Priority Questions

School Enrolments

Charlie McConalogue

Question:

1. Deputy Charlie McConalogue asked the Minister for Education and Skills the discussions she has had in relation to the inclusion of provisions excluding denominational schools from using a child's religion in selection criteria for school admissions in the forthcoming Education (Admission to Schools) Bill; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [44117/15]

The question seeks an update from the Minister on the discussions she has had with her coalition partners on the need for a change to the current situation with regard to school admissions policy, particularly the criterion of religion. I note from the coverage in today's newspapers that the Minister intends to drop the Education (Admission to Schools) Bill and not to implement it before the election. I hope she will give a clear update on her position in that regard.

Under the Equal Status Act, schools are not permitted to discriminate in admission on any of the grounds set out in the Act. However, the Act contains an exemption which permits schools in which the objective is to provide education that promotes certain religious values to admit a student of a particular religion in preference to others.

The Deputy will be aware of the many positive elements of the admissions Bill, which will put an end to the charging of fees to parents who apply for a school place, tear down the soft barriers erected in front of some children with special needs, and bring openness and transparency to all school admissions.

The issue of the need to amend the Equal Status Act was not a feature of the consultation paper published in advance of the Education (Admission to Schools) Bill. When the Oireachtas committee considered this matter, it simply noted that "there is a potential tension between Articles 42 (Education) and 44 (Religion) of Bunreacht na hÉireann, and this poses a particular difficulty when legislating in this policy area." No amendment to the Equal Status Act has been included in the published Bill.

I have subsequently made clear my view that this is a matter that does need to be reviewed and addressed, and it will need to be a priority for the next Government so that it can be dealt with in advance of the next school year.

I find it objectionable that we can read in today's newspapers a clearer explanation from the Minister as to the current status of the school admissions Bill than she has outlined in her reply to my question. Could she confirm whether it is her intention not to proceed with the Bill and instead to kick it to touch until after the next general election, as per her comments across a number of newspapers this morning? Could the Minister also outline the reason for that? Considerable effort has been put in by Members across the House and at committee level, with wide consultation across the education system on the Bill for the past three years. Ample time was available for the Bill to be introduced in the House, yet under the previous Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Ruairí Quinn, and now under the tenure of the current Minister, Deputy Jan O'Sullivan, all we have seen is delay after delay and the issue is being kicked to touch. Now it would appear that the Minister has no intention whatsoever of introducing the Bill into the Dáil before it is dissolved. Could the Minister please bring clarity to this?

The Bill was published just before the summer, in April. I would like to have had time in the Dáil and Seanad to bring it through the Houses of the Oireachtas. I am not kicking the Bill to touch; if it can still be done, I will do it, but I am being realistic in terms of the Oireachtas calendar, in so far as we only have one more sitting week this year in the Dáil. We will only be back for a matter of weeks rather than any longer period after the Christmas break. I do not know when the election will be called but, realistically, I do not think we will have time to debate the many issues involved and to get such a complex piece of legislation through Committee and Report Stages in both Houses of the Oireachtas. I was being realistic about the Oireachtas calendar in a speech I made last night at the launch of Education Matters, a journal produced yearly on education issues. I referred to the matter in last night's speech. I honestly do not believe there will be enough time to bring the entire Bill through both Houses of the Oireachtas.

The Minister is being defeatist rather than realistic, because this is something that was very much within the Minister's grasp. It was within her power to ensure the Bill went through the Dáil and Seanad during the past five years. In fact, it is something that the Minister and her predecessor, Deputy Quinn, flagged as one of the key reform measures of the Labour Party tenure in education in the past five years. It would now seem the Bill is not going to be delivered, and instead will be pushed onto the next Dáil to delay it as the Labour Party retreats to the political trenches in advance of the next general election, making big promises as to what it might do if the party returns to power while ignoring the fact that it has been a complete failure in terms of delivering reform in the current five-year period.

