Other Questions

State Examinations

Charlie McConalogue

Question:

105. Deputy Charlie McConalogue asked the Minister for Education and Skills if she is aware of the distress experienced by many students as a result of the difficult level of the leaving certificate mathematics ordinary level paper 1; if she has discussed the issue with the State Examinations Commission; if the commission has indicated that the marking scheme will reflect the difficulty level of the paper; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [25810/15]

Is the Minister aware of the distress experienced by many students as a result of the difficulty level of the leaving certificate mathematics ordinary level paper 1? Has she raised this issue with the State Examinations Commission?

Has the Minister discussed with it the importance of ensuring the marking schemes adopted in correcting these papers reflect the difficulty level students experienced on the day? I am sure the Minister knows, as I do, that many students are exceptionally distressed because this could put their leaving certificate in jeopardy as passing the mathematics examination is essential to passing the leaving certificate.

I am aware of students' concerns about the content of the ordinary level leaving certificate mathematics paper 1. I have asked the State Examinations Commission to bring these concerns to the attention of the chief examiner for mathematics. Each year, commentary and correspondence on the examination from teachers, professional bodies and other interested parties are considered by the chief examiner in developing the draft marking scheme. The State Examinations Commission has assured me that, as is normal practice, prior to finalising the marking scheme, it will initially apply a draft marking scheme to a random sample of scripts so as to test the effectiveness of the examination paper and the scheme in setting and maintaining standards year on year. The outcomes of this exercise will be analysed before the marking scheme is finalised. This annual exercise ensures consistency in the marking of the examination and fairness to all candidates.

I thank the Minister for her response. I welcome the news that she has spoken to the State Examinations Commission about this matter and that it has confirmed to her that it will assess the difficulty level that students experienced in the paper, reflect that in the marking scheme, which it will adjust accordingly to ensure the bell curve, as such, is not out of sync, and that students will get a fair mark and are not unduly punished as a result of the difficulty level of the paper. I am sure, as Minister for Education and Skills, the Minister had the same experience as me, an Opposition spokesperson, on the Friday evening and night after the ordinary level mathematics paper 1 was completed. I received telephone calls until very late that night from distressed parents who had also very distressed students on their hands. The students were taken aback and shocked by the difficulty level and some of the questions on the paper. It was a good job it was a Friday and not a weekday because at least they had the weekend to compose themselves and recover. Thankfully the ordinary level mathematics paper 2 was much more doable and the feedback was quite good. Many students were reassured by that paper.

To ensure a similar experience is not repeated in future years, has the Minister asked the State Examinations Commission to examine how it came to be that such a difficult paper, as regarded by students, was set?

The reason we have chief examiners is because they are the experts. By and large, apart from that paper, there has been a reasonably positive response to the examinations. I take fully the point made by Deputy McConalogue that students were distressed on the Friday evening. It is important to ensure that we are clear in this area. The point that I just made is that the marking scheme is done after the examinations, meaning there is an opportunity to get the balance right and ensure students are not disadvantaged in any way. I acknowledge that their being upset causes a problem because they have to do all the other examinations. The State Examinations Commission endeavours to ensure there are no difficulties with papers. It works very hard to do that and it learns each year from what happens the previous year. I have been assured that it will learn from this instance.

The important message from this debate is the reassurance that students can hopefully take from the answer the Minister has given. She states that she has engaged with the State Examinations Commission and that it understands the distress the students felt and the difficulty many students experienced as a result of the questions with which they were confronted on the day. It is hoped it will be a reassurance to them that their papers will be marked accordingly. May it also allay some of their nerves. They will always naturally feel some but it is particularly the case in this instance given the difficulty of the paper concerned. That is important. We all know the leaving certificate is an exceptionally stressful examination and a difficult experience for students. It is important that the papers set do not make that any more difficult. It is important that lessons are learned from this paper. It is a daunting enough experience without students having to face into unpredictable examination papers. The reassurance that lessons will be learned from this paper for next year is very important as well.

We are all agreed that we need to learn lessons every time there are concerns about a particular paper.

