Priority Questions

Schools Data

Charlie McConalogue

Question:

1. Deputy Charlie McConalogue asked the Minister for Education and Skills the number of primary schools with only one mainstream class teacher in the current academic year; the way this number compares with the number of one-teacher primary schools in the academic years 2013-14, 2012-13 and 2011-12; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [38280/14]

I seek information on the number of primary schools with only one mainstream class teacher in the current academic year and how this number compares with the number of one-teacher primary schools in the previous three years since this Government came into office.

This is my first time taking Priority Questions in the House as Minister for Education and Skills. I thank the Opposition spokespersons for their questions and I look forward to working with them in a constructive way.

My Department publishes statistics annually including information on school size. In the last school year there were 29 one-teacher schools and 11 in each of the previous two years. The number of one-teacher schools in the current school year is expected to be around 40 but the final position will not be known until the teacher allocation and appeals processes have fully concluded in the coming weeks. The pupil threshold for a two-teacher school was 12 pupils which gave an average class size of just six pupils. As part of budgetary measures the pupil threshold was increased, on a phased basis, to 20 pupils. This puts the staffing arrangements for small schools on a more affordable and sustainable basis.

I note the last comment of the Minister, that this puts the situation of small schools "on a more affordable and sustainable basis". There was no reference in the Minister's reply to educational standards, the needs of children or the needs of schools and communities. Instead, it is about money and affordability. That is a disappointing response.

It would be remiss of me not to wish the Minister well in her new role, which is a very important one. I congratulate her on her appointment. We have met at committee and I wish the Minister well over the coming period.

The Minister's predecessor introduced changes to school staffing thresholds which have had very damaging effects on small schools. Half of national schools in this country have four teachers or fewer and they are the schools which have been targeted. The Minister has indicated in her reply that her Government has overseen a fourfold increase in the number of one-teacher schools. There will be 40 such schools in this academic year. I ask the Minister to comment on how she views the situation facing students and teachers in those schools. How feasible is it for them to be in the situation created by this Government?

The last element of the budgetary measures that were taken came into effect this September. The process took place over a number of years and is completed. All decisions are made on the basis of ensuring schools are sustainable, and that is the basis of the decisions made with regard to numbers. Some one-teacher schools are newly established and did not grow as quickly in their initial year of operation as had been anticipated. Not all one-teacher schools were previously multi-teacher schools. In some cases they are new schools that have not achieved anticipated enrolment levels.

As Deputy McConalogue knows, the intention is to ensure schools are sustainable. We are always available to discuss these issues. I have had some discussions on the specific issue of small schools. I intend to engage with Deputy McConalogue and other members of the Opposition on the issue.

The Minister's response is very disappointing. She indicated that her policy is to make schools sustainable, but I argue that her policy will make them unsustainable. I question the sustainability of the 40 one-teacher schools this Government has created. The number of such schools has increased from only 11 when this Government came into office. The Government is not making those schools more sustainable. Rather, it is making the situation difficult, if not impossible for them. This is not just an issue for one-teacher schools. The cuts have also had a negative impact on two, three and four-teacher schools.

There is no honesty from the Minister with regard to what her Department is doing. In fact, she is denying what it is doing. She is talking about sustainability when the Department is making the schools unsustainable. Meanwhile, the Minister refuses to publish the value for money report which was with her predecessor for 18 months. There has been no honest appraisal of the educational impact of what this Government is doing. Will the Minister address that point in her response and stop ignoring the reality of the difficulties being created for schools?

I am very much aware that the value for money report was with my predecessor and is now with me. I have engaged in reading the report. My Department is also engaged in discussions with the Catholic Primary School Managers Association and the Irish National Teachers Organisation on the proposals and on the general issue of smaller schools, not just one-teacher schools but also two, three and four-teacher schools. I am also discussing this issue with Government colleagues. I intend to publish the report as soon as those discussions have concluded. As the Deputy will appreciate, I am not in this job very long but I have started the discussion process.

The Government is the same.

I intend to publish the report when those discussions have been completed. I intend to address the issue in that context.

