Other Questions

School Transport Eligibility

Charlie McConalogue

Question:

6. Deputy Charlie McConalogue asked the Minister for Education and Skills if she will put in place an appeal mechanism to facilitate, review and change outcomes generated by the nearest school rule under the school transport scheme, which families affected by this rule consider to be inefficient and unfair; her views on the particular circumstances of a decision referred to in a previous parliamentary question (details supplied); if she will allow for an appeal of the decision; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [15506/15]

While it is the prerogative of parents to send their children to the school of their choice, eligibility for school transport is determined by the nearest school, having regard to ethos, language and special needs. From the outset of the scheme, the measurement of the shortest traversable route from a child's home to the relevant education centre has been used to determine whether a child qualifies for school transport based on the distance criteria. This approach is applied equitably and impartially throughout the country, including in the specific case referred to by the Deputy. The school transport appeals board, which is independent of my Department, determines appeals against decisions made by or on behalf of the Department regarding the provision of school transport services and grant aid under the terms of the scheme. The appeals form is available on my Department's website.

Deputy McConalogue has claimed that the scheme is inefficient and unfair. The rules of the scheme were changed in budget 2011 but the changes were not implemented until the 2012-13 school year to give parents advance warning. The scheme was introduced with the aim of achieving cost savings and to better manage the system. Many parents might regard the changes to the criteria as unfair if their children are already attending a certain school. Eligibility is now based on the closest school, which is the most efficient way to fund transport on behalf of the taxpayer. It is a parent's prerogative to chose a different school but the scheme cannot continue to fund transport to any school they might choose.

I understand that any appeal must be decided according to the criteria set out by the Department of Education and Skills. The appeals board would consider the criteria and rules, and if a decision by Bus Éireann meets the criteria, the board cannot change it. Is my understanding correct?

The appeals board uses the criteria that have been set out. It is necessary to have a system.

Since the Government changed the rules in 2012, I have raised numerous cases in which the rule was unfairly applied. Even in cases where older children in a family have qualified for transport to a certain school, younger siblings are required to attend a different school if it is closer or else pay €350 per year to take the same bus as their older brother or sister.

That is an exceptionally unfair and unjust position in which to put many of those families. For families which do not have the money, it is an excruciating decision whether to allow a child to go with his or her older brother or sister and stump up the €350 or to send the child alone to a different school.

The specific instance to which I refer relates to a decision by Bus Éireann in recent weeks in respect of the Urris area in County Donegal and using what is called Mamore Gap, a mountain road 800 ft above sea level. Despite the fact it is just beside the coast, it is not passable for most of the winter. For those families to continue to go to Carndonagh community school, to which they have always had transport in the past, they will have to pay €350 per child or €650 per family if there are more than two children in the family. Currently, there are no means by which unfair decisions like that can be addressed by the Department. I am asking the Minister of State to look at the circumstances of that case to try to ensure that common sense prevails. In other instances, of which there has been a number, he should try to bring some sense to the situation and not continue with the head-in-the-sand approach we have seen over the last two or three years.

I am familiar with the case and have answered parliamentary questions on this before. The Deputy keeps saying it is unfair. The scheme, the system and the policy have to be fair and equitable throughout the country. The same rules are applied across the board. Bus Éireann operates on behalf of the Department and has measured this route and has picked the shortest route. That is the criteria and the job Bus Éireann does and it is implemented across the country. The local inspectors will make recommendations as well, and that is key.

The Deputy says this is unfair. It is going to be complicated in the first seven or eight years when one changes from one system, based on catchment boundaries, to a new system. The new system is probably more logical but it is complicated because there are families which already started under the old criteria. There is no doubt it is complicated for families. We know that. However, a decision was made to make this the most efficient way to provide a service on behalf of the taxpayers and people of this country and to ensure those who needed bus transport to their nearest school would get it. It has been implemented across the board. Some 63,000 people availed of that in the last year alone, and the system is fair. It might be difficult and more complicated for families to which two sets of rules apply. I have acknowledged it is difficult. At all times, Bus Éireann has tried to judge this fairly and pick the nearest route but also to find concessionary placing for families and siblings if and when it can.