My experience of the people in the State Examinations Commission is that they take their job seriously and they are rigorous in terms of how they approach the setting and marking of the examinations and the way they plan from one year to the next.

Special Educational Needs Service Provision

Michael Fitzmaurice

Question:

106. Deputy Michael Fitzmaurice asked the Minister for Education and Skills if she will reverse the 15% cut in resource teaching hours imposed in 2012 upon individual students with special educational needs prior to piloting the model recommended by the National Council for Special Education; whether the pilot scheme will be introduced in the coming school year; to set out the number and percentage of schools in which it is proposed to run the pilot scheme; if she will restore the resource teaching hours allocated to each student with special educational needs to the levels pertaining in 2010 as an interim measure to ensure students with special educational needs are not adversely impacted while she experiments with the system; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [25765/15]

I call on the Minister for Education and Skills to reverse the 15% cut in resource teaching hours imposed in 2012 on individual students with special educational needs prior to piloting the model recommended by the National Council for Special Education, to indicate whether the pilot scheme will be introduced in the coming school year, to set out the number and percentage of schools in which it is proposed to run the pilot scheme, to restore the resource teaching hours allocated to each student with special educational needs to the level pertaining in 2010 as an interim measure to ensure students with special educational needs are not adversely impacted while we experiment with the new system, and to make a statement on the matter.

There are now more additional resource teachers supporting children with special educational needs in schools than at any time previously. The National Council for Special Education allocated 6,454 resource teacher posts to schools for September 2015, an increase of 554 posts or 9.4% since September 2014. The total number of posts available for allocation has increased by 27% since 2012, from 5,265 posts in 2012 to 6,705 posts for 2015-2016.

A pilot of a new model for delivering teaching resources to schools to support students with special needs recommended by the NCSE will take place in schools for the coming school year. Initially, 52 schools, including 31 primary schools and 21 post-primary schools, have been invited to participate in the pilot for the coming school year. I have no plans to change the existing allocation process pending the completion of the pilot project and the introduction of a new allocation model.

Probably the reason extra people were employed is because more children required the service. Several parents have come to me and said they are not happy with the situation at the moment. They do not believe their children are being looked after well enough. I urge the Minister in this regard. Is the information out there? Do we know the 52 schools in question? What about the other schools while this is going on? Will the position stay as it was last year or will the Minister give them a little more help?

The number is not fully finalised yet because it is voluntary. Not all those schools may accept it. If they do not, other schools will have to be selected. I do not select the schools; they are selected by an independent body. The idea is to have various types of schools represented, including small schools, big schools, rural schools, urban schools, schools that are in the DEIS programme and schools that are not. That is ongoing.

The pilot scheme is intended to be implemented from next September but the new model will not come into place until we have evaluated the pilot model. We do not intend to change the existing situation for schools that are not in the pilot scheme.

There has been an increase in the number of resource teaching hours. While there is a general increase in the number of students, there has been a greater increase in the number of supports, in resource teaching and in special needs assistants for children with special needs. That increase is greater than the demographic increase.

Am I correct in saying that it was envisaged first that the new system would be introduced in September but this has now changed to a pilot scheme? Why is that?

There are two reasons. The main reason was that we did not have all the information. The relevant people in the HSE are working on identifying what they call complex needs in children. This starts from when the children are quite young. That information will feed into what the schools need to have for those children when they come to school. That needs to feed into the new model in terms of what allocations different schools will get. Furthermore, it would have been too soon in terms of the change that it would represent for schools.

We did not consider there was enough time to implement it in 2015.

