Priority Questions

Educational Reform

Charlie McConalogue


1. Deputy Charlie McConalogue asked the Minister for Education and Skills if she will provide an update on the junior cycle reform; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [45454/14]

This is to ask the Minister for an update on the reform of the junior cycle, particularly in light of the fact that a teachers' strike is imminent on 2 December.

I have met with the teacher unions five times since my appointment as Minister. Three of these meetings were solely to deal with issues relating to implementation of reforms to the junior cycle. I agreed to Dr. Pauric Travers chairing negotiations between the Department and the unions, and I also agreed to both the timeframe and terms of reference for those talks which were proposed by the unions.

On 10 November, I presented a compromise proposal that included a State certificate for all students on completion of the junior cycle; final examinations in third year to account for 60% of junior cycle marks, to be set and marked by the State Examinations Commission, SEC, and 40% relating to other components to be assessed by classroom teachers within agreed criteria - for this 40%, the State Examinations Commission would check 10% to 15 % of the marks to ensure consistency and fairness; and well-being to become a compulsory element of junior cycle, including SPHE, PE and CSPE.

I thank Deputy McConalogue for his support for my position, which I believe represents a reasonable compromise relating to the implementation of these reforms. The unions did not accept this proposal but acknowledged that it was significant. At a meeting on 19 November between myself and the unions, there was again little movement by the unions. The teacher unions have decided to strike on 2 December, with a further event being proposed for January. I have said publicly, and will repeat again here today, that this is disappointing, and I believe it to be a disproportionate response to the compromise proposals which remain on the table.

I urge both unions to reconsider their position and re-engage in talks rather than proceeding with a strike that serves no one's interests.

I thank the Minister for her response. I welcomed the Minister's row-back on the need for the junior certificate to continue to be a State certified examination and for 60% of the final examination to be externally assessed. I had been calling for that for more than two years, as had others, but the former Minister, Deputy Quinn, was not in listening mode throughout the three years in which he held the post the Minister now holds. Unfortunately, the situation we now find ourselves in is that the document and what the Minister has announced, which is rowing back the position the former Minister, Deputy Quinn, had adopted, goes back to the original proposals put together by the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment, NCCA, which were on the table even before the former Minister, Deputy Quinn, came to office. That has been the contributing factor to us finding ourselves in strike action, having previously been in a situation where there was industrial dispute.

Issues remain regarding the 40% in-school assessment and project work that need to be discussed with the concerns. They still have genuine concerns, as they had until now.

I will let you back in, Deputy.

The Minister's position is that she will only talk to them if they accept at the outset that there will be 60% outside assessment and 40% inside assessment. That is a barrier to real negotiations and getting down to the nitty-gritty, which can lead to a resolution. Will the Minister go back to the talks, do a real assessment of the remaining issues, and try to come to an agreement which will see a reformed and enhanced junior certificate programme?

Before we proceed, I would ask Deputies to watch the clock. That is the reason it is there.

I thank the Deputy. I have listened to the concerns I have heard since I became Minister. I have had a number of meetings with all the interests involved. That is the reason I put the proposal on the table. One could say I have moved 60% from the position originally balloted on. Significantly, and the Deputy referred to it, the certificate will now be a State certificate, fully certified by the State Examinations Commission. It will not be 60% certified but 100% certified, including the school-based assessment.

Negotiation involves movement on both sides. We had Dr. Travers chairing discussions. I have moved, but I need to see some movement on the other side. My door is open. I am willing to engage again, but there has to be some response in terms of the central principle that assessment within the schools with class teachers involved must be part of the reform. Otherwise, we will not achieve many of the goals we want to achieve in this reform process.

The Minister's response to the decision of teachers to strike, and I have called on teachers to call off the strike and engage with her, also requires her leaving the door properly ajar for discussions with them. Rather than being a progression, the Minister's U-turn, which brings us back to where we started, and her corresponding stance that any talks are dependent on the unions agreeing to 40% of the final examination being internally assessed, to which the teachers have a principled objection, makes those talks impractical in the sense that it has put teachers in the position where they have not been able to engage with her. For this issue to progress, the Minister must sit down and tease out the genuine concerns to allow a final agreement be reached, which will see a reformed curriculum put in place that is workable and will greatly improve the way students engage and learn at junior certificate level. I urge the Minister to do that because striking is unnecessary, and I believe the approach taken by the Minister has led to it.