I am very disappointed and will continue to highlight the Minister of State's refusal to address the situation and overturn the previous decision. Unfortunately, it is unfair. The rule the Minister of State's Government is enforcing and requiring Bus Éireann to enforce on its behalf is leading to this unfair situation. In the example of the Urris area and Clonmany parish in County Donegal - there are a number of areas in a similar situation across the country, but this is the most extreme one I have seen - the Minister of State is asking people to go over a mountain pass. The reply I got from the Minister of State said that the road does not have to be traversable by bus - indeed, it can be a pedestrian route that determines what the nearest school is. The Minister of State is now telling the people in the Urris area that they have to use that mountain pass and they will only get free transport to Buncrana schools.

If a school bus was provided to them, it simply could not go over Mamore Gap. It would have to go along the route it currently takes to deliver students to Carndonagh community school and would then have to continue on even further as it would now have to go to Buncrana. That will cost the Department a lot more and will cost the students in terms of time. It will also cost money to families which want to continue to go to Carndonagh community school if they decide to do that. It makes no sense, it is totally unfair and it is a situation the Minister of State, together with the Minister, Deputy O'Sullivan, need to look at. There needs to be a mechanism in place to look at situations where unusual circumstances are thrown up by the brute application of this very cut and dried rule. I ask the Minister of State to look at this again to see if there is a way around it.

We have to be very clear. There has to be a policy and a decision-making mechanism that is fair throughout the country, so that everybody is treated equally. The Deputy wants to blame us. I was trying to point out to him that the policy change was brought in by the previous Government in budget 2011.

No. It was under the Minister of State's Government.

The policy change is the right one and is based on the nearest school. The old system meant people had a choice and we had buses traversing all over the countryside. There is a logic to this. The cost of providing school transport goes up every year. It is very expensive and we are trying to manage this as fairly and equitably as we can on behalf of the taxpayers. A previous Government suggested the changes and brought them in. We have implemented them and will stand over them because they are correct but the Deputy should not try to make out that it is all somebody else's fault. The right decision was made to get best value for money. We have to judge this scheme equitably across the country for everybody. We cannot make up rules as we go along for each family, it does not work that way and it would not be fair. I have reviewed many files and Bus Éireann always tries to do the right thing locally when it can, while implementing the rules fairly for everybody across the board.

School Enrolments

Mick Wallace

Question:

7. Deputy Mick Wallace asked the Minister for Education and Skills her plans to totally remove the ability of schools to reserve places for children of past pupils; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [15480/15]

The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child has stated that discrimination, whether it is overt or hidden, offends the human dignity of the child and is capable of undermining or even destroying the capacity of the child to benefit from equal opportunities. While the Education (Admission to Schools) Bill 2015, which is on the Dáil's legislative agenda this year, could introduce a 10% cap on the reservation of school places for the children of past pupils, what we really need is a completely level playing field and to offer equal access to all. I ask the Minister if she will completely remove this discriminatory policy.

I thank Deputy Wallace. I recently published the Education (Admission to Schools) Bill. The Bill will clarify the power of the Minister to make regulations. A key objective of the Bill and its associated regulations is to see improved access to school for all pupils. The draft regulations which were published with the general scheme in September 2013 provided for an over-subscribed school to allocate a maximum of 25% of available school places to children of past pupils.

The Oireachtas joint committee's report on the draft general scheme considered that a school should not be permitted to give any priority to children of past pupils. I am of the view that a much lower percentage than 25% - I am saying perhaps 10% - is as high as such a threshold should be set. However, I intend to listen to all the views on this while the legislation passes through the Houses. Revised draft regulations will then be published for further consultation with the relevant education stakeholders before any final decision is made on this matter.

The Minister is well aware of the fact that if any level stays in place, even 10%, it is an element of discrimination and people will suffer. According to the Irish Traveller Movement, only 10% of adult Travellers have been to school. What chance have they got of getting a fair opportunity if a 10% quota is introduced? Likewise, there is no doubt that new migrant communities, minority faiths and children with disabilities are finding it a bit more difficult to get into schools.

