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Dáil Éireann debate -
Tuesday, 6 Oct 2015

Vol. 891 No. 3

Priority Questions

Special Educational Needs Data

Charlie McConalogue


121. Deputy Charlie McConalogue asked the Minister for Education and Skills if she will address concerns regarding the new system of allocation of special needs assistants that is being piloted this year; her plans to address the long waiting times for special needs assessment by the National Educational Psychological Service. [34079/15]

My question asks if the Minister will address concerns regarding the new system for the allocation of resource and learning support teachers which is being piloted in a number of schools this year. I also ask the Minister to outline her plans to address the long waiting times for special educational needs assessment by National Educational Psychological Service psychologists.

I understand the Deputy's question refers to the allocation of resource teachers.

The National Council for Special Education, NCSE, identified that the current model for allocating resource teachers to schools is potentially inequitable because access to professional assessments is not always readily available to those who cannot afford to access them privately. The proposed new model currently being piloted will remove the formal requirement for such assessments.

In September, my officials had a very positive meeting with the participating schools and through ongoing engagements I expect the pilot to be successfully concluded. The pilot will test the new model and will allow for any concerns to be fully addressed prior to implementation of the new model.

The National Educational Psychological Service, NEPS, does not maintain waiting lists for assessment but, in consultation with schools, prioritises children who have failed to make adequate progress despite an appropriate continuum of support being delivered for those children.

I thank the Minister for her reply. There is no doubt that there are serious problems with the provision of learning support and resource hours, in particular with the distribution of the latter which are based on assessments carried by a NEPS psychologists or on private psychological assessments which parents have arranged for their children because they have grown tired and are unwilling to wait any longer for an assessment by NEPS.

I note that the Minister expects the pilot to be successful. I ask her to elaborate on the pilot project and outline how many schools are involved. I note that in recent media reports the Minister has made it clear that there will be no reduction in the number of resource teachers available to any of the schools participating in the pilot. The concern surrounding the new model is that teachers will be taken from some schools and reassigned to others and in effect, the Minister will be robbing Peter to pay Paul because there is no plan to increase the overall number of resource teachers. I cannot get my head around how the Department can run a pilot project while also ensuring that no school sees a reduction in its resources. Ultimately, that goes against what the Minister is seeking to implement.

On the Deputy's specific question about the pilot schools, 47 schools will take part. A total of 28 primary and 19 post-primary schools have agreed to participate in the pilot project. They were initially selected by the Educational Research Centre and efforts were made to include schools of different sizes, different levels of disadvantage and gender differences. One of the commitments given to the schools was that if they participated in the pilot project they would not lose resources during the pilot phase. That was a practical way of ensuring that schools of different types would be willing to participate in the pilot project. We did not want them to lose resources because they were participating in a pilot study from which we wanted to learn. That was why we gave that commitment to them.

On the new scheme more generally, it has been identified that the current scheme is inequitable and that we need to move to a new scheme. However, we did not have the information we required on complex needs in order to be able to implement a new scheme fully. That is why we are conducting the pilot and why we want to learn from it.

The Minister's response shows again that this not a pilot scheme. As she noted, assurances are provided to schools engaging in the scheme that they will not lose any resource teaching hours as a result of their participation. However, the outcome of the change the Minister wishes to implement is that many schools will lose resource teaching hours. How can this be described as a pilot scheme? While the Department may learn something from the scheme, it will be a sham if this approach is not implemented in full, as the Minister plans.

The Minister indicated that NEPS does not maintain a list of students who are waiting for a psychological assessment. How appropriate, given that if it were to maintain a waiting list, it would become clear to NEPS that there is no end to the number of students who are unable to obtain the assessment required to provide a clear picture of the supports they need, including the resource hours they need to help them develop.

Even if the findings of the new pilot project are implemented, does the Minister not agree that assessments by NEPS psychologists of students who have particular needs will continue to be important in ensuring that schools and parents are made aware of students' needs and that the children in question are provided with adequate supports? The Government must address the shortage of NEPS psychologists and take a realistic and honest approach to this issue. The current approach of introducing a pilot scheme is a sham because it is not a proper pilot scheme.