I am willing to talk to the teachers but they have told me that they object in principle to school-based assessment, and school-based assessment is part of the proposal.

If they are not willing to come back to the table and engage in any way in respect of school-based assessment with participation by class teachers, then they have not moved at all. As I said already, in any negotiation there must be movement on both sides. The movement I have put on the table represents a considerable change from what was balloted on by the members of the two unions concerned.

State Examinations

Jonathan O'Brien


2. Deputy Jonathan O'Brien asked the Minister for Education and Skills to set out her plans to resolve the dispute with the teacher trade unions regarding her proposed reforms of the junior cycle. [45416/14]

It is a similar question. To move the process on a little, I am keen to know what steps will be put in place to try to resolve it, as opposed to getting an update.

I am afraid my initial answer is somewhat similar. Since September I have been engaging with the teacher unions in respect of the reform of the junior cycle. I have met the union leaders many times, as have my officials. Dr. Pauric Travers has chaired the meetings. We met trade union representatives over three days to negotiate the reform.

I tabled a compromise proposal on 10 November to unblock the obstacles identified by the unions. When I met the unions on 19 November, they acknowledged that the proposal was significant but were not willing to move from their position. I asked them to reconsider their decision to strike and I regret that they will take strike action on 2 December.

I have told the unions that my door is open. I am willing to discuss the resources required to support the implementation of these reforms, but any discussion about resources must be underpinned by agreement on the reforms that need to be resourced. Since my appointment I have sought genuine engagement with all education partners, including parents, students, management bodies and teacher unions. I genuinely believe that the compromise proposals which I tabled on 10 November offer a reasonable solution to the dispute and I call on the unions again to reconsider their position and re-engage in talks rather than proceeding with a strike that serves no one's interests.

There are several issues. I imagine all sides would agree that most of the issues could be resolved, but the main outstanding issue is internal assessment and that is the real block in progress in the discussions. Will the Minister outline the rationale for the internal ongoing assessment? What is the educational principle underpinning this move by the Department? Will the Minister explain it to us? The Department maintains this is based on an assessment for learning. Will the Minister elaborate on that?

Several schools are already implementing a school-based assessment with class teachers involved. Deputy O'Brien will be aware that at least one of these schools is in his constituency. This is part of the proposal because it represents a genuine engagement in learning between the teachers and their students as well as the other teachers in the school. The idea is that there is feedback and a learning process within that experience.

We have information from other countries and considerable research data suggesting that this is good for students. It is particularly good for disaffected students, young people who switch off from school, particularly in disadvantaged areas. This occurs frequently in the early years of post-primary education. We are keen to re-engage those students. The information we have suggests that this type of interaction with teachers is particularly effective in the learning experience of students who are likely to drop out or who are likely not to do well in State examinations. That is the rationale behind it.

There is extensive guidance on how projects, etc., should be marked. The State Examinations Commission is involved and is willing to stand over this 100%. Deputy O'Brien is probably right: we need to explain a little better why we are proposing this and the rationale for the school-based assessment as well as explaining the evidence that this produces real learning and engagement. It is the kind of thing that happens in post-primary education and post-leaving certificate courses. It is done already by members of one of the unions involved at least. Deputy O'Brien is probably right. We need to explain it.

As the Minister stated, the assessment for learning is all about providing feedback to students and guidance. I reckon much of that happens in the current context. As parents we get feedback on our children through parent-teacher meetings and Christmas and Easter examinations. Students get feedback in one-on-one meetings with teachers, through career guidance and so on. What is happening here is that we are moving from an assessment for learning to an assessment of learning. I believe that is the wrong way to go.

The Minister referred to research. One could produce research to argue from the teacher position as well. Let us consider all the countries that have internal assessment in place currently. I have in mind Australia or Netherlands, which has the mix that the Minister is proposing. There is no empirical evidence to suggest that such a model improves educational outputs. I am keen to see the evidence the Minister is using. Will the Minister put that on the table? Will she show the Opposition spokespersons that what she is proposing is backed up by empirical evidence and that there will be an improvement in educational outcomes?