I have an example of a girl called Martina from Slovakia who works in one of our wine bars and who has been in Ireland for ten years. She applied to a girls' national school in Glasnevin, which is her nearest school, and was told that the child would not be suitable because the school was mostly made up of Irish children. Her friends have had the same experience. How in God's name are we going to get to a place where people are being treated equally and fairly if we are going to allow schools to discriminate? Does the Minister not admit that this 10% will continue a certain form of discrimination?

I wish to reiterate that there is no final decision on this. I have just put forward my own view and have said from the very start that I do not believe I have heard a good argument for reserving 25% of places for the children of past pupils. That is why I expressed my own view on it. If a school has room - if it is not over-subscribed - it cannot refuse a student, no matter who he or she is. Schools have to take the children if they have room. About 20% of schools in the country are over-subscribed and they are the ones that have admissions processes and criteria.

All schools have admissions processes but they are the ones who have to apply them and make a decision as to who is admitted to the school. That is the context of this discussion. I will make the regulations when we have had the full discussion. The Bill will be fully discussed in the House and in the other House and I will go back to the Government in order to make the regulations once these have been discussed. There is no doubt that views are mixed among Members on this issue but I will make a decision at the end.

There is no doubt that the schools that are over-subscribed are being given the opportunity to discriminate and the State needs to stop this practice, given that the State is funding these schools. The same problem arises with regard to religious schools. While section 7(3)(c) of the Equal Status Act 2000 allows religious-run schools to refuse to admit a student of another denomination, provided the school can prove that such a refusal is essential to the ethos of the school, this provision is effectively an exemption from equality legislation. Unfortunately, the proposed schools admission legislation will do nothing to combat this discrimination. Given that 95% of national schools are denominational and mainly Catholic-run, it leaves many parents with no choice in this area. I have heard of parents who have no religious beliefs getting their kids baptised in order to try to gain access to certain schools. One could be forgiven for suspecting that the religious position on the admission of children to certain religious schools is driving people into this situation where they are having their children baptised in order to qualify for admission. Surely this should be severely dealt with by the State.

I reiterate that if the school has room, irrespective of who runs the school, it must take all the children who apply. The legislation I have published is operating under the current equality legislation which, as the Deputy says, allows a school run under a religious denomination to maintain the ethos of the school. If that involves admitting certain children and not others when the school is over-subscribed, that is the current equality legislation under which the system works.

The decision whether to baptise a child is a decision for the parents and it is up to them to decide the denomination of their child. That is the parents' right. Every child has a right to go to school. It is only the parent who wishes the child to attend an over-subscribed school who is faced with this dilemma. My personal view is that I do not believe anybody should baptise a child simply to get the child into a school. I reiterate that the equality legislation allows a school which is over-subscribed to make the decision on the basis of protecting the ethos of the school.

I completely agree with Deputy Wallace on everything he has said. The school admissions Bill is a missed opportunity. The Minister stated in her response that she sees no good reason that the level should be kept at 25% and she has expressed a personal opinion of a level of 10%. However, I have heard no good reason from the Minister as to why she has set the figure at 10%. The only good reason I have heard is from the report done by the education committee which said it should be zero, and that there should be no places set aside for children of past pupils. Such a policy discriminates against people. The sibling rule is in place which means that a child whose sibling is attending a school has an automatic right to attend that school. We have a changing dynamic in Irish society. I refer to people who are moving to find work and migrants who are coming into the country; I refer to the Traveller community and people in foster care who are being moved to new communities. Whether we like it or not, these people are being discriminated against.

On the question of the ethos of a school, in no modern society should any school have any capacity to discriminate against a child based on his or her sexual orientation. I do not think a gay child will damage the ethos of a Catholic school.

I ask the Minister to explain why she does not believe there are good reasons for an allocation of 25%. I ask her to explain why she believes there is a case for an allocation of 10%.

In reply to Deputy O'Brien on the question of the sexual orientation of students, the equality legislation provides that a person cannot be discriminated against on the basis of sexual orientation.

The ethos of a school.