School admissions are one of the key issues, along with junior certificate reform and divestment, that the Minister and her predecessor, Deputy Quinn, flagged as priorities for the Labour Party in government, and on each of those fronts we have seen a total failure to deliver in any meaningful way, or certainly in the way that was outlined or intended. Much debate and consideration has been given to the Education (Admission to Schools) Bill. It is an important issue. I believe it should come before the Dáil. It is totally defeatist and a reflection on the tenure of the Labour Party in government that it is now the Minister's intention to kick the matter to touch and not to deliver on it.

There will be an admissions Bill. There is no doubt about that. It will go through the Oireachtas after the election because it has to; it is something that will be addressed. My predecessor, Deputy Ruairí Quinn, brought the Bill a long way and I brought it to the point of being published. I reject the claim that we have not been working on reform. A significant amount of reform was achieved in education under the previous Minister, Deputy Quinn, with which I have subsequently continued. Junior certificate reform is now being implemented in schools.

There is still an issue with one of the unions but it is being implemented.

The process of divestment has been slow. We are all disappointed about that but I have started a series of meetings in this respect. I met Education and Training Boards Ireland, ETBI, yesterday, I have met the Catholic bishops already and I will meet Educate Together and the Church of Ireland next week to work out how we can speed up divestment. These are significant changes. One has to work with the partners in education to make progress, but I reject the Deputy's suggestion that there has not been reform in the education area. The admissions issue in terms of the issue of religion was never going to be dealt with in the current Bill, as published, because it was not agreed in the programme for Government and it is not part of the published Bill. I am certain that admissions legislation will be brought forward after the next election regardless of whoever is in government. I am certain that at some stage in the near future the issue of religion will have to be dealt with, but it was not going to be dealt with in the current Bill. I am simply being realistic with respect to the Oireachtas timetable about bringing through the entire legislation before the next election.

School Patronage

Jonathan O'Brien

Question:

2. Deputy Jonathan O'Brien asked the Minister for Education and Skills the status of the programme for divestment of patronage; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [44042/15]

I ask the Minister for an update on the divestment programme to which she has alluded.

The programme for Government gives a commitment to move towards a more pluralist system of patronage for our schools. In this context, the Government established a Forum on Patronage and Pluralism in the Primary Sector. The forum advised on how the education system can provide a sufficiently diverse number and range of primary schools catering for all religions and none and on the practicalities of transferring patronage of primary schools where it is appropriate.

Following surveys of parents in 43 areas, there was sufficient parental demand supporting change in 28 of these areas. To date, eight new primary schools have opened under the patronage divesting process. I have made it very clear that I am frustrated with the slow pace of progress in this area and that I am anxious to work with everyone involved to ensure we deliver new options for parents in the remaining 20 areas as quickly as possible, and certainly within the next couple of years.

To reinvigorate the patronage divesting process, I recently met the Catholic bishops and yesterday I met representatives from Education and Training Boards Ireland, ETBI. I have also arranged to meet representatives from Educate Together and the Church of Ireland next week. I am working with the main stakeholders to advance alternative choices for 2016 and beyond. I am willing to provide further updates to the Deputy as this work progresses and after I have had a chance to conclude the current series of meetings with the bodies involved.

Count

Roll No.

School Name

Address

Patron

Ethos

Year Opened

1

20430N

Canal Way Educate Together NS

Basin Lane, Dublin 8

Educate Together

Multi-denominational

2013

2

20444B

Trim Educate Together NS

Glebe, Kildalkey Road, Trim, County Meath

Educate Together

Multi-denominational

2014

3

20446F

Tramore Educate Together NS

Pond Road, Tramore, County Waterford

Educate Together

Multi-denominational

2014

4

20445D

Malahide/Portmarnock Educate Together NS

Malahide Road, Kinsealy, County Dublin

Educate Together

Multi-denominational

2014

5

09040K

Newtownwhite ETNS*

Newtownwhite, Ballysakerry, Ballina, County Mayo

Educate Together

Multi-denominational

2014

6

20456I

Tuam Educate Together NS

Dublin Road, Tuam, County Galway

Educate Together

Multi-denominational

2015

7

20458M

New Ross Educate Together NS

Barrett's Park, New Ross, County Wexford

Educate Together

Multi-denominational

2015

8

20461B

Gaelscoil na Laochra

Biorra, Contae Uíbh Fhailí

An Foras Pátrúnachta

Multi-denominational

2015

*This school resulted in the transfer of existing school from the Church of Ireland.

