Priority Questions

European Court of Human Rights Rulings

Charlie McConalogue

Question:

1. Deputy Charlie McConalogue asked the Minister for Education and Skills with regard to the ruling by the European Court of Human Rights in the case of a person (details supplied), if she will commit to making compensation packages available to victims of abuse who were abused prior to a complaint being made against a perpetrator; if she will commit to ensuring those who had dropped their case against her Department, on the advice of the State Claims Agency prior to the European Court of Human Rights ruling, will also be included in the Government's compensation scheme; if she will remove the payment cap on the scheme to ensure any award reflects the individual circumstances of victims; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [15670/15]

The purpose of the question is to ask the Minister, with regard to the ruling by the European Court of Human Rights in the case of Ms Louise O'Keeffe, if she will commit to making compensation packages available to victims of abuse who were abused prior to a complaint being made against a perpetrator; if she will commit to ensuring that those who dropped their cases against the Department on the advice of the State Claims Agency in advance of the ECHR ruling will be included in the Government's compensation scheme; and if she will remove the payment cap on the scheme to ensure any award reflects the individual circumstances of victims.

Settlement discussions are being offered in cases coming within the terms of the European Court of Human Rights decision which satisfy the Statute of Limitations. In pursuing these settlements, the State Claims Agency will consider cases where there was a prior complaint about the teacher concerned. This is because these are the circumstances on which the decision was based.

The cap reflects the total amount paid by the State in the O'Keeffe case. While the Government will not meet the liabilities of other defendants, where there is agreement on the value of the claim, the agency may seek to initially settle the claim on an equal basis, with the apportionment of liability among the co-defendants being subsequently determined by the court.

I will report to Government shortly to clarify the position of those who had not progressed their claims. The Government will then consider whether any measures will be taken.

In announcing a compensation package following the decision of the European Court of Human Rights in the O'Keeffe case, the Minister stated:

I think anybody who has any feeling for someone who was sexually abused, must have regret for what Louise had to go through. She has been an extraordinary, courageous fighter all along... In the past, the State along with many other powerful institutions have failed children. We've left them alone and vulnerable to the worst possible threats... We need to face up to that responsibility and try to make amends for the grave failings of the past.

There is no indication in the Minister's reply of any feeling for what the victims with whom the Government is dealing and who were failed by the State are going through. The Minister has proposed to confine the compensation packages to the victims in the 45 cases taken against the Department that were still live when the European Court of Human Rights overturned the judgment in the case of Louise O'Keeffe. A further 90 victims dropped their cases on the basis that the Department had indicated it would pursue them for costs. These victims have not been included in the compensation package and the Minister has not given any indication that she will accept her responsibility towards them. Will she give an assurance that she will live up to her responsibility in this matter by ensuring the State does not continue to fail victims who it unfortunately failed in the past?

I reiterate my words of regret and my admiration for Louise O'Keeffe and the way in which she has consistently pursued the issues surrounding the abuse she and others suffered.

With regard to the Deputy's specific question on discontinued cases, in other words, those involving individuals who received letters and subsequently withdrew from or discontinued their cases, we have asked the State Claims Agency to pursue this matter and check out all the cases in question before reverting to the Department. As the agency is still working on this issue, we have not yet received a full response.

With regard to the cap, the figure was arrived at on the basis of the money Ms O'Keeffe received directly from the State. The other aspects of the decision fall within the parameters of the judgment of the European Court of Human Rights. This is the reason for the amount being offered by the State. It should be noted that this is an offer and people may pursue cases through the courts if they so decide.

The Department fought the victims and fought Louise O'Keeffe all the way through the High Court, Supreme Court and European Court of Human Rights, which overturned the previous decisions in Ms O'Keeffe's case.