The ethos of a school is one thing but on the question of sexual orientation specifically, the equality legislation provides that one cannot be discriminated against on that basis. If there is any doubt in this regard I will be very clear that schools cannot discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation.

In reply to Deputy McConalogue, I have expressed a personal view but there is a discussion to be had and there are different views.

Can we hear the Minister's views?

I have expressed my view. I said I thought that 25% was too much and I felt that I needed to go a bit further and give a personal view.

Why is 25% too much?

As Deputy O'Brien said, there is a right for siblings to go to the same school and in my view that is fair and it should be retained. In some cases there are rights to attend a local school and there are other kinds of rights of entry depending on the specific school. I want to be fair and I want to ensure that children are not kept out of schools for any particular reason. That is why I came to a view that 25% was too high. I will take account of the report of the education committee because the view of an Oireachtas all-party committee has to be taken very seriously. As I said, there are different views in this House and the matter is for discussion because it has not been decided. I will be coming back to the Government before any decision is made.

Why do we need 10%?

I must call Deputy Terence Flanagan for the next question.

Special Educational Needs Service Provision

Terence Flanagan

Question:

8. Deputy Terence Flanagan asked the Minister for Education and Skills if she will ensure that adequate resource support hours are provided for children with Down's syndrome; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [15461/15]

This question is to ask the Minister to ensure adequate support hours are provided for children with Down's syndrome. I ask her to comment on the interim measure which she announced on 24 March and to say when will the new resource allocation model be introduced.

I have recently held a number of meetings with Down Syndrome Ireland and with parents of children with Down's syndrome. Following these discussions, I agreed to review the educational provision for children with Down's syndrome.

I have now provided for NCSE to make additional allocations of 2.5 resource teaching hours per week to schools in respect of any child with Down's syndrome currently not eligible for low incidence resource teaching hours. I will ensure that adequate teaching resources are made available to implement this decision. This will address a central concern for parents that children with Down's syndrome with a mild general learning difficulty did not have adequate support or certainty of the support they would receive under the general allocation schemes.

This measure has been introduced pending the introduction of the new special needs teacher allocation model recommended by NCSE. On the question of timing, I am not sure as yet because there is some work to be done, in particular, with regard to complex needs and the HSE is currently carrying out this work. We await the outcome of that work in order to have the full information for implementing the new model.

I thank the Minister for her response. I welcome the allocation of 2.5 resource teaching hours per week for children with Down's syndrome. Those children face extreme difficulties with regard to learning and speech and language. Any help is very much appreciated. Education is crucial for all children and they must be given an equal opportunity to contribute and to achieve the best they can achieve. I note that the 2.5 hours per week is an interim measure. Families and Down Syndrome Ireland have campaigned on this issue for many years.

Can the Minister indicate a timeframe for the introduction of the new resource allocation model so that families can know that the needs of their children will be fully considered?

I do not have a definite timeframe nor do I know if it will be in time for the next school year 2016. Apparently the work is ongoing. I probably will not be the Minister for Education and Skills at the time but I do not believe that it should be introduced until the identification process is completed by the HSE and it should be based on the needs of children in the early years. The HSE is working on that process but I believe there is quite a bit of work to be done.

Is any other group of children with mild learning disabilities being considered, apart from those with Down's syndrome?

Perhaps the Minister would give a little more information about the process, the new model and what is involved.

The new model will deal with all children with disabilities. It is a model for the general allocation for children with disabilities. The draft proposals have been published by the National Council for Special Education but, because we do not have enough data, it is not ready to be introduced. Down Syndrome Ireland believed that the new model would be more positive for children with Down's syndrome, but we are not yet ready to introduce it.

School Meals Programme

Charlie McConalogue

Question:

9. Deputy Charlie McConalogue asked the Minister for Education and Skills the role her Department plays in the provision of free school meals to students at primary level; her views on whether her Department should assume more responsibility for the service; the number of primary schools her Department is aware of that have free school meals provided; if her Department is aware of any primary schools that have had to stop providing free school meals during this academic year due to insufficient funding; if she will provide the number and names of the schools concerned; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [15507/15]

Does the Minister believe her Department should take on a greater co-ordinating role in the programme for the provision of meals in schools? Also, is the Minister aware of any schools that have had to discontinue the provision of school meals during the current academic year due to lack of funding?