The Department has consistently increased the number of special needs assistants and resource teaching hours in recent years. The increases this year were especially significant, and we also increased the number of NEPS psychologists. This year, for the first time, every school has access to a NEPS psychologist. Every school is allocated a specific number of psychological assessments and some will pay privately to have assessments done, which is where the current inequity arises. Under the new system, we want to ensure that a NEPS assessment will not be necessary for a child to secure the supports he or she needs. It is probably not a good use of resources to have NEPS psychologists carry out assessments solely for the purpose of securing resources for children. Under the new model, I expect they will be freed up to carry out the tasks required to meet the psychological needs of children in schools. It was for this reason that the NCSE concluded that a new model of resource allocation was required.

Pupil-Teacher Ratio

Jonathan O'Brien


122. Deputy Jonathan O'Brien asked the Minister for Education and Skills the cost of reducing the primary school pupil-teacher ratio by one point for each of the next five years, accounting for rising demographics; and the cost of additional school and classroom building to cater for reduced class sizes during each of these years. [34191/15]

The full-year cost of a one-point reduction to the primary staffing schedule is estimated to be €18 million. Therefore, the full-year cost of a five-point reduction would increase the annual primary teacher pay costs by an estimated €90 million per annum. Across the five-year period of reduction, the cumulative increase in pay provision is estimated at €270 million. The precise impact at individual school level is more difficult to predict in terms of capital requirements.

A change in the staffing schedule may not always give rise to the appointment of an additional teacher and, therefore, the provision of new classroom. In areas of stable or falling pupil enrolment numbers, schools may already have a spare classroom or be in a position to convert an existing space into a classroom. Where a new classroom build is required the capital cost is almost €135,000 per classroom.

The Minister indicated that the cost of reducing the pupil-teacher ratio by one point would be €18 million for this year. Based on demographic changes, I expect that the cost of reducing the pupil-teacher ratio by one point every year for the next five years will exceed the €90 million estimate provided by the Minister. The rise in student numbers will result in increased class sizes, which means we must take into account an increase in the student population and the additional classrooms and space that will be needed to achieve a five-point reduction in the pupil-teacher ratio over the lifetime of a Government. To obtain the true figure we need information on the cost of new capital and the actual increase in student numbers based on demographic changes. The Minister's €90 million figure is not correct.

In terms of the capital allocation and based on demographic changes, we expect we will need 19,000 more places in primary schools and 43,000 more places in post-primary schools over the next six years.

I acknowledge the Deputy is asking about a five-year period, but we have done the figures for six because that is the length of the capital programme. That is the demographic rise. In terms of the capital costs for classrooms, I have already answered in a way, but it is hard to assess. If schools have spare capacity, one will not need to build more classrooms. One does not need a new classroom unless the class has to divide in two depending on the numbers. It is difficult to give the Deputy an actual figure, but we can probably carry out an assessment to give him as close a figure as we can get. However, as we would need to look at the circumstances of every school in the country in terms of spare provision, we do not have a precise figure on the capital cost.

That is an exercise we should undertake. All the evidence-based research suggests that smaller class size equates to greater educational output. As a State with one of the highest pupil-teacher ratios in Europe, we must move to a policy of reducing class size. The additional places the Minister refers to over the next six years will only meet the demographic rise. I am trying to show that it is not just about the demographics. While more students are coming on stream who must be catered for with attendant capital costs, the Minister's answer indicates that the Department has no idea of the capital and teacher post allocation costs of implementing the policy to reduce the pupil-teacher ratio. Those are the figures we need. How can we strive to have smaller class sizes if we do not have that vital information?