Certainly, we have evidence and I am absolutely willing to give Deputy O'Brien whatever we have in that regard. We have a considerable amount of evidence. It is important to note that these proposals of assessment within the school, involving school classroom teachers with their students, is supported by the Irish Second-Level Students Union, parents councils and management bodies, etc. There has been extensive consultation with all of the partners in education and with a considerable number of people who are already operating the proposals within the school system.

I believe it is entirely disproportionate to take all the children out of school on 2 December rather than come back and negotiate meaningfully in respect of the significant shift that I have made. The most important element is that the State Examinations Commission, which is entirely trusted, as far as I can see, is willing to fully stand over the junior cycle certificate that will be given at the end of the three-year cycle.

State Examinations

Finian McGrath


3. Deputy Finian McGrath asked the Minister for Education and Skills if she will support the integrity of the junior certificate for students by retaining the principle of having external examiners grade the examinations. [45414/14]

Will the Minister for Education and Skills support the integrity of the junior certificate for students by retaining the principle of having externally examiners grade the examinations? I welcome the debate because we need a detailed debate in this area. The bottom line is that the Government wants the abolition of an independent State assessment. School-based assessments with teachers grading their pupils in State examinations will not work because it leaves out one major factor. The role of the teacher is to support, nurture and develop the pupil. They have a different and rather special relationship. This important aspect has been missing in the debate.

Let me be absolutely clear: the integrity of the existing junior certificate will be maintained and improved by my proposals.

It is essential that students are marked by their teachers to promote better student learning and improved student outcomes. School-based assessment empowers teachers to support the unique talents and skills of the students in their classrooms. It allows for a far more rounded picture of student achievement to emerge. What is assessed is valued; school-based assessment promotes a learning culture in schools which recognises and rewards skills that cannot readily be externally assessed. This, in turn, improves the validity and integrity of the assessment.

Parents and teachers have raised concerns with me about school-based certificates and I am happy to address those concerns by retaining the State certificate. However, State certification is not only about putting the harp on a certificate. It will be underpinned by the assurance that the procedures leading to the award are robust, including the school-based element.

The unions are questioning how standards will be maintained. The combination of a 60% examination set and marked by the SEC, combined with quality assurance by the SEC on the school-based elements, has allowed me to be confident about issuing State certificates. This reform is not about protecting systems; it is about improving standards.

The bottom line is that an independent outside examiner does not know where the pupil comes from. He does not whether the pupil is rich or poor, male or female. He is coming at it objectively. Teachers have led the charge for reform. School assessment and project work goes on every day in every school in Ireland. The Minister referred to the rationale and children dropping out of school. I worked in a disadvantaged school.

The best way to keep pupils in the system is to work, nurture and develop them, and build on the relationship. Seán O'Broin, as the principal of Kinsale Community School, saw his students reach great heights of achievement, particularly in the Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition. He has seen the dividends of close application of hard academic slog and is a respected educationalist. He said, "Teachers correcting the school work component may jeopardise the public's trust in the integrity of the assessment." He hit the nail on the head. While everybody supports reform, the Minister must maintain the integrity of assessment. This is the issue, and parents see it coming down the line.

Although a written exam after three years can assess certain things, which we value, it cannot assess everything. The Deputy referred to the Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition. A written exam at the end of three years does not assess the kind of work we see at it. I am sure everybody here will have visited it and seen what these fantastic students are doing. They work together in groups, do project work, get lots of feedback from their teachers and produce interesting, creative projects. A written exam will not examine those achievements. If one gives no marks for something, there is pressure on schools not to spend too much time doing it. Assessments would contribute to students' marks, fully stood over by the State Examination Commission. I am not abolishing independent State assessment. I will continue to have the State independently providing these certificates. If one does not give some value to the ongoing assessment and the feedback involved, it has no value at the end of the year, there is pressure on the schools to spend less time doing these important things. Higher education lecturers value those skills when students come to third level. They want secondary students to get the opportunity to have these skills valued.