Student Support Schemes

Michael Fitzmaurice

Question:

107. Deputy Michael Fitzmaurice asked the Minister for Education and Skills if she will increase the income threshold for the student support grant to compensate for the negative impact of the Government's austerity programme which has left tax-paying parents in what heretofore would have been considered good jobs unable to afford to send their children to college; if she will further amend the student support grant scheme to allow parents with a gross income of approximately €70,000 but who are going through insolvency or bankruptcy and who are only allowed approximately €28,000 living expenses to avail of the grant; her views on the children of such tax-paying parents being denied a college education as a result of the economic misfortune which has been imposed on their parents; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [25769/15]

I wish to ask the Minister if she will increase the income threshold for the student support grant to compensate for the negative impact of the austerity programme over the past few years which has left tax-paying parents in what heretofore would have been considered good jobs unable to afford to send their children to school. Will she further amend the student support grant scheme to allow parents, including a teacher, with a gross income of approximately €70,000 but who are going through insolvency or bankruptcy and who are allowed only €28,000 in living expenses to avail of the grant? The parents' child is being denied a college place as a result of their misfortune. Could the Minister make a statement on the matter?

The rates of grant and the income thresholds for the student grant scheme are announced annually as part of the budget. No changes to the rates or thresholds were included in budget 2015.

Student grant applications are means-tested on gross income from all sources earned inside and outside the State within a specified reference period. The means test arrangements of the student grant scheme are applied nationally. The assessment of income from the same starting point is deemed to be fair and reasonable because this approach eliminates any distortion that might arise from different spending decisions in different households.

In addition to joining the scheme, students in third level institutions experiencing exceptional financial need can apply for support under the student assistance fund. This fund assists students, in a sensitive and compassionate manner, who might otherwise be unable to continue their third level studies due to their financial circumstances.

Over the past few years, unprecedented circumstances have arisen because of what happened when the bubble burst or the economy crashed. People who were classed as having good jobs have gone through the misfortune of bankruptcy or insolvency. This is the reality. Living expenses of €28,000 are allowed. I know of a parent who cannot send a child to school. We are trying to help people with their mortgages and to get them out of the hardship they have gone through over the past few years. Must we keep kicking these families, who have gone through all of this and are trying to make a new life? It is not a child's fault if one of his or her parents got into trouble but it is the child who will suffer if we do not put something in place to address this problem, which has arisen in unprecedented circumstances, to help the children affected reach third level education. If we do not put something in place they will not reach it.

What we must try to do with these kinds of schemes is be fair to everybody and apply the same rules to everybody. I recognise that there may be individual cases of families in hardship but the scheme is revised every year and we make slight changes to it every year. We did make some small changes this year. There are income disregards, including some specified social protection payments, HSE payments, benefits such as child benefit and family income supplement, foster carer allowance, the household benefit package and the water conservation grant, which we included this year. There are a number of exemptions but the difficulty with a national scheme is that there are individual cases in respect of which one could say a certain individual should really be getting a grant. However, we must apply the same kinds of rules in terms of income across the board.

I know there are many circumstances but the reality is that what is happening is being brought about because of what we have gone through as a country. Where it has been proved that a family has gone through the insolvency process, on foot of which a parent had to go insolvent, the children should not be let suffer. When the Minister is addressing this she should facilitate them.

This is not going to last forever. With luck, people will come through over the coming years. It will not be biting at the Minister every year. Each young student deserves a chance. The Minister should consider a support for the people who have been hit.

What happened to them was undesirable. Let us not put them in a situation where it is the children who suffer from it mainly. I urge the Minister to amend the grants system.

All I can say is the scheme has been agreed for this year. We can always look at changes and do so every year. There is the question of whether somebody is actually declared insolvent as opposed to going through the process. I would really need to know the individual circumstances involved. Unfortunately, the scheme has been agreed for this year; therefore, we will not be making changes to it this year.

The Deputies who tabled Questions Nos. 108 and 109 are not present.

Questions Nos. 108 and 109 replied to with Written Answers.

School Transport Eligibility

Charlie McConalogue

Question:

110. Deputy Charlie McConalogue asked the Minister for Education and Skills if she will review the decision to remove free school transport for students from an area (details supplied) in County Donegal to their current secondary school; and if she will ensure the free school transport scheme rules provided by her Department for Bus Éireann for implementation are changed to ensure mountain passes which are not traversable in winter months will no longer used be in determining eligibility for free transport. [25809/15]

Will the Minister review the decision to remove free school transport from students in Urris, Clonmany, County Donegal who are attending Carndonagh community school? Will she ensure free school transport is extended to them? Will she amend the terms of the free school transport scheme to ensure mountain passes that are inaccessible for a good part of the school year are not used in determining the nearest school for the purposes of deciding eligibility for free school transport?