By the Minister's own admission, this has been a very frustrating process and we would all share that frustration because there is a need to move to a more pluralist education system. I very much welcome the engagement the Minister is having with the various stakeholders in this process. While eight primary schools have been delivered to date in this respect, I believe the Minister would recognise that they do not go anywhere near meeting the demand that exists. Will she indicate what she is hoping to achieve from those negotiations? Are we seeking to put in place a five-year plan for the next Government to move forward on this issue? Unless we continue to knock on the doors of the stakeholders, so to speak we will continue to be frustrated.

The main purpose of the meetings is to find out the obstacles hindering divestment. There is a willingness in this respect at a macro level. Having listened to what Archbishop Martin said again this week, there is certainly such a willingness in the archdiocese of Dublin. Also, from my meetings with the people I have met so far, there is a willingness at that macro level. What I am being told, however, is that there are difficulties at local level. We wanted to get a sense of the issues that are making the process as slow as it is.

There will be a focus on the areas where there has been a survey of parents and where there is a wish to have divestment, namely, the areas that have not so far been successful in terms of divestment, to examine if there are practical issues we can address and then examine, on a broader basis, other parts of the country where there are opportunities possibly to divest. This involves reorganisation where, for example, there are a number of Catholic schools in a particular area and there is not an alternative, and it involves examining what we as a Department can do to assist in the process of identifying a way in which this can be done. People have a loyalty to their local school and that is often the issue. It is a matter of finding a way in which we can work with all the different patron bodies concerned to speed up the process.

I agree that people have a loyalty to their local school. Unfortunately, in some cases, students are unable to attend that local school because of section 7(3)(c) of the Equal Status Act. I noted that the Minister indicated in the media this morning that she will remove rule 68 in January. That would be a very welcome move. Obviously, divestment will not address the issue of religious discrimination in schools. I would question why she would remove rule 68 without also addressing section 7(3)(c) of the Equal Status Act. If a student cannot get into a school, that is a big problem, but once a student gets into a school we need to ensure rule 68 is removed, which provides that religion is the most important subject in the curriculum. We are putting the cart before the horse. We need to address both issues at the one time.

I do not disagree that we need to address the Equal Status Act and that it needs to be amended. We are examining in what way it could be amended to protect, for example, minority religions in terms of wanting to have their particular schools protected. If one is, for example, a member of the Jewish faith, a member of the Church of Ireland or a Muslim for that matter, if a school has to take in all the local children where the school is situated, it will not have that ethos protected. There has to be a way in which the legislation can be amended to take account of that and at the same time give some priority to children who live in close proximity to a school. Again, I am being direct in saying that I will not be doing that during the life of the current Government but I believe it is something that has to be addressed in the very near future.

Teachers' Remuneration

Finian McGrath

Question:

3. Deputy Finian McGrath asked the Minister for Education and Skills her plans to reverse the pay cuts imposed by her Government and the previous Administration on new entrant teachers; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [44041/15]

Does the Minister plan to reverse the pay cuts imposed by her Government and the previous Administration on new entrant teachers? I raise this question because this is a grave injustice to many young teachers and new entrants to the teaching profession. Not only is it bad for teachers, it is also very bad for education, staff relations, all our schools and the education service. We need to reverse these cuts and end this injustice.