It is clear the Minister's approach now is to do the absolute minimum to cover herself and the Department on this. Her approach does not have at its centre an acceptance of the hurt and damage that many of these victims experienced as a result of their abuse, nor does it try to address that. She is still taking a legal minimalist approach to the victims who have been failed. In response to the Department's decision to offer the compensation package only in the 45 cases in which the victims continued with their cases despite threats of being pursued for legal action, Louise O'Keeffe said: "It's a shocking discrimination, and it's like I told the Minister: she is giving a settlement to one and she is telling the other to go to hell." These are the words of Louise O'Keeffe, who fought the State all the way on this.

What assurance can the Minister give this morning to victims who have not been included in the compensation package that the State understands and accepts its responsibility in regard to them? Also, what assurance can she give in regard to the overall cap imposed by her? This, again, is minimalist and does not take into account the particular circumstances of individual victims. What assurance can the Minister give that she will revise that cap?

With regard to the cap, that figure was arrived at by measuring the amount of money that was awarded to Louise O'Keeffe directly by the State. That is the reason for the figure, and in my view and that of the State, it is a fair offering in the context of the judgment of the European Court of Human Rights.

People are not obliged to accept that settlement, which is a settlement on behalf of the State for its part. In most cases, the person has also taken other parties to court, and I am sure the Deputy would agree with me the State should not take on the obligations of the other parties being taken to court by people who suffered abuse in schools. The State takes its responsibility seriously, and that is why it is making this offer, which I consider a fair offer to victims.

Student Universal Support Ireland Administration

Jonathan O'Brien

Question:

2. Deputy Jonathan O'Brien asked the Minister for Education and Skills her views on the report from the Comptroller and Auditor General on the issue of the operation of Student Universal Support Ireland; and her plans to make appropriate changes. [15740/15]

My question seeks the Minister's views on the report of the Comptroller and Auditor General on the operation of the SUSI grant system.

I welcome the publication of this report by the Comptroller and Auditor General. While SUSI's first year of operation in 2012-13 was problematic, it is widely acknowledged that since then it has achieved a dramatic improvement and that the new system has bedded down successfully and is working well. SUSI is engaged in an ongoing process of continuous improvement. My Department, the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform and the City of Dublin Education and Training Board, CDETB, have accepted the recommendations of the report, and significant progress has been made on all of them. The report reflects the valuable lessons arising from the experience gained in this project for other major reform projects in both the education sector and the wider public service. Consistent with the report's recommendations, significant steps have been taken by my Department to address its approach to key reform projects.

It is clear that SUSI was a disaster in the initial set-up year, and all sides would recognise that, including the report from the Comptroller and Auditor General, which states that many of the expected benefits of the new centralised process did not materialise in 2012-13.

I wish to focus on the appeals process and the high level of appeals. In 2013, 74% of decisions were overturned on appeal by an independent board, and in 2014 the number overturned dropped to 60%. This is a significant number. Let us look at how the appeals process works. Applicants have 30 days to submit an appeal, and 30 days are allowed for the appeal to be processed. If the outcome is negative, the applicant has a further 30 days to appeal the decision to an independent board, and that board then has a maximum of 60 days to make a judgment. This means it could take up to 150 days to complete the appeals process. When we consider the high level of decisions overturned, that indicates that significant numbers of students are under unbelievable stress. Some are dropping out of college as a result of the stress from an appeals system that appears to be failing. For some reason, there are failings within SUSI in regard to students' eligibility for grants.

I acknowledge that there were serious difficulties in SUSI's first year, but efforts have since been made to improve the situation and to speed up the process. The reason for the various appeal procedures is to be fair to students. However, I agree with the Deputy that the number of appeals is high. We have an opportunity to review the scheme each year and I have been looking at it to see if we can make some improvements this year. We will publish the scheme for this year in the near future.

We need to keep the scheme under review because it is still relatively new and the award of grants is important to each student. In the early years of the scheme, the number of appeals was significantly higher than would have been expected, but the system is under continuous review.

I acknowledge that there has been an improvement in the situation, so I will not be completely negative. In the 2013-14 academic year, there was an increase of 70% in the speed at which grants were allocated, which was welcome. However, the appeal system is still failing students and some 60% of decisions are being overturned by the independent appeals board. This is unacceptable. The rate is too high and indicates a systemic failing in the SUSI review process for appeals.