During the 2014-15 school year Bus Éireann discovered that a number of children had been incorrectly assessed as being eligible for school transport, a matter that was discussed previously with the Deputy, and were availing of free transport because they held valid medical cards. The families were informed of this error. They were also advised by Bus Éireann that from the 2015-16 school year these children may only avail of school transport on a concessionary basis. Transport on a concessionary basis is subject to a number of conditions, including payment of the annual charge.

Bus Éireann determines distance eligibility by measuring the shortest traversable route which may be either pedestrian or vehicular from a family's home to their nearest school. The main purpose of this measurement is to identify the distance families reside from their nearest school and assess if they meet the distance eligibility criterion for school transport. In the interests of equity, this is applied on a consistent standard basis across the country, irrespective of local circumstances that may impact on travel conditions on particular routes during parts of the year. The Deputy asked whether it was in the gift of the Minister to alter this. We had this discussion previously. The scheme must be fair throughout the country and that is what is happening. When an error occurs, it is corrected to ensure the scheme is implemented fairly across the board. That is the way it must be. The Deputy raised this issue previously and said parts of the route could not be traversed in winter. The bus route will not pass through the Mamore Gap because the route is planned to suit individuals eligible to use the bus service. Bus Éireann has stated it will not use that route, but it is still used to measure the distance from a school.

I thank the Minister of State for his reply, but I must say it is exceptionally disappointing. It is disgraceful that the Department has not looked at the particular circumstances of this case and changed its approach. It is over two months since I raised this matter on the floor of the Dáil with the Minister of State. I genuinely thought it was well within the capacity of the Department, the Minister and the Minister of State to look at it and resolve it. Unfortunately, that is not the case and, with other councillors and Members of the Oireachtas, I had to attend a public meeting last night with parents from the Urris area and parents of the affected students. They continue to fight the case because the Department, the Minister and the Minister of State have not seen sense. The Minister of State has admitted on the floor of the Dáil today that Bus Éireann made a mistake in not applying the rules three years ago, yet he is telling students who have completed first, second and third year that if they are to continue in their current school, Carndonagh community school, they will have to pay for school transport. This was a mistake made by Bus Éireann and the Department. They should admit to it and, at a minimum, waive the fee for the students involved. In doing so it would not affect precedent.

The other issue that must be addressed is that the Department is using a mountain pass in deciding what school the students should attend. On 29 April I sent the Minister of State a video a parent had made showing the route five weeks before the end of the school term. There was snow on this mountain pass.

The Minister of State refuses to acknowledge and to change an unfair and inequitable transport scheme to ensure situations like this can be corrected.

On a point of clarification, Deputy McConalogue and many other Members from all parties raised this issue a number of months ago. At that time the Deputy made it clear the issue was one of concern about going over that gap. The Deputy sent me a video which I watched. The officials in the Department have checked it out and this application has been appealed independently of the Department and has been upheld. The Deputy's concern was with regard to travelling through the gap. Bus Éireann has confirmed in writing to the Deputy, to the applicants and to my office that the route will not be used. That was the Deputy's original concern which we investigated and checked out. I wish to be clear that it will not be used for transport. It is used to measure distance. I remind Deputy McConalogue that his colleague, the previous Minister with responsibility for education, who was from Donegal, passed and implemented that scheme.

It is the Minister of State's scheme and he can change it.

Furthermore, it has been the precedent that when an error occurs, the pupils in question can continue with the arrangement for the remainder of that year, but they are informed immediately that it will revert in the next school year to be fair to everyone else. This is what happened in this case. The pupils were informed in 2015 and the arrangement will change back in December. The scheme has to be seen to be fair to everyone. I am surprised the Deputy is asking for it to be in any way different. To be clear, the Deputy and other Members raised the matter a few months ago. It was appealed and reviewed by the Department in a fair and equitable way. I ask the Deputy not to give the impression that we did not.