Since the beginning of the financial crisis, there has been a need to enact a number of measures to reduce public expenditure. These measures were implemented at a time of very difficult financial and budgetary circumstances for the State. Since first entering Government, we have been committed to achieving such reductions through negotiation. The Haddington Road agreement, to which teacher unions are parties, saw negotiated decreases to public sector pay. That agreement also began the process of addressing the salary imbalance between new and longer-serving teachers. This process has continued under the Lansdowne Road agreement.

The issue of equalised pay scales was not one which could be resolved in the talks. However, the Lansdowne Road agreement will, through salary increases and a reduction in the pension related deduction, begin the process of restoring the reductions to public service pay which were implemented over recent years. These flat-rate increases will be proportionately more favourable to new entrants to teaching, who are lower on the pay scale, than to longer serving teachers. We look forward to seeing the further restoration of public service pay levels as our economy continues to recover strongly.

Let us address the core issue. Does the Minister support unequal pay? How can she support the fact that two teachers doing exactly the same job are paid vastly different salaries because one was appointed a day before the other? The new entry pay for teachers is a major concern, particularly for primary schoolteachers. The issue of equal pay is broader in that it is not only an equality issue but a broader trade union issue. If we take account of the details, the pay cuts for 2011 entrants and the removal of allowances from entrants from 2012 were never discussed, never mind agreed, with the teachers' unions.

The 10% cut for 2011 entrants, along with starting on the first rather than the second point on the scale, were imposed in the budget by the previous Government. The cuts to allowances were unilaterally imposed by the current Government. Will the Minister condemn and oppose these unilateral actions? I believe the teachers have taken a claim to the equality tribunal that the salary cuts amount to discrimination on age grounds. I ask the Minister to look at this again as it is a broader issue than just a grave injustice. There is also an equality issue involved.

The pay agreements are part of the way in which these things function in Ireland. The Haddington Road agreement was signed up to by all the teaching unions. The Lansdowne Road agreement was signed up to by the INTO although the other two unions have issues with it. As I said in my opening remarks, the emphasis in the Lansdowne Road agreement is on restoring salaries to lower paid workers first, which obviously benefits those who have come in on the lower scales.

It is not practical to imagine that no change to entry salaries for public servants would ever be envisaged. Entry salaries are a matter of consideration depending on where the economy is at a particular time. It is not something we can say will never happen; it does happen. What we have tried to do, and are doing in Lansdowne Road in particular, is to put the emphasis on lower paid workers in general, including the newer teachers who are on the lower scale.

I hope negotiations lead to ending this inequality and injustice. The former president of the INTO, Anne Fay, told a rally of thousands of teachers in 2012 that the Government could not defend separate salary scales for teachers doing the same work. She also said that the Government decided to introduce discriminatory and inequitable pay scales for new teachers, and that the teachers' unions opposed that decision and will overturn it no matter how long it takes. She described the pay cuts for new teachers as an affront to the core trade union principle of equal pay for equal work. It is very important that we get on and deal with this issue. I urge the Minister to revisit it and phase out the cuts over time. I believe the INTO is very flexible on that aspect of the matter.

I have no doubt that the INTO and the other teaching unions will represent their members very effectively in these kinds of negotiations, as they always do. We do have negotiations that are agreed and are being implemented by the Government. There was a time when percentage increases always happened, as a result of which we had very big gaps between the better-paid and lower-paid people. We have now started using flat-rate increases, which I believe is an improvement in terms of equality as it ensures that the gap narrows.

The issues raised by Deputy McGrath are constantly subjects of negotiation and will, I am sure, remain so into the future.

Childhood Obesity

Charlie McConalogue

Question:

4. Deputy Charlie McConalogue asked the Minister for Education and Skills her views on the challenge by schools (details supplied) in County Wicklow to the locating of a fast-food restaurant close to their premises on public health grounds, and the progress in implementing the Framework for Improved Health and Wellbeing 2013 to 2025. [44118/15]

I ask the Minister for her views on the challenge by a school in Greystones, County Wicklow, to the location of a McDonald's restaurant close to its premises on public health grounds, and for an update on progress in implementing the framework for improved health and well-being by her Department.