If we are considering a review of the SUSI scheme, it should be a complete review, because there are significant issues in regard to estrangement, adjacent rates and how they are applied, and eligibility criteria. Any review should encompass those issues, and I implore the Minister to consider them also.

We are looking to address issues in the current scheme, and that review will issue in the near future. SUSI has made an effort to be as fair as possible to students, and this may be one of the reasons for the review process followed by the appeals process. This process is designed to ensure that students get their entitlement. I accept that the process can cause significant stress and difficulties for students. I met with SUSI recently and raised some of the issues the Deputy has raised. I will do my best to improve the scheme for this year. I have raised the issues of estrangement and the adjacent rate with SUSI. We need to ensure there is clarity for students and that the system is fair to everybody.

Schools Building Projects Status

Stephen Donnelly

Question:

3. Deputy Stephen S. Donnelly asked the Minister for Education and Skills if she will provide an update on the location, patronage, timeline and proposed opening date of the recently announced primary school in Greystones, County Wicklow; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [15678/15]

The Department announced a new primary school for the Greystones area, which is very welcome. The local system is under severe pressure due to the number of students, and I am being inundated with requests from parents who are keen to know when the new school will open and its patronage process. Will the school open this September and are there short-term plans in place before the new school is built?

I can give the Deputy one straight answer. The new primary school for the Greystones-Delgany school feeder area will open in September 2015. However, I do not have a definite answer on the other parts of his question.

The patronage determination process to establish who will run the school is at an advanced stage, but is not yet completed. A site for permanent accommodation for the school is being actively pursued. Pending a site acquisition, interim temporary accommodation is being arranged in Greystones for the school.

I thank the Minister for the update and am delighted to hear that the opening date for the school is confirmed for September. I also want to record my thanks to the Department's officials who spent significant time with me on this over the past two years. The parents will be very relieved about the September opening date. I know a process has to be gone through but I would like to point out to the Minister that there is an obvious site for the school, namely, a large housing estate in the Charlesland area with land zoned for a school that never happened. I support that location but I appreciate the officials have to go through the full process.

On a related issue, Wicklow has the fourth highest class sizes in the country. Nearly 30% of students in Wicklow are in classes with more than 30 pupils. In the context of new schools being provided to meet demographic pressures, which is right and proper, are there plans afoot to deploy resources accordingly to balance and reduce class sizes in areas like Wicklow with high class sizes?

I know the officials have engaged with the Deputy, the Minister of State, Deputy Simon Harris, and other public representatives for the area on this matter. I am pleased we have got to this point. Obviously, I have to wait until the new school establishment group makes the recommendation on patronage before we can clarify this. As always with the acquiring of school sites, it is sensitive in terms of price, etc. We cannot divulge any information on this until the process is over the line.

With regard to class sizes in general, I have indicated this is an issue that I am interested in addressing as soon as we are in a financial position to do so but I cannot pre-empt the next or future budgets. The pupil-teacher ratio has been maintained in recent years. We have not made it any worse than it was. We have neither reduced nor increased it. I would certainly like to see an improvement in class size, however. They vary in different parts of the country. Schools have to make decisions around whether they have smaller infant classes or larger senior classes. The actual size of each child’s class can vary but the overall pupil-teacher ratio is the same for the whole country.

I disagree with the Minister on class sizes. Her predecessor claimed class sizes had not been affected but a significant number of resource teachers have been taken away, resources for schools in the delivering equality of opportunity in schools, DEIS, programme have been decimated and secondary schools have had their career guidance counsellors taken away. I do not believe it is a reflection of reality or that any teacher or principal would agree with the claim that class sizes have not been hit. Every teacher knows they are under more pressure. It may be possible mathematically to find a ratio and claim it has not changed. As we all know, however, supports for schools have gone down. I respectfully disagree with the Minister on that.