The parents are issuing an invitation to the Minister of State to view the route which the Department is measuring as being the closest - the Mamore Gap. If he were to come to Donegal I would be very willing to show it to him and he would not be telling me in the House that it would be unfair not to use that as a route.

We made it clear a few months ago that we are not going to use that route.

I can tell the Minister of State what his Department is doing. It is now saying that those students have to go to Buncrana, which is four miles longer, to get to Carndonagh community school because they cannot use that gap. This means more fuel, longer bus times and more expense. The Minister of State is saying that if those students are to go to Buncrana, the Department will have to put on another bus to take them that extra long route to Buncrana. That is what the Department has decided. It would cost the Minister of State's Department more money. It will split that parish because the children will have to go to different schools and siblings will be split between schools. This is the situation the Minister of State is refusing to change. There is a thing called common sense and it seems the Department of Education and Skills and the Ministers are not intervening to ensure common sense is brought into play in this instance. The Minister of State is telling the parents of students in first, second and third years that regardless of their income and their capacity to pay, if they want their student to continue to go to Carndonagh community school next year, they will have to pony up €350 for one student or €650 for two students to continue to go to Carndonagh community school.

The Deputy is over time now.

Many parents cannot pay and the Minister of State is not taking into account whether they can pay. It is totally unfair. At the very minimum that fee should be waived. We should see common sense brought into play-----

I call the Minister of State.

-----in order that the circumstances that are particular to this area are acknowledged and the Minister of State's approach to the scheme is changed.

I ask Members to have regard, please, for the other Deputies who have questions.

The scheme has to be implemented fairly across the board. The situation referred to by the Deputy is not unique. We hear similar stories regularly from people throughout the country. I remind the Deputy that we are using taxpayers' money and there has to be a national scheme that is implemented fairly across the board. I cannot operate any other scheme. We have always accepted that we would look at the scheme to see if any errors were being made but that is not the case. The scheme is being implemented properly and fairly. The route referred to by the Deputy and which is of concern to him is not being used. The route being used for measurement is different from the first issue which the Deputy raised in the House a couple of months ago. The scheme has to be implemented throughout the country in a fair way.

The Minister of State can change the scheme.

Special Educational Needs Service Provision

Catherine Murphy

Question:

111. Deputy Catherine Murphy asked the Minister for Education and Skills if she is aware of the critical lack of autism spectrum disorder units for children in the north-western Kildare area; the measures she proposes to address this issue in the long term; if a satisfactory resolution in the case of a young student (details supplied) is being worked on; if so, the provision that will be made in this case; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [25823/15]

This relates to a lack of second level places for a small but consistent number of pupils on the autistic spectrum in north Kildare.

The National Council for Special Education, through its network of local special educational needs organisers, SENOs, is responsible for processing applications from primary and post primary schools for special educational needs support, including the establishment of special classes in various geographical areas as required. The NCSE operates within my Department's criteria in allocating such support.

I have arranged for the Deputy's request for specific detail on provision in north-western Kildare to be forwarded to the NCSE for its attention and direct reply. The NCSE is aware of a growing need for autism provision at post primary level in the area and is actively liaising with schools in this context. The NCSE has also advised that the local SENO is actively engaged with the parent of the child referred to with a view to securing a school placement.

I wish that were the case. I am sure the Minister has referred it and there will be another round of discussions with the same parent, who has been on the merry-go-round with the same discussions for a considerable period of time and is constantly told to apply to other schools a considerable distance away, in one case a one and a half hour bus journey away. This particular child, who is not the only one, has a physical disability that makes long journeys impossible. It is very stressful for the parent involved who has received refusals twice or three times by other schools. How many refusals are required before it becomes clear to the National Council for Special Education that a place will not be provided in other schools which are a considerable distances away?

A school in Edenderry has made a commitment to provide second level education for children on the autistic spectrum within this catchment area but there is a space issue. That is where the solution is most likely to be found. However, it will not be found unless it has the physical place to accommodate the children. It is very difficult for people who already have a challenging life because of a child with a disability to be given the extra burden of trying to resolve this where it should be resolved in a way that causes the least amount of stress.