Social Welfare Schemes

Jonathan O'Brien

Question:

2. Deputy Jonathan O'Brien asked the Minister for Education and Skills if she has met the Department of Social Protection on the issue of employing primary schoolteachers through the JobBridge scheme. [38014/14]

I congratulate the Minister on her promotion and look forward to working with her constructively over the remainder of this Government's term. I seek clarification on what discussions the Minister has had with the Minister for Social Protection on the use of the JobBridge scheme in the education sector.

I indicated that I would engage with my colleague, the Tánaiste and Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Joan Burton, to make sure the principles of the JobBridge scheme were maintained and that there was no abuse of the scheme. I can confirm that I have spoken to her about this matter. We have had quite detailed discussions on the issue. We also discussed the potential for the scheme to allow newly qualified teachers gain valuable experience and facilitate the probationary process.

I intend to work closely with the Tánaiste to ensure that, in as far as possible, the above objectives are achieved. That discussion is ongoing.

As the Deputy knows, the Department of Social Protection monitors JobBridge advertisements and proposals daily, including those in the education sector.

Does the Minister agree that using JobBridge to advertise teaching positions is a form of exploitation by schools? Positions for SNAs and teachers have been advertised on JobBridge, but the purpose of that scheme when first announced was as a pathway to work. People were to have a realistic opportunity of gaining employment after participation in a JobBridge scheme. Can the Minister provide any figures on the number of people who have taken up JobBridge schemes within the education sector and secured full-time employment as a result? I would imagine that figure is zero.

The general figures for JobBridge are positive, in terms of people moving on from it to full-time employment. I do not have the figures in regard to the Department of Education and Skills because they are held by the Department of Social Protection. I am not sure the specific figures are available, but will get them if I can.

There are clear rules in regard to JobBridge and positions offered under the scheme cannot displace jobs. The Department of Education and Skills monitors this in regard to jobs in the sector. It is a decision for schools as to whether to employ people under JobBridge, for example as SNAs, and those jobs advertised are additional to the schools' SNA allocation. There has been a steady increase in the allocation of SNAs in recent years because of need, but the JobBridge positions must be additional to posts already allocated. The position is similar in regard to teaching. Any position advertised cannot displace a teacher job. We do not allow JobBridge positions in schools for caretakers and cleaners.

It is vital to ensure that JobBridge positions are not displacements and that they provide opportunities for moving on into full-time, permanent employment. The statistics for JobBridge in general are quite positive in that regard. If I can, I will get the specific statistics on the education sector and send them to the Deputy.

I am interested in seeing those figures, because the last time we asked about the number of teachers and SNAs engaged in JobBridge schemes who went on to full-time employment, the figure was zero. I am interested in seeing whether there has been any progress on that.

I believe filling positions in schools through JobBridge is a form of exploitation. The reason schools are being forced into advertising through JobBridge is the lack of investment in education over the past number of years. There is no doubt there is an increased number of students in need of an SNA, but the increased number of SNA posts allocated by the Department fails to meet that need. As a result, schools are being forced to advertise through JobBridge to make up for the reduced number of teachers and SNAs available for front-line services. The use of JobBridge in education is a form of exploitation, not a pathway to work. The figures bear this out.

The National Council for Special Education allocated over 10,900 special needs assistant posts for the 2014-15 school year. This significant number of posts is an increase on previous years. The Department makes clear that JobBridge is not a substitute for those posts and it in no way interferes with a school's normal allocation of either SNAs or teachers.

I do not have the statistics the Deputy said he received previously, but I will try to get those figures. In some cases, a person might not get a full-time job immediately after being on a JobBridge scheme, but might get one some months later. We will try to get as broad based figures as we can on the statistics.

Pupil-Teacher Ratio

Finian McGrath

Question:

3. Deputy Finian McGrath asked the Minister for Education and Skills if she will support a reduction in class size. [38016/14]

I congratulate the Minister on her new portfolio and the Minister of State, Deputy English, on his. A good reforming Minister for Education and Skills will always listen to pupils, teachers and parents to build and plan for the future.

