school which may be considering how best to continue to provide education to its pupils. Where such discussions occur, they will be conducted on a confidential basis. Five fee-charging schools have joined the free education scheme since the school year 2010-11.
Since 2009, cumulative savings of over €25 million have been realised as a result of the changes to the staffing of fee-charging schools. That sum significantly outweighs any additional cost incurred as a result of schools entering the free scheme, and has also allowed for a much greater protection of free schools than would otherwise have been possible. On the financial argument, the savings have outweighed the costs to which the Deputies referred in relation to the schools that have come into the free scheme.
It has been the overarching policy of education in Ireland since the time of former Minister, the late Donogh O'Malley, who introduced free education in the 1960s, that free post-primary education should be available to parents while acknowledging that schools are free to choose to stay out of that scheme. The intention is that parents should have access to post-primary education that is free to their children. There were difficult decisions that had to be made in recent years and the changes that were made with regard to fee-paying schools were made in the context of a budgetary position which, I note, Deputy Creighton raised previously on the Order of Business with regard to the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council. We had to cut public spending to fit in with our commitments and this decision was part of that.