It is not working so far and the National Council for Special Education has been involved in the case for almost a year. We need a solution immediately.

I can understand the Deputy's view. I have been told there is ongoing engagement, including with schools to see whether an appropriate place can be provided. It is one of the things that is done on an ongoing basis with schools around the country in trying to get special units in getting places for children whose needs are not being met. That engagement will continue and I hope that a place will be provided in the near future. I realise I am not able to inform the Deputy today that there is a place. However, the engagement is ongoing and the efforts are ongoing.

Although I am drawing attention to one child, it is not just that child. It is not a large number of children but this is the one group of children who should not be home-schooled because the whole issue is the socialisation and engagement with other children of the same age. I have a real fear that will be the solution to this, which may be a solution on paper but it is not the best outcome for the child or children in question. It is very important to understand that this will not just be a small number of children in this year but there will be a need into the future because there is a growing young population. The Minister has only to look at her primary school records to establish the schools that are feeder schools with children on the autistic spectrum to give her the evidence that a facility is needed here.

A growing number of ASD units have been attached to primary and post-primary schools, particularly primary schools, in recent years. That is the optimum situation for the child in terms of socialisation, etc. Home schooling is only meant to be used where there is no school solution. We will continue to find a school solution for these children.

Student Support Schemes

Denis Naughten

Question:

112. Deputy Denis Naughten asked the Minister for Education and Skills if she has investigated the reason counties with the lowest disposable income have seen a significant drop-off in the number of students availing of a higher education grant; if it is the case that the grant is no longer sufficient to meet the costs for students who cannot commute to college; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [25701/15]

John did extremely well in his leaving certificate examinations and got his first choice on his Central Applications Office form. He was the first member of his family to go to college. He is from County Roscommon and started a computer science course in the Dublin Institute of Technology. However, he had to drop out before Christmas owing to the spiralling rent his landlord was charging for accommodation and the lack of student accommodation in the city of Dublin. He was receiving the highest rate, the additional top-up student support grant, but he could still not afford to remain in college because rents in Dublin city centre are, on average, €600, 100% more than the rent charged for comparable accommodation in the city of Galway. I want to know what will be done about this.

From my Department's examination of the matter, there is no correlation between where a student is from and his or her likelihood of being awarded a grant. There are a variety of factors which impact on the number of student grant awards in any academic year. They include but are not limited to the number of applications; the numbers transitioning from second to third level; the number of mature students entering the system for the first time or re-entering after a break in study; increases in population in a particular age cohort or area, be it rural or urban; economic circumstances or developments in a particular area; the financial circumstances of individuals and their parents and increases in third level participation rates generally. The aim of the student maintenance grants scheme has always been to make a contribution to the cost of going to college; covering the full cost has never been a feasible option.

I realise from what the Deputy has said that his main problem is with the cost of accommodation. I answered a question on that matter earlier today, but I can contact the Deputy later about it. It is a particular problem in the Dublin area and to some extent in Galway also, but the Government is addressing it.