The school meals programme comes under the policy remit of my colleague the Tánaiste and Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Burton. I understand that 870 primary schools benefit from the school meals programme. Participation in the programme, including the level of funding provided, is a contractual matter between individual schools and the Department of Social Protection, and questions specific to the operation of the programme are a matter for that Department. However, the school meals programme is an important support for schools participating in DEIS, which is my Department's main policy initiative to tackle educational disadvantage. DEIS schools are prioritised for funding by the Department of Social Protection in accordance with the national policy framework for children and young people, Better Outcomes, Brighter Futures. This is particularly important for schools experiencing the highest levels of educational disadvantage; 97% of such schools participate in the programme.

It is unacceptable that the Minister, having had notice of this question for over a week, would say this morning that any questions about whether schools have had to discontinue the provision of free meals is something we should discuss with another Department. Surely, if I am in a position to ask that of another Department or Minister, a Cabinet colleague of the Minister for Social Protection should take it upon herself to ask that question. It is unacceptable for the Minister to fob it off. These schools are under the Minister's jurisdiction and she is responsible for education. I asked the Minister if she believes her Department should take on a greater co-ordinating role in overseeing the provision of meals in schools, but I also asked her if she could update Members as to whether she knows of any schools that have had to discontinue providing school meals during this year. I am aware of schools that have had to stop providing school meals because they have run out of funding. They have requested additional funding but have not received it. The Minister does not appear to want to know that. As Minister with responsibility for education, she is absolving herself of responsibility for this by not wanting to know how many schools under her jurisdiction have stopped providing free meals. Earlier we discussed how DEIS works, and the provision of school meals is a part of that. It is important that the Minister makes it her business to find out this information and tries to address it with her ministerial colleague.

The Deputy knows that I cannot answer questions about something that is the direct responsibility of another Minister. That is not the norm. In fact, I could have transferred this question, but I did not, as I have responsibility for some elements of the issues the Deputy raises. However, I cannot answer on the issues that are the responsibility of another Minister.

To reiterate, 97% of DEIS band 1 schools are in the school meals programme, but if a school decides for its own reasons that it does not wish to be in the programme we cannot force it to participate. For example, only 67% of the rural DEIS primary schools are in the programme, which indicates that the other schools might not wish to participate for their own reasons. It is a matter for the schools.

It has been suggested that schools do not have the equipment required. My Department currently provides a standard range of serving and dining facilities in the design of new primary and post-primary schools. I can provide the Deputy with the details on that. In addition, the minor works grant, for which €28 million was allocated last November, is available to all primary schools and it is open to schools to prioritise the works it requires within the scope of that grant. This includes the purchase of equipment or making areas available in the school to host interventions such as the school meals programme. We would encourage schools to be involved in the programme but we cannot force them. If they decide not to be involved, that is their choice.

Earlier we discussed how DEIS works across Departments and has yielded results. It is unacceptable that the Minister with responsibility for education would not make it her business to ascertain whether schools wish to participate in the school meals programme. The meals are provided in the schools and the Minister funds it, so she should have a primary interest in it, but she is not doing that.

She indicated that not all schools participate in the programme, but 67% in rural areas and over 90% in urban areas do. In many cases they have not been given enough funding to provide school meals for the duration of the school year. A number of them had to stop providing meals during the year when the money ran out. The Minister and her Department must take more responsibility for the provision of this service in schools. I do not understand why it should be under the remit of the Department of Social Protection and why the Minister for Education and Skills would not make it her business to find out how many schools have had to discontinue providing school meals after Easter or March because the money has run out. From the schools' perspective it makes sense to do this, but they do not have the money to provide what they regard as an important service in the second half of the year.