I take the Deputy's point but to give him an example, a school with 178 pupils could be in a position to enrol up to 26 more pupils without triggering an additional teaching post. If the same eight-teacher school had an enrolment of 204 pupils, it would only take one pupil to trigger the appointment of an additional teacher. Whether a school can get a new teacher depends on how close it is to the next point. That changes from year to year in different schools. We could probably get the likely cost for the Deputy for a particular point in time, but that could change depending on population movement. We can probably get him an estimated figure, but it will not be absolutely accurate regarding the point when one would spend the money.

Schools Building Projects Status

Ruth Coppinger


123. Deputy Ruth Coppinger asked the Minister for Education and Skills her Department's involvement in the process of constructing an access road to a planned school (details supplied) in Dublin 15; the resulting delay in the opening of this new school building; if this will result in students continuing to travel to temporary off-site accommodation; her views on the impact this delay is having on the much-needed sports pitches and facilities for the Tyrrelstown community; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [34032/15]

Will the Minister make a statement on behalf of the Department on the bizarre situation of a secondary school for a very large area in west Dublin - Tyrrelstown - which has been delayed? It seems the Department of Education and Skills has not been able to sort out issues relating to the provision of an access road which means children may be bussed out of the area for another year.

The purpose of the building project in question is to provide a new 1,000-pupil secondary school in Tyrrelstown, which includes an all-weather playing pitch for school and community use. Planning permission has been secured and a tender process to appoint a building contractor is at an advanced stage. As the Deputy said, the project requires the construction of an access road across third party lands to facilitate access to the new school and playing pitch from the existing public road and roundabout. As such, the road is an important part of the project. My Department has been in discussions with the relevant parties regarding the legal agreements required for the construction of this road and it is anticipated that they will be finalised shortly.

Will the Minister of State clarify what he means by "shortly"? This is a burning issue for many parents and families in Tyrrelstown. The area has been badly served by poor and corrupt planning. A decision was made to allow the developer to pay money in lieu of open space and the people of the area have been starved of pitches and community facilities for years. The delay in the school project is not only preventing the school from opening, which is dreadful, but also preventing the local authority from developing pitches. That is because the local authority has a deal with the Department to reuse the topsoil from the school site for the pitches.

Four GAA pitches, two soccer pitches and a cricket pitch are waiting, as is a park that has been promised to residents for many years. Will the school be ready in September 2016?

I thank the Deputy for raising these issues. I do not know the full history of the application, but the area seems to have been poorly serviced by previous Administrations. The new planning system that has been operating in my Department in recent years is correcting that. The new school will go ahead and the site has been secured. There is a delay with construction of the road, as it lies on third party lands that we do not control. The school is on track to be open for the 2016-17 school year, but we cannot guarantee that until the contractor is on site and work has begun.

The school has been designed and tendered for a phased hand-over. The aim is for phase one to be ready for the 2016-17 school year. I hope that we are on track in that regard. The Department is committed to the interim arrangements, including transport to the other site, until phase one is ready for hand-over. It looks like the project is moving along, but the Deputy must accept that the issue with the access road is outside the Department's control because third parties are involved. She is right, in that the area has been identified as a priority. Everything should be on track for next September.

I am not happy with the level of detail provided by the Minister of State. People are waiting to know whether their children will need to be bused out of the area again to a temporary building in Blanchardstown village. The Department has put the project out to tender and the road is delayed due to land ownership issues. Are those with NAMA or the developer, Twinlite? I have submitted this Priority Question on behalf of a large community in west Dublin. The Minister of State hopes that the school will be ready, but he has not given us any indication beyond the project ticking along nicely. Fingal County Council has given all that it can in terms of sorting out the planning permission issues. The Department has not fulfilled its role. Two other primary schools, Tyrrelstown Educate Together and St. Luke's Mulhuddart national school, are impacted. This is a disgraceful and unsafe situation. Those schools must access an inadequate road. Until the Department builds this road, those parents will suffer. Children have already been injured. I have been attempting to sort this issue out for many years. and I ask the Minister of State to please sort out the mess that was made in Tyrrelstown. Its large community needs assistance. Pull out whatever stops are necessary.