Table 1

County

Total Awards 2011/12

Total Awards 2012/13

% Change 11/12 to 12/13 Total Awards

Total Awards 2013/14

% Change 12/13 to 13/14 Total Awards

Total Awards 2014/15

% Change 13/14 to 14/15 Total Awards

Carlow

1,154

1,209

4.77%

1,213

-0.33%

1,292

6.51%

Cavan

1,714

1,579

-7.88%

1,527

-3.29%

1,624

6.35%

Clare

2,538

2,543

0.20%

2,522

-0.83%

2,542

0.79%

Cork

7,846

8,310

5.91%

8,515

2.47%

8,975

5.40%

Donegal

3,690

3,666

-0.65%

3,633

-0.90%

3,725

2.53%

Dublin

13,284

14,029

11.05%

14,665

4.53%

15,369

4.80%

Galway

4,453

5,719

4.19%

5,569

-2.62%

5,523

-0.83%

Kerry

3,415

3,282

-3.89%

3,260

-0.67%

3,312

1.60%

Kildare

2,884

3,046

5.62%

3,121

2.46%

3,285

5.25%

Kilkenny

1,798

1,779

-1.06%

1,801

1.24%

1,678

-6.83%

Laois

1,382

1,395

0.94%

1,428

2.37%

1,431

0.21%

Leitrim

912

847

-7.13%

817

-3.54%

813

-0.49%

Limerick

3,351

3,588

7.07%

3,789

5.60%

3,618

-4.51%

Longford

916

887

-3.17%

886

-0.11%

938

5.87%

Louth

2,451

2,466

0.61%

2,583

4.74%

2,750

6.47%

Mayo

3,827

3,462

-9.54%

3,275

-5.40%

3,201

-2.26%

Meath

2,639

2,776

5.19%

2,908

4.76%

2,998

3.09%

Monaghan

1,479

1,466

-0.88%

1,489

1.57%

1,459

-2.01%

Offaly

1,457

1,463

0.41%

1,493

2.05%

1,554

4.09%

Roscommon

1,526

1,621

6.23%

1,509

-6.91%

1,507

-0.13%

Sligo

1,734

1,605

-6.36%

1,510

-5.92%

1,522

0.79%

Tipperary

3,086

3,179

3.01%

3,167

-0.38%

3,188

0.66%

Waterford

2,236

2,285

2.19%

2,344

2.58%

2,407

2.69%

Westmeath

1,975

1,875

-5.06%

1,845

-1.60%

1,957

6.07%

Wexford

2,764

2,864

3.62%

2,674

-6.63%

3,013

12.68%

Wicklow

2,153

2,247

4.37%

2,149

-4.36%

2,169

0.93%

Totals

76,644

79,188

79,692*

81,850*

*Grants Awarded, not all taken up

It is a broader issue, although accommodation is a problem. Earlier this year the Minister and her colleagues were tripping over one another to welcome the statistics showing that more PAYE families and fewer farm and self-employed families were receiving the higher education grant. What they failed to recognise - the Minister might acknowledge it - was that there was a larger cohort of PAYE workers in cities and a larger cohort of farmers and self-employed persons in rural areas. Will the Minister acknowledge that it is now far more difficult for people living in rural areas to access education in the cities because of the cost of accommodation and the lack of accessible transport? Will she also acknowledge that, despite the fanfare, because there are now more PAYE workers’ sons and daughters accessing higher education grants the overall number in receipt of the grant has dropped, although the number going to college has increased? The proportion of students accessing the grant is smaller.

There is no discrimination between people living in rural Ireland and urban Ireland in accessing the grants scheme. Someone living in a town or city may still have to pay for accommodation to attend an institute of higher education. It does not apply only to those who live in rural areas. The cost of accommodation is a problem for people in a variety of geographical locations. Despite the economic difficulties, in recent years we have managed to maintain the payment of grants. They were never intended to, nor could they ever, cover all of the cost of going to college. There are funds within the higher education institutions for which students can apply if there is a fear that somebody will drop out through lack of money.

John did drop out and there are many more like him around the country who are forced into this position because their families cannot afford to keep them in college and pay for accommodation. The higher education grant has been maintained, but the difficulty is that the cost of accommodation is going through the roof and the majority who have to access accommodation are not on bus routes. Bus Éireann is closing many bus routes which is making it even less possible to commute.

They are outside urban centres and major towns where there is access to institutes of technology and have to rely on commuting or residing in Dublin. What we have, effectively, because the higher education grant has not kept in line with the increasing cost of accommodation and going to college is education apartheid by geography. What is the Minister going to do about this?