The manner in which the challenge was taken in this case is a matter for the schools involved. We would like to commend the school on prioritising the health of its students in deciding on school policy in this matter. Schools and the wider education sector have a vital role to play in contributing to the Government's Healthy Ireland agenda set out in the framework for improved health and well-being for 2013-2025.

Healthy Ireland was published by the Department of Health in 2013, and is one of the most ambitious programmes we have ever seen focused on improving the health of the nation. Healthy Ireland contains a number of goals for the education sector. The Department of Education and Skills is a key partner in the delivery of this agenda, and this work is a personal priority for me and the Minister. Through primary and post-primary education, students are equipped with the key skills and knowledge to enable them to make healthier life choices. Schools' efforts should be complemented by students' families and their community.

Our Department issued guidance to post-primary schools this September on promoting healthy lifestyles, including healthy eating policies. Similar guidance will be provided to primary schools early in 2016. We want to see more active flags in schools, more schools growing their own food, and more schools adopting healthy eating policies. We will continue to engage with the education stakeholders to find ways of achieving these goals.

I thank the Minister of State for his response. The context for this, as I outlined in my question, is a secondary school in Greystones which brought a legal challenge to a planning application for a McDonald's which was to be located less than 100 m from the entrance to the school and would have been the closest food outlet to three schools. As the Minister of State would recognise, this is a national issue rather than being confined to the local matter in Greystones of which we are all aware.

There is a disconnect between what parents and communities want in terms of the appalling health status of our young people, what the Government hopes to achieve through Healthy Ireland, and the reality of what young people are actually eating at school. Ireland is in the throes of an obesity epidemic with as many as one in five teenagers obese or overweight, yet there is currently no national standard to ensure that healthy, tasty and nutritious foods are provided at second level. The guidelines at primary level are also weak. There is no strategy, plan or guideline from the Department of Education and Skills to ensure that schoolchildren are not used as captive consumers for fast food and sugary food outlets. The Greystones saga illustrates this point.

Will the Minister of State agree to set up in interdepartmental group to design planning guidelines for "no-fry zones" close to schools? Will he agree to a ban on vending machines in schools selling sugary products? Will he put a more ambitious plan in place to bolster nutrition inside our schools?

On vending machines and healthy eating, the Department issued guidance for post-primary schools about measures to promote healthy lifestyles. The guidance was drafted in consultation with the Department of Health and the HSE. It encompasses measures to promote healthy eating, healthy vending, PE and physical activity. We have to allow each school, along with parents and pupils, to come up with its own policies in this area. In conjunction with the Department of Health, we give as good guidance and direction as we can through these initiatives. There is local decision making involved as well.

In respect of planning matters, as the Deputy has said the issue is not limited to Greystones. I have seen a similar situation in my own town of Navan and in many other towns. It is a local planning matter, however, and has to remain as such. Naturally, the Department is constantly watching the issue to see if there is a need to develop guidance on it. It is a planning issue and is dealt with successfully in most cases. Some companies are taking a different attitude now and are not proceeding with planning applications. Hopefully they might learn from that as well. It is important that parents feel they have a role so they can make their own decision locally in conjunction with their school. From what I can see, I am glad to say that most schools are taking a very active role and have dealt with the issue appropriately.

I thank the Minister of State. He and the Minister, as Department of Education and Skills leads, should be more proactive in taking a national policy approach to this, rather than confining the issue to whatever local authorities may decide in each individual area. There is an obesity epidemic and a real challenge in ensuring healthy food options are available to students within the vicinity of schools. There is also the challenge of ensuring that we have healthy food options within schools themselves.

What, if any, plans, does the Department have to improve the situation in schools? Will the Minister of State look again at the need for a national policy approach to ensuring that there is guidance and strong principles laid out as to how food outlet development should be carried out close to schools? One very simple measure which could be taken would be to get rid of vending machines that are selling sugary drinks and food from schools.