Today, I ask the Minister to listen to me and to tell us whether she will support a reduction in class size. This is a major issue for education. One third of pupils in parts of Dublin are in classes with more than 30 pupils. Class size here is back to where it was ten years ago and one out of every four children in primary school is squeezed into a class of 30 or more. Will the Minister look at the option of reducing class size in primary schools?

I will always listen to the Deputy and his colleagues.

My main priority for any additional resources for the foreseeable future will be to cater for the continuing increase in demographics at all levels in the education system. We have a growing population of young people in this country and despite the difficult financial circumstances we face as a country, we prioritised education so the number of teachers we have in the system has also grown in order to protect existing pupil-teacher ratios. There were 1,000 more teachers employed in schools around the country in the past school year than there was the previous year. There will be a further increase of approximately 1,300 teachers in the current school year.

This is an increase of approximately 2,300 teachers within a two year period, which is a significant investment at a time of scarce resources. My focus in preparing for budget 2015 must be to seek the funding necessary to meet this demographic growth and not on additional spending measures such as that proposed by the Deputy. If in future years there is funding available to reduce class sizes, my preference is that it would be targeted at reducing class sizes at infant years.

I strongly disagree with the Minister. I accept that her focus must be on dealing with the number of new children starting in our schools, but that ignores the broader point that she has choices in the forthcoming budget. The Government can put money into health and education or into tax breaks for wealthy people. It is not acceptable if that is the kind of budget we get from the Labour Party.

On class size, in the first week of September this year we had 135,000 pupils in super-sized classes. That is an increase from 96,000 in 2006-07. If we look deeper into the figures, some 27,400 pupils are in classes greater than the EU average of 20. We must look into this. More seriously, some 7,100 pupils are in classes of over 30. Will the Minister accept we have a major problem in regard to class size? Will she accept the principle that when one has choices to make in a budget, moneys should be put into services such as health and education rather than given to people who are financially well off?

I share the Deputy's concern that we should reduce class size as soon as we can. However, we are still in a tight budgetary situation. In terms of the education budget, even if we receive the same amount as last year, we will need more because of the increased pupil numbers. This must be our priority. We must have teachers for the extra children.

One of the issues in regard to the figures for the rest of the European Union is that, by and large, those countries do not have growing populations and increasing numbers of children. The Deputy is correct that our class size is above the European average. We are also slightly above the OECD average of 21.3. The average class size here is 24.4. As the Deputy knows, the pupil-teacher ratio is not as high as the figure he gave for the larger classes, because of the variety in class numbers. In DEIS schools we have a lower pupil-teacher ratio and I support that.

The projected number of pupils for the current school year is 544,762 at primary level and 338,046 at post-primary level. We have a large population in that age category and must cater for them. I would like to reduce class size and the pupil-teacher ratio as soon as possible, but we remain in a tight budgetary situation as a country.

I am pleased to see the Minister has accepted that our primary class sizes are the most crowded in the European Union. I strongly believe it is time to reduce them.

I said we were above the average. I did not say we had the most crowded classes.

We have to reverse class sizes and plan for a sustainable network of education in schools.

There is another important issue. We spend millions every year training young teachers in our colleges of education but then they are forced to emigrate or go to different countries. We must consider that as well. If we employed them and gave them the extra jobs in our schools, they would be contributing through their taxes and they would be making a contribution to the economic growth we all seek.

Another often ignored issue is the number of children with disabilities in large mainstream classes. For example, there are 200 children with Down's syndrome in our primary schools who are not getting an adequate service. How can schools give them a quality service in large classes? That is another serious issue the Minister should consider.

I reiterate that we have had an increase of 2,300 mainstream teachers in the past two years. Deputy McGrath referred to children with special needs. The Deputy is probably aware that the National Council for Special Education has issued a draft document on how we might review the system. It is out for public consultation at the moment. The council is keen to get responses and hear the views of parents and is interested in perhaps changing the model. There is an assessment at the moment. Certain categories of children need an assessment to get the supports they need. The idea is to try to find a better way of doing that. There are discussions in several of these areas around improving the situation generally and we will engage in those discussions in the coming year.