First, there is limited money available. I do not know if the Deputy is proposing that we put increased moneys we receive into student grants when there are other competing interests. For example, people are looking for extra guidance teachers in schools, extra capitation grants and a reduction in class sizes. There are, therefore, many areas where we are under pressure to spend money. We have, by and large, managed to retain the grants scheme, despite the economic downturn, but we will have to make very difficult choices. There is no discrimination in regard to it being a case of rural Ireland versus urban Ireland in terms of access to grants or accommodation. As I said, there are many students who do not live near enough to their college to live at home, whether in urban or rural Ireland. I have already addressed the issue of accommodation. The Deputy knows that the Government has significantly increased the amount of money for housing, on which we made a significant announcement this year, despite the economic difficulties, and will continue to do so. I mentioned the strategic investment fund as one area from which there may be funding available for student accommodation. I have engaged directly with the higher education institutions on their providing student accommodation for their students.

English Language Training Organisations

Richard Boyd Barrett

Question:

113. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Minister for Education and Skills further to Parliamentary Question No. 203 of 17 June 2015, if it is appropriate that students from recently closed colleges such as MEC who had already paid fees are being offered a solution that involves them paying even more money to schools they had not been able to afford; if she is satisfied that Ireland's reputation as a destination for English language learning is not being damaged by this approach to both learning and finding solutions when problems such as these arise; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [25821/15]

The closure of the Modern Educational Centre English language school in May was the latest in a long litany of private English language schools closing down and leaving international students high and dry after paying for courses, not to mention teachers being left equally high and dry. What does the Government intend to do about this not only in terms of the unfairness visited on students but also the extraordinary international reputational damage being done to what is a very important sector for the country and its economy?

The relationship between students and the recently closed English language colleges such as MEC - Modern Educational Centre - is based on a private contract between the student and the provider; therefore, there is no obligation on my Department or the State to provide refunds or pay for alternative provision. For that reason, one of the key objectives of the task force I established jointly with the Minister for Justice and Equality to assist affected students was to develop solutions that could provide alternative courses at a significantly discounted rate for students impacted on by the closures who were not covered by learner protection arrangements. The MEI offer to provide course places at a fee of €60 per week continues to be available to genuinely displaced students. This fee which was calculated on a cost provision basis represents a significant discount of 70% on the standard fees for an MEI school in acknowledgement that a fee has already been paid to the closed college. Furthermore, individual MEI schools have facilitated displaced students by allowing them to make weekly payments instead of requiring the total course fee on enrolment to provide further support in managing the payment.

My two priorities, in introducing the reforms to the international education sector, have been to protect the students who come to study in Ireland and to protect our national reputation for offering high quality education. These reforms will deliver on both of these important priorities. As one of the reforms is a student protection scheme, when students pay money, that money is protected and cannot be taken away by the person to whom they have paid it.

There is only time for one supplementary question.

We bailed out the banks to the tune of billions, as well as foreign bondholders who, frankly, did nothing for the country and were here just to exploit us and profiteer from us. We bailed them out, although we should not have. However, we do have an obligation to bail out foreign students who come here and who in good faith pay money for courses and then, because of our failure to properly regulate the English language school sector, are left high and dry. One Brazilian student said:

I do not even have €60 spare a month. How am I supposed to pay €60 a week? Am I supposed to starve? I have done nothing wrong and I am being punished.

That is what is happening. This is also an important sector for us not to allow reputational damage to be done to the country, never mind the injustice being visited on students. We should step in and bail them out. Judging from the briefing I received recently from EFL teachers, into which I do not have time to go, the EFL sector is an unregulated mess. That is a tragedy considering its huge potential if it was regulated properly. One big resource which does not cost us much to produce is our capacity to speak the English language. We should not waste it by allowing private schools and cowboys to wreck our reputation, leaving students high and dry and teachers in an awful position. The Minister should bail out the students, for their sake and the sake of our reputation.

It is precisely for the reasons the Deputy has enunciated that we have decided to reform the system. The vast majority of providers do, in fact, provide a good service, but there are people who have totally exploited the system and used it for immigration and work purposes. We want to root them out. That is why we will have new rules that will have to be complied with, including having directors of companies declared, a protection scheme for students and a requirement that a certain standard be met. That is all going to happen and it would have happened sooner, but court cases were taken against us, as the Deputy knows. However, it is about to happen and I am very confident that this is how we will restore the reputation of the international education centres.