Even in very difficult financial times - Deputy McConalogue knows the reasons for that - the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Burton, provided additional money for the school meals programme because she considers it to be very important, as do I. In 2013 and 2014 all DEIS schools not participating in the school meals programme were invited in writing by the Department of Social Protection to participate in the scheme. Some of the schools decided not to access the programme for a variety of reasons, including the lack of an identified need for it. I suspect that might be the case in some of the rural schools. They simply decided they did not need the school meals programme, and it is a matter for the schools to make that decision.

School Enrolments

Mattie McGrath

Question:

10. Deputy Mattie McGrath asked the Minister for Education and Skills her plans for changes to the school admissions policy; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [15514/15]

In February the Supreme Court dismissed an appeal in a case involving a boy from Clonmel who was refused admission to the Christian Brothers school in Clonmel, County Tipperary. The Equality Tribunal had found that the school's policy discriminated against Travellers, but the Circuit Court, High Court and Supreme Court decided in favour of the school. I and the school management organisations are concerned about this. As a former member of boards of management for primary and secondary schools, I and other volunteers throughout the country are in danger of being walked on. The schools have their policies, as is clear from the Minister's comments on the school meals issue. The joint managerial bodies are very concerned. Why are they being forced? If the child's father decided not to go to school, that is not the school's fault.

The Education (Admission to Schools) Bill was recently published and it is on the Government's legislative programme for enactment in this session. The Bill, if enacted, will provide for the Minister to make regulations, following consultation with the relevant education stakeholders, regarding the admission of students to schools. It is my intention that any such regulations include regulations relating to the content of school admissions policies. I have made it clear that I intend to listen to all views before coming to any conclusions on the regulations and that the revised draft regulations will be published for further consultation with the relevant education stakeholders before any final decision is made.

I have great time for the volunteers on the boards of management. They have a very difficult job, and I have experienced it. There is a huge time commitment involved in running a school, and volunteers save the State an enormous amount of money. The school in Clonmel is exceptional, and it has been for years. This case went to the Supreme Court. Can the Minister imagine the fear and trepidation of the board members lest they be found personally liable? There is also the cost to the taxpayer of going through all those courts. In 2012 there were a total of 120,000 school admissions and 244 appeals were submitted, only 40 of which were upheld.

We must be very careful with the legislation we pass. First, we could damage the community and the civic spirit of people who get involved in running these schools, along with the teachers and other staff.

We may also be making grounds for people to appeal for various reasons. How can people who do not choose to go to school take a case on the basis that they are not being allowed in because their parents did not go?

That is ridiculous.

We have to be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

The Deputy has illustrated the point that there are differing views in this House on this issue.

I know there are.

I agree with him that boards of management have a very difficult job and do a great service to schools around the country.

The most important thing in relation to the proposed school admissions Bill, and in relation to policy in general, is that we are fair to all students.

Of course it is.

That is why we need a transparent system that is clearly understood by parents, is within the terms of equality legislation, gives young people the best opportunity to go to school and gives parents the best opportunity to enrol their children in the school of their choice. That is a balancing act, because not all schools have room for all the children who apply. I reiterate that if the school has room, it has to take the child. It is only where schools do not have room for all the children who apply that we have to make these regulations and ensure they are as fair as possible. Certainly, my priority is to be fair to all of the students.

I welcome the Minister's commitment to being fair. That is the overriding position for everybody. If a school has places, it is a non-issue. There is a problem if the school is overcrowded because of huge demand. That is the situation in Clonmel. We have to be supportive of the boards of management. There is no point in paying lip service to them. They do a huge job. For a variety of reasons, they are under enormous pressure on a daily basis as they run the schools. Now, more than ever, they need supports. I believe family cohesion is very important in terms of schooling supports. If there are vacancies, there is no issue. When there is not enough room because of excess demand, surely to God we must have some cognisance of all the courts in the land.

I think I have made my position clear. We cannot give absolute power to boards of management. They have to operate within a fair system. As Minister for Education and Skills, I am responsible for making recommendations to my Government partners on the best and fairest system we can introduce.

The Minister is micromanaging now.