The bulk of the food is sold from vending machines in all our schools yet the Department refuses to do away with it and issue a guideline and a requirement that schools not serve that food and replace the vending machines with nutritious food. That is one simple measure the Department has not taken and I get no indication that it is willing to do that. Will the Minister of State reconsider that approach?

The health promoting schools, HPS, initiative is a Europe-wide programme aimed to strengthen a school’s capacity to be a healthy setting for learning and working by focusing on whole-school level and all the conditions that affect health and well-being. As part of the HPS initiative, health promotion officers and members of the well-being pillar of professional health and service for teachers collaborate on a regional basis to ensure schools are supported in meeting the health needs of their students. That is the Department’s role, to provide the supports, guidance and policies. It is not to lecture to every school about what it has to do in every situation. That is not necessarily our role. We try to encourage responsible thinking and development and put the supports in place to do that.

That is a planning matter. That is a local decision. In most of these towns there are premises that serve food of all kinds. It is not a straightforward question of dealing with new applications. In many school settings there are already premises in the vicinity which makes it a little more difficult when it comes to planning. It has worked out properly in most cases. Planning authorities generally do a sound job when it comes to making these decisions. That is their job. It is not the job of the Department of Education and Skills to have a role in the planning matters of every town and village in the country.

It is also an issue for local development plans.

Special Educational Needs Staff

Jonathan O'Brien

Question:

5. Deputy Jonathan O'Brien asked the Minister for Education and Skills the status of the pilot scheme for allocating special needs resources; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [44043/15]

Will the Minister for Education and Skills give an update on the status of the pilot project?

The National Council for Special Education, NCSE, published advice in 2013 which identified that the current model for allocating resource teachers to schools is potentially inequitable and recommended the development of a new allocation model. A new model based on the profiled needs of each school rather than on the diagnosed disability of individual children has been developed. This new model will reduce the inequities in the current system and also ensure we are not unnecessarily labelling children from a young age. Work on this model is almost complete.

I have established a pilot of the new model which is under way in 47 schools and will run for the duration of the current school year. The pilot will test the practical impacts of the new model prior to full implementation. Significant guidance has been prepared and provided to schools involved. During the pilot all participating schools will complete an assessment questionnaire to gather information on their experiences. All participating schools attended a pilot information day on 15 September and a further information day took place on Friday last.

Will the Minister confirm that there was no limit to the resources for the model in the NCSE pilot project? I have been in contact with several principals who are concerned about the new model. The model apparently can be reviewed only every two years. There is a concern that some schools bringing in junior infants, who have special educational needs may not get the additional resources because of the two-year period.

There was no reduction in the resource hours given to the schools. There were extra supporting materials for the schools and the testing of the pupil planning process and the outcome of reporting. There were not unlimited resources. They have received their resource allocation for 2015-2016 and schools that might gain under the new model presumably would have got extra resources.

This is a pilot and the purpose is to learn from it. If the message the Deputy raises comes back from schools about the two-year review, it will be heeded. We want to learn as much as we can about how the new model works this year. That is why the sample schools are a mix of different social backgrounds, etc. We want to see if practical issues come up in the pilots and apply the lessons from those.

Until we get the results of the pilot we will not know the potential pitfalls of the new model. Everyone agrees the old model is broken, is not fit for purpose and a new one is needed. I understood that when the NCSE was tasked with the job of coming up with a new model, there was no limitation on resources. Whatever model it thought best for allocating resources would be put forward. That may include additional resources being put in place by the Department. Will the Minister confirm that?

There would have to be some limit on resources. We could not give an unlimited number of resource hours to a school, whether in a pilot or a new model. My understanding is that a school would not have reduced resources but there would not be unlimited resources. If I can clarify that further at a later stage for the Deputy, I will do so. There will be enough resources to ensure the new model can operate in an effective way in the schools concerned.