Minor Works Scheme Restoration

Charlie McConalogue

Question:

4. Deputy Charlie McConalogue asked the Minister for Education and Skills to set out her views on a permanent restoration of the minor works grant; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [38281/14]

What is the Minister's views on the permanent restoration of the minor works scheme given its importance to every primary school in the country?

At the publication in November 2011 of the Government's medium-term infrastructure and capital investment framework, the emphasis in the education sector was focused on major school projects and smaller projects devolved to schools to meet demographic demands. Given the requirement to meet the need for additional school places over the years 2012 to 2016, it was deemed unlikely that minor works grant funding would be available during that period. However, the grant issued to schools in November 2011 for the 2011-12 school year and last November for the 2013-14 school year. The advice that accompanied the grant to schools last November made it clear that the grant will only be paid in future years as funding permits. I cannot give any commitment to restore the payment on an annual basis. As the Deputy is aware, we are in a pre-budgetary situation and discussions are ongoing. I therefore cannot give Deputy McConalogue a definite decision one way or the other at this stage.

Anyone involved in a primary school who has been listening to the Minister's answer will be disappointed that she has not given any assurances in that respect. I hope when it comes to the crunch in the budget on 14 October there will some good news for them in respect of the grant.

I was hoping for a response from the Minister to indicate she is aware of the importance of the grant to schools. We are well aware of the financial situation the country is in and the difficulties in terms of budgets. Perhaps the Minister could indicate an awareness of the importance of this payment to the budgets of schools. It is worth a minimum of €5,500 to every school in the country. The grant could be worth €8,000 or €9,000 to a three-teacher school with 80 pupils. As a result of the grant not being paid, schools have had to ask for this money from the community and parents. This has led to a major increase for financially strapped parents in the cost of sending their children to school. The Government is overseeing a situation where far more financial pressure is put on these parents as a result.

Will the Minister indicate whether she comprehends the importance of this? During the coming week as she negotiates with the Minister for Finance, she should ensure the restoration of the grant to national schools is at the top of her priority list.

I realise how valuable this grant is to schools. As Deputy McConalogue noted, the basic grant is €5,500 per school. There is €1,850 per mainstream pupil and €74 per special needs person. The grant is useful to schools for practical purposes like physical infrastructure such as items of furniture and equipment, including information technology equipment.

Decisions have been made over the years in situations where it has not been possible to pay the grant, and these decisions have been very difficult. As Deputy McConalogue is aware, it was paid last year. I assure the Deputy that I recognise the value of the grant to all schools. One benefit is that there is a basic grant for all schools which increases on the basis of the number of mainstream students and the number of special needs pupils. I recognise the need, but I am not in a position today to indicate whether we will be able to pay it in the next school year.

I understand that the Minister is not in a position today to give a commitment on the matter. However, I draw her attention to the record of her Government in respect of payment of the grant. Of the three budgets the Government has introduced, the minor works grant was paid in only one, last year's budget. The Minister outlined the rates. This has left a huge hole in the budget of every primary school in the country. The burden has fallen back on cash-strapped families. Let us consider this with the fact the summer works scheme was not paid for two of the past three years and that each of these three years saw reductions in capitation allocations to schools. Let us consider also the actions of the Minister's Cabinet colleague and now party leader, the Tánaiste and Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Burton, in halving the back-to-school payment for secondary school students and cutting by one third the back-to-school payment for primary school students. All in all, the Government has taken in excess of €100 million per year from supports to schools and families of schoolchildren. This funding must be raised by families who are among the most hard-pressed in the country in recent years. This is an unacceptable increase for families in the cost of sending children to school. I emphasise the importance of trying to relieve that pressure and the need to change the approach by delivering a decision in the budget next week which will see that payment given to every school in the coming year.

As the Deputy well knows, difficult decisions have had to be made in all Departments in recent years because of the economic collapse and specific agreements on the level of cuts each Department has had to take. One of the priorities decided upon in the Department of Education and Skills was that the pupil-teacher ratio would be protected. That meant difficult decisions had to be made. As I have indicated, I recognise how valuable this grant is to schools. I will bear that in mind in terms of the discussions we will be having in the coming days.