I was clear. I cannot give the Deputy anything more than the truth, which is what I did. We hope-----

The Minister of State said nothing.

What does the Deputy mean by "nothing"?

The Minister of State gave no details.

The tender is signed for the school to be built on a phased basis.

Is it down to NAMA?

The Department is building a school and an access road. We are not in total control of the site for the latter. It looks like that matter will be finalised shortly. I cannot say when, as it is a legal agreement that must be finalised. Waving a magic wand to sort it out overnight is not in our gift. We are doing all that we can. It looks like the school has progressed and is on track to be open for the 2016-17 year. The tenders are signed. The Department has prioritised this project and pushed it as much as it can, but I cannot answer for problems with bad planning that go back years. I was not a councillor in the area. The Department has sorted out a difficulty, leaving the legal agreements to be finalised, but those are not totally in our control. I can say no more. It seems like the project is close to being finalised, after which it can proceed to construction. It has gone through every other phase. Nothing else is holding it back. This is the best that I can give the Deputy. She is not happy with it, but it is the truth. I hope that the project will move quickly, but she knows that, when it comes to legal arrangements, I cannot say whether they will be agreed tomorrow, next week or later.

State Examinations Reviews

Charlie McConalogue


124. Deputy Charlie McConalogue asked the Minister for Education and Skills her proposals for progressing with junior certificate reform following the rejection of the proposals by members of the Association of Secondary Teachers in Ireland; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [34080/15]

In light of the issue raised in my question, will the Minister update us on how she plans to proceed?

I thank the Deputy. I am pressing ahead immediately with implementation. I welcome the strong endorsement of Teachers Union of Ireland, TUI, members and while I have no intention of revisiting the agreed framework, I will engage with the Association of Secondary Teachers in Ireland, ASTI, to further clarify any issues. Progressing this must be a priority for all. The Framework for Junior Cycle 2015, which I published in August, sets out the wide-ranging and necessary reforms. Students will have a modernised curriculum, better learning experiences and better outcomes. Classroom-based assessments will take place in March-April or September-October 2016 in line with the framework and improved examinations will support better learning. The junior cycle for teachers, JCT, service is now contacting all schools to arrange the in-service training and a programme of seminars and whole-school continuing professional development, CPD, will commence in early November. The JCT will be pragmatic in phasing the training in order that ASTI teachers are scheduled for CPD later in the programme, thereby providing some time for any clarifications to transact.

Fianna Fáil has always been a proponent of trying to reform the junior certificate curriculum and make it one that better serves students' needs. Before this Minister's tenure, when the former Minister, Deputy Quinn, was in the Department, there was a report on his table on foot of widespread consultation conducted under the auspices of the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment that involved teachers, the Department and various management partners. Essentially, it included everyone with a stake in it and that proposal and report was available as a basis on which to proceed with reform. However, the former Minister, Deputy Quinn, thought he knew better and the Government thought it alone had the wisdom as to how the education system should be reformed. He arrogantly proceeded with a completely different proposal, which did away altogether with the State examination element of the junior certificate and making it a school certificate. Basically, the former Minister gave teachers an option to take it or leave it. Subsequently, when this Minister came to power, she reverted back to the proposals in the initial report that had been on the desk of the former Minister, Deputy Quinn, and, again, she issued an ultimatum to teachers to take it or leave it. As matters stand, with only three or four months left at most in the Government's term, the Minister has been left with it and junior certificate reform at present is in a less healthy position than when the Government came to office four and a half years ago.

Members must see more from the Minister in the form of a plan that will get reform back on track and organising training sessions, as the Department of Education and Skills has done previously, to which teachers will not turn up is not the way to do this.