State Examinations

Charlie McConalogue

Question:

11. Deputy Charlie McConalogue asked the Minister for Education and Skills the number of secondary school teachers who have participated in the new round of training for junior certificate reforms; her plans for implementing junior certificate reforms; if she will agree to fresh talks with teacher unions to address outstanding issues; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [15508/15]

I am asking the Minister for an update on junior certificate reform, with specific reference to the impasse that has resulted from the handling of this issue by the Department of Education and Skills. In particular, I would like the Minister to update us on the uptake by second-level teachers of the recent professional development courses that were provided by the Department.

The junior cycle for teachers support service team has organised training seminars for English teachers during April. Unfortunately, the main second level teaching unions have issued directives to their members not to attend and have picketed training locations. As a result, just 16 teachers have attended the seminars held over the last few days. It is deeply regrettable that individual teachers have been put in a position in which they feel obliged to decline to avail of the rich learning experiences and dedicated time for learning on offer. It is wrong of any union to seek to deny opportunities for personal professional learning and development to its members. I have accepted Dr. Pauric Travers's revised and clarified proposal of 23 February as the basis for agreement on the implementation of junior cycle reform. I am now proceeding with implementation on the basis of the Travers proposal. I remain open to the unions coming on board and working with my Department and the other education partners in implementing the new programme using the Travers proposal as a basis for agreement. This requires a willingness on their part to suspend industrial action now.

I thank the Minister for her reply. Given that just 16 teachers have participated in the training for the new English curriculum so far this year, how exactly does she plan to go ahead with the assessment parts of that curriculum next year? Is that at all feasible? Last year, I called for the postponement of the introduction of the new English curriculum pending agreement with teachers. We need to see the Minister sitting down once again with the teaching unions to see whether an agreed way forward can be reached. I do not think it is fair on students for the Minister to drive on during this impasse without teachers having had the appropriate training. Equally, I do not think it is fair on teachers to be expected to do assessment next year. It seems the Minister is requiring that of them even though they have not participated in proper training because of this disagreement.

I hope this issue will be resolved in the near future. It certainly can be resolved if the teaching unions accept the Travers proposals as the basis for discussion and agreement. We can discuss issues around resources, etc., on that basis. The actual assessments will not begin for almost a year. I urge the teaching unions to avail of that period of time. The other stakeholders - representatives of parents and students, management bodies, principals and deputy principals - want us to go ahead with this. We have informed them that the training is available. As soon as we get agreement and the ban on attending is removed by the teaching unions, we can certainly go ahead and provide the training. We have no problem being as flexible as possible in providing the training that teachers, with 16 exceptions, have not actually attended as of now.

My understanding is that we are very close to a resolution. I understand that the gulf or difference between what the unions are saying to the Minister and what is currently on the table is not huge. A little push is needed. I know the Minister has gone some way to try to resolve this. I have spoken privately to her about how close we are to resolving it. The remaining issues seem to relate to second and third year, the assessment process, the issue of ongoing assessment and the question of external accreditation. I do not think it has got to a position in which it cannot be resolved. Maybe both sides have become a little entrenched. My personal opinion is that the Minister is probably more keen to do a deal than some of her officials. If the officials were left outside the door and the Minister just sat down with the union leadership by herself, maybe we could resolve this much more quickly.

It should be recognised that we have arrived at this place because the process of bringing in the reform was mishandled to a large extent previously. The approach that was taken, which involved dictating the terms of reform rather than doing it in partnership, led to entrenchment. I agree that there is a basis for dealing with the outstanding issues. Teachers have genuine concerns. It is particularly important that we see the Minister sitting down with the teaching unions before the summer period to try to address these issues one-to-one and head on in order to reach a resolution.

I agree that the gulf is not very big. I ask the unions to look again at the way in which the Travers proposals suggest the certificate should operate. There is a lot in that to address their concerns.

I want to make it clear that there is no difference between my officials and myself. I assure Deputy O'Brien that we are working as a team. We are in constant consultation.

I do not believe that for a second.

Therefore, I do not propose to take up the Deputy's suggestion. Obviously, I have had discussions with union leaders in various situations, including at the TUI conference, although obviously not with the other union in that situation. I hope we will be able to sit down together in the very near future. I believe the veto is currently on the side of the teaching unions, rather than on my side.

Written Answers follow Adjournment.