I am glad the Minister will be looking at new resources and at more teachers, something for which I have been advocating for several years. In the deployment of, and in increasing the number of, new teachers, will she agree, as a principle, we should look at balancing it across the country rather than having an imbalanced system? I do not know how it has come to be an imbalanced system but the deployment of public resources around the country in education and in other areas is quite uneven. Will the Minister agree, in the context of more budgets for education and more teachers, that the deployment of new teachers should seek, in part, to target areas where the class sizes are particularly high?

The Deputy has widened the debate somewhat.

We have not cut funding to DEIS. We have increased the number of resource teachers. In fact, there are an extra 1,900 posts between resource teachers, class teachers and special needs assistants, SNAs, in the system this year alone. We have not increased the pupil-teacher ratio.

One cannot have the same number of children in every class in every school because there are small schools with three or four teachers, for example. What we have is a fair and transparent system for the pupil-teacher ratio right across the country which I do not intend to change. If the pupil-teacher ratio is changed, it will be changed for every school depending on its size but the part of the country in which it is located will be irrelevant. That is apart from a small number of schools considered to be isolated because there is no other school within 8 km. In those cases, there is a slightly better pupil-teacher ratio.

Educational Disadvantage

Charlie McConalogue

Question:

4. Deputy Charlie McConalogue asked the Minister for Education and Skills if she will commit to removing the cap on the expansion of the Delivering Equality of Opportunity in Schools programme; if she will put in place the measures suggested by the review of the programme by the Economic and Social Research Institute, to enhance funding and supports for urban schools under the programme; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [15671/15]

The ESRI publication, Learning from the Evaluation of DEIS, provides an opportunity to commence an assessment of the DEIS programme. The report assesses the main findings of research conducted by the Educational Research Centre and the inspectorate of my Department and provides advice to inform future policy direction in educational disadvantage. I have commenced a consultation process with all the education partners to inform the development of appropriate measures to continue to support those at risk of poor educational outcomes. An interdepartmental working group will be established to ensure a joined-up approach to delivery of services in DEIS, as well as a technical group to develop a revised identification process for schools. This work will take place over the course of the next school year. To expand eligibility for DEIS based on ten-year old criteria would not be fair to schools currently outside the programme. My focus is therefore on developing a revised identification process as referenced above.

I thank the Minister for her response. The ESRI report is indeed welcome and it is the first overall review of the DEIS scheme since it was introduced in 2006. The findings show the scheme is working. It is a scheme which my party, Fianna Fáil, was committed to when it established it in 2006. In recent times, we have been calling for it to be expanded. I welcome the fact the Minister is examining the scheme’s criteria but that cannot happen too quickly for many of the schools outside of the scheme. What is the timeline for the interdepartmental group to report to the Minister? When does she expect she will be in a position to extend this very valuable scheme to the many schools which would meet the current criteria if the cap were removed?

I agree a review was needed. It is quite some time since 2006 when the scheme was first introduced. Some schools did not even exist then but now have DEIS programme schools all around them and are not in the scheme themselves. The identification process has to happen within the next school year because sometimes this can take time. We can then open the process up to other areas and schools. In the identification process, the interdepartmental group will be working side by side with the Department of Social Protection, responsible for school meals, the Department of Children and Youth Affairs, responsible for the school completion programme and the National Educational Welfare Board, as well my Department and the home school community liaison scheme. It will cross several Departments to ensure a full package will be in place that can be implemented as soon as the identification process has been carried out.

The ESRI report showed real progress in several areas. Between 2007 and 2013, significant improvement in reading and maths scores of primary school students across DEIS programme schools was recorded. At the same time, the report pointed out there was a general improvement across all schools in these scores. Accordingly, DEIS programme schools kept pace with improvements and the gap did not narrow. In rural areas, results were very good which emphasises the importance of continuing to invest in rural DEIS.