First, I acknowledge the support of Fianna Fáil for reform, as well as that of practically every partner in education. I note that fewer than 40% of ASTI members have rejected it, but apart from that, everybody else in the education sector is in support. I am not by any means abandoning reform but as I told the Deputy, the Department is writing to all schools and will begin CPD in the first week in November. It will start with the ETB schools because members of the TUI will come to training and CPD. I am leaving some space in order to be able to give clarification to the ASTI, if it requires it. However, to be clear, the Department is rolling it out and I expect it will go in accordance with the plans that already have been indicated with regard to subjects moving from English onwards. Moreover, it is not true to state that somehow or other, I did not engage with teachers. I had detailed negotiations on which the leadership of the ASTI signed off, after which its members, by a small majority obviously rejected it. However, that will not stop us.

It is called democracy Minister.

A key part of the reason we are in the position in which we find ourselves is the approach the Government has taken. The Government has taken a bullish approach from the outset and drove on regardless of making sure it was done in partnership with those who would implement it. This is why teachers, unfortunately, still do not have faith in what, as the Minister has pointed out, their union leadership negotiated with the Minister. They have lost faith with the Minister, certainly with the former Minister, Deputy Quinn, long before that and in particular, with the Government's commitment and approach to delivering reform overall. I note the Minister's leadership in this regard has not changed. She is still firing on regardless but I implore her to take a conciliatory approach in engaging at all times, to unwind what are the remaining issues, to try in particular to deal with how a major part of the remaining issue is a lack of confidence in the Government and to try to ensure a position is reached in which reform can proceed in a way in which everyone is on board with delivering it.

Is Deputy McConalogue really suggesting that I should abandon this process now that every other partner in education, whether they be school students, parents, management bodies or principals and deputy principals, plus the Teachers Union of Ireland, TUI, whose members voted in much larger numbers in favour of it, is involved because a small number of-----

The Minister should try to bring everybody with her.

The ASTI is a bigger union.

The Minister has the floor.

I sat down for many hours with them. The Deputy said I am not being conciliatory. When they announced their results I said we would provide whatever clarification they require, and we will do that. They did indicate that there may be need for clarification. I am happy to do that. I am also happy to begin rolling out the continuing professional development, CPD, in the schools that have TUI membership rather than ASTI membership to give them that-----

The Minister cannot do that.

Yes I can, but it is Deputy McConalogue's question so I will answer to Deputy McConalogue. As Deputy McConalogue knows, this reform has been a long time coming and it is my responsibility as Minister for Education and Skills to respond to all the partners in education who want it, to the TUI whose members have voted for it and to the students of Ireland who are central to all of this, and I intend to move forward, but I will provide clarification to the ASTI if they need it.

The ASTI is the biggest secondary teachers' union.

Schools Building Projects Administration

Ruth Coppinger


125. Deputy Ruth Coppinger asked the Minister for Education and Skills her views on the failure to lodge a planning application on time for a temporary building for a school (details supplied) in Dublin 15, given that children in the school have started the school year in a gymnasium without natural light, adequate ventilation, or a play area; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [34033/15]

I ask the Minister about another school provision in the west Dublin area, this time in regard to Ashtown. As the Minister knows, Ashtown has become a much bigger community now, with many new homes. Does the Minister believe it is appropriate that children will go down two flights of stairs in a gym to attend a school with no natural light, ventilation or play area? It seems the reason for that is that the Department of Education and Skills failed to lodge the planning application and make the necessary protocols for a temporary building. Can the Minister explain that?

The school referred to by Deputy Coppinger opened in September this year in interim accommodation, which everyone agrees is not satisfactory accommodation; that is why it is interim.

Following pre-planning discussions with the relevant planning authority, my Department lodged a planning application in April this year with a view to facilitating the new school coming into operation from this September. However, the planning process was protracted, even after we had pre-planning at an early stage. A request for additional information from the local authority relating to drainage and infrastructural improvements was received, which substantially extended the planning timeframe. As the Deputy will appreciate, the planning process is outside of my Department's control. As I said, we engaged proactively with the pre-planning process at the first opportunity in this planning application.