Capitation Grants

Jonathan O'Brien

Question:

5. Deputy Jonathan O'Brien asked the Minister for Education and Skills if she will provide a commitment to secure the financial feasibility of schools by not proceeding with the proposed 1% cut in the capitation grant, as announced in budget 2012; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [38015/14]

This question relates to capitation grants, which, as the Minister is aware, are the main source of funding for schools. The effect of the year-on-year reduction in the capitation grant on schools has been significant. Will the Minister give a commitment that the planned reduction due to take place next year will not now go ahead?

The Government's focus in recent years has been on operating a budgetary programme that is designed to return Government finances to a sustainable basis. I appreciate that the measures taken impacted on schools, including the reduction in capitation, and are not sustainable in the longer term. The multi-annual reduction in the funding for capitation and related grants involved a 2% reduction in 2012 and 2013 and a further 1% reduction in 2014 and 2015. I do not envisage any change to the 2015 element of the multi-annual savings measure but I regard capitation funding as one of the priority areas to be considered for improved funding as the public finances improve on foot of economic recovery.

I am a little confused by the Minister's answer. Last week during Question Time we raised with the Minister for Finance the issue of a neutral budget. We were trying to get some clarity on previously announced cuts, such as the capitation grant cut, which was announced in 2012. Given that we are looking at a neutral budget, will those cuts take place next year?

The Minister for Finance in his answer stated:

If the effective date was 2014, the Minister responsible would have to provide for it within the 2014 Estimates... If, on the other hand, the changes are with effect from some date after 1 January 2015, it is not in the base and must be provided for in the Book of Estimates...

The Minister for Finance is saying that anything previously announced does not kick in until 2015 and does not now have to take place. The capitation grants are paid twice a year on 31 January and 1 June, as will be the case in 2015. Will the Minister confirm that this cut will proceed as she said it would? I am a little confused given the Minister for Finance is saying there is no need for it to proceed now because we are looking at a neutral budget, whereas the Minister for Education and Skills is saying she does not see any change in the proposed cut for 2015.

The figures I have includes capitation. In fact, the 2015 element of the multi-annual saving will result in an estimated saving of €3.3 million per annum. Those are the figures which have been presented to me and with which I have had to work. As I said, the main pressure with regard to the education budget is the demographics. We are constantly struggling, even with a neutral budget, in terms of catering for the extra number of children. Nonetheless, the Deputy has raised a point of discussion I was not aware of because, obviously, I was not present for those questions. I will certainly check to see whether that has relevance to the decisions I have to make.

I would appreciate that because the Minister for Finance was pretty clear in his answer, stating that any proposed cuts which take effect in 2015 would not have to be considered in terms of a neutral budget.

On the capitation grant, like all new Ministers, when she entered office the Minister got a briefing document from her Department. It was a fairly extensive document, which I read. Page 89 of the document touches on the issue of capitation grants, where it states:

The adequacy of the capitation funding for schools is a critical issue. Any further reduction, if it were to prove necessary for budgetary reasons, may create a risk that some schools would not be able to cover critical costs, such as insurance, heat and light, the absence of which could trigger school closures.

The Minister's own senior officials, including the Secretary General of the Department in his briefing document to the Minister in July, told her that any further reduction in capitation grants may lead to schools closing. It baffles me that she would even consider proceeding with a further 1% reduction in the capitation grant when her senior officials in the Department are telling her of these consequences. Something has to give.

I said in my initial response that I am very conscious that we need to address this issue as soon as we can. I can confirm that was in the briefing document and I agree we need to address it. Clearly, there are specific issues schools have to address and they use the capitation money for that.

In regard to the Deputy's point that anything to be spent in 2015 would not have to be implemented, the figures that were intended to be spent over the next school year would be built into the base figures that our Department had to work with. While I do not doubt what the Deputy said in regard to what the Minister for Finance said, I imagine that would be additional spending for 2015 rather than something that was already built into the base figures.

That is not what was said.

I will check it for the Deputy.