The Minister is a great woman for distracting us. She is misrepresenting most teachers and educationalists. The teachers support a move away from reliance on a terminal exam, and we all support that principle. The problem is the actual assessment. Take a small school in a village or parish. What about the parents who make their presence felt every day in the primary schools and micro-manage every aspect of their children’s lives from their social lives to who they sit beside at school? Some of us would call them pushy parents. Imagine the pressure on the local teacher if such a parent does not like the junior certificate result his or her child gets. Imagine the pressure on the teacher going to the shops or across the community. The Minister is missing out on a very important aspect, independent assessment where no parent can accuse a teacher of giving a preferential mark to his or her own child. This must be examined closely. It is a major problem in wider society. Pushy parents are out there. The Minister and I both know them. They come in and tell people what to do left, right and centre, and they could be a problem in the assessments.

Although I am not supposed to mention people who are not here, I will respond to Fintan O’Toole as well as the Deputy. Do we really so much mistrust the parents and teachers of Ireland that we believe this will happen?

It does happen, unfortunately.

If parents behaved like this, one would not be able to pick an underage team in any sport in the whole country. Let us not bring it down to that level. I trust the teachers and the parents. It will be good for the students. The students trust the teachers. Their association has said they want assessment by their own teachers. I ask that people look at this fairly, for all the students, not just for those who are good at written exams.

I never said that.

Many young people do not get the full benefit from the education system because we have not moved forward in this area. Again, I ask people to consider what is on offer and I urge that the strike does not go ahead.

There should be a debate.

A proper debate, yes.

Minor Works Scheme Restoration

Charlie McConalogue


4. Deputy Charlie McConalogue asked the Minister for Education and Skills if there will be a minor works grant in 2014; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [45455/14]

I am pleased to inform the Deputy that I announced the 2014-2015 minor works grant on 25 November. The grant, amounting to €28 million in total, will issue over the coming weeks to all primary schools with permanent recognition. Funding under the grant will continue at existing levels with schools receiving a basic grant of €5,500 plus €18.50 per mainstream pupil and €74 per special needs pupil on the rolls on 30 September of the year prior to the issue of the grant, which, in this instance, is 2013. The funds being transferred to the schools must be spent on the physical infrastructure of the schools or on items of furniture and equipment for educational use, including IT related equipment. The minor works grant is an important funding injection for primary schools and I am pleased to be able to provide it this year. I know the funding is put to very effective use by schools.

I very much welcome that the minor works grant will be paid this year. Many schools are waiting for funds and finding it very difficult to pay their bills and are existing on overdrafts. Unfortunately, no clarity was given to the schools throughout this year as to whether this very important grant would be paid to them. The first time they had any certainty that it would be paid was when the Minister, thankfully, made the decision in the past few days to pay it. As the Minister pointed out, it is worth €5,500 to any school, and €7,500 to the average school. We welcome the fact that it is being paid. As the Minister did not allocate money in her budget for it, she is taking it from the capital budget. Could she detail the implications of taking it from the capital budget? From where, exactly, will it come and what projects will miss out as a result of it? Last year, when this announcement was made, a summer works scheme of €40 million was also announced. Will there be no summer works scheme next year?

November has been generally the time the minor works grant has been announced, in the past two years when there was one. There was no minor works grant in 2012-2013. The grant is issued by the building unit, and is not in the annual calendar of grants circulated by the central funds section. The money is found in the building unit. With a very large capital programme, money that one thought would be spent in 2014 might not be spent until 2015. We have been able to find the money in the capital allocation and it will not stop any projects happening in terms of school buildings and replacement of prefabs.

I do not accept the Minister’s answer. The fact that she has taken €28 million from the capital budget means many schools that are ready to go with their building works and whose building works are in progress are being stalled into next year to provide the money. This is not money that the Minister finds, nor was it before the Government came into office. It was normally allocated in advance in the budget so that schools were told they were to get it. It was always in the primary grants calendar because the money was specifically allocated for it in the budget. Only under the Minister and her predecessor has it been the case. They scramble around to see if they can find money from other sources, namely, by stalling school projects. The Minister should not try to tell us that taking €28 million out of the capital budget will have no impact on schools. This is not reality. Capital projects will miss out as a result. Fianna Fáil is the only party that has put money in its pre-budget submission to provide a capital works grant next year. The Minister has not done it, and this time next year she will be scrabbling around to see if she can take it from somewhere else.

Will there be a summer works scheme next year? Last year, when local elections were held, the then Minister, Deputy Quinn, managed to find €40 million for that scheme from the capital budget. Clearly the Minister cannot find that sum this year, so I take it that there will be no summer works scheme for primary schools in 2015.