The report, however, points out that for urban band 1 schools, in particular, there needs to be additional investment because outcomes are not keeping pace with or narrowing the gap between schools with better resources and whose students may come from better-off backgrounds. Will the Minister comment on the ESRI's recommendations on the operation of urban band 1 schools and her intentions for addressing some of the recommendations to double up and improve the resources available to those schools?

The figures in respect of maths and literacy are encouraging. It is a tribute to the work being done in this area that all schools have improved. However, while DEIS schools have also improved, their improvement was not proportionate with the rest of the population. In other words, they are the same distance behind other schools. I agree with the Deputy that our focus should be urban band one schools and the specific areas identified in respect of those schools. That does not rule out rural schools, however. I am aware of the Deputy's concerns in that regard. The fact that there has been better progress in rural DEIS schools does not mean they will fail to qualify under the new programme.

Educational Disadvantage

Jonathan O'Brien

Question:

5. Deputy Jonathan O'Brien asked the Minister for Education and Skills her views on the Economic and Social Reseach Institute's report, Learning from the Evaluation of Delivering Equality of Opportunity in Schools Programme; and any changes she plans to make as a result. [15741/15]

This is related to the previous question.

I welcome the publication of the ESRI report, Learning from the Evaluation of DEIS, which was commissioned by my Department. The report consolidates the evaluations of DEIS that have taken place to date and I regard it as the starting point for a new discussion on the future of the programme. I have commenced a consultation process with education partners to inform the development of appropriate measures to combat educational disadvantage. I intend to establish an interdepartmental group to consider the roles of relevant Departments in delivering DEIS and also establish a technical group to consider appropriate eligibility criteria in regard to the level of need in schools and a revised identification process for schools. It would not be fair to schools currently outside DEIS to expand eligibility for DEIS based on ten year old criteria. My focus, therefore, is on developing a revised identification process, as I have outlined.

Deputy McConalogue raised the main issues identified in the report. One of the authors of the report, Dr. Selina McCoy, drew attention to high levels of disadvantage in and greater complexity of urban DEIS band one schools. This is an issue that the Minister has also acknowledged. It is clear from the report that DEIS has been successful, even in terms of class sizes and pupil-teacher ratios. Most DEIS band one schools have been able to achieve the desired pupil-teacher ratio.

In regard to the proposal to establish a technical group to devise eligibility criteria to identify the level of need in schools, can the Minister clarify that issue further? I understand the group will report in the next school year but is there any possibility that schools might lose resources due to de-categorisation?

While I cannot pre-empt the findings of the technical group, it is not our intention to take resources from schools that currently have them and need them. Our intention is to target resources where they are needed and if changes are needed, particularly in the most disadvantaged areas, I want to ensure we provide the necessary resources. If any element of the programme is not delivering as much as expected of it, we will examine it further. We will also examine the issue of resourcing but it is not our intention to take from some schools to give to others. I anticipate that resource issues will arise as schools which are not currently in the programme are identified as eligible.

One of the challenges outlined in the report is on joining up the thinking between education and other social services, such as health care and housing. Will the interdepartmental group be assigned this task or will this be addressed separately by the Department? The report also outlines the value of the school completion programme to disadvantaged communities by allowing schools in DEIS areas to supplement after school activities which non-DEIS schools are able to provide through their capacity to raise funds. I am aware that the school completion programme has moved to the Department of Children and Youth Affairs and I raised this issue with the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs last week. Will this issue be taken into account in the effort to improve outcomes? We need joined up thinking between social and economic factors and the educational inputs, including additional funding by the Department of Education and Schools on foot of its re-evaluation of DEIS.

The interdepartmental element will be very important because we need joined up thinking between Departments. The links between children and their parents and communities are an important consideration. Some schools have tried to integrate services provided under a range of Departments, including the Department of Health, with the aim of supporting the welfare of children. I hope the engagement between Departments will be broad and genuine and that we work in a co-operative way rather than stay in our silos. I hope our wide consultation in the education sector will deliver some good proposals or ideas. DEIS is a good programme but it is time to see whether we can make it better.