I am pleased to confirm that final grant of planning permission in this case was received on 17 September. A contractor has been appointed and the school will move from its interim accommodation to this new accommodation as soon as the necessary works to make this accommodation suitable for a school have been completed, which looks to be on schedule for mid-November.

Can the Minister of State clarify if the children will be out of this dungeon, effectively, in November as Educate Together was promised? The only reason parents gave this a shot was because they felt they had no choice. There were other alternatives including busing children to Blanchardstown or Castleknock, but parents decided to have a little faith and go with this option. They are not waiting to move into a permanent school building; that would take a long time. There is meant to be a temporary school building. Will that be ready? Will they be out of this building in November or is the Minister seriously expecting children to stay in one of these basements of a gym, which had to be subdivided and had to have toilets put in?

This problem boils down to misplanning. The Rathborne area was developed over many years; it was planned for years. It was known that people would have children and that those children would need a school, and Ashtown Educate Together was deemed to be necessary by the Department for many years. Can the Minister of State clarify if the parents have to wait for the permanent building he mentioned to be built or will they be moved to a more suitable, appropriate temporary dwelling?

The Deputy knows well that they will not because the contract for the temporary school was signed for three years. She knows that. The site will be ready in mid-November. The contractors have been appointed and they will move from that temporary accommodation, which is not satisfactory, in mid-November as planned and agreed. The Department went to councillors in the area.

The area has suffered from bad planning - that much is correct - and has done for many years, mainly under previous Administrations, I am keen to point out yet again.

To be clear, Department officials viewed the site for this temporary building for the next three years in February this year. On 24 March, Department officials held a pre-planning meeting with officials in Dublin City Council to discuss the proposed planning application for the conversion of the building to a temporary school that would be satisfactory for the next three years. The Department's consultant architect had further discussions before the planning application with officials in the traffic and drainage section of the local authority in the context of making a planning application. On 7 April, the Department received confirmation from the landlord and secured approval in principal for a three-year lease for a temporary school as well as approval to lodge a planning application. The planning application was lodged less than two weeks later on 24 April. The local authority subsequently returned a request for additional information relating to drainage, provision of footpaths and a pedestrian crossing. This was after we held a pre-planning meeting with the local authority in March. It delayed the application, but planning permission was granted initially on 12 August and fully granted on 17 September. Things are moving now for mid-November and the project is on track.

What this points up is the need for a total change in planning in this country. Every community that I have ever been involved with has had to campaign, lobby, hold public meetings and get petitions to get a school. We need to end this fiasco once and for all.

Will the Minister of State commit to amending section 4 of the Planning Act, which does not state that schools are a necessary part of a community? There is no requirement to provide schools when a community is being planned. This has to stop completely. Sites must be identified along with a clear structure for how the schools are to come about.

I gather the previous regime involving Fianna Fáil and the Progressive Democrats refused to change the system, but it is up to the Government parties now, especially if they are going to carry on into the next regime. Obviously, they probably will not do so under their current guise. Anyway, will the Minister of State commit to amending the Planning Act in order that people do not have to campaign? This is not rocket science. People move into homes and some years later they will probably have children and need a school.

Deputy Coppinger will probably never admit it, but this Administration has changed the system. There is a structure in place now. The structure Deputy Coppinger has called for in respect of the provision of sites is already in place at local authority level.

There is no requirement for school planning.

That is why, in the past three or four years, we have managed to deal with the majority of demand for primary school places. The situation was at crisis point. Under the last five-year plan, which will finish next year, and new plans to come out in the months ahead, the urgency of providing places in primary education has been more or less matched and dealt with, and rightly so. We are moving on now to ensure we have the same solutions for secondary places. This Administration has dealt with the matter. It has dealt with local authorities and put in place a new structure that should have been in place years ago. I fully agree with Deputy Coppinger on that point.

There had been complete and utter failure in county planning. We have corrected that as best we can and as quickly as we can in our short few years in government, and we hope to continue with this reform in our next phase in government. I do not believe everyone shares Deputy Coppinger's view that this Administration will not be back to continue the good work in education.