I wish to state categorically that because this grant is being paid, no element of the schools buildings programme will be stalled in any way. I am glad the Deputy welcomes the grant being paid because the schools have certainly welcomed it. It will be useful in all the schools.

As the Deputy knows, the five-year schools buildings programme finishes next year and we are now working on the next programme. Many schools did not get into that five-year programme and they are almost ready to go now. I am aware of many of them around the country and since becoming Minister, I have met with people concerning those schools. Early next year, I will be announcing the next programme.

At the moment there is no allocation for the summer works scheme. I do not know at this stage whether or not there will be extra capital, but at this stage there is not. I am being straight up on that. For the last three years, the minor works scheme has been announced in November, so that is the practice I am following this year. I am pleased that I am able to announce it.

Special Educational Needs Service Provision

Finian McGrath


5. Deputy Finian McGrath asked the Minister for Education and Skills if she will provide an update on the Down's Syndrome (Equality of Access) Bill 2013 and its implications for pupils with a disability. [45415/14]

Will the Minister for Education and Skills provide an update on the Down's Syndrome (Equality of Access) Bill 2013 and its implications for pupils with a disability? In this case, I am referring in particular about children with Down's syndrome. Does the Minister accept the educational principle that children with Down's syndrome who attend mainstream primary or second level schools thrive in such situations provided the proper resources are put in place?

The Private Members' Down's Syndrome (Equality of Access) Bill 2013 has passed Second Stage in the Dáil and has been referred to the Committee on Education and Social Protection.

The Deputy will be aware that the National Council for Special Education has recommended that a new model for allocating resource teachers to schools be put in place, which proposes that pupils, including those with Down's syndrome, should be allocated additional resources in line with their level of need, rather than by disability category. My Department is currently working to develop this model and to assess the impact of the new model on schools and on children. I have asked my officials to report on whether, and from when, this new model could be brought into place.

In the meantime, pupils with Down's syndrome will continue to receive resource teaching support from teachers allocated to schools either through the general allocation model or by the NCSE.

I thank the Minister for her reply. She has confirmed that there will be additional resources for children with disabilities, for example, in 2015. However, there has to be some level of stability and guarantee for all children with disability so that when they attend their local primary school, resources will be put in place for them. It has been proven internationally that such pupils thrive educationally in these situations.

Now that the foot is off cutbacks in resources, we need to keep the focus on such services. Many of these services have been cut over the last four or five years. Huge hits have meant that the Minister was unable to deal with class sizes, which is an important issue when one is working with children with disabilities in mainstream classes. Our primary classes are still the second largest in the EU, so we need to examine that in next year's budget.

I acknowledge that Deputy McGrath has campaigned for a long time for, and has taken a particular interest in, children with special educational needs, including those with Down's syndrome. As he indicated, I was able to announce extra resource teachers and special needs assistants, SNAs, in the recent budget. They will be provided for schools during the coming year.

The NCSE has presented proposals on changing the model and I am sure the Deputy has had a chance to examine them. This is in line with what the Deputy said about having resources in schools when the children come in, rather than having a diagnosis. In terms of Down's syndrome that is not terribly difficult, but other conditions can be quite difficult to diagnose. In some cases, parents spend money they cannot afford in order to obtain a diagnosis. We therefore want to change the system around.

The consultation process is ongoing in this regard. I expect to get some information back on that consultation quite soon through the NCSE. The question is whether we will be able to implement the proposals for the next school year or whether it might be later. Much of that will depend on what happens in the consultation process and the effect the change would have on schools. Essentially, we want to provide for need rather than providing to schools simply on the basis of previous models that were used, particularly the medical diagnosis model.

I acknowledge that the Minister was very positive in the budget in providing for extra SNAs, teachers and other resources in the primary school sector. I support that major step in the right direction. We need to radically reform our education system constantly to ensure that it is inclusive. There is a broad range of pupils' needs across the disability sector, including more urgent cases than children with Down's syndrome. I take the Minister's point but they need well planned supports to be in place from September to June.

I fully agree with Deputy McGrath about schools being inclusive. The admissions to schools Bill, which we will be publishing soon, will involve having a statement from schools saying they welcome children on the grounds of ability or disability. It is important that no barriers should be put in place.